On Human Nature and Responsibiity

Diamond’s conflation between the necessary and the sufficient grows out of the link between his interest in “history’s broadest pattern” (1997: 420) and his determination to develop “human history as a science, on a par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology” (1997: 408). As he says, his book “attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years …. [and searches] for ultimate explanations … [that push] back the chain of historical causation as far as possible” (1997: 9). Crucial to this search for law like explanations that will generate long chains of causation back to first causes (chains of causation that even link mountain range formation to Yali’s quandary) is Diamond’s distinction between ultimate and proximate causes. Ultimate causes are those broadly applicable and pervasive forces, such as guns, germs, and steel. Diamond is interested in these causes because he thinks they are the ones which really drive history – both past and present. These ultimate causes shape derivative and more immediate occurrences, such as particular battles, conquests, economic systems. The effects of these more immediate occurrences, in turn, become proximate causes of yet other events.

Diamond’s view of an inevitable and inexorable course of human history, one driven by the operation of ultimate causes over the span of its 13,000-year course, rests (as some of you suggested in earlier postings) on what seems to us to be an implicit view of human nature. It is this human nature which, in his vision, keeps ultimate causes active and decisive throughout history. This is a view of human beings as necessarily leading lives so as to extract maximum advantage over others: give a guy — any guy — half a chance and he will conquer the world; give a guy a piece of appropriate metal and he will inevitably fashion a sword to cut you down; give a guy a piece of appropriate metal and he will inevitably fashion a chain to enslave you within the hold of a ship bound for a New World sugar plantation. In a way that many in the contemporary West find seemingly self-evident — in a way that does not problematize the way the world works — Diamond suggests that people everywhere and at all times, if they had sufficient power, would necessarily use it in seeking to maximize their own advantage through the domination of others. This implicit view of a trans-historical and trans-cultural human nature is consistent with Diamond’s explicit rendering of both historical context and cultural perspective as irrelevant. In fact, Diamond works hard to exclude such perspective and context from his scientific history.

Correspondingly, Diamond describes the rise of mercantilism and capitalism as only “proximate forces” in the course of world history (1997: 10). From his perspective, mercantilism and capitalism are just epiphenomena — just passing examples of history’s general law. From our perspective, however, mercantilism and capitalism provide particular historical contexts in which (and in different though related ways) expansionist conquest appears an especially desirable activity — and one made especially feasible by the availability of guns, germs, and steel. This is to say, rather than merely proximate causes of lives more fundamentally and inexorably determined, mercantilism and capitalism impel the use of guns, germs, and steel in particular manners for particular ends.

Mercantilism and capitalism have spurred people to be bold — to go to the ends of the earth if necessary — in a search for ever greater profits. They have justified the subjugation of the New World as well as parts of Africa. They have also authorized the creation of lucrative, slave-run plantations in the Caribbean whose profits sustained the lavish lifestyles of the absentee planters and whose sugar sustained (in nutritionally imbalanced sweet tea and treacle-smeared bread) the impoverished lives of the British workers — those who manufactured the guns, chains, and instruments of torture.

Thus, we see such lives and historical outcomes as made possible by (for instance) guns, germs, and steel but as importantly propelled and shaped by cultural visions of what was worth pursuing and at what cost: of winning favor from God and King, acquiring gold and silver, attaining certain lifestyles, or achieving national strength. However, where we see the likes of guns, germs, and steel as necessary but not sufficient causes of such lives, Diamond sees such lives — apparently all lives — as inevitably seeking as much conquest and domination as possible. For Diamond, in other words, the necessary is the sufficient. To have the power is to express the power; to have the power to dominate is to use it to dominate in the maximal way possible. Where we see human activities as propelled and shaped by historically located visions, Diamond sees these activities as determined (presumably) by hard wiring — as part of the biological nature of the human animal. In these regards, activities of conquest and domination are simply in the nature of things — just as, for instance, lions by virtue of their size and armament will inevitably slaughter lambs.

Where Diamond sees activities of conquest and domination as simply in the nature of things – as the inevitable outcome of human nature. — Raymond Kelly’s recent comprehensive analysis of the origins of human warfare provides a relevant and contrasting view of human nature and of inevitability. In this critique of the Hobbesian notion that there is a “trinity of interrelationship between human nature, war and the constitution of society” (Kelly, 2000: 121), he writes:

Warfare is an episodic feature of human history and prehistory observed at certain times and places but not others. Moreover, the vast majority of societies in which warfare does occur are characterized by the alteration of war and peace; there are relatively few societies — only about 6 percent — in which warfare is continual and peace almost unknown. It is only in this relatively small percentage of cases that something approaching a Hobbesian social condition of pervasive and unending warfare can be found. It might thus be said that it is “the nature of man” (or humankind) to conclude episodes of armed conflict between neighboring social groups by breaking off hostilities, by truce, and/or by reestablishing peaceful relations (Kelly, 2000: 124).

Kelly concludes:

The human propensity to peacemaking, so strikingly evident from the characteristic alteration between war and peace, is central to the nexus of interrelationships between human nature, war and society — and this bodes well for the future (2000: 161).

