Kerim suggested Savage Minds mount a response to the recent “PBS special”:http://www.pbs.org/previews/gunsgermssteel/ (link courtesy of Kerim) on the theories of self-described polylingual polymath “Jared Diamond”:http://www.truthout.org/docs_05/010805G.shtml (scroll down to “about the author”). Rex, our Melanesianist and thus an obvious choice to take up the task, was unfortunately departing for China just at that time. None of the rest of us leapt at the job, though we all conceded it was a worthy idea. Our collective reluctance points, I think, to anthropology’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0393317552/qid=1122176923/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl14/002-8361077-2211200?v=glance&s=books&n=507846 problem.
Has this ever happened to you? You are at a party, or perhaps a family gathering, or maybe even just standing in line at the DMV when the person next to you strikes up a conversation. If they don’t start talking to you about Indiana Jones at the mention of anthropology, there is a fair chance they’ll bring up GG&S – expecting that you just love the book. Now you’re in a pickle. Diamond showily positions GG&S as the definitive anti-racist take on human history. If you say you don’t really care for it, your interlocutor is likely to get a slightly baffled look on her face. What could you possibly mean, you don’t like Diamond’s noble tome? Are you… a racist? To explain why you don’t like the book would take more time than most people making friendly small talk want to spend, and – worse yet – your explanation will necessarily impugn the motives of people who do like it, a group that you now know includes the person with whom you are speaking. My own usual reaction in such encounters is to say that unfortunately I have not read the book but that boy, it sure does sound interesting.
Alas, I did read most of the book several years ago. Diamond’s argument in GG&S is in three parts, supported by a magpie’s trove of evidence. Part the first is: white people are immeasurably superior to everyone else on the planet, in terms of technology, wealth, store of knowledge, and actual power, and have been so for a long time. Part the second is: this is not because non-white people are lazy and stupid. Part the third is: it’s because of the determining force that geographical and ecological constraints have exerted on human history.
Predictably, racists have pooh-poohed the book as yet another left-wing conspiracy theory, this time starring leftists’ erstwhile paramour Mother Earth in the role usually played by the Man. See “this”:http://www.gnxp.com/MT2/archives/003206.html for example from the folks over at Gene Expression (read all the way to the end – I’ll get back to their gleeful ‘exposé’ of Diamond’s past) (thanks to Tak for this link). But the more general response has been to assume that the book is a canonical text of political correctness and that cultural anthropologists, who are indeed anti-racist, must therefore subscribe wholeheartedly to it. Take “this”:http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/tv/balter_guns_germs_review_2005.html (thanks to Kerim for this link) which asserts
“If you haven’t heard of Diamond’s book, these ideas may nonetheless seem familiar. That is because they are essentially the same arguments made by Franz Boas and other early anthropologists who focused on human cultures as primarily differing for ecological and geographic reasons. Diamond adds a strongly Marxist element, placing the mode of production and its geographical prerequisites as necessarily causal…”
In fact, this utterly misrepresents the history of anthropological theory, how most working cultural anthropologists think about the human story, and the bases of anthropological anti-racism. Franz Boas was very clear that “we have no evidence of a creative force of environment… It is sufficient to see the fundamental differences of culture that thrive one after another in the same environment, to make us understand the limitations of environmental influences” (Race, Language, and Culture 1982 : 255-256). Likewise, Diamond’s thesis would be anathema to any Marxist anthropologist. Diamond does not take “modes of production” as the causal motor of his thesis. This is because any mode of production is a social product of human history. Diamond’s explanations are located much anterior to this – in geography and ecology, which are taken to stand outside of, apart from, and entirely antecedent to human productive action.
To illustrate, let’s take each portion of his evidence in turn. I don’t have the book with me, so can’t exactly remember the Eurasian landmass part of the argument. If memory serves, it is that the Eurasian landmass is the largest contiguous landmass all in one climactic zone – that is, it’s the biggest landmass going “sideways” as opposed to “up and down” on the globe as it is conventionally represented. This brute fact facilitated the exchange of genetic material (domesticated plant, domesticated animal, human, and pestilential germ) across a large region over several thousand years, and therefore the development of powerful multiple disease resistance across this contiguous area. This, of course, set the epidemiological conditions for the eventual cataclysmic demographic encounter of European colonizers with American Indians. I don’t have any grounds for critiquing this part of the argument. It sounds like a plausible hypothesis to me, but (given the caliber of the rest of Diamond’s case) might be ridiculous. Please jump into the comments section if you know better.
Moving on. Diamond additionally argues that the inhabitants of this Eurasian landmass started off with a better array of potentially domesticable plants than did prehistoric humans living elsewhere on the planet. There are pages and pages of discussion of wild plants with a large, oily seed yield – the kinds of plants that would be good candidates for domestication. At first reading, my problem with this argument was that it is utterly post-hoc: he insists that there just plain are (and thus, by inference, were) more such plants in Eurasia than elsewhere, but I wondered about ongoing hybridization between wild ancestor plants, land races, and domesticated plants across thousands of years of domestication and whether that may have transformed what he takes to be the “wild” baseline. But my fuzzy doubts are mere amateur ankle-biting as compared to the expertly rear-end-kicking article lead-authored by John Terrell of the Field Museum (full reference below).* It demolishes the bright line demarcating agricultural domestication in human prehistory that sustains this entire portion of Diamond’s argument. It also offers a thoroughgoing critique of Diamond’s thesis and evidence. Highly recommended reading.
