Friday, February 8, 2013
Jared Diamond has made a big career out of big ideas. His work displays both the strengths and the weaknesses of this approach. I am a big fan of his breakthrough work, Guns, Germs, and Steel. The big idea was that civilization arose where and when it arose because of a basic geographical fact: Eurasia goes mostly from west to east whereas the Americas and Africa go mostly from north to south. Human beings are dependent on a small set of crops and animals. These are adapted to climate, so that they can be moved from east to west with relative ease but not so much from north to south. The result was that a large set of edible crops and critters ended up in the Fertile Crescent rather early. More food meant more people and a surplus that could support armies, bureaucrats, and royal families. Thus civilization rises first in that place.
There is a minor and a major criticism of this theory. The major one is that Diamond’s view is determinist, materialistic and reductionist. I think that that is weak. Human beings may be more than animals but they are at least animals. They need to eat, go potty, and have babies. Human history may be more than geography but it is at least geography. We occupy certain parts of the globe and not others. If your spot is out of the tropics and has access to the sea, you are probably in a relatively prosperous position. If your spot is on a major geographic thoroughfare, you are set for growth.
The minor criticism is that Diamond’s thesis cannot explain the rise of Europe. This one is stronger. Europe became the center of global civilization despite being a bit off the beaten path of Diamond’s east/west axis. I happen to think that this failure actually strengthens Diamond’s thesis. Diamond’s account is historical and historical accounts cannot be deterministic. If determinism is true, you don’t need history. You only need the rules that determine the system and the state of the system at one time in order to determine the state at all other times. Historical accounts are necessary if you need to know what happened at time X in order to understand what happened at time Y. Europe had certain advantages that result from its geography. It also happened to be the place where certain very powerful institutions were developed. There was nothing necessary about their development there, but once it happened it set the future for several centuries at least.
Well, now Diamond has another big book and the great good fortune that he has aroused a hornet’s nest of enemies. I gather that the chief objection to Diamond’s new book is as follows, from the Guardian:
On a book tour of the UK last week, Diamond, 75, was drawn into a dispute with the campaign group [Survival International] after its director, Stephen Corry, condemned Diamond's book as "completely wrong – both factually and morally – and extremely dangerous" for portraying tribal societies as more violent than western ones.
I don’t think that “Western” is the right idea here. Japan is remarkably placid. Still, the question whether modern, developed societies are more or less violent than tribal and pre-agricultural societies rubs a raw wound in the culture of anthropology.
Without entering into the specific question, it seems clear that the opposition to Diamond is motivated more by political passion than by science. Razib Khan has a piece in Discover that lays out the problem.
Many cultural anthropologists believe that they have deep normative disagreements with Jared Diamond. In reality I think the chasm isn’t quite that large. But the repeated blows ups with Diamond gets to the reality that cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover. It has embraced deconstruction, critique, complexity (or more accurately anti-reductionism) and relativism to such a great extent that whereas in many disciplines social dynamics and political power struggles are an unfortunate consequence of academic life, in cultural anthropology the fixation with power dynamics and structures has resulted in its own self-cannibalization, and overwhelming preoccupation with such issues. Everyone is vulnerable to the cannon blast of critique, and the only value left sacred are particular particular ends (social justice, defined by cultural anthropologists) and axioms (white males are oppressive patriarchs, though white male cultural anthropologists may have engaged in enough self interrogation to take upon themselves the mantle of fighting for the rights of the powerless [i.e., not white males]) which all can agree upon.
Well, yes. Khan informs us that he has plenty of disagreements with Diamond but he finds Diamond’s critics to be down an “intellectual black hole.” I am sure he is right.