Yeah, we know -- the Chinese have a higher average IQ and lower propensity toward violence than blacks or Hispanics. Real high standard to hold the non-whites to -- are you more tolerable as neighbors than the average black/Hispanic.
East Asian mediocrity looks like a puzzle, then, given their higher test scores. And while most people wouldn't come right out and say it, they think that being smarter makes you more morally sensitive and perhaps more moral in conduct as well. So Asian amorality presents another puzzle.
Earlier I suggested that the relative lack of disgust in Asians is the main factor behind their amoral nature. They don't get as easily grossed out by a range of gross things as Western people would. And throughout human evolution, disgust has gotten put to new use in the moral domain -- we refer to something as "morally repugnant," we make a disgusted face and shrink back when we hear about something puzzlingly immoral, and our entire concept of a hypocrite or a traitor seems to be derived from disgust -- ingesting something you had believed to be healthy, but was actually poisoned.
I don't think I've ever had a big theory about why Asians don't accomplish as much as their brains would suggest.
But after reading Ron Unz's article about the Social Darwinist pressures that shaped the Chinese population, in particular the grinding meritocracy, the two puzzles make more sense.
Basically, everything bad you could imagine was constantly nipping at the heels of the average Chinese -- famine, downward mobility, epidemic disease, and so on. Worse than in Europe, where folks were more spread out, sparing themselves the nastiest effects of insectoid hive living. And social mobility was based on meritocratic principles, rather than strictly inherited rank / caste, or joining an upstart armed faction that hoped to dethrone the established faction by force (life has been more peaceful in China for awhile now).
The constant rising and falling of an individual's social status meant that he could not consider any set of tasks to be beneath him -- whatever it took to get through the here and now, and perhaps save up for later, he had to take. Work as a farm laborer one week, rent himself out as a soldier the next, use his new wealth to open a shop and supervise laborers, and then work as a laborer for some other merchant once he went under himself, and so on. Nothing could be felt to be out of bounds.
Unz says that this would have selected for more hardy people even among the brainy -- they would only get to profit from their brains some of the time, and would have to do manual labor the rest of the time. They had no niche to continually colonize, as the Ashkenazi Jews did with white collar finance jobs. That sounds true enough to me. Your typical elite Jew is pretty pathetic with around-the-house kind of stuff, while the Chinese might know something about drywall, planting shrubs, fixing leaks, and so on.
So, there we have the explanation for Asian mediocrity -- they never had a brainy niche to thrive in full-time, and instead were selected to be a Jack-of-all-trades.
That would also seem to explain the relative disappearance of disgust in Asians (at least the Chinese). If nothing could be felt to be out of bounds, what happens if your next set of tasks is disgusting, either viscerally or figuratively? And what happens when you find yourself in such a cheek-by-jowl environment, surrounded by sick and dirty neighbors? These aspects of the Chinese ecology would select for folks with a dialed-down sense of disgust.
This is important to keep in mind any time you hear about how the Chinese are going to best the Americans or Westerners in some area because we are too timid, while they plow ahead. It may be true in some limited range of cases, namely those where political correctness ties the hands of Western researchers or other actors. In all other areas, we're still going to come out ahead.
Even in the domains under PC quarantine, we shouldn't confuse ourselves about what path the Chinese (or whoever) will take. We like to romanticize those who are doing what we are too weak to do. But the Chinese are not iconoclasts -- not daring, not bold, and not anti-authoritarian. They are not the schoolyard rebel who goes where the teachers have told him not to, just because he likes acting recklessly and putting would-be authorities in their place by disobeying them.
Rather, they are more like the autistic children who wander out beyond the prescribed boundaries because they've tuned out other people's demands on their behavior in the first place.
I'll be glad if they do work in fields that are out-of-bounds in the West, but I'm also realistic about the broader prospects for cutting-edge Asian science, whether hard or soft. Iconoclasts have struck a nerve, and so that's a sign that there's really something there to extract. Asians are more blind wanderers than iconoclasts, so in addition to getting some work done where we could not, they're going to waste far much more time, money, and effort in other pursuits. The schoolyard rebel must know where a truly enjoyable place is, whereas the autistic kid may stray over there for awhile, but will also spend most of his time in boring places.
The lack of passion that characterizes autistics also means that we shouldn't expect a whole lot to get done even when the Chinese do hit upon a profitable spot to dig. They'll dig, and dig a little more, and then that'll be it. Their mindset seems to have been selected to not count too much on one narrow range of tasks to make a living from, hence no obsessive single-mindedness. While they may be driven to succeed in some general sense, like how much wealth they own, they don't seem ambitious to rise to the top of any particular domain of life. Whatever will boost their status this week, they'll do it.
To conclude, the main contrast is with Ashkenazi Jews. They had a narrow specialized set of tasks that served as selection pressures. They are more single-minded and driven to make it in whatever they set their minds to in early adulthood, and no matter how weird the domain may seem, their goal is to be #1.
To take a random example, Lloyd Kaufman, the co-founder of Troma Entertainment, has obsessed over how to be the best of low-budget horror / sleaze / farce movies in the world of home video. It's not Harvard Medical, Stanford Law, etc., but he's going to be #1 at something. And he graduated from Yale, so he could've tried to go that route if he'd wanted to. I assume he also had plenty of nagging from his Jewish mother to do something more respectable.
If he'd been Chinese, he might've wandered into making movies like The Toxic Avenger, but probably wouldn't have felt it was his calling in life. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard an Asian talk about what they felt their "calling" was, what they "were meant to be" in life, and so on. Meh, maybe this, maybe that, I don't mind doing whatever. I'm sure his tiger mother would push him toward the same professional careers that the Jewish mother would, but he's going to be more acquiescent since he doesn't feel a strong inner drive toward a specific goal in the first place.