It is the case that Yali was poor and that the people of the New World were brutally conquered by representatives of the Old. It is also the case that those who beat up on other people have the capacity to do so. But are these facts inevitable by virtue either of the nature of history or the nature of humans? As Kelly indicates, human beings always are capable of a range of behaviors and they always are capable of engaging with each other and their neighbors in a range of ways. They might make war, but they also might make peace. Whether they choose one or the other is powerfully affected by particular historically and culturally located ideas about the desirable and the feasible.

To our position concerning history’s rootedness in human culture, rather than in human nature, we would add an emphatic stipulation. Since it has become clear to anthropologists that cultures contain multiple perspectives about alternatives and how they might be pursued and otherwise dealt with, it follows that human beings have a measure of choice about how to act. Thus, for instance, from American ideas of the worth of the individual, one can generate political perspectives as diverse as libertarianism and welfare statism, the first position holding that no individual should be interfered with or regulated, the other, that no individual should be neglected or deprived. The existence of such alternatives means that human beings may, realistically, be held accountable for the choices they make. We find this stipulation important both in combating Diamond’s general world history and in constructing an aspect of Papua New Guinea’s more particular one. Pizarro (for example) had the capacity and resources to behave with remarkable brutality in the New World — he had both the technology and will to conquer. But the mere capacity to behave brutally does not absolve him from having done so. Likewise, Europeans had the resources to treat Yali and other Papua New Guineans with contempt. But that position should not absolve them from having done so. Such considerations, we argue, are important in rethinking historical outcomes. Indeed, the haves may be prompted to do such rethinking themselves by recognizing that the have-nots may already have come to their own conclusions.

11 thoughts on “On Human Nature and Responsibiity

  1. Very nicely said. Here I agree with you almost 100%. The one thing I’d say is that I have no problem putting materialism, biology, and so on into the picture of my understanding of why things happen in the world. I just think that they are not explanatory of the vast majority of things that Diamond sets out to explain, that they’re the beginnings of explanation, important initial conditions or outer constraints, but often no more than that.

    The only thing I’d bracket and put aside is the question of absolution that comes up at the end of this post. That’s where I think we get again into some kind of contention, but I want to think through it a bit. As a tentative stab at the matter, I think the issue may concern the ways in which agency and contingency are associated in this line of argument, and the particular kinds of moral weighting that follows.

  2. You reject Diamond’s explanations, but I am not clear exactly what you want to put in their place. You say “They might make war, but they also might make peace. Whether they choose one or the other is powerfully affected by particular historically and culturally located ideas about the desirable and the feasible.”

    However, what determines these historically and culturally located ideas? Are they freely chosen? Or determined by the structures of society, as Foucault maintained? Or is there some other cause? This is important, because you don’t like the ideas the world that are running much of the world today, but if you want to replace them, you have to know what is causing them.

    Also, you make mercantilism and capitalism the cause of war and imperialism, which seems to imply the solution is socialism. Is this correct? What about the various critiques of socialism as not workable, such as Hayek’s? If you want to persuade people to help to change the world (and I am assuming that is your underlying purpose), you need to explain where you want to go, why you think it is possible to get there, and what makes you think it would actually work well over the long term.

  3. In a recent National Geographic article JD writes:

    On my own visits to Africa, I’ve been struck by how harmoniously ethnic groups live together in many countries—far better than they do in many other parts of the globe. Tensions arise in Africa, as they do elsewhere, when people see no other way out of poverty except to fight their neighbors for dwindling resources.

    Sheesh, talk about Hobbesian… Or perhaps we should say “Malthusian”…

  4. To Lee Brunswick: Even someone as smart as Foucault had difficulty with causation. What we can tell you is that we don’t think that anyone can change the world simply by choosing to talk about it in a different way. But, we do hold out for latitutde within power/knowledge systems — as our example about the possibiities inherent in U.S. ideas about individualism suggests. Concerning our discussion of mercantalism and capitalism, we were decribing what might be called the historically grounded “narratives” which impelled those who came to colonize and control Yali and other PNGuineans (among many other peoples). Whether or not we, personally, think socialism to be the answer is peripheral to the story we tell. However, we will say that we’re infuriated at the configuration of choices that seems to be driving contemporary U.S. rhetorics/policies/actions. And, are itching to participate in the “blame game.”

  5. I say that Diamond didn’t simply confuse necessary and sufficient conditions. He used a sort of sociobiological argument, applied between cultures.

    It goes something like this: Suppose you have a whole lot of cultures, and geography gives some of them the chance to develop a technology that trumps the rest. Then if there are *enough* cultures in that circumstance, one of them will inevitably stumble onto that technology, and they will dominate everybody else to the point it doesn’t really matter what they were doing before they got dominated. There’s no guarantee which culture does it, but once any of them do it, the old systems are plowed under. It only takes one.

    Expanding the point as far as it can possibly go, he then points out that eurasia had the largest number of cultures in a position to do that, and those cultures collectively also had a large stock of biological species they could use (for whatever purposes they found to use them). So it’s plausible that the largest continent might be the first to develop the technology and culture to conquer the rest.

