Taking Anthropology 1, Jared Diamond

In a recent post, Kerim does excellent work tracing the Savage Minds engagement with Jared Diamond, which dates to the establishment of this blog as a scrappy band of Davids taking aim at Goliath.

These days, Diamond gets criticized mostly for not reading or potentially libelous composite misreadings. But I want to dial this back to Diamond’s 1987 article “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” when Diamond obviously takes anthropology from Richard B. Lee–mongongo nuts with no acknowledgment–and also reproduces Lee and Irven DeVore, again with no credit for what almost any professor would call plagiarism.

Did people challenge Diamond for this taking of anthropology in 1987? Could a more forceful response have cautioned Diamond from appropriating anthropology with impunity and “diluting the brand“? Would Jared Diamond have become… JARED DIAMOND?

Does Jared Diamond read?

Anthropologists have criticized Jared Diamond for not reading, or not understanding what he says he has read. In Questioning Collapse, Norman Yoffee says Diamond has misinterpreted his book as well as Joseph Tainter’s work, the first two sources cited in the “Further Readings” section of Collapse (Yoffee 2009:177). In the same volume, Drexel Woodson “wonders how discerningly Diamond read the five books on Haiti” (2009:278). Rex’s Savage Minds review of Questioning Collapse notes that Diamond apparently did not read the critiques very closely: “The kindest thing one can say about Diamond’s position here is that it is unintelligible, because the alternative options are that a) Diamond’s personal animus against the authors was so intense he could not understand the content of the book or b) he simply did not read the book he is reviewing.” And of course at iMedia Ethics, evidence that Jared Diamond’s 2008 New Yorker article was a “fictional composite constructed from random stories.”

Long before all this, however, Diamond’s 1987 Discover Magazine article “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” read and took anthropology too closely, especially from Richard B. Lee. Although this article might seem to be in the distant past, it is still a staple for Introduction to Anthropology readers like Applying Anthropology and continues to draw commentary on the internet.

Mongongo Nuts

Diamond obviously uses Richard Lee–without any referencing–for that famous quote about mongongo nuts:

It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” (Diamond 1987:65)

Now, as Diamond’s article continues to circulate, some associate the quote more with Diamond than with Lee (see the 2009 BBC blog-post “Do hunter-gatherers have it right?” which mentions “one Kalahari Bushman quoted by Jared Diamond”).

Why did Diamond not mention Lee? One idea woud be that in a three-page popular article like “Worst Mistake,” there simply is no space for citation. However, that doesn’t make sense. First, Diamond used the same phrase about the mongongo nuts in his book The Third Chimpanzee (1991). Diamond mentions Lee one time, at the end, in a suggestion for “further readings,” but he does not get a specific reference, even in a book-length treatment. Second, it is not as though Diamond did not mention any academic researchers in “Worst Mistake”–he does cite George Armelagos, whose name is longer than Lee’s.

Another idea is that Diamond takes Lee’s work just because it is ethnography–and since ethnography is often viewed as “hanging out” (as the commenter Strong points out in the recent discussion about Hau), then it is free for the taking. Therefore Armelagos, who does real research and analysis in a lab, gets cited, while Lee is just overhearing things while hanging out. This view would certainly match with Diamond’s later work, in which a bit of hanging out while doing other scientific studies makes Diamond eligible to write something like ethnography in the “Annals of Anthropology.”

However, I don’t think this explanation would make as much sense in relation to Lee’s work–anyone with some familiarity would know how much Lee was measuring, quantifying, counting, analyzing, with just as much rigor as in a laboratory setting.

Interplanetary archaeologists to fellow spacelings

Perhaps more seriously, compare what Lee and Irven DeVore write for the introduction to Man the Hunter (1968) with how Diamond concludes “Worst Mistake”:

Lee and DeVore 1968:3

To date, the hunting way of life has been the most successful and persistent adaptation man has ever achieved. Nor does this evaluation exclude the present precarious existence under the threat of nuclear annihilation and the population explosion. It is still an open question whether man will be able to survive the exceedingly complex and unstable ecological conditions he has created for himself. If he fails in this task, interplanetary archaeologists of the future will classify our planet as one in which a very long and stable period of small-scale hunting and gathering was followed by an apparently instantaneous efflorescence of technology and society leading rapidly to extinction. On the other hand, if we succeed in establishing a sane and workable world order, the long evolution of man as a hunter in the past and the (hopefully) much longer era of technical civilization in the future will bracket an incredibly brief transitional phase of human history–a phase which included the rise of agriculture, animal domestication, tribes, states, cities, empires, nations, and the industrial revolution.

