The Anti-Debt: First thoughts of Jared Diamond’s new book

I spent a good chunk of the plane flight to and from AAA reading an advance copy of Jared Diamond’s forthcoming book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Socieites?. (Actually, that’s not true. I got sidetracked by the vivacious Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu which I highly recommend). I plan to blog more about World as I plow through it, but I’m far enough along now that I did want to share some first thoughts. The book’s argument is in its title: Diamond examines the lifeways of traditional/small-scale/prehistoric societies (the terminology, although central to his argument, is messy because the category he’s trying to construct is incoherent. But more on that later) to see what practices and ideas they may offer those of us who are Developed and slightly nostalgic for the good old days. It’s big and ambitious, and the most audacious attempt to do cultural anthropology that Diamond has yet attempted. I basically think of it as the anti-Debt (runner up for comparison, btw, goes to James C. Scott, whose work also is a lot like Diamond’s).

Debt and World share a similar focus: to challenge our ethnocentrism by showing us the world can be — and was — different from what it is now. Both fascinate because this focus is embedded in a much bigger, global story which is really the main attraction of both books: what Graeber and Diamond are really doing is showing us their world view, and how much the world and how narrations of it change when we see it from their point of view. Both are criticized by particularists — people who are angry there aren’t more footnotes, insist that ‘it’s more complicated’ and are opposed, in principle to thinking big (although I must say Diamond has become completely unmoored from evidence in this latest book and has basically decided to skip any detailed accounting of his claims whatsoever). But there the similarities end.

I take Graeber’s book to be an attempt to get people to wise up — to realize that the truth is right there in front of them and not that hard to see if you look at it straight on: that we’ve created a system that is deeply screwed up, cruel, and unfair. Diamond, on the other hand, has a sort of whiggish take on societal evolution and basically thinks it is great that we are where we are, and we shouldn’t want to be anywhere else (you only need to get to page 11 of the book for him to write off anarchism). That said, he does have a romantic nostalgia for the past and the simpler world we have lost — which is why he wants to use it to remind ourselves of how we ought to live. Politically, the books couldn’t be more different.

Diamond has done what anthropology — with the exception of Graeber and Debt – has not: written a big, accessible book which presents our findings to a general audience. He is the new Margaret Mead. The new Margaret Mead, people. Meanwhile, over in our corner of the world we are either not interested in popularization (when is Rabinow going to write ‘anthropology of the contemporary: a light beach read’?) or else are committed to ‘public anthropology for anthropologists’: accounts of organ trafficking, war zones, etc. that deal with our issues and are written in ways we consider ‘popular’ and consist largely in trying to convince the public that they ought to care as much about structural violence as we do.

Most of Diamond’s material comes from a small number of examples, and behind each of those examples is a small number of scholars who are expert in those fields who obviously have Diamond’s back. This includes my friend and colleague Polly Wiessner, whose work on — and for — the people of Papua New Guinea is remarkable. I can feel the wagons circling: on one side, the anthropologists who are interested in knowledge and progress and feel burned by anthropology’s turn to ‘postmodernism’ (which for them may mean Geertz), and on the other, most of the people at the AAAs. The most important point about Diamond’s new book for me personally is that it forces anthropologists to think through where they are today and who they are willing to support. A lot of respectable people have been enrolled by Diamond. The dynamic is no longer ‘anthropology versus a dilettante outsider’. rather, we face Jared Diamond as the representative of one faction in anthropology’s internecine struggle. Its one thing to insist that anthropology has a different outlook than a lot of other disciplines, and that that outlook is important and deserving of respect. It is quite another to say that a lot of anthropologists are ready to join the scientific community while others are doing something else that no one can understand and which is important because…. uh…

Debt is important to me because it represents an anthropological tradition which has important things to say about the world which it think are ‘true’, even if they are not ‘science’. It too relies on experts who have nailed down areas of study (Keith Hart, for instance, or, you know, Polanyi) but also moves beyond them to show what synthesis looks like when done from our point of view. This version of anthropology as a rigorous, humanistic and generalizing form of knowledge offers a credible and important counterweight to narrow visions of anthropology which get extremely shirty about what can count as knowledge. However, it is important to note that when well-done and carefully executed, there should be considerable overlap between Debt and World approaches to knowledge. Ultimately, these two approaches should be able to work together to produce complementary accounts of human life which can take their seat at the huge Round Table Of Human Knowledge that is scholarly work. It’s just hard to manage this sort of accord when the ‘Scientists’ always insist on playing King Arthur.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

