Anthropology’s Jared Diamond Problem

by Jake Waalk

 In the sumJared_diamond_Fotormer of 2013, filled with the ambition of becoming a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. State Department, I began reading their recommended reading list for applicants. These are books that are recommended as generally helpful for serious applicants, and which cover general aspects of State Department ideology, practice, and everything from communication to economics to the United States’ Foreign Service apparatus. Now, the U.S. State Department’s recommended readings and study materials are truly a hodge-podge example of everything wrong with the increasingly marginalized and ineffective department. The books range over a period of 30-40 years and span the political spectrum. Many are grossly outdated, and some are rather useless to begin with, though others, particularly some of the basic textbooks, are an enlightening crash course on foreign policy. Jared Diamond’s pop science book Guns, Germs, and Steel features prominently on the list, and is, as I noted in my original review of the book (undertaken immediately after reading it), perhaps the most prominent work of anthropology in the world today, having spawned a PBS mini-series, won a Pulitzer, and spread its tendrils of influence into Freshman college courses around the country, in addition to its aforementioned place on the State Department’s reading list.

I criticized it then—sloppily perhaps—and yet return to it now in an attempt to revisit, or to be more honest, to radically revise my original essay on the matter. The past year has really matured a lot of my past excess while also broadening considerably the descriptive and conceptual tools I have on hand. Simply put, as a current Anthropology graduate student, I see Jared Diamond’s social popularity (the spans the political spectrum) as problematic and the way he represents geography and anthropology equally so. Certainly readers might argue semantics on calling Diamond or his work anthropology, seeing as Diamond is a trained physiologist and geographer, who specialized in New Guinean birds. Yet every aspect of his major works of pop science are profoundly rooted in the central questions anthropology has been studying for one hundred and fifty years.

The problem, quite simply, lies in what avenues of research from which Diamond chose to take his answers, and a myriad of sloppy assumptions and downright false or misleading statements the book makes in order to support Diamond’s readily absorbed and regurgitable answers, his unified field theory of the social sciences. This is the one issue that becomes blatantly clear after a crash course reading in the major works of anthropology and its philosophical underpinnings. At heart, my issue with Guns, Germs, and Steel is that people presented it, and it presented itself, as a groundbreaking synthesis of ideas, and a truly eye-opening, complex, and creative take on world history—to toss around descriptive phrases and adjectives used in association with the book. It simply isn’t any of those things. That’s the one thing in this essay that is non-debatable; if you argue otherwise you are simply wrong. Guns, Germs, and Steel is a 425-page attempt at explaining world history through what I like to call more generally, environmental structuralism and what is typically known as environmental determinism. One online review called the book an interesting effort at showing how history and biology compliment each other. Simply wrong. The book’s most basic assertion is that environmental constraints are not just one major influence, they are the major influence on history. None of the book’s ideas are particularly new; Diamond’s diffusionism is lifted quite neatly from folks like Grafton Eliot Smith and popular anthropological and archaeological theories on the spread of civilization and technology that matured and reached saturation levels of prevalence between the 1910s and on through the 1930s.

Indeed, one of the clearest influences on some of Diamond’s conceptualizations of diffusion, seems to be the early work of British archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, who began as a diffusionist, Culture-History archaeologist, but later refuted his early work as insufficient and overly simplified (see Bruce Trigger’s A History of Archaeological Thought for its sections on Childe). The East-West patternings, the way Diamond describes innovations passing into Europe, the explanations for Europe’s success—all these show remarkable similarity to these seventy-plus-year-old theories that widely fell out of fashion for a reason.

