Stephen Wertheim reviews Diamond in The Nation

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.

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 rex@savageminds.org

7 thoughts on “Stephen Wertheim reviews Diamond in The Nation

  1. Hi Rex, thank you for this. Wertheim seems to have misunderstood your blog-post (and long history of work!) on Jared Diamond, and you are much more generous to his reading than he was to you and other anthropologists. I do agree with Wertheim that Mead was in general a proponent of the culture-as-a-totality approach. As Sidney Mintz once commented, although Mead could make it sound like Ruth Benedict was her student, it was in fact the other way around–Mead was a student of Benedict, and Benedict was pushing culture-as-totality. Benedict did of course recognize the borrowing and diffusion, but stressed how such elements could be re-integrated, again according to the idea of a cultural whole. I see Mead as growing up more under Benedict’s ideas and less in the heyday of diffusionism. There are some great passages on this in Patterns of Culture (I earlier put up a snarky blog-post comparing Benedict 1934 to Diamond 2012).

  2. Wertheim’s review left a bad taste in my mouth. Is it really so terrible for Diamond to not offer a grand system to replace the current one? Is it really that awful that Diamond did not point out specific examples (diabetes among African Americans; Indonesian colonialism in Papua) that would have had little to do with Diamond’s thesis in the book? Wertheim’s qualms seem to be that Diamond does’t present what Wertheim wants to present, theoretically or evidentially.

    His reading of his prior works is similarly flawed. The thesis of Guns, Germs, and Steel is not that out-dated racist theories are poor predictors of social outcomes, but that biogeography has much to offer us in explaining why some societies have a lot of ‘cargo’ and others don’t (he was criticized by some for downplaying the role of human agency because of this). Moreover, he was building on a tradition of cross-cultural history which owed much to William H. McNeill (Plagues & Peoples; The Rise of the West; Pursuit of Power; etc.) which looked to both institutions and geography to explain social outcomes.

    Collapse in many ways was about addressing the criticism about lack of attention paid to agency; it is, after all, titled “How Societies Fail to Choose or Succeed.” This lead to him be criticized for suggesting that indigenous people were responsible for their own suffering (never mind that he also showcased the failings of European Christian societies in the book). Now Diamond addresses the criticism about indigenous people by showcasing cultural practices he sees as superior to our own and he is criticized for not criticizing the west enough? Not criticizing colonialism enough? Not offering a political program or massive theoretical framework? I have read a couple other reviews of this book in which the argument goes: ‘anthropology is for showing alternatives to our own way of life– but it is not for us to “learn lessons” from other societies and apply them to our own!’ Those arguments strike me as trivializing the lessons of anthropology (why should we practice anthropology if it offers no practical purpose, only alternatives we can’t take?). Then again, that’s another discussion.

    Diamond’s scholarship is not perfect by any means, but you cannot fault a scholar for not supporting a thesis he didn’t make. His edited volume, Natural Experiments of History, is a very stimulating read, and more academic than the three popular volumes mentioned earlier, but it is not discussed in Wertheim’s review, nor are Diamond’s two books on human evolution. Wertheim and other critics of Diamond would do well to examine Diamond’s arguments and the ways he supports them– Is his thesis logical? Does his evidence support it? Does he overlook anything that might better explain the outcomes he attempts to explain?– rather than arguing against ghosts of their own creation. Maybe one could even compare his work to other modern scholars attempting to answer similar questions– William H. McNeil, Ian Morris, Peter Turchin come to mind– rather than Margaret Mead. There are certainly valid criticisms you can make of his work (Wertheim comes close with pointing out China as an example of “Yesterday” that isn’t tribal, but then again I think Diamond’s “Yesterday” is composed of pre-state societies, which on the scale of human history and prehistory, is most of our time as a species on Earth), but I have yet to read any truly compelling criticism of this book in particular.

  3. You know, I don’t think you can blame Stephen for reviewing one book (World) instead of two (World and Natural Experiments) since that wasn’t the assignment — although I should say that Natural Experiments is a much better volume than World and deserves a much wider readership than its gotten. I also wonder about how charges of ethnocentrism can stick to what is a blatantly normative project. Isn’t the whole point of deliberation about the good life to be ethnocentric — that is, to put your values front and center in the discussion? At the same time, I do think that there is something about the way Diamond uses ethnographic material which forecloses the possibility that it could radically change him (which for anthropologists is often the goal). But then again there are those chapters where Diamond describes exactly that sort of radical change happening to him as the result of the experiences he goes through in the field…. I think this just goes to show how complex the book is. And also problematic. But problematic in a complex way.

  4. To me the book is less complex than internally contradictory. I tried in my review to pit some of Diamond’s impulses against other ones, rather than impose my own standards. In both Guns, Germs, and Steel and The World Until Yesterday, Diamond says he stands against ethnocentrism; he’s a tolerant, open-minded person who’ll tell us why race doesn’t explain Western global predominance or why “we” Westerners aren’t so perfect as to have nothing to learn from tribal societies. But the key to his mass appeal, I think, is that he delivers on that promise just a little — in all the easy, politically correct ways — while remaining thoroughly ethnocentric under the surface, in the ways that matter most. GGS rejects racism but then naturalizes colonialism by treating it as an inevitable outgrowth of geography and thence wealth. More starkly, the new book, which nominally asks “what can we learn from traditional societies,” turns out to question our social structures and values almost not at all. We should value tribes, Diamond implies, only as we do forks and spoons. My point is that Diamond wouldn’t explicitly say this. His mind-opening aspirations lie in tension with his actual narrowness of view. So regardless of whether normative projects are inevitably ethnocentric, Diamond doesn’t or can’t own up to the large extent of his own ethnocentrism. On another note, Alex, what specific instances of “radical change” undergone by Diamond are you referring to?

  5. Thanks for that interesting point. It take your point: At times, Diamond views Tribal Society in purely instrumental terms, as a source of more efficient means of achieving ends our society has already decided it values. At other times, he (seems to) claim that seeing the world through their eyes gives us a wider perspective and changes what we want our ends to be. Actually, I think a lot of the time he uses Traditional People instrumentally and claims that in most cases they want what we want: “more rice and no mosquitos” as if there was one single form of human flourishing that applies to our species as a whole. I think this position is very unpalatable, but at least it has the virtue of being consistent.

    In terms of colonialism, I don’t think he says colonialism is the inevitable outgrowth of geography. In Natural Experiments of History and GGS (at least the PBS version of it) he points out the role of chance and human agency in making history. The problem, imho, with Diamond’s theory of history and causality is that he doesn’t have one. Sometimes its all geography, sometimes its the actions of kings and leaders… but how do all these factors add up and interrelate? This is what the Annales school (among others) have tried to theorize, but which Diamond never gets around to.

    In terms of life-changing events I’m thinking of the story of him almost drowning. That was pretty powerful to read, given some of my own experiences in PNG.

  6. Yes, both of your comments may point to a pattern in which Diamond has a crude core position — which is his position if there is one — but then some part of him knows better and complicates it to the point of contradiction. The drowning story was harrowing to say the least, but as with his other experiences, I wouldn’t say it produced “radical change” in either his life or his intellectual understanding.

    In any case, I think the main questions Diamond poses to anthropologists relate to your initial reactions to the book. Why has the non-anthropologist Diamond written a more popular book than anything anthropologists have produced in a long time? On what other basis, besides Diamond’s blinkered and outmoded one, could anthropologists reach a wider audience? Those questions are not for me, as a historian, to answer, much as I’ve enjoyed this opportunity to be a participant-observer (more the latter than the former) among anthropologists.

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