16 thoughts on “The Anti-Debt: First thoughts of Jared Diamond’s new book

  1. Thanks, Alex, for the flattering remarks.

    Is Jared Diamond writing the anti-Debt? That might be quite appropriate, considering I have occasionally thought of Debt as the anti-Niall Ferguson. Or me as the anti-NF and Debt as the anti-Ascent of Money. But if so, I’m also currently about to start writing the anti-Jared Diamond – I’m starting to work with an archeologist friend on a book tentatively entitled (or I want to call it this, I’m sure it won’t ultimately happen) “On the Origins of Social Inequality.”

    So I guess it all forms a giant chain.

  2. I always think your arguments would be improved if you drew more on the ethnography of egalitarian societies, like those of PNG, as Diamond does. But maybe that is just my Melanesian bias showing through. Although I’ve hardly covered everything you’ve written it seems even the Amazonian stuff doesn’t get much mention. So if you could everything about those areas in your Copious Free Time, you know, that would be great…

  3. If you’re investigating the truth – not the formal conditions of truth, but what is actually true in the world – then you’re doing science. That’s what science is: trying to find out about the world and integrating our understanding. If you say ‘true but not science’, you’re just playing a tribalistic game whereby anthropology is seen as separate, with necessarily different ideas.

    But it isn’t different and shouldn’t be. Humans are natural biological organisms. They are as much a part of nature and the universe as honeyeaters and millipedes and white dwarf stars, and I think it is important to understand them in this context. Not to derive lessons from it, but just to be able to understand the universe, because it is enlightening and amazing to do so. Anthropology should be about studying humans – how they work and what they do and what they have done. Books on social inequality and its origins, and debt, and the migrations of language families, and ethnographies of present-day non-literate societies, and studies of the capacity for recursive thought – they all have their place in understanding people.

  4. I have just read the blurb for Diamond’s book. I quote,

    This is Jared Diamond’s most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn’t romanticize traditional societies—after all, we are shocked by some of their practices—but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us. A characteristically provocative, enlightening, and entertaining book, The World Until Yesterday will be essential and delightful reading.

    Why, I must ask, is the category “traditional societies” limited to groups like Inuit, Amazonian Indians, San people and Melanesians, when the brute fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people who have lived in “traditional” societies have been peasants living in traditional agricultural civilizations over the past several thousand years since the first cities appeared in places like the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, the Ganges, the Yellow River, etc.? Talk about a big blind spot.

    What is the justification of “theories” based on this handful of examples that are, statistically speaking, extreme outliers, given that evolutionary schemes in which hunter-gathers and swidden agriculturists are supposed to represent early stages of human experience are out of fashion? What is left except romantic nonsense on both sides of this quarrel? Is there any logic here noticeably different from that which considers Lake Woebegone but not L.A. or New York City to represent the real America—and a possible model for how to run a world that now has over seven billion people in it?

  5. I disagree with what Al said. The search for truth is NOT science. Mathematicians seek truth. Philosophers seek truth. You seek truth. I seek truth. Everyone in the world is seeking truth BUT scientists. Science is about exploring possibilities and formulating testable hypotheses. Which are then tested on the basis of probability, not truth. Science is an ongoing search for understanding the world around us, not some ultimate truth of being or anything else.

  6. Victor,

    If you think of ‘truth’ as meaning ‘the way the world actually is’, then science investigates truth, and this is how I meant it. Scientists try to find out how the world actually works. They try to find out the actual run of things. By this standard, mathematicians do not investigate truth. They investigate only what can or could be true, given certain formal constraints, which some people call ‘truth’ – but that isn’t what I meant, and nor is it what is meant by ‘true but not science’.

    And of course, science isn’t beholden to metaphysics – rather, the other way around – and I don’t want to give the impression that I think science is a fundamentally metaphysical exercise.

  7. Also – I think John is right. The idea of ‘traditional’ societies in Diamond’s book seems a lot like the idea of pristine states – a bit of an illusion. The only thing Diamond’s examples seem to have in common is their relative isolation, and even that is comparatively recent (else the ancestry of the banana, manioc, and sweet potato, &c, would be hard to explain). It does seem a lot like romanticism, and that is objectionable, not to mention unscientific.

