Tag Archives: Outliers

Outliers (2008), Guns, Germs and Steel (1999), and Michele Bachmann–Part 2 of 2

Outliers made me realize that lots of people are talented, work hard, and succeed (10,000 hour rule), but the bridge between success and wild success is built exclusively on fortune.  Because of this I cannot help but surmise that much of the wealth of the wildly wealthy belongs, in a way, to all of us.  Guns, Germs, and Steel took this line of thinking further: the “us” is larger than one country.  In other words, much of the wealth of wildly wealthy countries belongs to the world.

By 12,000 years ago, every continent and major area had been settled.  People were everywhere.  In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond asks this question: why did some societies develop faster than others?  In other words, why did the Spanish conquer the Aztecs instead of the Aztecs sailing to Spain and conquering the Spanish.  He notes, quite correctly I think, that if you do not have an explanation for this, it is difficult to uproot racism–even one’s own.  How could a couple hundred Conquistadors conquer millions of Aztecs?  Our minds immediately go to the first distinction: one group is Spanish, the other is Aztec.   To combat this, Diamond explains in detail why societies developed the way they did.  I want to point out just a handful of his observations.

In the long term, enormous benefits come to those who stop being hunter-gatherers and turn to food production.  I’ll mention three.  Because hunter-gatherers support population densities of 10-100 times less per acre than food producers, 1) food producers have more warriors and 2), and this cannot be overstated, high population density breeds diseases and disease-tolerant populations.  3) Also, food production will eventually allow some people to do something besides agriculture.  Food production allows for food supluses which can support an artisan class, a key to starting the process of rapidly ‘making stuff better.‘  Artisanship leads to specialization, expertise, academia, and ultimately to some form of scientific inquiry and space shuttles.

But these benefits are long term.  In the short term, the switch from hunter-gathering to food production can be very unattractive for at least these two reasons.

  1. In general, food producers have to work harder than hunter-gatherers, sometimes even twice as many hours in a day.
  2. The first food producers had, compared to what we had today, pretty shitty crops.   Have you seen a wild tomato?  They are tiny pathetic albeit beautiful things.  It would take a while for those to develop into something big enough to be worthwhile.  Likewise, after controlling the breeding of domesticated animals for thousands of years, we have developed chickens that create lots of eggs and lots of meat.  Sheep have more wool.  Cows have more milk.  All of these gains would be nearly non-existent when they first started.

Of course, hunter-gatherers did not switch to food production because they foresaw its benefits for distant descendants.  Indeed, because making the switch was so unattractive, food production only developed independently in 4 separate places around the globe.  The cultrual, and specifically agricultural, descendants of these areas would come to dominate the others.  For example, it is estimated that Spanish disease wiped out between 85-97% of the Aztecs in first 130 years of exposure to Conquistadors.  This incredible advantage was due directly to population density made possible by the switch to food production.

Switching to food production doesn’t really make sense until you have a package.  A food production package includes a number of different domesticable crops along with animals to eat, to use for muscle and for manure.  Why weren’t all aborigines able to develop a food production package from local flora and fauna?

Jared Daimond tells this story: He was hiking in the jungle of Papua New Guinea with a few aborigines and ran out of food.  They stopped for the night, and one of the men slipped off into the falling light.  He came back with arms full of mushrooms and starts preparing them.  “We can’t eat these,” Jared protests, “people get sick from mushrooms all the time.  Even scientists who study it their whole lives can collect the wrong mushrooms and die.”  The aboriginees turned to him, scolded him like a child, and then commenced to describe, by memory, the 87 different varieties of mushrooms that could be found in that area, how they could be recognized, where they grew, which parts were edible, what sort of sicknesses were caused by ingesting the wrong parts, etc.

It is reasonable to believe that 12,000 years ago everyone would have been just as familiar with the local flora and fauna as the aborignees in Daimond’s story.  Ok, so why did food production develop in some places but not others?  In short, some places, like the fertile crescent, had enormous local benefits.  Others, like Australia, had very little benefits.  What are these benefits?  Edible plants that were the easiest to domesticate, the “low hanging fruit,” were nearly all native to areas in which food production developed independently (e.g., wheat was native to the fertile crescent and was by far the best candidate for domestication).  Even more striking is that worldwide there are only 14 possible domesticable animals.  Of these, 7 were native to the fertile crescent.  None were native to Australia.