Diamond’s environmental structuralism isn’t as old, but it still dates back to Julian Steward’s cultural ecology, which was mostly in place by the late 1930s, and to Leslie White’s universal model of human evolution (a rather ridiculously obvious and unhelpful observation about energy utilization). Authors like Rachael Carson and Ester Boserup from brought new interest and attention to the human relation to the environment around the mid-1960s—a formative period for Diamond. More than anything else, it resembles the positivist zealotry that swept through the social sciences in the 1960s, promoting a strangely touchy, obsessive, and condescending form of scientific chauvinism. Environmental frameworks became ubiquitous in new research around this time. In archaeology, Lewis Binford spearheaded his revolution (from which plenty of good things came), and in anthropology ideas like cybernetics became trendy, of which Roy Rappaport’s Pigs for the Ancestors is probably the best known. I, however, see much of Marvin Harris in Diamond’s work—Harris being the churlish, but immensely entertaining and readable writer of Cows, Pigs, and Witches and a highly influential figure in anthropology during the 1960s and 1970s.

There are differences between all of these writers and names, and all had different theories. The brilliance of Diamond is that they all seem to have fused in him into one very generalized idea of biology and environment as some determinants of history—to a degree far more expansive and conclusive than anthropology has been able to firmly establish through either the principles of philosophical interpretation of meaning or the strict demands of scientific testing and confirmation. That’s why Guns, Germs, and Steel is popular; it is why I think that its popularity is problematic: it provides some rather guilt free explanations of history that are largely apolitical (and by being apolitical favor those who enjoy privilege as a result of specific historical processes). It’s popular because it turns a massively complicated subject into one book, and one does get the sense that Diamond is just two or three steps away from having a simple algebraic equation to explain human progress. And we like that, we being the public.

That isn’t to say that Diamond doesn’t get a lot of things generally right; he does, and many freshman courses use his book in college because for American high schoolers and the general public, any discussion of the environment’s impact on history is truly novel. It should also be clarified that I am not criticizing Diamond for over-simplifying (god knows anthropology could use some people to communicate simply some of its broader ideas and efforts); I’m criticizing Diamond for being wrong. Diamond fails to provide the answers he claims his book will provide, and there are deep-seated issues with his model as a rigorous model that stands up to repeated historical testing—to say nothing on how vague and generally useless it is for actually tackling some of his questions at a substantive and anthropologically beneficial level.

Before I return to my original review, perhaps I could say that more than anything, Diamond fails by virtually excluding all counter-opinions entirely (even Harris bothered to shred his opponents up with clever rhetoric), and more to the point, Diamond fails to include decades of contemporary anthropological research and theories. Completely left out are some of the most important figures in contemporary social science, figures like Pierre Bourdieu, Clifford Geertz, Eric Wolf—Eric Wolf especially, because Wolf’s 1982 behemoth Europe and the People Without History deals with the exact same subject as Diamond, and on the exact same global scale and much of the same time period. Wolf successfully showed the impact and importance of human-made structures in standing between the human and the environment and shaping the movement of goods, technology and people throughout history, particularly the agency displayed by ethnic groups traditionally presented in an overly simplified narrative of victimization. This was a huge debate in anthropology for twenty years—the debate between infrastructure (environment) and superstructure (human determinants)—which is largely ended and not in the favor of Diamond’s side. There are behavioral, social, cultural, and, foremost for Wolf, economic structures that are self-replicating, intertwined, and virtually impossible for those within them to escape.

God help me, but I’m about to bring up Robert Dunnell to make a point here. Dunnell’s evolutionary archaeology is to archaeological theory as scientology is to religion, but one of his major observations is very useful. That observation was that it was a domain error for the social sciences to conceive of their work in the form of structural laws, to use physical sciences as a model—to conceive of social sciences as an ahistorical science that was about an unchanging systemic set of laws; gravity in Alabama is the same as gravity in North Korea. Dunnell argued for the need to look at archaeology as a historical science like genetics and biology. An easier way to understand this is simply the idea of contingency, and the idea that past events impact present ones. Similarly, Clifford Geertz also proposed a contingent form of science, what he called social science a clinical, descriptive science as opposed to a predictive science. A doctor cannot typically outline single events as resulting in high blood pressure or diabetes, but they can outline factors and probabilistic causes and make suggestions on how to prevent the undesirable result.

