Standing on Rice

I’m minding my own business, happily reading about how the Chinese government is using underwater archaeology to study the wrecks of a 600 year old Chinese Admiral to further their expansionist claims.  Then, out of the blue, comes this article [1] that claims the reason the Chinese didn’t invent the Industrial Revolution back in 1000 CE (AD) was because they eat rice!

Wow!  Talk about not seeing that coming.  But it’s true!

The article claims our western culture of WEIRD people (a real term meaning Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) can thank its wheat-growing, flour-loving, bread-based lifestyle on inventing the Industrial Revolution back in the late 1700s.


No wonder our fair “science” of behavior doesn’t get very far.

You and I don’t have a lot of time together (I do try to keep these short) but here’s the condensed version of what Talhelm claims.  When given certain tests, wheat-growing chinese respond differently than rice-growing chinese.  What are these all-so-insightful tests?  Well, wheat-growers associate things “holistically” instead of in “classes.”  When drawing themselves and their friends as connected circles, “wheaters” make their own circle slightly bigger than the others.  And when describing how they would reward or punish relatives versus business partners, wheaters are likely to treat the partners more equally.

Really?  Rabbits and carrots instead of rabbits and dogs?  Bigger circles?  Don’t be so close to your family?  THAT’S why China had no Industrial Revolution?

Is it possible, just possible, that Westerners weren’t so choked by “thought police” of their day during the Renaissance allowing them to advance in fields such as physics, chemistry, and medicine?  It is possible, just possible, that deadly competitions between nations forced governments to invest and nurture pure research?  Is it possible, just possible, that our (slightly) more equitable distribution of wealth allowed for some amount of social encouragement of entrepreneurism, so that men like Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont and Wedgewood and Watt knew they could take a chance and possibly realize the associated reward?

Is it possible, just possible, that the things Talhelm is measuring are the teeniest tinyest differences that really don’t amount to much?  He’s grasping at straws?

This is science, not a side show.  Science shouldn’t leave even a shadow of a doubt.  Science is the process of allowing light into every conceivable crevice.  Yet here, in a prestigious magazine, is a “Chinese” article that explains why they didn’t invent the Industrial Revolution a thousand years ago.

Hmmm.  No possible political motives here, right?

Excuse me.  I’m making toast.


[1]  This article appeared in “Science” magazine on page 603 of volume 344, published 9 May 2014.  Its title is “Large-scale psychological differences within china explained by rice versus wheat agriculture.”  Authored by T. Talhelm and 6 others, with Talhelm from Dept of Psych at the Univ of VA, Charlottesville, VA, USA.


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