Friday, October 21, 2005


I was just leaving Wesley Hospital (A top Brisbane private hospital) yesterday after one of my regular encounters with the surgeon's knife (for skin cancer) when I saw a very recognizable figure walk in -- a member of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG). He seemed rather surprised when I greeted him but he shook my hand anyway. I remember writing a congratulatory letter to him about something or other in the 1980s (though I forget what it was about now) so it was a pleasure to shake his hand. And I think it is the only time I have shaken hands with a Prime Minister anyway. Paias Wingti had a couple of terms in the 1980s and 1990s as Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea. He is of course a Melanesian ("black islander"). I grew up with Melanesians around the place and rather like them (as I have noted previously) -- which I would not say of certain other dark-skinned populations. Note however that I say "populations". There are good and bad individuals in all populations.

That got me thinking about Melanesian IQ. Lynn & Vanhanen give the mean IQ for Papua and New Guinea as 84 and at first glance that seems well justified. Melanesians have only recently emerged from the stone age. But it doesn't gell with my experience of them. I have met lots of Africans (both in Africa and in the USA) and I have met lots of Australian Aborigines and I have no doubts whatever about the accuracy of the mean IQ quoted for both those groups. But Melanesians seem in my experience of them to be a lot brighter than that. And with the difficulty of measuring ANYTHING cross-culturally (see e.g. here), I think I am entitled to reserve judgment on the matter.

But if Melanesians are reasonably bright, how come they were in the stone age within living memory? Even a stopped clock is right twice a day and I think this is one case where one of Marx's ideas was right (though Engels tried to talk him out of it). Marx believed in geographical determinism -- a common 19th century idea from which we get the phrase "blood and soil" as a description of what is important to people. Mostly the idea is rubbish but I think it explains New Guinea. New Guinea is very large but it is also extraordinarily mountainous. It is probably the earth's most wrinkled bit of geography. And the people of course live in the many small valleys and are very effectively cut off from one-another by the surrounding mountains -- which is why every valley has its own language. So I think it was simply the isolation of the New Guineans that kept them in the stone age. There was little communication with outsiders and hence no diffusion of ideas. And that of course contrasts greatly with the relative ease of communication across the great Eurasian landmass.

And for some reason New Guinea has very little fauna to hunt. Birds and tree kangaroos are about it (Yes. Some kangaroos do live in trees). So living in those isolated valleys was pretty challenging and meant -- as in Northern Europe -- that you could only survive by planning ahead -- which the New Guneans did by planting their "gardens" and raising pigs. Basically, if your garden did not feed you, you starved. And gardens are not equally productive all the year round so root crops such as cassava had to be grown that could be kept aside for when there was nothing else to eat. So that's my contribution to the theoretical biology of Melanesians anyway. For very different reasons, I think they had pressures on their mental development that were similar to the pressures that produced modern Europeans.

I might mention that the Melanesian population in mainland Australia is small but they generally fit in well, are peacable and are well-liked. I mentioned my own positive view of Melanesians to the lady in my life -- who was for a time a nurse on Thursday Island -- the most populous bit of Melanesia that is still part of Australia -- and her response was simply: "They're lovely". And she is certainly in a position to know.


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