Read James Scott's review of Jared Diamond

James Scott’s work drives me nuts, but there is no doubt about it: his review of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday is one of the best is one of the best that has been written, and deserves a wide audience.

Scott repeats several common criticisms of Diamond in his review: he likes Diamond’s discussion of endangered languages and is disappointed by how obvious Diamond’s advice on how to live is. It is the final third of his review which really shines.

Scott’s first argument will be familiar to anyone who has read Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History: Diamond’s “fundamental mistake,” Scott writes, is to try to “triangulate his way to the deep past by assuming that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies… show what we were like before we discovered crops, towns, and government.” Rather, he argues,

The inference of pristine isolation, however, is completely unwarranted for virtually all of the 35 societies he canvasses [Scott excepts PNG]. Those societies have, for the last five thousand years, been deeply involved in a world of trade, states and empires and are often now found in undesirable marginal areas to which they have been pushed by more powerful societies… So thoroughly have they come to live in a world of powerful kingdoms and states that one might call these societies themselves a ‘state effect’… Contemporary foraging societies, far from being untouched examples of our deep past, are up to their necks in the ‘civilised world’ (this quote and all others are from Scott’s review)

This is an important point for people to realize: the people Diamond discusses were not on pause until The West showed up with a giant remote control labelled “colonialism” and pressed its play button. They are the results of colonial history, not something that proceeded it. Every single one of them (Papua New Guinea included).

Scott’s second point deals with the idea that “maintenance of peace within a society is one of the most important services that a state can provide” and that people naturally chose to live in them for the security they provide. Scott disagrees. First, he points out that the state centralizes violence, rather than curbing it. Second, and more importantly, Scott points out that, frankly, it sucked to live in an early state. Reading Diamond’s account, Scott writes, ” one can get the impression that the choice facing hunters and gatherers was one between their world and, say, the modern Danish welfare state. In practice, their option was to trade what they had for subjecthood in the early agrarian state.” This included a world of slavery, patriarchal authority, wars and rebellions, and labor exploitation. Diamond argues that the ever-present threat of violence in ‘traditional societies’ led people to embrace living in states. But in fact, Scott argues, hunter gatherers had many methods to avoid violence such as compensation and migration — methods which, I might add, Diamond himself praises at great length in his book. Their diet was healthier (another Diamond point) and their lifestyle was as well — Scott points out the dangers of germs (another Diamond favorite) in large, unhygienic early cities. “It’s hard to imagine Diamond’s primitives giving up their physical freedom, their varied diet, their egalitarian social structure, their relative freedom from famine, large-scale state wars, taxes and systematic subordination in exchange for what Diamond imagines to be ‘the king’s peace’.” Scott concludes.

Furthermore, Scott points out that violence in ‘traditional societies’ the Diamond examines is the result of living in “a world of states,” not living in one free of them. Much ‘tribal fighting’ is the result of non-state people scrambling to access the rare goods that state-dwellers desired but non-state people had access to: ivory, pelts, and so forth.

Those familiar with Scott’s work will not be surprised to see the angle of approach that he takes in this essay. Those who are familiar with the critical reception Diamond has received in the blogosphere will also see that Scott’s points have been made before, most especially in a post on Jason Antrosio’s Living Anthropologically blog. Still, it is nice to have these points made by a ‘big name’ in a ‘real publication’ and in under 4,000 words. To some — for instance: me — the idea of James Scott criticizing Jared Diamond for writing a big-picture book about that falls apart when subject to scrutiny by specialists will seem a little ironic. But this is a worthwhile review that deserves wide readership.

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

20 thoughts on “Read James Scott's review of Jared Diamond

  1. I like the review, but the claim that “all ancient states without exception were slave states” and claims about the percentage of slaves in early states are untenable. It’s impossible to estimate the percentage of slaves in almost all ancient states. How could it be? We don’t even know for certain the population of classical Athens, where we have detailed historical data of various kinds, so pretending that we can calculate the percentage of slaves in classical Athens, much less (say) classical Sparta or Pharaonic Egypt, is foolish. Scott exposes himself and threatens the credibility of his arguments by claiming more specificity than is reasonable.