Let me return to my original review now, where these comments follow quite well my initial feelings towards the book. Diamond begins with an anecdote—anecdotes fill the pages of the book even where they are not relevant in the slightest, other than as affectation, displaying the author’s realm of experiences in “exotic” locales that supposedly establish his position as an expert. The first anecdote provides the raison d’être for the entire project; a question posed to Diamond by a New Guinean politician named Yali in 1972, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” (14). Subsequently Diamond engages in a long pedantic spiel that qualifies as a prologue, even though it, like most of the book, has no real point of focus. The prologue does outline the form of the history Diamond intends to build, as there he poses all the great questions about why history moved in certain directions and assumes the mantle of a combatant of racist readings of history, i.e. some people were better than others.

Before finishing his prologue, Diamond of course establishes his chops as a self-respecting, aging, serious academic by declaring that New Guineans are smarter than Westerners because they don’t spend as much time watching TV and radio. This of course, is a frivolous bit of social commentary on Diamond’s part, but one so typical among many would-be intellectuals that it falls to cliché, and somehow fails to understand that television is not necessarily a “passive entertainment,” but can be an exceedingly stimulating preoccupation that inspires much imagination. The problem I had with it (and continue to have with it) in specifically referencing this out of many other topics of the prologue, is that Diamond implies that television leads to reduced intelligence, which is a recurring tick of his—to subtly imply unsubstantiated bits of personal opinion as facts. Diamond’s issue is, to put it simply, he has no postmodern ethos—Diamond does not question his biases, does not outline his ideology for the reader or try to separate it from the more modest facts of general agreement, but rather takes an at times exceedingly arrogant approach of attaching his ideology, the sums of biases that form a perspective, to a universal positivist model of knowledge that simply can’t exist in the form he is envisioning it.

Not every area of the globe had such resources available to facilitate early agriculture and it is on this subject that Diamond is an overflowing repository of knowledge and insight, being closer to his main research fields of physiology and evolutionary biology. What’s more is that Diamond creates a compelling narrative, outlining how natural barriers impact the expansion of civilizations and certain forms of progress, while showcasing how isolation of small human groups tends to cause the loss of culture and technology. Diamond even construes a plausible, but by no means universal or certain, rationale for the development of human societies from hunter-gatherers into larger and newer forms of social organization and government.

The problem with this is that it leads to a sort Just-So way of conceptualizing human history and environment—where the only possible human response to the related material and ecological conditions is what we see in historical record, rather than positioning said responses as internally variable, contingent developments from divergent potentialities. This is tautological to the extreme; it works because it’s what we see, and what we see is what works, and in that sense barely an answer at all.

Much like his apparent model, Marvin Harris, Diamond tends to break very complicated issues into deceptively simple and appealing renditions, missing only one puzzle piece, which he then fits in perfectly to provide a complete and satisfying reconstruction. The reality is much less conclusive and much more frustrating, something that even many of the most partisan, scientific positivists in the social sciences have largely come to terms with now. Take JM Blaut’s dismantling of some of Diamond’s central theoretical underpinnings:

Rather persistently neglecting the fact that much of this zone is inhospitable desert and high mountains, Diamond describes this east-west-trending midlatitude zone of Eurasia as the world region that possessed the very best environment for the invention and development of agriculture and, consequently, for historical dynamism.

 

Blaut makes further criticisms about the central assumptions of Diamond’s theory, mainly that “He [Diamond] uses an old and discredited theory to claim that root crops and the like (yams, taro, etc.) are not nutritious and so could not have underlain important historical development.” Diamond furthermore, ignores crops such as sorghum and gives little attention to rice and the new evidence that throws a wrench into the old archaeological theories that the Fertile Crescent saw the world’s first agricultural production (which now appear to be false). Furthermore, Blaut notes that “Diamond’s error here is to treat natural determinants of plant ecology as somehow determinants of human ecology. That is not good science.” This is more commonly called “domain error” a term that I have already used, or, a false syllogism. Domain error is the philosophical version of the term apples and oranges in one sense; it is conflating one thing with another thing when the two are not the same nor can be reduced to the same aspects. Hence how problematic it is that Diamond misrepresents environments, and frequently uses discredited theories where it suits him, uses inaccurate representations of east-west and north-south diffusion of crops and technology and all in order to buttress a grand theory for how Europe was destined to arise as the center of economic and military power.