  8. Excellent point John. I think though this is just another sign of Diamond’s disconnect from the fields of anthropology and archaeology. And on a related point, I think most anthropologists who work in agrarian communities are aware that their informants still hunt and still gather on a fairly frequent basis. Even when my family was hired to raise 500 head of cattle in Montana, we still hunted for deer and elk as well as picked wild raspberries and huckleberries every season. All of the various ethnic groups I’ve worked with in SW China certainly do, including the “Han”, who are perhaps one of the more enduring agrarian cultures in the world. While there is plenty of room to argue about what is meant by “Han” (and arguments do abound on this topic), considering the intensity of political and social change in China over the past say 5,000 years, agricultural/hunting & gathering practices in regions where “Han” are currently the dominant cultural group had fluctuated ever so slightly, but certainly not enough to say that they were strictly agriculturalists. Not sure if that is what it takes to throw a cultural group in the “traditional societies” ring, but rather than digress, I think just wanted to highlight the importance of not creating a strict dichotomy between agriculturalists and hunters and gatherers.

    And I would argue that archaeology is absolutely equally aware that such a dichotomy is not only unnecessary but in answering questions about say the development of ethnobotanical and ethnoagricultural knowledge or even the origin of inequality it is not all that useful.

    Must say I’m intrigued to see how David will approach the second question, so best of luck to you sir. I’ll just throw my two cents in the ring and say I hope China makes it into the mix, as I was surprised and disappointed to see that on this exact topic Flannery and Marcus’s recent Magnum Opus doesn’t seem to touch on this region of the world a whole lot (…obviously only so much you can put in a book these days…but then there’s always The Golden Bough model ;-) No pressure!

  9. You folks have hit on one of the biggest things that bugs me about Diamond’s book: the idea that there is a coherent category of things called ‘traditional society’. If the book was just “in different places people do things differently, and we can learn from them” it would be totally unobjectionable and highly anthropological, but I just don’t see how Diamond can make the concept of ‘traditional’ work. That said, I’m not willing to harp on it since I realize that for most readers this criticism won’t seem very interesting or important.

  10. Well I think it might be important (at least for me) in a slightly tangential way. In the past I’ve come under fire for using the terms “traditional agriculture” (once I was told it should be conventional, but the critic couldn’t tell me what the difference was) and “scientific agriculture”. Yet, I always stress that these are not my categories but that the villagers I work with talk about agricultural practices in these terms. And they are perfectly aware that there is a lot of overlap between these categories, but when it suits their purpose it is important to make such a dichotomy. Certainly the various organic movements take advantage of a similar discourse because opposing themselves to “green revolution” agriculture suits their purpose…but if you ever get the chance to talk to an industrial organic farmer (although they would probably never place industrial before the word organic…I probably should just say “large-scale”) who stresses the sustainability of organic food, ask them how important plastic is to their operation and how they dispose of plastic waste.

    So just to be a bit critical of my own previous comment, perhaps Diamond recognizes that popular discourse does make a distinction, however false, between “traditional” and “modern” societies, as it seems that would be for who he is writing…who knows, maybe his editor encourages him to write this way: “But it will sell more books Jared!” Yet, a truly savvy author, with the resources available to him that J.D. has, should be able to write something profound and accessible so that it changes popular discourse by engaging with the academy (thus the various tips of the hat to David). In that sense one truly would be a Margret Mead (on her good days). Kudos to Rex for pointing out that writing in this way is something to which we all should aspire.

  11. I think the word ‘traditional’ is being used here because ‘primitive’ isn’t politically correct anymore, even for a popular audience. But it means the same thing. These are all groups of people whom Margaret Mead would have called, and did call, ‘primitive’. Peasant societies are out because they are insufficiently noble and savagey.

  12. Alex,

    I’m looking forward to your forthcoming posts on World!

    Also, I’d be very interested in hearing more about the similarities you see between Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, the work I presume you’re referencing, with Diamond’s World and why Art makes for an anti-Debt.

    With regard to the commonalities between Art and World, is it that you primarily see both authors taking a “romantic” view of hunter-gatherers and swidden agriculturalists–or do you see something else?

    You mention that the politics of World and Debt are polar opposities. Can you elaborate on this? Being more familiar with Debt and Graeber’s politics and without having read World, do you see this polarization stemming from the differences in the authors’ views on the possibility, desirability, and ways in which social change occurs?

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