  2. Scott points out the dangers of germs (another Diamond favorite) in large, unhygienic early cities

    That really depends where, given that early cities varied a lot in form and economic base. Cities in pre-colonial Southeast Asia and Mesoamerica (aside from Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan) were often large but diffuse, with dwellings interspersed with orchards. In the absence of stock raising, such a city isn’t especially unhygienic.

    Much ‘tribal fighting’ is the result of non-state people scrambling to access the rare goods that state-dwellers desired but non-state people had access to: ivory, pelts, and so forth.

    And much of it was not. The archaeological record is quite persuasive on this point, and we needn’t rely on ethnographic evidence alone, or even primarily. Foragers generally seem more peaceful (although there are plenty of counter examples to be found – see e.g., Lepenski Vir), but non-state horticulturalists do seem to have liked killing other people quite a lot, even far, far from the reaches of states. It seems hardly necessary to point out that not all non-state violence is motivated by the desire to acquire profit on the luxury goods market.

    Scott also says this bizarre thing, which is certainly not true:

    Borneo/Kalimantan was originally settled more than a millennium ago, it is now believed, by Austronesians who regarded it as an ideal foraging ground for the Chinese luxury market in feathers, camphor wood, tortoiseshell, bezoar stones, hornbill and rhinoceros ivory, and edible birds’ nests.

    Borneo was indeed settled ‘more than a millennium ago’, in the same way that I was born more than a second ago. In fact, archaeological evidence of human occupation goes back at least 45,000 years, and its original occupants certainly didn’t speak an Austronesian language. Trade with China was probably not high on the indigenous Bornean to-do list. Austronesian migration to Borneo would also have had very little to do with trade with China, or with any state, for that matter – there isn’t any indication of states in China until the mid-second millennium BCE, a little after Austronesian settlement of Borneo, and no evidence of trade between Borneo and any state until considerably later than that. And yet there is archaeological evidence of weaponry and plenty of comparative linguistic and cultural evidence for non-state warfare.

    Also: Scott’s words bear a remarkable likeness to this section of the Wikipedia article on Borneo, which is a bit strange.

  3. I have to admit that when I first heard Scott wrote a review of Diamond I was like: Finally a scholar known for his careful erudition and extremely delimited claims takes on a loosy-goosy public intellectual. I recognize that there are flaws in the article, but I recommend it because at the broadest general level, it sends the right reductive message to a popular audience: hunter gatherers are the effect of colonialism, not something that proceeds it. Life inside a state is not that great, and life outside it is better than we think. That’s the narrative Scott presents and which needs a wider audience, even if in the long run there are more careful ways to make that narrative.

  4. I don’t see the problem with the Wikipedia article, @AlWest13. There are no claims when Borneo was settled. (Or was it edited already? I didn’t check the page history.) And the evidence on the influence of trading networks in the cultures of Bornean societies is pretty solid. But yeah, it’s kind of ironic that to Scott, the history of Borneo begins with the history of early Southeast Asian states.

  5. The wiki article is fine – it just felt a little like Scott had used it as his only source on pre-colonial Borneo. I’m sure he didn’t, but there’s still an odd resemblance between his words and the article.

    I don’t think life in non-state societies is/was better than people think. Most people think of Pocahontas rather than Black Robe when they think of non-state peoples, so they already have a view that is overly positive (just as the majority seem to think that the past in general was better than it was). It seems like it was probably worse to live in a horticultural non-state society than an agricultural state in most cases. Horticulturalists get caries too, and they have to worry more about raiding and security. If what you value is peace and security and a lower likelihood of dying at someone else’s hands, it seems that states are better, even early states. States may indeed centralise violence, but that also gives them the power to curb violence within them, and that seems to be part of their appeal.