Diamond 1987:66

Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?

Diamond is just condensing Lee and DeVore, changing some phrasings here and there. I would grade this as structured plagiarism.

Did anyone confront Diamond?

As far as I know, this article has not been discussed on Savage Minds and I haven’t seen other anthropology blogs tackle it. Somehow 10 years later what Diamond once labeled the “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” became The Explanation for Everything, as early agriculture adoption leads to Guns, Germs, and Steel. So I’m hoping for comments about this episode of anthropological history. Did anyone take Diamond to task for plagiarism? Could an earlier and forceful response had given Diamond pause before later anthropological appropriations?

My feeling is many anthropologists have deferred to Diamond in part because he seems to be standing for good things–the inaccuracies of The Third Chimpanzee could be excused because Diamond emphasizes evolution; the geographic determinism of Guns, Germs, and Steel OK-ed because it is supposedly anti-racist; the choose-to-fail account in Collapse let stand because of Diamond’s concern with climate change. Still, has Diamond moved public opinion at all with regard to evolution, anti-racism, or climate change? Would it really be worse without Diamond?

This earlier episode, as Diamond plagiarizes the agricultural revisionists, offers potential insight for anthropology’s dance with Diamond and how anthropologists might change the terms of debate going forward.

18 thoughts on “Taking Anthropology 1, Jared Diamond

  1. You know what? I hate to say it, but Diamond is about 500 percent more readable than Lee and DeVora. Yeah, he should have thrown in a citation and statement that he was summarizing others’ ideas… but his synthesizing has a high interior value: it makes academic work popularly readable.

    It’s the exact same kind of structured plagiarism Shakespeare used to comment on society. Malcolm Gladwell does the same thing; the Grimm brothers collected and popularized others’ stories; we as anthropologists often take concepts from our informants and remake them as our own.

    It sounds like sour grapes that our writing wasn’t good enough to catch the public eye. If structured plagiarism is what writers and thinkers have used for centuries to communicate with, I’d suggest our standards for plagiarism are off.


  2. From T. S. Eliot’s essay on Massinger vs Shakespeare.

    One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

    With a tip of the hat to Nancy Prager


  3. It goes beyond sour grapes, though, doesn’t it? I mean, the ideas he popularizes are 30 to 100 years behind our field.

    But if part of the root of that is that our beloved forbears, whose writing we often love, could have written more clearly, or at least differently for a popular audience, then Diamond’s writing serves an interesting object lesson.

    One possibility – is it hard to engage with thoughts in a century-long conversation that are 30-100 years out of sync? I guess the same thing applies to Intro Anthropology classes…

  4. Could it be worth asking, Out of sync for whom?

    Seriously, consider the following model. Author X takes an anthropology course as an undergraduate but goes on to specialize in another field. After achieving tenure and a certain eminence, the scholar in question writes a book referring to what he thinks he knows about anthropology. Twenty or thirty years out of date? Perfectly natural.

    Ditto for the anthropologist who took biology or sociology, when exactly was it now? How many of us keep up with what is going on in other fields, especially when they seem minor or peripheral to what we ourselves are doing?

    Too many of us assume that anthropology must be of interest to people outside our own club, when we are in fact more like entomologists. If the bees start dying, there’s a spike of interest in what they do. Otherwise not much.

  5. the geographic determinism of Guns, Germs, and Steel OK-ed because it is supposedly anti-racist

    Geographic determinism? That was explicitly repudiated by Diamond. It may not be a perfect academic work – it was, after all, written for a popular audience – but it’s not a work of Victorian geographic determinism or some other strawman theoretical position. Diamond is just drawing attention to geographic factors in the development of human societies, which is natural given his role as a geographer. It’s perfectly compatible with the view that people act on the basis of intentional mental states.

    I mean, the ideas he popularizes are 30 to 100 years behind our field.

    You mean that his books are 30-100 years behind a discipline whose proponents draw on Gilles Deleuze and Heidegger and other pseudo-philosophers? I wonder what that could even mean. Jared Diamond is not the perfect scholar, and I’m sure he has plagiarised all over the shop, but at least he’s not a maniac pushing a brand of new clothes for the emperor.

    Who cares about “the brand”, in any case? What matters is that people understand a little about people, and why they do what they do, and how and why they vary as they do. Whether that understanding comes from a geographer or a historian or someone whom Savage Minds agrees has the requisite qualifications in anthropology is moot.

