Anthropology’s Guns, Germs, and Steel Problem

Kerim suggested Savage Minds mount a response to the recent “PBS special”: (link courtesy of Kerim) on the theories of self-described polylingual polymath “Jared Diamond”: (scroll down to “about the author”). Rex, our Melanesianist and thus an obvious choice to take up the task, was unfortunately departing for China just at that time. None of the rest of us leapt at the job, though we all conceded it was a worthy idea. Our collective reluctance points, I think, to anthropology’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”: problem.

Has this ever happened to you? You are at a party, or perhaps a family gathering, or maybe even just standing in line at the DMV when the person next to you strikes up a conversation. If they don’t start talking to you about Indiana Jones at the mention of anthropology, there is a fair chance they’ll bring up GG&S – expecting that you just love the book. Now you’re in a pickle. Diamond showily positions GG&S as the definitive anti-racist take on human history. If you say you don’t really care for it, your interlocutor is likely to get a slightly baffled look on her face. What could you possibly mean, you don’t like Diamond’s noble tome? Are you… a racist? To explain why you don’t like the book would take more time than most people making friendly small talk want to spend, and – worse yet – your explanation will necessarily impugn the motives of people who do like it, a group that you now know includes the person with whom you are speaking. My own usual reaction in such encounters is to say that unfortunately I have not read the book but that boy, it sure does sound interesting.

Alas, I did read most of the book several years ago. Diamond’s argument in GG&S is in three parts, supported by a magpie’s trove of evidence. Part the first is: white people are immeasurably superior to everyone else on the planet, in terms of technology, wealth, store of knowledge, and actual power, and have been so for a long time. Part the second is: this is not because non-white people are lazy and stupid. Part the third is: it’s because of the determining force that geographical and ecological constraints have exerted on human history.

Predictably, racists have pooh-poohed the book as yet another left-wing conspiracy theory, this time starring leftists’ erstwhile paramour Mother Earth in the role usually played by the Man. See “this”: for example from the folks over at Gene Expression (read all the way to the end – I’ll get back to their gleeful ‘exposé’ of Diamond’s past) (thanks to Tak for this link). But the more general response has been to assume that the book is a canonical text of political correctness and that cultural anthropologists, who are indeed anti-racist, must therefore subscribe wholeheartedly to it. Take “this”: (thanks to Kerim for this link) which asserts

“If you haven’t heard of Diamond’s book, these ideas may nonetheless seem familiar. That is because they are essentially the same arguments made by Franz Boas and other early anthropologists who focused on human cultures as primarily differing for ecological and geographic reasons. Diamond adds a strongly Marxist element, placing the mode of production and its geographical prerequisites as necessarily causal…”

In fact, this utterly misrepresents the history of anthropological theory, how most working cultural anthropologists think about the human story, and the bases of anthropological anti-racism. Franz Boas was very clear that “we have no evidence of a creative force of environment… It is sufficient to see the fundamental differences of culture that thrive one after another in the same environment, to make us understand the limitations of environmental influences” (Race, Language, and Culture 1982 [1940]: 255-256). Likewise, Diamond’s thesis would be anathema to any Marxist anthropologist. Diamond does not take “modes of production” as the causal motor of his thesis. This is because any mode of production is a social product of human history. Diamond’s explanations are located much anterior to this – in geography and ecology, which are taken to stand outside of, apart from, and entirely antecedent to human productive action.

To illustrate, let’s take each portion of his evidence in turn. I don’t have the book with me, so can’t exactly remember the Eurasian landmass part of the argument. If memory serves, it is that the Eurasian landmass is the largest contiguous landmass all in one climactic zone – that is, it’s the biggest landmass going “sideways” as opposed to “up and down” on the globe as it is conventionally represented. This brute fact facilitated the exchange of genetic material (domesticated plant, domesticated animal, human, and pestilential germ) across a large region over several thousand years, and therefore the development of powerful multiple disease resistance across this contiguous area. This, of course, set the epidemiological conditions for the eventual cataclysmic demographic encounter of European colonizers with American Indians. I don’t have any grounds for critiquing this part of the argument. It sounds like a plausible hypothesis to me, but (given the caliber of the rest of Diamond’s case) might be ridiculous. Please jump into the comments section if you know better.