    This is preciesly the sociobiology stock argument, with a minor modification. Each culture varies over time. Cultures do not have to reproduce and create new cultures that are mostly similar but have some partly-heritable differences. That’s the first place it veers fro, socilkbiology. Cultures compete for dominance and the more successful dominate the less-successful. Since he’s dealing with cultural domination he doesn’t need evolutionarily stable strategies, it’s enough for a strategy to work when it works. With so few cultures competing he can ignore equilibrium conditions among them. That’s the second difference.

    He doesn’t argue that each culture is determined. Just, if there’s a technology and a mind-set available for taking slaves, your culture can develop that technology and take slaves, or it can develop methods to avoid being taken slave, or it can become a culture of slaves. If you don’t modernise you become irrelevant.

    The people who want to believe this, also want to believe that they’re hardheaded realists who spit at the argument that we shouldn’t say true things just because they’re morally bad. So arguing that Diamond is evil for making the argument or that his readers are evil for wanting to believe it, will not make any headway with them.

    When I think about making an argument they can understand, think of the chaos theory meme. Diamond thinks that it’s determined by geography, because geography makes some cultural choices trump all others. But what if minor details among those choices have giant effects? As I heard it, the mongols were about to conquer all of western europe when they decided to abandon the attack and go home to attend a funeral. If that one death had been put off a couple of years, how different would european history be? How many other minor details have had giant effects? How could we even tell? Diamond’s book is a collection of JustSo stories strung together. He assumes his conclusion.

    The very idea that some things trump others, implies that the details matter while the trumping is going on.

    So, Cortez lost a big battle to the aztecs in 1520, but at least one of the casualties left behind was dying of smallpox and the resulting smallpox epidemic pretty much negated the defeat. If Cortez himself had died of smallpox…. Could the aztecs have recovered and built a defense? No, not this time, they’d have gotten smallpox a bit later and died off anyway.

    So OK, maybe some of the things Diamond thinks are trumps really are trumps. But consider, the smallpox was supposed to come from an african. And it was africans who introduced malaria and yellow fever, neither of which the europeans were much resistant to. I guess it goes every which way.

  6. To J. Thomas: Yes, we agree with much of what you say. And, we draw the analogy between Diamond’s thoughts and those of sociobiologists in a footnote in the Introduction to our book. Here it is:

    [8] Many of our comments about Diamond might also be applied to the kinds of explanations sociobiologists offer (and E.O. Wilson, perhaps the most distinguished of the sociobiologists, writes a most laudatory blurb to Diamond’s book): these are explanations which account for the present and (although sociobiologists often deny this) the future in terms of fixed and still active — ultimate — causes. In effect, sociobiologists argue that it is in the genetic nature of things for human beings (like all other life forms) to maximize their genetic fitness, to prevail by passing on as many of their genes as possible to as many people as possible. To use a particularly egregious example — one which we do not claim Diamond accepts — some sociobiologists account for rape as one of three possible “tactics” available for the passing on of genes, the other two being the cooperative bonding of marriage and the manipulative courtship of seduction. As the biologist Fausto-Sterling elaborates in her criticism of this argument, “Plainly put, all men have the potential to rape, and may be expected to do so if they can get away with it” (1985: 193). She continues with a discussion of the problem of distinguishing between ultimate and proximate causes:

    “These authors do not argue that men consciously think through the possible genetic advantages of rape. Rather, they view this non-conscious calculation as an “ultimate cause,” one that originated in our evolutionary history. Rape, they acknowledge quite freely, may have “proximate causes” such as aggression, the desire to humiliate, or sexual gratification — just as many feminists have argued. But those proximate causes, say [certain sociobiologists] represent evolution’s way of carrying out its ultimate desire of maximizing genetic fitness …. The use of the ultimate-proximate distinction is clever, because it is totally unassailable. Any motivation for rape, regardless of how little it has to do with reproduction, can still be explained on an evolutionary basis by arguing that it is the proximate effecter of the ultimate genetic cause!” (1985: 193-194).

    Such virtual unassailability makes poor science (as many biologists show [Gould (1980), Bleier (1985), and Fausto-Sterling, (1985)]). However, such science also makes effective ideology by providing readily convincing justifications of the status quo. (This latter point is particularly well articulated by Sahlins [1976].)

  7. What’s especially interesting about the article is Diamod’s example of Japan. I thought of another possible reading of the Japan example than the one that Diamond supplies. The Japan example could also be seen as a justification for the argument colionalism and the domination of industrialized Western nations is responsible for the “underdevelopment” of third world countries. In the case of Japan the elites purposely prevented certain technologies from being available to the peasents in orde to to maintain their positions of power. One could apply this argument to colionial situations by noting that because of colonialism and/or the current economic system, third world nations are purposely prevented from having access to “modern” technology (be it medicine, telecommunications systems,etc.) because it benefits elites. While I am not necessarily arguing that elite domination is the “correct” reason for “underdevelopment”, it is interesting that Diamond does not address this explanation.

  8. Another thing that’s odd is his explanation for a non united Europe is strange. How does he exlain the Roman empire, the Ottoman Empire, Russia and other historical empires that existed for many years across geographic barriers.

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