Twice lately I have come across discussions of a book entitled Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond of UCLA (W. W. Norton, 1997). It's apparently considered to be a big deal, an Important Book, and it won a Pulitzer Prize for its author. It discusses, among other things, why the European race, or, more accurately, European culture, has conquered the Earth.
I suspect that the main reason why it won the Pulitzer Prize is because it conveys an extremely politically correct message: The Europeans and their culture took over the world not because they are inherently superior to anyone else in any way, but because they were just lucky—that is, because they won a kind of geographical lottery.
One argument in support of this idea is that the Eurasian supercontinent, at the western end of which sits Europe, is elongated from east to west, whereas the great land masses that theoretically could have competed for the honor of being the homeland of a world culture—Africa and the Americas—are elongated from north to south. This means that many human populations in Eurasia were living at similar latitudes, under similar climatic conditions, in relatively similar environments, which facilitated cultural exchange, including exchange of technologies. This in turn facilitated what is vulgarly known as "progress."
Another argument is that, apparently through random chance, Eurasia had plant and animal species that were more easily and usefully domesticated than those in Africa, Australia, or the Americas, which thus helped to support agricultural and urban civilizations.
There can be little doubt that such arguments have much truth to them. Obviously, having wheat, barley, and rice to cultivate would be a great advantage, and the Eurasian horse was extremely useful for transportation, plowing fields, and warfare. But I'm not sure just how decisive those advantages were with regard to the rise and eventual dominance of Western culture. Were American bison really that much more difficult to domesticate than European aurochs or Indian humped cattle? Why did northern Europeans domesticate reindeer, while the American Indians failed to domesticate caribou, which are essentially the same animal? And why did the British and European end of Eurasia conquer the world, not the Chinese and Japanese end (or for that matter the Indians or other civilizations in the middle)? The Chinese developed urban culture long before the Europeans did, and came up with many innovations, including silk cloth, printing, and gunpowder, yet, despite the head start, the Europeans quickly caught up with them technologically and passed them by. It is true that in recent decades the Japanese and Chinese have become great powers and have done some world conquering of their own; but their recent status as great powers has come from their rejection of many of their own traditions, and the adoption and modification of European ones.
It may be that Dr. Diamond addresses all these questions in his book. I admit that I haven't read it, or ever even seen an actual copy of it; but it doesn't matter, because all of this is just leading up to a theory of my own, which also seems, to me at least, to be a very probable contributing factor to Western dominance in the modern world, possibly the main factor. The theory is not politically correct, however, so it probably won't win any prizes. The theory is that people of the European race have a certain tendency, which may be genetic or just an arbitrary cultural quirk which proved useful in the struggle for survival, and which could be called a mark of superiority and of inferiority. And it is this combined superiority and inferiority which has resulted in Western culture—science, technology, politics, economics, social fashions, and much more—increasingly pervading and dominating world civilization.
The genetically-conditioned tendency or arbitrary cultural quirk in question is extraversion—that is, an orientation in which one seeks to understand reality, and seeks fulfillment and happiness, by looking outside of oneself, and toward the surfaces of an external world. The opposite of this would be introversion, or seeking an understanding of reality, etc., within oneself.
This is not to say that European caucasians are totally extraverted, and that non-Europeans are totally introverted, any more than one would say that men are totally objective, or tall, and women are totally subjective, or short. It is a relative tendency, a matter of degree. To be totally extraverted would be to be a kind of robot, oblivious to one's internal states, such as pleasure, pain, happiness, unhappiness, hunger, lust, and so on. To be totally introverted would require one to be oblivious to one's surroundings, so that one might be in some vivid mental world, but nevertheless outwardly asleep, or otherwise completely incapacitated.
Or, maybe a perfectly extraverted person could somehow externalize (or "objectify") his internal states, seeing them as outside him somehow; and a perfect introvert could internalize (or "subjectify") her surroundings, turning the empirical world into a kind of solipsistic dream. These latter alternatives seem to come closer to the contrast of Western and non-Western approaches to existence, especially in their most developed attempts to understand reality: Western science and Eastern mysticism.
One little bit of evidence suggesting a genetic component to the European outward orientation is the fact that the European race shows the most variability with regard to outward appearance, especially with regard to hair color and eye color. People of what other race may have blue eyes, or grey ones, or green ones? People of what other race may have blond or copper-colored or sandy brown hair? (This is setting aside modern non-Westerners employing Western technologies to look more like Westerners.) It's not necessarily proof of anything, but there may be a connection there, perhaps involving a greater appreciation for outward variety helping to inspire some Darwinian sexual selection, for example.
