Saturday, 11 June 2016

Is The Rice Theory of Socialism Valid?

Does rice lead to interdependence and socialism? Can wheat inspire the rise of individualism and capitalism? A controversial study, “Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture,” published by the journal Science, proposes that people in countries where rice is the staple crop are less self-centred, and are likely to see themselves as being interwoven with other members of the society.

In China, the study claims, the wheat-rice divide runs deep. The wheat-eating people living in the northern China are taller and more individualistic than the rice-eating southerners. The northern Chinese tend to think analytically, and their divorce rates are higher. On the other hand, the rice-growing southerners are rooted in the traditional Asian culture—they tend to think holistically and have lower divorce rates.

The study also points out that the people in rice-eating countries like South Korea, Japan, India and Hong Kong, are much less individualistic than their counterparts in the West, even though these countries have a capitalist environment and are relatively well-off.

On the basis of these trends can we draw the inference that rice is the primary driver of culture? The answer, to my mind, is no. To bring down the idea of development of culture to the level of rice or wheat amounts to a wilful denial of the role that the human thought plays in cultural evolution. The intellectual, religious and political movements, which the society or nation has witnessed in the past, have the maximum influence on culture.

The differences in the psychology of the rice and wheat growing populations, that the study is citing, can be the result of diverse historical and geographical factors, which the authors of the study have not taken into account.

But Dr. Thomas Talhelm, a University of Virginia psychologist, and his colleagues, who are behind the study, seem to think that rice is the primary determinant of human psychology and culture. They propose that rice leads to the development of holistic thought and interdependence because cultivating it is much harder. The rice plant is a delicate entity—it grows in a bed of water and requires careful tending. Also, since a rice paddy needs large amounts of water, the farmers have to rely on irrigation systems which can only be created through neighborly cooperation.

In comparison, the study says, wheat is easier to grow. “Wheat does not need to be irrigated, so wheat farmers can rely on rainfall, which they do not coordinate with their neighbors. Planting and harvesting wheat certainly takes work, but only half as much as rice. The lighter burden means farmers can look after their own plots without relying as much on their neighbors.”

For their study, Dr. Talhelm and his colleagues have tested 1162 Han Chinese participants in six sites. To control for confounds like climate, they tested “people from neighboring counties along the rice-wheat border” and in this case also they found differences that were just as large. However, a sample size of 1162 is not enough for a populous country like China. Also, culture is a vast subject and it’s not possible to gain insight into its fundamentals by merely evaluating the inputs collected from a few locals. An in depth exploration of the historical and geographical factors is necessary for understanding the process by which the culture has evolved.

It’s clear that the authors of the study have made selective usage of the inputs, which they have collated from a relatively small sample size, to rationalize that rice is the primary driver of culture. If rice had the power to determine culture, the world would still be an agrarian society. It’s not rice that determines culture, rather it’s the other way round: It’s culture which determines whether people prefer rice or wheat. Also, the psychology of a person is the matter of individual choice, a man can be a rice-eater and yet be an individualist, or he may be a wheat-eater and yet be of an interdependent mindset. Human beings have free will.

Also, the rice theory of culture is not a new idea. Many intellectuals, in the past 50 years have proposed such ideas. In some rice-growing areas in Asia, the intellectuals have gone to the extent of proclaiming that socialism and communism are inevitable is such areas because rice has made the people interdependent and holistic-thinking. Such stereotyping of entire populations can mislead the people into believing that they are incapable of rejecting socialism and communism because of their food habits.

An anti-modernization stance is also palpable in the study. For instance, towards the end of the study we find these lines:

“There is also the question of how long rice culture will persist after the majority of people stop farming rice. There is evidence that U.S. regions settled by Scottish and Irish herders have higher rates of violence, even though most locals stopped herding long ago. This is one example of how subsistence style can shape culture long after people have stopped relying on that subsistence style. In the case of China, only time will tell.”

It's unclear why the authors of the study seek to blame modernity for failing to curb the violent tendencies of the Scottish and Irish herders. Also, they sound ominous, when they say: “In the case of China, only time will tell.” Are they trying to warn that modernity is not good for China, and that in order to ensure peace in the future, China must keep its population bound to an agrarian way of life? But there is no logic in connecting modernity with threat of violence, or an agrarian way of life with peaceful coexistence.

There are several inadequacies in this study by Dr. Talhelm and his colleagues. There are many unanswered questions and loopholes that they have allowed to creep into their study.

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