The posts that Ozma and I wrote about Guns, Germs and Steel seem to have struck a nerve, and already there is a fair amount of discussion in the blogsphere. In addition to Brad DeLong’s dismissive pot-shots, there is a very good discussion developing in the comments section of this Crooked Timber post. From there I learned that the Science article mentioned by Ozma (and also by Majikthise and Louis Proyect) has been posted online by Louis. I recommend everyone take the time to read it in full. Also, Nomadic Thoughts is collecting links about the debate, and I will try to mirror some of those here, as well as whatever else I come across as I discover them. And stay tuned – our resident New Guinea expert, Rex, is on vacation, but I’m sure he’ll have something to say when he gets back!
UPDATE: For those who want a quick overview of the debate so-far, go take a look at an excellent write-up by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed.
UPDATE: This is getting very long, so I’m moving everything below the fold.
UPDATE: Stentor Danielson, over at debitage, has some thoughts on GG&S:
As I see it, the main problem with Diamond’s thesis is that he reaches too far back in history to find the roots of Euro-American dominance. He traces the current power imbalance back to the arrangement of continents and biota that prevailed at the dawn of “civilization” some 10,000 years ago. Diamond makes much of Pizarro’s easy victory over the Incas, treating it as the proof in the pudding of the superiority that Europe had achieved. But even as Europe was laying the smackdown on the Americas, it was desperately trying to catch up to the much more advanced civilizations of India, China, and the Middle East. It wasn’t until the the 19th century, when the industrial revolution was in full swing, that we can say with confidence that (western) Europe was the world’s dominant power (see Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient). This suggests that a historically contingent explanation is likely to be better than one positing a long-standing inevitability.
UPDATE: Brad De Long has updated his post with a new cheap shot. He deliberately misunderstands me in order to try to make me look foolish. [UPDATE: Yes, I said some things in sloppy ways which facilitated such misrepresentations, but only if you ignore the point I was trying to make in my initial post. Is the point to try to understand each other, or to play "gotcha" - berating someone until they are tired and say something you can use against them? The latter might work in presidential debates (Kerry's "global test" remark), but isn't appropriate for scholarly discourse.] I said:
Addendum: Yes, if the book had been framed in terms of “why, prior to 1600, did the west have more cargo” … fine. But that is not how the book is framed. Nor do I think it would have been as popular if it had been framed in those terms (for the reasons Ozma alludes to).
To which he responds with quotes showing that JD did, indeed say the year 1600 was his ending point, in his book.
All this proves is that Brad is a troll. He deliberately misunderstands and misrepresents what I am saying in order to make me upset (this time it worked). I shouldn’t rise to the bait, but this is too easy….
It is very clear that there are two frames. Yali’s question sets up the larger frame within which the other one is set. I, and I believe Ozma, are arguing that much of the popularity of the book derives from the slippage between these two frames – the fact that answering one question seems to answer another. In my initial post – which was a critique of the TV show, I argued that this slippage begins with Diamond’s setting up this slippage in the book, even though I explicitly acknowledged that he did a better job of it in the prologue than what we see in the TV show. Still, I felt it was important to make it clear that one question does not answer the other, and that in fact Yali’s question was not the one we should be asking in the first place.
Rather than trying to understand all of this, De Long deliberately uses it to dismiss me. If you read our discussion in the forums I think you can see that this derives from the fact that he doesn’t like the implication that capitalism might somehow be at fault for contemporary inequality. But rather than having a civil debate about this issue, he resorts to cheap shots.
The number one rule for dealing with trolls is “don’t feed them.” There are a lot of other people who have contributed interesting points to the threads here, at Crooked Timber, and even on De Long’s post. From now on I will focus any energy I have (I don’t have much these days) on interacting with those who have attempted to make a civil contribution to promoting further dialog rather than trying to prevent reasonable discussion. Don’t feed the trolls!
UPDATE: Our very own Tak is keeping quiet on GG&S (he hasn’t read it) but in a post over at Frog in a Well he has a lot to say about an article Diamond wrote about Japan.
