Another long review of World Until Yesterday appeared in The Nation this week. This one is written by Stephen Wertheim, a graduate student at Columbia (the review is available on his website). Like Ira Bashkow, Wertheim is also critical of Diamond, most notably for the ethnocentrism of his point of view.
Like many reviewers of Diamond, Wertheim argues that World Until Yesterday ignores colonialism (and anthropology’s relation to it), and relies on a concept of ‘traditional society’ that is over-generalized. He also emphasizes — in more detail than most reviewers — how poorly Diamond understands inequality in contemporary Western society and is, as Wertheim puts it, “a terrible anthropologist of us” Thus Wertheim writes:
His political insights are just as shallow. Diamond seems determined to use his status as a celebrated public intellectual to hazard only the most politically anodyne thoughts. Guns, Germs, and Steel attacked the notion that racial superiority explained Western global pre-eminence, a view taken seriously by almost no one who’s taken seriously. A New York Times op-ed by Diamond published in 2009 hailed multinational corporations as saviors of the environment, mostly because he found three of them that were wrecking the earth less than they sued to. In his new book, Diamond brushes aside anarchism as impractical, but replaces it with no program of his own. He doesn’t even offer a general critique of modern society that would unify his laundry list of proposals. Instead, The World Until Yesterday largely amounts to a self-help book, as satisfied with the status quo as that genre requires.
Ouch. Ultimately, Wertheim’s biggest issue is this self-satisfaction. “Diamond turns the scientific method on its head,” writes Wertheim, such that “predetermined judgments are funneled through the tribes, and thereby stamped with the imprimatur of science”. Thus “despite his impulse to understand primitive peoples on their own terms, Diamond treats them as so many utensils on a Swiss Army knife: their purpose is to help us realize the values and execute the goals we have already set for ourselves, not to call them into question”.
I particularly enjoyed Wertheim’s railing against the “massive, superfluous tables that litter” World Until Yesterday since, as a reviewer, I didn’t particularly enjoy plowing through them any more than he did.
There were some things about Wertheim’s review I might want to probe a little further. For instance, Wertheim sees Diamond as a neoliberal who believes “our only recourse against corporations that subvert the public welfare is to act individually as consumers (if we have the means) and hope everyone else joins in”. I’m not quite so sure I would follow him on this point — Diamond reads to me like a baby boomer (although he is too old to fit neatly into that category) with a left-liberal attitude who could embrace Great Society programs and corporate America much as, for instance, Stewart Brand (only one year younger than Diamond) did. But of course I have no evidence to back this claim up.
Wertheim also contrasts Margaret Mead and Jared Diamond in ways that are interesting but maybe not born out by the literature on Mead. “Whereas Mead tended to comprehend culture as a totality, Diamond sees so many chemicals mixed together; isolate the elements and we can mix them into our own “repertoire”,” he writes. Is this true? Didn’t Mead come of age during the glory days of diffusionism, which was exactly the belief that cultural complexes (like canoe and house building, which she studied in her dissertation) could travel to new cultures and be integrated into them. Also, although Wertheim doesn’t make this claim, I think we should be skeptical of those who see Mead as more on the left and less ‘neoliberal’ than Diamond. This is the woman who worked for RAND and wrote The Wagon and the Star after all. Like Diamond, she crossed and re-crossed lines of institutional authority and privilege while advocating for progressive causes.
But these are quibbles, or perhaps an invitation to a more extended dialogue. Overall, Wertheim’s review is snarky and critical. But it is also thoughtful and eloquent, and worth a read for anyone who is interested in thinking more about Jared Diamond.