How Common Men and Women Created Civilization

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“Our cornucopia is the human mind and heart, and not a Santa Claus natural environment”
             (Julian L. Simon)

On Common People: "If they are wise, surely the rest of us are fools.
             (George Kennan)

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An Interview with the Author  --  Q & A  --  On Theories of History


Q -   You have stated that Common Genius reveals how, when and where human progress occurred during the past three thousand years. What got you to undertake such a huge task ?

BG-  Curiosity, originally. You hear different theories, and they get you to wonder. After all, if I had been born almost anywhere on the planet other than in America or a handful of small European countries my life would have been radically harsher and poorer. There has to be an explanation.



Q-     But your theory has never before been made--that just ordinary people created the mechanics of freedom and prosperity. What about Einstein and Plato and all the Great Names every schoolboy learns?

BG-  There’s an important distinction among such people that was made by Thomas Sowell: The Newtons and Galileo’s--the “hard-scientists” who explored the natural world--have made tremendous contributions in medicine and technology  that have helped mankind live more comfortable lives. The “soft-scientists” like Plato, Hegel and Rousseau, have generally only critiqued the doings of ordinary people and led societies astray with a false vision of impractical or destructive ideologies.



Q-   Well, the big name hard-scientists were not ordinary mortals. Weren’t the great individuals like Newton and Galileo essential to progress ?

BG- Those scientists helped, but they weren’t the root source of progress. Remember a couple facts: a scientist needs an ordered society in which to pursue research. There were no Madame Curies or Jonas Salks operating out of jungles, tents or mud huts.  Without the merchant, soldier and politicians to create safe and affluent societies, there would have been very few hard-scientists.



Q-   So, you’re saying the hard-scientists played a supporting role, aiding and abetting the accomplishments of ordinary people.

BG- That’s right. After all, ordinary people made huge moves forward advancing from the stone age up to the early Egyptians, and they did all that without intellectuals. Another point-- It’s the ordinary people who literally produce the great hard-scientists. Most of history’s great discoverers came from humble backgrounds.  Have you actually seen many scientists among the children of intellectuals? Rousseau actually abandoned his new-born offspring  on the foundling home doorstep claiming Plato thought children should be raised by the State.



Q-    You have said that Common Genius is directed toward young people. Is there one single point that you want them to get from this book ?

BG- There are a number of points but a big one is that you should look around at all the conveniences and luxuries of modern life, if you are lucky enough to have been born into one of the affluent societies, and recognize “this didn’t just happen.” Everything around you is a gift from those who went before. Without the infrastructure they built you would be living like a primitive aborigine. Before you disparage Western nations, go live in Peru or Uganda or Malaysia for a while then you may have some rational basis for commentary..



Q-   That is a very humbling thought. But couldn’t it lead to stagnation--that the current generation shouldn’t or couldn’t change or improve anything?

BG-  That depends upon where you’re starting point is. If you are in one of the most successful and affluent nations, it would pay to go slow--don’t call for radical changes. Remember that historical advances have come gradually by tinkering and small steps. On the other hand, if you reside in a strife-ridden and impoverished nation, radical changes are in order. However, even there, care must be taken to adopt and adapt the successful strategies that underlie all successful nations.



Q-   In your book you imply that many of today’s youth are spoiled.

BG- Not so much spoiled as simply uninformed. Many resemble a “trust-fund-kid” who has inherited a fortune with a large income for life. They have no understanding of the real world, how this society was built, and what is required to preserve it. The role of good history is to explain not Who am I, but How did I get here and Where am I going ? 



Q-   You have obviously tried to go back to the original enabling acts that created progress--the first ordered society.  But  there were a lot of those--all around the globe!  Why did the West become supreme ?

BG- That is the key to it. Only in a few isolated pockets in the West did the common people get a chance to use their native genius, initiative and inventiveness to create progress. Everywhere else they were stifled by oppressive governments, religions and philosophies that denied them de-facto freedom.



Q-    So freedom is the key?

BG-  Of course. Without physical and mental freedom men and women cannot act as complete human beings. Common Genius traces the occasional locales where such freedom of action was available and that trail demonstrates how a rare blend of security and a lack of oppression produced economic freedom and that in turn created prosperity and that led to political freedom. 



Q-    Recently, the most distinguished awards for history books have gone to those theorizing that it was climate and geography that determined national outcomes. That the West “won” due to good luck or simply because they had the most natural resources.

BG-   That sad fact illustrates my point--how it is the intellectuals who destroy successful societies. Remember that the NY Times star reporter in Moscow won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting how wonderful Stalin’s rule over the Ukrainian peasants was and that communism was creating universal happiness. And that went on for years in the face of overwhelming evidence of its falseness. This “bad reporting” by the NYT and its recognition by the Pulitzer Board continued because those elites wanted to believe in and promote Communism as superior to Western capitalism. Undermining a great nation from within is a form of treason.



Q-    But, that was way back in the 1930’s.

BG-  Yes, and nothing has changed. Jay Leno joked in 2005 how the English bomb suspects were caught by one of the few remaining surveillance methods that had not yet been revealed by the NY Times. The bias is so blatant that even the mass culture understands the harm done by bad reporting.



Q-    In your book you suggest that many of the big awards given for books should be seen more as a badge of dishonor than one of distinction?

BG-  There are many awards that seem to go to the least deserving works. The individuals making the awards seem to represent a coterie of politically correct intellectuals with an agenda. How else can one explain books claiming that climate determined success or a text arguing that the “lucky” find of coal in England allowed the West to become supreme? They ignore the culture, the religions, and the social institutions that played a more vital role.



Q-   But didn’t geography and climate have an impact on societies?

BG-  During the Ice-Age, yes.  But 3,000 years ago there were at least ten civilizations that had favorable geographical and social conditions--large organized societies with equal potential--but only one of those civilizations won; and they won by a huge margin. The reason for that win is detailed in Common Genius.



Q-    The West may have won, but doesn’t your book tell us that that is in the past--that Western civilization is now in its declining phase?

BG- Yes. Most European nations began their slide somewhere between 1750 and 1850. That was when an intelligentsia grew in influence and gradually infected the region with harmful theories and destructive ideologies that undermined their original cultural sources of strength. The same tipping point was reached in the United States for the same reasons somewhere between the Korean and Vietnam Wars.



Q-    But how can we be in decline when we as consumers have every new convenience-- cell phones, satellite TV, and shopping malls brimming with goodies.

BG-  The physical scientists and the people that work in both the major corporations and small businesses are still on an upward trajectory. They constantly use their imagination and hard work to make things better. There is still forward momentum in those hard and practical sciences, but the governing institutions, the cultural foundation based on religious and secular customs and beliefs is  regressing. It is the same type of destructive influence that brought the Islamic civilization to its knees a thousand years ago. It has commenced here, and if unchecked, will have the same results.



Q-    So you are pessimistic about our future ?

BG- It is very hard to reverse the downward spiral once it has started. A failing of democracies is that they are so tolerant and compassionate that their people resist the tough choices--especially if most of them are affluent and comfortable, and made to feel guilty about that. But, I’m an optimist by   nature--the reason I wrote Common Genius is to spell out what made us succeed more than any other nation in the world. The lessons of that history, if applied, could reverse current trends and save our children and grandchildren from the privations of  a tired and worn out nation.


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2008 William C. Greene
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Last updated: 12/26/08.