Diffusionism and the Barbarism of War

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Having apparently enjoyed an earlier article of mine of these pages, The Science Cartel vs. Immanuel Velikovsky, author Joshua D. Smith contacted me thinking I might enjoy his recently published book, Egypt and the Origin of Civilization: The British School of Culture Diffusion, 1890s-1940s (Volume 1). Published in March of this year, this intriguing and accessible book explores, as did my article on Immanuel Velikovsky, a highly plausible and fascinating interdisciplinary theory that encountered not only hostility but outright suppression from the academic powers-that-be.

As the reader will see, there are many resonances between the British school of diffusionism, also known as the Heliolithic school, and the Austrian school of economics, not only in the treatment both schools received but also in the conclusions they reached; indeed, the “anti-state, anti-war, pro-market” orientation championed by LewRockwell.com finds support by many of the diffusionists’ findings. But first, let us examine what this school taught before we examine why it was important.

The book examines primary source materials written by W. H. R. Rivers,Grafton Elliot Smith, and William James Perry, the British diffusionists. These thinkers, the author informs us, believing in the “uniqueness of civilization” (46), argued that “Egpyt passed on key innovations over time to all peoples — but not through direct or intentional contacts, contrary to the claims of anti-diffusionist detractors” (12). They concluded that human civilization had spread, “like the addition of one link after another to a chain, or a series of chains, that stretched… from Egpyt to India to China and out through the Pacific islands to the higher centers of civilization in the New World” (65). If one ponders the accepted timelines of the history of civilizations, the theory is plausible, and their goal was “to create a scientifically sound synthesis of the best research then available, which they thought pointed to ancient culture movements across broad spans of the globe” (92).

About this theory’s plausibility, I must add two insights from my own field of study, linguistics, that came to mind upon learning of it and which, if indirectly, support it. Linguistic monogenesis holds that all human languages have a common ancestor, bringing to mind the Biblical narrative of the Tower of Babel. Proto-Human language, of course, would have been spoken and subsequently diffused long before any Egyptian civilizational developments would have been diffused, but the point here is that our remote ancestors were capable of travelling far greater distances than many moderns care to admit. More to the point, it is widely held that all the world’s alphabets are descended, that is to say were diffused, from that of the Phoenician language, which itself was based on the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, descended from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Like Velikovsky and indeed the Austrian economists, the diffusionists opposed scientism, arguing against the “hyper-scientific, anti-humanistic, and ‘posivitist’ attitude[s]” (50) of the day. They desired “to merge the sciences and the humanities into a ‘unified discipline’ or a ‘science of history,’ yet carefully pointed out that human behavior does not fit neatly into any ‘laws of nature'” (105). Also like Velikovsky and the Austrians, the diffusionists faced powerful opposition, in their case rising from the “unlikely alliance” that was “formed among anthropologists, colonial policy makers, and philanthropists” (114). Author Smith informs, “Colonial regimes were intrigued by structural-functionalism because it seemed to adhere to their aims of applicable, practical, and utilitarian science.” The structural-functionalist “method included a combination of climatic determinism and progressionism with a defense of authoritarian or autocratic notions” (76). Funding for the diffusionists dried up, and the school withered by the 1940s.

That brief history of the diffusionists outlined, let us turn our attention to the school’s “anti-state, anti-war, pro-market” themes a LewRockwell.com reader might well appreciate.

The diffusionists countered the prominent “social evolutionist” schools of thought and their “implicit and explicit cult of progress” (27). Instead of this vision of “an inexorable progressive direction in history that was impeded only by irrational resistance to the inevitable,” (ibid) the diffusionists, bringing to mind Velikovsky, saw history as “periods of stasis intermittently punctuated by moments of drastic change” (ibid). Importantly, the diffusionists fought against the social evolutionists’ assertions that “all worthwhile progressive change in the human past resulted from conflicts with the stronger necessarily prevailing over the weaker” (26), i.e. that “progress stemmed directly from violence” (ibid). These same social evolutionists whom the diffusionists opposed “proclaimed individualism akin to ‘primitive barbarism'” (28).

Rejecting these “assumptions which represented violence as natural and progressively developmental for humanity and that a conflict-oriented culture has been endemic as an overall component of human nature” (94), the diffusionists instead saw in history as an “oscillatory interchange of ‘progress’ and ‘barbarism'” (75). In all of this one can see parallels with Albert Jay Nock‘s delineation of the civilizational struggle between “state power and social power.”

The diffusionists also rejected “then current social psychology that explained modern violence and warfare by projecting it into humanity’s ancient past and, by implication, asserting that this behavior was innate to humankind, leaving warfare as an inevitably and an intrinsic component of the human future” (63). The diffusionists argued that it was not by war and conquest that civilization was diffused, but rather by trade, a component of “the movements of culture that have obviously taken place” (62). Thus, they “placed human selectivity and behavior at the center of change rather than blind natural forces as the key determinants of cultural developments” (ibid).

The diffusionists’ “anti-state, anti-war, pro-market” vision is, in short, one of “all humanity as intricately connected over a vast timescale” (99).

Readers of LewRockwell.com, as well as anyone interested in the history of ideas and the history of civilization, would be wise to add this insightful and illuminating little book to their shelves. Fortunately, author Joshua D. Smith has two more books planned in his series.

An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send him mail] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he lectures English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian.

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