The most obvious strength of Western civilization is its production of innovative technology; this applies not only to physical objects, tools and gadgets, but also to other phenomena—the ancient Greeks' experiments in democracy and their development of warfare into a science would also be examples of this. This technological talent may be seen as something positive, a form of superiority. But the driving force behind that power, that "superiority," is something negative, an inferiority—namely, more than any other race, the members of Western civilization, through that very same extraversion and superiority, do not know how to be happy.
The fundamental theme of human existence is the search for satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness. Mother Nature has the cards stacked against us from the very outset, designing us in such a way that we are convinced we will be happier if we eat delicious food (which in prehistoric times was the most nutritious food), spend most of our time clean, warm, and dry, acquire a beautiful mate, have sex, raise children, and attain the highest possible social status. She reinforces such belief by rewarding us with temporary pleasure if we succeed in such matters, and punishing us with pain if we do things contrary to the veiled biological goal of perpetuating our DNA sequences. These pleasures and pains are practically indistinguishable from true happiness and unhappiness by animals and unreflective extraverts.
So the relatively unreflective extraverts of the very outward-oriented culture which arose in Europe take this "approach to happiness" very seriously; and with their outward-oriented technological innovations they pursue, at maximum speed, a course of changing this, improving that, and eradicating the other, being incapable of leaving well enough alone, and continually, obsessively, fixing what is not broken.
The result of this, outwardly, is that modern Western and westernized people experience more physical comfort, convenience, and superficial pleasure—which, however, is not the same as actual happiness. They may be no happier, or even less happy, than their stone age ancestors. They are fussier, harder to please, and addicted to unnecessary luxuries. Furthermore, at a much larger scale, this relentless urge to fix with technology what is not broken (or to fix what in some cases may be better off left alone anyhow, like natural checks to population growth) has resulted in a world which, according to the generality of ecologists, is at the verge of all hell breaking loose. In the same book on environmental systems that discussed the aforementioned Guns, Germs, and Steel, was an essay by James Lovelock, father of the Gaia Hypothesis, who assures us all that by the end of this century the Earth will have gone into a state of "morbid fever" which may last for 100,000 years, and that a massive human population crash will have occurred, so that in the year 2100, less than 85 years from now, the world's population will be approximately 10% of what it is now, and consisting mainly of "a broken rabble led by brutal warlords."
Even if Lovelock is mistaken, he's probably not completely mistaken, and panicking environmentalists around the world are crying louder and louder. So the clever Europeans who started the ball rolling, though as extraverted and philosophically materialist as ever, have decided to stop wrecking the planet. Meanwhile, the Americans are too entrenched in their consumerism to tolerate such an inconvenience; and the rest of the world, including India and China, are scrambling to catch up with the Americans' standards of extraverted luxury, extravagance, and waste.
What are the Indians and Chinese thinking? The people of both countries have, or at least had, cultural traditions which could appreciate the second and third Noble Truths of Buddhism. These are really fairly clear and simple, and should not be difficult to see by anyone with intelligence and some capacity for introversion. Unhappiness is not directly caused by "economic backwardness" or a "low standard of living," but by craving, which is a psychological attitude, and generated within a person's mind (often with the encouragement of Western advertising). Also, both countries had traditions (mostly Hinduism in India, mostly Mahayana Buddhism in China) pointing to a profound idea: that "external" worldly problems are actually externalized manifestations of our own problematic attitudes and mental states. But most people in the world who are aware of overpopulation, deforestation, global warming, etc., including most Americans, are so dazzled by the obvious worldly power of extraverted scientific technology, and so seduced by the advertising that sells it, that they have faith that science, the same extraverted intellectual system that got us enmeshed in this situation in the first place, will eventually come up with something to bail us out—thereby allowing us to continue contributing to what is lately called the Holocene Extinction Event. Personally, though, I suspect that a search for extraverted, intellectual, materialistic solutions is on the wrong track altogether. It may be more realistic to expect benevolent, compassionate devas to step in and bail us out.
The aforementioned state of being dazzled by obvious outward worldly power and success (even if it doesn't lead to happiness) also certainly has its effects on those who already have it, not just on those who crave it. It tends to lead its possessors to a kind of pseudo-wisdom, even pseudo-spiritual arrogance. For example, anyone who has read much English fiction from the 19th century may have noticed that the British, bless their hearts, naturally assumed themselves to be not only the most successful servants of Mammon in the world (which they evidently were), but also the most successful servants of God. Never mind that their own scriptures asserted that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. Never mind that the effective founder of the Church of England was Henry VIII, an antichrist if there ever was one, whose primary ostensive reason for breaking with the Church of Rome was his determination to defy the teachings of Jesus (by divorcing Catharine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn, the latter of whom he later had beheaded). Never mind that by the 19th century the Church of England, as far as I have seen in the literature, had degenerated into little more than some ideological lip service, phlegmatic Victorian prudery, and the smugness of being "right." They were the greatest nation in the world, so how could they be wrong? God was on their side. Consequently they saw fit to send Anglican missionaries to places like India and Burma, to teach the misbegotten children of darkness and sin there the "True Religion"—which, however, had much less actual spirituality to it than what the misbegotten children already had.