There are also frightening parallels in the history of Japanese fascism to the kind of environmental determinism used by Diamond.
… Instead of reading these simplistic assumptions about race, technology, and stages of civilization, I’d rather wait for the release of Civilization 4, in which the game designers rely on the same assumptions.
UPDATE: Henry Farrell thinks that Tak’s post (together with those on this blog) represent “some underlying deformation of thinking.”
Maybe Tak et al. are a put-up by the right-ish bits of the academy to make more left-ist bits look silly?
I have to admit – that one cracked me up.
If we anthropologists seem a little to ready to throw around the term “racist” it is not because we are “jealous” of other disciplines (in fact, anthropology is doing better than ever before), it is because we are all too aware of our own history as a discipline. Anthropologists were the foot-soldiers of colonialism, promoting theories of racial superiority to justify colonial expansion. As a result, we are sensitive to the ways in which specific interests can be served in the name of “objective” science.
UPDATE: Now Kevin Drum links to Brad’s Post. Kevin is as thoughtful, polite, and articulate as he always is. I just wish people would stop conflating my comments about the reception and limitations of the book and the TV show with Ozma’s critique of his environmental arguments. And just because people say they aren’t doing something doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it – that’s one of the first things you learn when you do ethnographic fieldwork!
UPDATE: Timothy Burke takes up the discussion at Cliopatria:
It’s a serious mistake to even imply that Diamond is racist, as Henry Farrell properly observes. I would say that he has a stubborn inclination to use racial terms when they don’t serve any empirical or descriptive purpose.
Fourth, on Yali’s question, I have a few problems. Though Brad DeLong insists that Diamond only means his answer to explain the relative imbalance in material wealth and power between many non-Western societies and the West up to 1500 and not afterwards, I think it’s clear that Diamond thinks that post-1500 events are no more than the icing on the cake, that the fundamental explanation of post-1500 inequalities and disparities in the world derive from the grand arc of pre-1500 development, from the luck of the geographical draw. He’s not alone in that: this is a venerable argument which takes on variant forms among world-systems historians and Marxists. But De Long is being a bit unfair to insist somehow that the Savage Minds bloggers have in this respect misread Diamond: he clearly argues that the pre-1500 history is crucially determinant of the post-1500 history.
UPDATE: Brad DeLong responds to Burke’s critique, and Burke responds in the comments. Burke adds this:
It is important to note, though, that Diamond’s latest work makes it clear that he’s not a determinist, not exactly, in that he does think elites can make decisions, that there are multiple pathways a society can travel in relation to its environment.
That book would be Collapse, which I haven’t read.
UPDATE: I missed this one, but De Long seems to have taken Ozma seriously enough to actually read one of the articles she cited, although he ends up ridiculing it. Still, I’m glad he made an effort! That’s all we ask of our readers.
UPDATE: Lawyers, Guns and Money discusses the debate between Ozma and DeLong in ethical terms. (Note: Ozma is a she.) And recommends a few books on egalitarian ethics.
Stentor Danielson has a followup to his own earlier critique.
And John Hawks thinks that “Diamond’s work … is a lot closer to traditional anthropology than some find comfortable” (despite flaws with its historical framework).
UPDATE: Someone over at Crooked Timber posted this link to a review of Collapse by Clifford Geertz.
Also, Tak has an extended reply to Henry in the comments section of his post.
First: I didn’t say that Jared Diamond was racist.
…Yet despite the things I liked about the article, I was disturbed by some of his assumptions, which in my opinion are the kind that help fuel the very racism abound in East Asia today. This is what I meant by him perpetuating racism.
UPDATE: A libertarian take on Collapse by Ronald Bailey.
UPDATE: There has been a significant amount of new discussion on the site. Most of it by Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington. You can see all their posts here. Rex also had a post about the nature of anthropological critiques which has some good discussion in the comments. And I have two more posts: One on the third episode of the TV show, in which Diamond discusses malaria in Africa. And another one about a trenchant critique of his new book, Collapse.