An opinion Blaut and I also share, is that a recurring tenet of Diamond’s postulation is its dependence on assumptions or specific speculations, which lack solid evidentiary grounding, but which Diamond’s theories require to be true in order to work, and as such are presented as true. Equally problematic is Diamond’s history—if I had to describe it, the words that come to mind are: utter conventional wisdom. For those not familiar with my usage of the term conventional wisdom in this sense, bloggers use it to decry the apathetic and often outdated or inaccurate, generalized form of knowledge taken as casual fact by a privileged center (normally for bloggers this is the “D.C. Beltway”). Diamond’s Eurocentric explanations are as standard as they are old, and he completely ignores decades of invigorating scholarship that has dismantled what he states are Europe’s proximate factors for its rise, and indeed I was floored to read Diamond write (the same passage Blaut makes note of for its egregiousness) in his epilogue, “One can, of course, point to proximate factors behind Europe’s rise: its development of a merchant class, capitalism, and patent protection for inventions, its failure to develop absolute despots and crushing taxation, and its Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition of critical inquiry” (410).

A further example comes from what is among Diamond’s most troubling sections—his section on the conquest of the Americas. Observe the following little statement that Diamond makes utterly without substantiation “[…] the Spaniards superior weapons would have assured an ultimate Spanish victory in any case” (68). This is in conjunction with an earlier statement to the effect that the Spanish possessed superior metal armor compared to the cloth armor of the Incans, and an enormous exaggeration of the importance of horses in the initial conquest of the Incan empire. The history for this is simply outdated.

Charles Mann for instance, in his book 1491 dismantles the Eurocentric idea of European technological superiority. What we have from a broader examination of remaining records and knowledge of the period’s technology, is that guns during the conquest and throughout the early periods of conquest in the Americas were almost useless; they were brutally inaccurate and lethal for a range little better than a good crossbow (and perhaps less accurate), and only had shock value as noise makers the first few times they were used. The Conquistadors quickly abandoned what Diamond calls their superior metal armor for the Incan cloth armor, which was actually quite sophisticated and similar in concept to modern Kevlar vests, being made from tightly wound cloth capable of blocking arrows, and which was much lighter, cooler, and more maneuverable than the heavy European armor. If one has read Mann, one also knows that Diamond’s argument about horses being a deciding factor (that goes back to the environment of course), in the conquest is absolute baloney—the Incans came up with effective anti-horse weaponry and the animals did not fare well on the steep, unsteady slopes of the Andes, where local llamas quickly superseded them in use by the Conquistadors.

Diamond’s entire section dealing with Pre-Columbian societies is problematic, and he fails to point out issues that make his environmental deterministic theories unworkable (north-south axis and slow diffusion as limiters to civilization). Namely that Mesoamerican societies had some of the greatest feats of agriculture—unlike in the Fertile Crescent where edible wild ancestors to wheat existed, Mesoamericans literally bred a useful and edible plant into existence with maize. The Incan empire had a length equivalent to the distance from St. Petersburg to Cairo, and with that expanse, a complex system of governance, a binary like form of mathematics, detailed oral traditions and histories, and an intricate network of infrastructure, as they depended on warehouse-centered control of the food supply for their political authority. Indeed, when the Spaniards interrupted this system, and destroyed the warehouses and broke down the Incan bureaucracy, millions starved through out the Andes as a result of famine (and the population may not have recovered even to the present day). When the Spanish discovered Potosi, the most productive single source of a precious metal ever found, they had to resort to using local Incan methods of metallurgy, as Spanish methods couldn’t deal with silver ore as pure as that which they found. In essence, the primitive-sophisticate, advanced-backwards dichotomies that emerged in the historical narrative of the Spanish conquests post-facto as part of racist histories, are unsurprisingly wrong, yet these are assumptions that if you dig deep enough, you see Diamond takes for granted, and is indeed, ultimately trying to explain through environmental constraints of botany and climate.