    And when you’re comparing early states with non-state societies, we’re really talking about the lesser of two evils. Was it better to live in non-state northern Europe or the Roman empire? By my values, they were both foul.

    Let’s be clear as well that some human groups have been foragers since time immemorial, and that not all of them raised animals or grew crops before European colonisation or widespread state interference. That may not be true of the speakers of Khoesan languages or other foragers beloved of NatGeo documentaries, but it seems to have been so of indigenous Australians and others. It should probably also be pointed out that many of Diamond’s examples come from horticulturalists, which is part of my frustration with the book (i.e., his failure to properly define ‘traditional societies’).

  6. “We have virtually no credible evidence about the world until yesterday and, until we do, the only defensible intellectual position is to shut up.”

    Ok, first of all, from my book of 2011, “Sounding the Depths: Tradition and the Voices of History”:

    “The perennial debate has centered on the question of whether, and to what extent, certain groups now dubbed “hunter-gatherers” or “foragers” can be regarded as in any way representative of ancestors from the distant past. The great majority of today’s anthropologists would no doubt insist that all living peoples must be seen as fully modern and thus as fully evolved as “we” are.

    What has too often been lost in the debate is the fact that there is, in any case, really no such thing as “hunter-gatherer” culture in general, but a great many different such cultures, with certain things in common and other things not in common, so in order to claim “hunter-gatherers” represent our earliest ancestors it is necessary to universalize them first, which means removing most reference to specifics and in effect “essentializing” them out of any real existence and into some idealized evolutionary “stage” — i.e., turning them into a myth; which has, of course, become a standard complaint among the many skeptics.”

    So far so good. I have a feeling most here would agree. However, I continue as follows:

    “In this context the [population] genetic research emerges as a welcome beacon of hard evidence and specificity in a sea of vague assumptions, generalizations, claims, counter-claims and denials – and the beacon is very clearly pointed in one direction. Not “hunter-gatherers” in general, but a very specific group of hunter-gatherers, with a remarkable “pedigree.””

    I find it frustrating in the extreme that, first of all, the truly revolutionary pop. gen. evidence, which in fact points very clearly toward a very specific ancestral group, continues to be all but ignored by the great majority of Anthropologists, and secondly, that my book, linking the biological evidence, drawn from pop. genetics, with cultural evidence drawn from my own studies of ethnomusicology supplemented by extensive ethnographic and archaeological evidence, continues to be ignored in Anthropological circles. And especially in this particular Anthropological circle, where support for innovative, cross disciplinary research is continually being promoted as a terrific idea.

    As I see it, my book does in fact provide “credible evidence about the world until yesterday” and deserves a fair hearing by anthropologists — as opposed to the studied indifference so carefully cultivated in the academic world toward anything offered from outside the ivy walls. I certainly don’t expect everyone to embrace my theories, but I do think I have a right to be taken seriously and given a fair hearing.

  7. Victor, I will say once again, I find what you are doing very interesting. But that and five bucks will get you a cup of coffee, maybe even a sandwich if you go for fast food instead of Starbucks. Trying to revive a paradigm, serious four-fields anthropology that combines biological, linguistic and cultural data is bound to be an uphill battle in a discipline where four-fields anthropology has been written off as passé. As a professional hack with experience in advertising and PR, I’d say, “Screw ’em” and look for audiences that will find the material itself fascinating and don’t give a rat’s ass whether it’s called anthropology or not.

  8. John, I appreciate your advice, which is very sensible. However, my problem is not only that I would like Anthropologists to pay attention to my work, but that I need their guidance and also, where appropriate, their criticism. I think I’ve made some real discoveries but they won’t mean much unless they can be tested by those in a position to understand what I’m up to — and evaluate my work, based on their training and their experiences in the field. Judging from the responses I’ve read to Diamond’s book, Anthropologists have had good reason to write off the type of Anthropology that makes all sorts of unwarranted assumptions about the distant past. But what I’ve been doing is very different, and imo has the potential to change some minds. First, however, it must be encountered, and evaluated. I had the impression that a blog such as this would be open to innovative approaches, regardless of whether or not they are fashionable. But I suppose I was wrong.

