Barbara King has a thoughtful piece up at Cosmos and Culture asking why Jared Diamond makes anthropologists so mad. I think its a good question, which Barbara has only partially answered. So I’d like to take a crack at it here.
There are lots of ways that anthropologists have responded to Diamond’s work, including strong support (as I said earlier, a lot of worthwhile people have his back in his latest book). Admittedly, a lot of people are angry (for a lot of wrong reasons in my view, as I’ve said) but I’m not one of them. A lot of the exaggerated language about his work s overblown. When Jason Antrosio refers to Diamond’s work being ‘porn’ he is either being hyperbolic, and/or else we’ve just learned something very depressing about Jason’s private life. When James Mullooly calls him an ‘armchair anthropologist’ he fails to give Diamond due credit for the tremendous amount of time he has spent in the field in PNG (studying birds rather than people, but still). I have always likes the work of both of these bloggers and enjoy reading what they write, but I do think the tone gets a bit strident at time. I don’t know, maybe in person he’s not a nice guy but then again I haven’t met him in person…
As I’ve said (in an article behind a paywall), my concern is that he’s diluting my brand by doing two things: first, framing the study of humanity in a way that is not satisfying to me (and should not, I’d claim, be satisfying to others) and second, realying (at times) on faulty reasoning and inaccurate facts. He does not understand that culture is a sui generis force, his focus on the big picture gives him a few blind spots, and he still relies too much on biology for his philosophy of science. But that is another, different, series of posts.
In her post Barbara asks what other ‘big picture’ books anthropologists have written since Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History. The answer that comes to mind for me is Debt, which is the anti-Diamond. Other than that, it is true that there have been few others, I’ll admit. But this is not a fault unique to anthropologists, it reflects that fact that ‘big’ books are hard to write and most people are more content to pursue their specialized studies. Not all biologists are Ernst Mayr. Not all historians are Fernand Braudel. Not all anthropologists are Claude Lévi-Strauss. And let’s face it, given the more embarrassing excesses of Elementary Structures, that might be a good thing.
That said, there are a lot of books that do what Diamond does which do deserve to get mentioned. For years, Meredith Small has written popular books about how culture shapes childrearing bringing her focus as an anthropologist to light. In a much, much, much breezier mode, I think that Mei-Ling Hopgood’s How Do Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm? is worth recommending to new parents. Its light. Real, real light. But its accessibly written, has a lot of ‘story’ to it (as they say in the trade) and she has clearly done her research and interviewed all the right people. Most anthropologists will probably run from it screaming popularizer! popularizer! (or actually, since she’s not a White Man maybe this makes her work more palatable?) but I’m enjoying reading it. If you have a friend who got her BA in literature from Vassar, works in The City, and is worried that being a mom will impair her ability to discover the hottest new lunch truck before Yelp does, this book is for her.
For big history books I’ll recommend, again The Human Web by the McNeill’s. It’s a bit drier than Diamond (who I already find very dry) but it’s the best one-volume history of the world that I’ve read, written by the people who do world history for a living, and it’s under four hundred pages long. Although I’ve not read it (and it relies on Diamond!) A People’s History of the World should satisfy the Zinn-heads out there.
Rob Weir, on the other hand…