  6. Millions of people who would have never heard word one about the ballroom community, Peronism, and Jewish mysticism feel like they know something about all three because Madonna has done the premastication and spit out easy–to–digest middlebrow versions for public consumption. My own thoughts are that Jared Diamond is Madonna with tenure and a lot less money. Think about it, there’s the unplaceable accent and everything…

  7. Thank you for the comments so far. It’s still early, but I expected to be taken to task for not knowing my anthropological history, for how Richard Lee may have interacted with Diamond, or for neglecting the special issue of Anthropologists Only that was a definitive statement on these issues.

    I certainly appreciate the tradition of literary borrowings, especially for works that are considered common knowledge, and perhaps especially for earlier writers. I will also readily concede Diamond bests Lee and Devore’s writing (which, we should remember was as an introduction to an academic conference). However, Diamond does not claim to be a poet or a prophet–or even a journalist (although I do like the idea of Diamond as Madonna!)–but rather claims authority as a scientist.

    Science has standards for citation and currency. Three pages in Discover is obviously a limited venue, but why then does Diamond find the space to reference “studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of Massachusetts” and could not in the same article say “as Richard B. Lee found…”?

    As for currency, I’m not so concerned about Diamond’s popularization of older work–we probably need to do more of that in anthropology. However, it is curious that Diamond’s article is still used in current Intro-to-Anthropology readers–I’ll be teaching it myself in a few weeks. While I will certainly not be teaching it “straight-up”, we do have Diamond used with a currency in Intro-to-
    Anthropology which would be at least unusual in other fields.

    By 1987 every headline in “Worst Mistake” had been challenged or qualified by grounded archaeologists, with no references to Deleuze in sight.

    I do apologize for condensing Guns, Germs, and Steel to “geographic determinism” as that sentence was not intended to be a full critique! Rather, it was simply to ask if anthropologists and others may have muted their many criticisms of these works because of the political positions Diamond promoted.

  8. @Jason

    I observe that the quote from Lee and Devore is dated 1968. The quote from Diamond is dated 1987. You place the two quotes side by side. This reader asks, what was going on in the 19 years between these two publications? I note, for example, the publication of Marshall Sahlin’s Stone Age Economics in 1974, that cites Lee as one among a long list of other sources, but tells basically the same tale of hunters and gatherers leading relatively leisured lives. Could it be that by the time Diamond was writing this story had become part of a broad consensus for whom no one in particular was seen as an indispensable citation? Just curious.

  9. Hi John,

    Thank you for bringing Stone Age Economics into the discussion–definitely a key piece, in part because the first draft of “The Original Affluent Society” appeared in the 1968 Man the Hunter, and also because Sahlins was probably required reading for anthropology and adjacent disciplines in the 1970s. If any work might have made mongongo nuts common knowledge, that would be my bet.

    However, I don’t think that can be a full explanation. First, Sahlins is very careful to credit and cite Richard Lee. Second, when Jared Diamond writes The Third Chimpanzee (1991), he suggests Man the Hunter for further reading, but not Sahlins. Finally, the passages I juxtapose seem much more taken from Lee and DeVore than anything I know from Sahlins.

  10. There is no excuse for not citing published work.

    Sahlin’s wrote “the Original Affluent Society” for the same conference that was published in the Man the Hunter. a lot of his other papers, also published in Stone Age Economics, were previous essays, too.

    “Could it be that by the time Diamond was writing this story had become part of a broad consensus for whom no one in particular was seen as an indispensable citation?”

    No. Decent scholar’s still cite the ground-breaking studies. Richard Lee’s study of !Kung economic activity was such a ground breaking study. It is not “general knowledge”, even today, and even among anthropologists. It is certainly not well known, even today, among scientists in general.

    Jared Diamond did much to popularize Lee’s work, but he passed it off as his own. No excuse will be adequate in such a case.

  11. I wonder, do physicists cite Newton, or biologists Darwin or Mendel? If not, why not? I still recall the French literature class in which I learned that the 18th century philosophes (Voltaire, Diderot, that crowd) frequently copied whole paragraphs and pages from each other. They had this curious assumption that knowledge is a commons that belongs to everyone and it made sense to use whatever framing of it seemed the best available.

    One understands, of course, that in the audit culture of contemporary academia, where citation is required to secure jobs, promotion and tenure, “theft” of intellectual property is considered the most heinous of sins. But is this the best of all possible worlds?

    And, how do people keep track in fields where there may be hundreds of relevant papers piling up every few years? How far back do citations have to go? At what point do pointers to pointers to pointers (or, on the Internet, links to links to links) become a bigger processing burden than they are worth?