  9. I think I’ve made some real discoveries but they won’t mean much unless they can be tested by those in a position to understand what I’m up to — and evaluate my work, based on their training and their experiences in the field.

    I wonder how many people with the required competence—expert knowledge that spans population genetics, archeology and musicology— exist? I’d expect them to be rare as hens’ teeth, once you take yourself out of the running.

  10. I read and commented on your Australia/New Guinea chapter, and you seemed very reluctant to give up a good story even if facts got in the way. But if you want to continue refining the text, don’t wait for the mountain to come to Muhammad – read a lot and ask questions of the experts in other fields, and then you’ll not only arouse more interest in what you’ve written, you’ll also have a better text to show off. Have you read Bellwood’s new book, First Migrants? It would be directly relevant to what you’re saying, it’s new, and its conclusions are (I suspect) different to yours. And have you spoken to Roger Blench? He won’t bite your head off if you ask him a few questions.

    Don’t forget that advances in archaeology and population genetics are happening all the time.

    I’d also say that what your book says isn’t particularly relevant to assessing how nice or otherwise it is to live in a non-state society.

  11. John McCreery: “I wonder how many people with the required competence—expert knowledge that spans population genetics, archeology and musicology— exist?”

    Excellent point, and that’s been a real problem for me. I was very fortunate that, while working as Alan Lomax’s assistant on the Cantometrics Project, I was exposed to a wide variety of different types of music-making from all over the world. Which gave me a unique perspective, shared by only a very few others — most of whom are now gone. I think many ethnomusicologists find it difficult to assess my work because their knowledge is more narrowly based. And, of course, as you say, there are very few Anthropologists with the range of interests and knowledge to fully assess the very broad-based explorations at the heart of my book.

    However: there has been no lack of books with similarly broad ambitions — case in point the works of Jared Diamond himself — and Anthropologists don’t exactly shy away from consideration of such works. So sorry, that should be no excuse. You’re making it too easy on them, John.

  12. A. J. West: “I read and commented on your Australia/New Guinea chapter, and you seemed very reluctant to give up a good story even if facts got in the way.”

    A. J., your response was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for, and was much appreciated. (I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I do get discouraged when my work is ignored, so thank you.) Unfortunately you limited yourself to a single chapter, which happens to be the most speculative in the book. And, by the way, since the book takes the form of a blog (at least in its online version), your critical comments — and my responses — are now a part of it, so future readers can draw on both of our perspectives. As far as my “good story” is concerned, it’s not “the facts” that constitute the problem (the facts you presented were very useful), but the need to reconcile all the different facts into a meaningful hypothesis. I recognize the problems you had with some of the evidence I presented, and I agree that there are some things that need correcting, but at the same time it’s necessary to reconcile such evidence with the musical evidence, and the evidence from population genetics, which must also be respected.

    “But if you want to continue refining the text, don’t wait for the mountain to come to Muhammad – read a lot and ask questions of the experts in other fields, and then you’ll not only arouse more interest in what you’ve written, you’ll also have a better text to show off.”

    Sorry, but I don’t appreciate the superior tone. It should be obvious even from a brief skim that I’ve done a considerable amount of research. And I’m not your student. What I need now is helpful feedback, not patronizing sarcasm.

    Bellwood’s book sounds interesting, so thanks for the tip. As for Roger Blench, I am indeed very much aware of his work (see Chapter Three) and have corresponded with him from time to time.

    “I’d also say that what your book says isn’t particularly relevant to assessing how nice or otherwise it is to live in a non-state society.”

    What my book says is that there isn’t really much point in generalizing about “non-state” societies. One has to make a strong effort to avoid such assumptions and base one’s thinking on the evidence. I believe I’ve found relevant evidence enabling us to better assess questions such as “how nice or otherwise” our “Most Recent Common Ancestors” were. NB: NOT “hunter gatherers,” but MRCA. But you have to actually read my book to understand what I’m talking about. As far as “niceness” is concerned, a good place to start would be with Chapter Six.