Next. Diamond likewise argues that the Eurasian landmass offered a uniquely amenable population of potentially-domesticable proto-livestock. His principal contrast here is to the Americas, where Amerindians puzzlingly domesticated nothing but the llama, the alpaca, the Muscovy duck, and the (yum!) (awwww) (yum!) (awwww) guinea pig (the foregoing being the Andeanist version of the tastes great/less filling debate). Now, again, this argument runs into the a posteriori problem. He asserts that it is possible to infer that undomesticated animals are and always have been undomesticable animals. But this is unpersuasive. It supposes that we moderns (or specifically Jared Diamond) could (for example) look at a jungle fowl and infer, finger lickin’! even in the absence of domesticated chickens. He surveys the world outside Eurasia and declares it deficient in proto-goats, proto-chickens, proto-pigs, proto-cows, proto-sheep… Make of this what you will, in essence it is hand-waving.
Furthermore, in the lowland South American context at least, there is considerable evidence that human-animal relationships are in important respects conceptualized and experienced as relations between social equals, such that a pastoral, dominating, domesticating relationship is rendered “no good to think” (apologies to Stanley Tambiah). Philippe Descola is writing about this, and the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro lends itself to the same interpretation. This sounds a bit New Age & woo-woo as I’ve thumbnailed it here, but (I promise) it is compelling and thought-provoking when properly expounded. Given the many parallels between Melanesia and Amazonia, I wonder if a similar analysis would be applicable there (and, perhaps, elsewhere too). The point, though, is that given the presence of potentially useful animals, it is not a foregone conclusion that humans will set about domesticating them. It is simply not valid to read back from a present absence of domesticated animals a past dearth of proto-domestic animals.
Hang in there: this is winding down. I will admit I never finished reading GG&S, but I gather that Diamond claims it necessarily follows from the all of the above that given such overwhelming, built-in Eurasian advantages (which somehow condensed to the particular advantage of the Western European part of Eurasia) that it was inevitable that that part of the world would become the global cradle of innovation, invention, and subsequent armed exploratory excursions on the part of its disease-ridden, disease-resistant, bristling-with-lethal-technology inhabitants. We know the rest. Bad news for the rest of the world’s inhabitants. Just as inherently smart, just as inherently plucky… but damned unlucky.
Reportedly (because I didn’t see it), the PBS special ends with Jared Diamond in a truly tragic contemporary African hospital, the kind with lots of sick and dying children. He breaks down weeping. Apparently it is a genuinely touching moment, and why not? The death of innocents is terrible.
But I think the “pow” delivered by that moment is two-fold. It’s Greek tragedy sad: one weeps at the cruelty of the fates, while simultaneously being exquisitely affected by one’s own capacity for empathy (I weep at the cruelty of the fates, and at the touching testament my very weeping renders to my own humanity: namely, that I am the sort of tender-hearted person who cannot help but weep at the cruelty of the fates). One sticks it out through the long boring journey (have you ever watched Oedipus Rex being performed in Greek, with masks? It’s a lot like reading GG&S) in order to arrive, at the end, at the truth of one’s own essential goodness.
This is a punchline about race and history that many white people want desperately to hear. Those dying black kids at the end of the special – we know, because We Are Not Racist, that they don’t deserve what they are getting. They are not inferior. In fact, there but for the grace of god… thus affirming that no one but god has any historical responsibility, and that the world as we know it is a regrettable inevitability. Diamond’s account loudly insists that alea jacta wast (pardon the pig latin conjugation) before we even got going. And it poisonously whispers: mope about colonialism, slavery, capitalism, racism, and predatory neo-imperialism all you want, but these were/are nobody’s fault. This is a wicked cop-out. Worse still, it is a profound insult to all non-Western cultures/societies. It basically says they’re sorta pathetic, but that bless their hearts, they couldn’t/can’t hep it. Such an assertion tramples upon all that anthropology holds dear, and is a sham sort of anti-racism.
So that’s my take on Diamond; why he’s popular, why he’s wrong, why it’s not in fact very surprising that he’s long been obsessed with measures of racial difference (this is the tie-in to that Gene Expression link, above) and, finally, why I usually don’t get into the whole long take-down with laypeople. If any of you are still with me, and didn’t pass out drooling 6 long paragraphs ago, SM seems like a great space for accumulating more references and adding on to this take. This was never intended to be definitive – just a little something 😉 to start what we hope will become an ongoing conversation.
*(2003) “Domesticated Landscapes: The Subsistence Ecology of Plant and Animal Domestication” by John Edward Terrell, John P. Hart, Sibel Barut, Nicoletta Cellinese, Antonio Curet, Tim Denham, Chapurukha M. Kusimba, Kyle Latinis, Rahul Oka, Joel Palka, Mary E. D. Pohl, Kevin O. Pope, , Patrick Ryan Williams, Helen Haines, and John E. Staller. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 10:323-368.