What facilitated the spread of food production across Eurasia is another thing that Eurasians cannot take credit for: their continent’s long east/west axis.  Crops and animals had a hard time spreading over North and South America.  The tropical jungle, the Isthmus of the Panama, as well as the vast climate differences associated with different latitudes, made the spread of food-producing crops and livestock very unlikely.  After all, a llama is not suitable to live in the Amazon.  Not until the present age were Llamas raised in North America where, it turns out, there has been appropriate environments for thousands of years.  In contrast, the crops originally developed in the fertile crescent, and the animals domesticated there, could be used everywhere from Spain to east asia (although east asia was blessed with rice varieties and water buffalo, upon which they developed their own agricultural package).  So why wasn’t there domesticable animals in places like North America?

The truth is, and I did not know this before I read Diamond’s book, there was.  Archeological evidence suggests that there were various animals that might have been docile, herd-like, sufficiently safe, etc.–that would have had all the qualities necessary for being a candidates for domestication.  Millions of these creatures covered North and South America, but they had a weakness.

Remember the Dodo bird?  It had developed without humans, and so had no fear of them.  Hungry explorers would literally walk up to them, grab their heads, wring them off, and make supper.  Such an easy food quickly went extinct when they were exposed to humans.  Now, unlike Eurasia and Africa, the flora and fauna of the American continents developed, like the Dodo bird, with no human contact.  But, 20,000 years ago, when humans crossed the Bering Strait, that isolation ended, and animals that might have done nicely as plow-pulling, milk-producing, manure-making, yummy beasts were killed and eaten.  Little did these newly arrived peoples know that they were killing their own descendant’s chances of food production and opening themselves up to Spanish conquest 20,000 odd years down the road.

In two recent Republican presidential debates, this question has been posed to Michelle Bachman: for every dollar that I make, how much do I deserve to keep?  She responded without hesitation: “All of it.  You earned it.  Of course you deserve it.”

Among hunter gatherers, without division of labor, there is in fact a surprising amount of equality, and decisions that the strong-man makes are generally arrived at by consensus.  Combine that with the previously-mentioned intimate knowledge hunter-gatherers had of their environment and this scene comes to mind:

Everyone had noticed: the mighty herds were gone.  A good many of the tribe were thinking that restraint might be necessary.  They were hoping that their strong-man would make a decree.  Others, no doubt, were indignant.  “How dare you tell me how to live my own life!”   This group despised any attempt at others to coerce them, which of course nobody wanted to do.  The tribe had grown large with the easy abundance of food, but now great swaths of land had to be combed over in an attempt to locate these animals, and some large families were already on the verge of starvation.  How could people be expected to limit consumption now?

So I imagine the opportunistic prehistoric politician/priestess, jumping around a fire in garments made of animal fur, preaching earnestly to her people.  “You killed it.  You dragged it back to camp.  You cooked it.  Of course you deserve it.”

“Therefore Joy,” OutliersGuns, Germs and Steel, and my study of economics–and I would even say the Bible too–puts me in a different place.  For every dollar we earn, we probably deserve very little of it, and even less as one becomes more wealthy.  Nearly everything we are able to accomplish we owe to others, some living, most not, and all of us in one way or another owe God/fortune.

However, God and most people, past, present, and future, aren’t idiots; if individuals do not get enough gain from their labor, they will not work.  And so God and society are generally wise to approve of individuals and individual countries keeping a disproportionate amount of their profit.  But we must never think that anyone is entitled to cheap oil or tasty, slow-moving creatures.  Instead, all should be thankful for the gifts and advantages they have been given.

I imagine the global non-temporal society, which we are connected to in a weird and beautiful way,

  • from those who first switched from hunter-gathering to food production
  • to modern day Australian aborigines who never had a viable food-producing package
  • to our children’s children’s children who will live out the consequences of our actions,

…is genuinely thrilled to see us productive and rewarded for our work.  After all, present day production and innovation, though often dependent on the exploitation of natural or human resources, may ultimately do the most good.  But I also imagine this global non-temporal society beseeching us to be thankful and do our best to look out for their interests too.  Jesus might call it “loving your neighbor.”