    I realize you’re skeptical, A.J. and that’s fine. I’d love it if you’d read my book and review it somewhere, maybe even on this blog — if they let you.

  13. I should add that I’ll be happy to send a paperback copy of the book to anyone with a serious interest in writing a review. Just email me, at victorag at verizon dot net and include your address and I’ll get a copy to you post haste.

  14. I really wasn’t intending to be patronising or superior. I’ve been writing a history of the world to the sixteenth century for about three years now, on and off (I have a full-time job as well, so it’s mostly off), and you have no idea how many times I’ve rewritten chapters I was confident of in the beginning. I thought I knew the archaeology of the Caribbean, and I did, sort of. But more and more research has appeared since I started writing, and it’s caused massive revisions. I think that’s happened with more or less every section, except the well-established ones – imperial Tibet, for instance, where little new comes to light.

    I’m not saying, ‘read, because you haven’t read enough’. I’m saying, ‘read, because you can never read enough’. If you’re going to put your book online, why not constantly update it and tweet about the updates?

    And I’d also say that a social anthropology blog isn’t where you want to pitch it. Social anthropologists nowadays apply a method to the world rather than having a clearly defined subject matter (it’s arguable whether this is a good thing or not). Most social anthropologists are less interested in foraging societies of Pleistocene northeastern Africa than they are in such peculiarities as ‘the anthropology of organ donation’. The idea of approaching ancient human societies through multiple methods, viz, linguistics, archaeology, comparative ethnography, genetics, ethnomusicology, &c, is alive and well, but it isn’t likely to be found in social anthropology departments.

    I’m sure you’ve seen this, but it does seem to confirm the validity of your approach.

  15. A.J. West: “If you’re going to put your book online, why not constantly update it and tweet about the updates?”

    That’s basically what I’ve already done, A. J. I began blogging back in 2007 on the the origins and evolution of music, the relation of the musical and genetic evidence, and what they might tell us about deep history generally. That blog, called Music 000001 (http://music000001.blogspot.com/) is still up, and is still being accessed — over 154,000 hits to date. I tossed a lot of ideas out there for years, and continued the research and testing process pretty steadily during that time. I’ve never been into tweeting, but solicited comments and had some lively discussions and debates with various people over the years. In addition, I produced a series of papers on related topics, some of which have been published in respected journals (for details, see http://music000001.blogspot.com/2009/07/172-articles-now-available-for-download.html). My book draws pretty heavily on that blog, and reflects all those many years of preparation and refinement. And since the book itself is in blog format, it’s still possible for people to comment. And, yes, I have made some corrections and additions from time to time. I’ve also released a (self published) paperback, coordinated with the blog, for the benefit of old fogies like myself who prefer hard copy. When it comes time to update the paperback I plan to incorporate any new evidence and ideas that seem relevant.

    As far as Savage Minds is concerned, I’ve always thought of this simply as an Anthro blog and not a “Social Anthropology” blog. And as I see it, a study of the social dynamics of organ donation isn’t anthropology at all, but sociology. So if people reading here are enamored of that type of research and yet see themselves as anthropologists, maybe it’s time for a wakeup call.

    I have a pretty strong suspicion that most people who got interested in Anthro as undergrads got interested because they became fascinated by the same type of issues that most interest me, and not the sort of issues that are now so fashionable in the “Anthro” of today. And I attribute that downward and disappointing slide to the insidious influence of the academy, where anything and everything has become grist for the dissertation mill. So maybe I’m posting to see if I can re-awaken some of those primitive desires for real anthropology among at least some of those reading here.

  16. A. J. West: “I’m sure you’ve seen this, but it does seem to confirm the validity of your approach.”

    Thanks for the link. I hadn’t yet seen that particular article. But I know about that research because I was involved in planning it, and was also a consultant.

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