Thursday, August 14, 2008

Collective Bargaining

If nothing else, the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics sure featured a lot of people. At the time, I joked that it was simply due to China's huge population; they have so many people that every square inch of space is occupied. My second, slightly less lame take on that joke was that it was an immense make-work project. Anyone who has ever visited China should know what I mean; transactions that usually only require a single salesperson in US seem to require two or three in China. Leave it to David Brooks to see something more sinister at work. He sees the opening ceremony as a collectivist challenge to the individualism of the west. Whether or not he saw the same threat to western values during the opening ceremonies of the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, or the 1964 Tokyo games, all of which took place in Japan, a country with a culture that is much more suspicious of individuality than China, he doesn't say. I suspect that you getting a better insight into what he's thinking if you replace collectivism with another -ism beginning with c, but that also doesn't really work since China wouldn't be hosting the Olympics right now if they hadn't decided to start ditching most of their communist economic system 30 years ago.

This piece, along with this rebuttal from The Economist, tie in well with the book that I just finished reading, Edward O. Wilson's On Human Nature. Wilson's thesis echoes The Economist's view that humans across all cultures generally act in their own best interest. Furthermore, Wilson argues that there is a common genetic basis that constrains the full range of human social behavior and that cultures can change quickly under the right conditions and humans can quickly adapt to different cultures. In fact, two of the examples that he used to demonstrate humanity's cultural flexibility involved Chinese immigrant populations in Jamaica and Guyana.

On Human Nature is as heavy as its title implies, but it was still a fascinating read. Had I had the proper amount of time to dedicate to it, I certainly could have read it from cover to cover in one sitting. The book is now 30 years old, but as far as I can tell, still incredibly relevant. I picked this book up because my interest in evolution and evolutionary psychology has been sparked over the past few years by all of the intelligent design nonsense that's been in the news. It has certainly motivated me to learn more about science in general and evolution in particular and I hope that it's had a similar effect on others.

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