These days, I might call it being a conservative Democrat.

Outliers (2008), Guns, Germs and Steel (1999), and Michele Bachmann–Part 1 of 2

In the last few years, no book has affected my perception of the world and my own role in it more than Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  The book makes many points, but here I want to talk about just one.  Gladwell makes a compelling case that enormously successful people, the statistical outliers, are not off the charts because they themselves have amazing innate abilities.  Rather, the enormously and naturally talented are a dime a dozen, and those talented people who work very hard their whole lives are also common.  So what distinguishes the wildly successful?  Luck.  Those who make it really big (as opposed to usual, laudable, but still small-time success) usually benefited from a special set of circumstances over which they had no control.

Consider this, if you took the richest people ever (material gain being not a definition of success, but certainly a type of it), adjust for inflation, and make a top 100 list, you would find that at least 25% would have been born inside the United States in the past 200 years.  However, if success was based on individual talents, then that number should be much less (Here’s some of my own math: looking on the web, it looks like between 90-110 billion people have lived on the earth, so lets say 100 billion.  I think, to be very generous, there have not been more than 1 billion people who lived in the United Sates over the past 200 years, so I am guessing that, if wild success was due to innate ability, the number of Americans on the top 100 list should be under 1%).   Moreover, of these two dozen born in the US, about a dozen were born in one four year period; Rockefeller (1839), Carnegie (1835), and JP Morgan (1837), and the other dozen in another four year period; Steve Jobs (1955) and Bill Gates (1955).

This is already a strange coincidence, but it just gets stranger the closer you look.  The individual stories of these men tell a tale in which they were extraordinarily well-situated to catch each coming wave, the first being the American industrial revolution, the second being the personal computer revolution.  Of course, you had to be intelligent, talented, hard-working, and ambitious, but you also had to both not yet have a family to support, so you could afford (and have the time) to take risky business ventures, and also be old and experienced enough to see the wave coming.

Experience, it turns out, is absolutely key.  Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hours rule, which states that predictable success in any field takes about 10,000 hours of practice.  This holds true for premier violinists and computer programmers.  Bill Gates, it turns out, by the time he was 18, had more computer programming experience than anyone in the world his age.  Among other fortunate coincidences, he happened to have grown up  where there was an exchange program at a local college with one of the only computers that existed at the time.

Gladwell gave many more examples that left me with an overall impression of “wow, this changes everything.”  I saw it everywhere.  For example, no matter how brilliant and devoted a statesman is today, he or she cannot be a Founding Father.  If there would have been no American Revolution, John Adams would have just been a Boston laywer, and a struggling one at that.

As I reflected on this, I felt a weight fall off my shoulders.  I never wanted to be the richest man ever, but I suppose I want success.  I want to change the world–to make my mark.  Also, when I read the biographies of people like John Adams, I relate to them alot, I see myself in them, as many people do, and I realize that I could do something like what they did too.  But great accomplishment is just as outside of my control as it was theirs.  In my writing, in my nonprofit work, all I can do is my best, which, quite simply, might not be enough for wild success.  My best can likely secure success, but only of the more tame variety without some brilliant coincidence of fortune.  In fact, even the smaller amount of success that my abilities can most likely secure me is not really what I deserve.

For those of you who have read recent drafts of Therefore Joy, you will know that I view individual humans as incredibly affected by each other.  If so, we take part in each others joys and triumphs.  In other words, my work-ethic is not entirely self-created, and so the blessings that my work-ethic bestows on me, to be fair, must be partially distributed to, for instance, my third grade teacher, my mother, my childhood friend.  This is impossible of course, so we do not do it, but if we could we should.

Ultimately, the recognition of the prime role that fortune/providence/destiny/God plays in all this has allowed me to pursue my dreams even harder.  I realized that I cannot fail if I keep trying.  I became convinced that the most I can do is always continue to “give success a chance” for me that means that I will keep writing, trying to get my manuscript out there, keep working on poverty issues, and stop stressing about results.  Many of you may know this already, but I am just catching up:  Stress kills people. Humble work is freeing.

(See how this relates to Guns, Germs, & Steel and Michelle Bachmann in part two.)