This is all ignoring that the Incan empire consisted of numerous ethnic groups, many of which joined the Spanish and played a crucial role in toppling the empire, just as Cortes was saved by the military aid of other native Mesoamerican peoples in fighting the Aztecs. General babbling about the history of the Americas and the Spanish conquests aside, the Spanish conquest had little to do with technological superiority or with horses—the two developments of ecology and easy diffusion—and Diamond does tremendous disservice to the thriving cultures of much of the Americas, several of which had basic engineering and technology as sophisticated as nearly anything commonplace in Europe at the time (and Tenochtitlan was among the most populous and most densely populated cities in the entire 15th Century world), simply because he seems unaware of modern scholarship on the matter and/or it fails to comply with his over-simplified narrative of human history. As Blaut concludes, “he [Diamond] claims to produce reliable, scientific answers to these problems when in fact he does not have such answers, and he resolutely ignores the findings of social science while advancing old and discredited theories of environmental determinism. That is bad science.”

Environmental structuralism is useful in outlining the way human behavior and changes relate to the environment, but it is just one factor. Numerous adaptations are possible, and anthropology and archaeology from the last forty years can provide numerous examples of non-adaptive or non-optimal behavior, to say nothing of situations where thousands of historical trajectories could be explained by the same environment and the important question is why one particular trajectory occurred over others. The French social scientist and philosopher Michel Foucault had a great statement that goes something like “People know what they do. They know why they do it. What they don’t know is, essentially, what what they do does.” For no other reason than this am I always imminently skeptical of scientists who try to write about human history and society, pigeonholing everything to fit their argument of “its all genes” or “its all environment” and missing an enormous amount of truth, diversity, and the immense role that probability and chance play in shaping all of this. Indeed, the way forward is often predetermined to a large extent by the path taken to get to the current spot.

Furthermore, Diamond displays a stunning lack of regard in choosing his historical arguments. There is no greater irony in the book than Diamond’s use of racist and Eurocentric histories when his stated goal is to fight racist models of history! Diamond’s goals in writing Guns, Germs, and Steel were admirable, and his book overflows with interesting factoids about ancient societies and human development, and even his commentary has its moments. As Diamond, however, does not realize that the use of hegemonic narratives of history undermines his intrinsic reason for writing on the subject (combating racism), his resulting book perpetuates such hegemonic and flawed models, and this is, again, a form of racism itself in the guise of a symbolic domination that implies other prejudiced views of the world, and subsequently, all the book has to offer is an intellectual argument for one academic’s Eurocentric assumptions.

While such a take is rather short and incomplete, it is a basic primer to the issues of the work and with the work and its popularity. As one can see, it is a very complex issue, and for the sake of brevity, I cannot spend as much time delving into each of the individual sub-issues, or give a full, independent primer on Geertz and Wolf, or even Harris, as I would like to, despite their tertiary relevance. Such primers, as well as a general summary of what postmodernism was, and a corresponding defense of structuralism from a postmodernist perspective, are both issues for other essays. Despite my dissatisfaction at the degree of shorthand, I believe I have presented the crash course outline of the flaws in the popular work of anthropology by Jared Diamond, which are both deep and significant, particularly in conjunction with his book Collapse, where it is suddenly revealed that while societies can’t decide to succeed, some can indeed decided to fail. For someone who loves anthropology and the social sciences, the only honest reaction is depression that it is only the non-offensive, non-challenging works of simplified generalizations given a misplaced and inappropriate gloss of (poor) science that seem to have any impact or achieve any social popularity.

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