Regardless of whether or not one is a Christian, Jesus of Nazareth was a wise man, and what he said about God and Mammon has some truth to it. Inward and outward are opposites. You cannot focus your attention, and set your heart, in both directions simultaneously (unless maybe you have advanced to the stage of transcending the limitations of "focus" and "direction"). A person or society highly developed in one direction is very likely to be clueless in the other. Either worldly form or spiritual essence is bound to take precedence. We have the ability to choose between outward, flashy comfort, convenience, and temporary pleasures on the one hand, and the inward subtlety of genuine happiness on the other. We aren't required to choose just one or the other, but still some choice is ours to make. But our cultural conditioning, plus maybe some human or caucasian genetic tendency, may strongly bias the choice.
Needless to say, 21st century America is in a somewhat similar situation to 19th century Britain (although our position as Number One is growing rather shaky, and our economy is not nearly so bullish as was that of Victorian England). The people of America are not absolutely outward-oriented, and wise, gifted people may be found anywhere; yet the mainstream of the society naturally assumes that they know what's what, not only with regard to outward things, but also with regard to how to be happy. "We're at the top, so how could we be wrong? Right? Of course we know how to be happy." Thus the westernized walk around with an alienated glaze over their eyes, and assume that people living in material poverty, or even simplicity, couldn't really be happy, since they themselves are so conditioned that they would be utterly miserable living in such a way. They view other cultures through a filter of superficiality. They don't realize that genuine happiness is ultimately a matter of inward wisdom, not outward comfort, convenience, or outward anything else.
This applies to the mainstream of American Buddhists also. The general trend is for Mammon to take supreme precedence, with Dharma or "God" modified into a kind of "app" that is compatible with extraverted worldliness. (Rather like Ambrose Bierce's definition of a Christian as "One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.") Dharma becomes, rather than a means to awakening, a way of sleeping more comfortably, of enhancing the quality of Samsara, a stress-reduction technique, a kind of natural substitute for Prozac. Thus even most meditating Buddhists don't know how to be happy—or else they do know, but are unwilling to endure the inconvenience of changing their outlook and lifestyle accordingly. Mammon the unenlightened extravert is still in charge.
(There are some people in the West, though, most of them not Buddhists, who seem to be very extraverted and outgoing, and also very happy. There really are some people like this, who aren't just faking it either, and I would guess that many of them, possibly most of them, are people who connect deeply with other people, which talent is actually a kind of introversion. A drunken sailor and a prostitute banging away in a back room of a brothel somewhere are obviously very connected outwardly, yet there may be two stone walls separating them inwardly, one his and one hers. He doesn't give a damn about her, and she doesn't give a damn about him; he's just getting his rocks off, and she's just getting some money, and neither of them is really happy. This kind of alienated "pseudo-connection" runs rampant in the West, and not just between drunken sailors and prostitutes—even married couples can be like this, and many are. Two intervening invisible walls close them off from each other. A real, deep connection or contact with another being happens inwardly; using touchy-feely lingo, it is a "heart connection." I still feel a deep connection with my father, even though he left his body (died) several years ago, which from a purely extraverted point of view would be impossible, since one of us, technically speaking, doesn't exist. A perfect introvert can love everybody.)
Yet how does one explain that the "external world" is an externalized manifestation of our own mental states, and that fixing things on the outside is treating symptoms, not curing causes, when such an explanation is nonsense from an extraverted point of view? How does one demonstrate the fundamental limitations of Western mentality, when such a demonstration requires one to stand outside those limitations in order to see them? For that matter, how does one explain to members of a society whose politically correct ideals include curing all diseases, reducing infant mortality, eliminating food shortages, and increasing the mean lifespan, that these ideals, good and worthy in themselves, contribute to the basic trouble our Earth faces, which is the mainspring for almost all the rest, namely, grotesque overpopulation? How does one explain that dying is no worse than being born, and that death is just as necessary as life? How does one explain that only what is unreal dies?
Human hard-headedness being as it is, it may be, strangely, that the best we realistically can expect would be something like Lovelock's nightmare coming true, and all hell breaking loose sufficiently to slam some of us, against our will and our dislike of inconvenience, into a higher, wiser state of consciousness, so that we ourselves might become the benevolent, compassionate devas who save the human race. As the saying goes, "Man's extremity is gawd's opportunity." It may sound awful, and it would be "nice" if we could avoid it, but if it does happen that way, it will be worth it.