  12. I still recall the French literature class in which I learned that the 18th century philosophes (Voltaire, Diderot, that crowd) frequently copied whole paragraphs and pages from each other. They had this curious assumption that knowledge is a commons that belongs to everyone and it made sense to use whatever framing of it seemed the best available.

    It was theft. There was just no way to stop it. There still really isn’t. Interesting exercise: pick up three of the big name brand dictionaries and compare a half dozen arbitrarily chosen articles.

    In general I support the notion that knowledge is a commons. But I completely reject knowledge–building processes that rely on citation practices which amount to, “Oh, everyone knows that…” or that do not feel the need to enlighten the audience as to how the author knows what he or she knows.

  13. It was theft.

    Far be it from me to challenge someone’s religion. But the anthropologist in me observes that “theft” implies property, something owned that someone else can steal. What is at stake in accusations of plagiarism, if plagiarism is theft, is, in effect, a copyright. Historically, copyrights have always been limited to a certain period of years. The legal assumption has been that, following a certain period of time in which an author or publisher has a sole proprietorship, the text in question becomes public domain. Thus, the possibility of efforts like the Gutenberg project, which makes available works in the public domain to anyone who may have some use for them. Thus, the efforts of corporations like Disney to turn copyrights into perpetual proprietorships.

    We should, perhaps, consider two other possibilities.

    One, publication is the functional equivalent of counting coup, a way of scoring reputations—one of particular importance to those pursuing academic careers in the age of the audit culture. From this perspective, plagiarism isn’t theft. It’s cheating.

    Two, accurate quoting and clear citation are the ways in which we preserve the vital chain of evidence required to make fair and accurate judgments about what we read. They are the humanist’s equivalent of experimental method, one of whose clear requirements is that experiments be described in sufficient detail that someone else can repeat them. This is the claim that I, personally, find most compelling.

    There remains, however, the logistical problem posed by what has been called the information explosion. Classical models of education assume a small, finite set of basic texts with which all educated people will be intimately familiar. It was thus, for example, unnecessary for a Chinese mandarin to cite chapter and verse from the Four Books; his readers were assumed to recognize the allusion with no additional fuss about it. This system began to collapse following the invention of the printing press. Now there were too many books for anyone to be intimately familiar with the contents of all of them. Without explicit pointers to where information was taken from the chain of evidence was broken. The modern apparatus of scholarship that requires explicit citation is an answer to this challenge. But even this system has its limits. Disciplinary, and within disciplines, generational boundaries are, in effect, filters that separate “must cite this” from “safe not to cite” because insiders in a discipline won’t care if you don’t—and, truth be told, older generations are dead. There is nobody there to complain.

    Now, however, we have the Internet. Arguably disciplines no longer have much significance except as ways of allocating jobs and other scarce resources. It should be a standard procedure when approaching any topic to do a Google or similar search to see what people have had to say about it. To keep the chain of evidence unbroken requires citing links wherever they lead. But still a huge problem remains. Take any reasonably popular topic and a Google search returns not just hundreds but thousands and millions of possible references. How many should be included and why in the citations for a new publication becomes a critical issue.

    Should the filters include a number (undergraduate assignments requiring at least X citations)? Respect disciplinary boundaries (just be sure to include anyone now alive who might be offended at being left off the list and black ball an application for job, tenure or promotion)? Neither seems very satisfactory.

    Does anyone here have other proposals?

  14. In Anna Tsing’s Friction, she writes: “Universal claims allow people to make history, but not under the conditions those claims might lead them to choose” (2005:270). Tsing does not in any way cite Marx, but almost anyone who has made it that far will know she is playing with one of his phrases. Obviously Marx is dead and probably doesn’t need another academic cite. I would say this use is OK, and that things depend on context.

    I’ve tried to be as generous as possible with Jared Diamond’s “Worst Mistake,” allowing for whether these claims might have been common knowledge; allowing for different citation standards in a popular work; allowing for the shortness of the piece; allowing for the publication date. I still can’t figure out why there isn’t a nod over to Richard B. Lee and the “Man the Hunter” conference. And I still wonder if there were comments at the time. It may be up to me to do more digging on that.

    I still feel this is more than simply an issue of citation standards or Diamond-envy. Before this 1987 article Diamond wrote mostly about birds. After this he would go on to write about Human Evolution, The History of the World, and Human Nature. I actually don’t think Diamond was trying to pass off Lee’s work as his own, but it is rather stunning that in 2012 this article still gets popular references and included in Intro-to-Anthropology as if Diamond were the anthropologist.

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