Moving on. Diamond additionally argues that the inhabitants of this Eurasian landmass started off with a better array of potentially domesticable plants than did prehistoric humans living elsewhere on the planet. There are pages and pages of discussion of wild plants with a large, oily seed yield – the kinds of plants that would be good candidates for domestication. At first reading, my problem with this argument was that it is utterly post-hoc: he insists that there just plain are (and thus, by inference, were) more such plants in Eurasia than elsewhere, but I wondered about ongoing hybridization between wild ancestor plants, land races, and domesticated plants across thousands of years of domestication and whether that may have transformed what he takes to be the “wild” baseline. But my fuzzy doubts are mere amateur ankle-biting as compared to the expertly rear-end-kicking article lead-authored by John Terrell of the Field Museum (full reference below).* It demolishes the bright line demarcating agricultural domestication in human prehistory that sustains this entire portion of Diamond’s argument. It also offers a thoroughgoing critique of Diamond’s thesis and evidence. Highly recommended reading.

Next. Diamond likewise argues that the Eurasian landmass offered a uniquely amenable population of potentially-domesticable proto-livestock. His principal contrast here is to the Americas, where Amerindians puzzlingly domesticated nothing but the llama, the alpaca, the Muscovy duck, and the (yum!) (awwww) (yum!) (awwww) guinea pig (the foregoing being the Andeanist version of the tastes great/less filling debate). Now, again, this argument runs into the a posteriori problem. He asserts that it is possible to infer that undomesticated animals are and always have been undomesticable animals. But this is unpersuasive. It supposes that we moderns (or specifically Jared Diamond) could (for example) look at a jungle fowl and infer, finger lickin’! even in the absence of domesticated chickens. He surveys the world outside Eurasia and declares it deficient in proto-goats, proto-chickens, proto-pigs, proto-cows, proto-sheep… Make of this what you will, in essence it is hand-waving.

Furthermore, in the lowland South American context at least, there is considerable evidence that human-animal relationships are in important respects conceptualized and experienced as relations between social equals, such that a pastoral, dominating, domesticating relationship is rendered “no good to think” (apologies to Stanley Tambiah). Philippe Descola is writing about this, and the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro lends itself to the same interpretation. This sounds a bit New Age & woo-woo as I’ve thumbnailed it here, but (I promise) it is compelling and thought-provoking when properly expounded. Given the many parallels between Melanesia and Amazonia, I wonder if a similar analysis would be applicable there (and, perhaps, elsewhere too). The point, though, is that given the presence of potentially useful animals, it is not a foregone conclusion that humans will set about domesticating them. It is simply not valid to read back from a present absence of domesticated animals a past dearth of proto-domestic animals.

Hang in there: this is winding down. I will admit I never finished reading GG&S, but I gather that Diamond claims it necessarily follows from the all of the above that given such overwhelming, built-in Eurasian advantages (which somehow condensed to the particular advantage of the Western European part of Eurasia) that it was inevitable that that part of the world would become the global cradle of innovation, invention, and subsequent armed exploratory excursions on the part of its disease-ridden, disease-resistant, bristling-with-lethal-technology inhabitants. We know the rest. Bad news for the rest of the world’s inhabitants. Just as inherently smart, just as inherently plucky… but damned unlucky.

Reportedly (because I didn’t see it), the PBS special ends with Jared Diamond in a truly tragic contemporary African hospital, the kind with lots of sick and dying children. He breaks down weeping. Apparently it is a genuinely touching moment, and why not? The death of innocents is terrible.

But I think the “pow” delivered by that moment is two-fold. It’s Greek tragedy sad: one weeps at the cruelty of the fates, while simultaneously being exquisitely affected by one’s own capacity for empathy (I weep at the cruelty of the fates, and at the touching testament my very weeping renders to my own humanity: namely, that I am the sort of tender-hearted person who cannot help but weep at the cruelty of the fates). One sticks it out through the long boring journey (have you ever watched Oedipus Rex being performed in Greek, with masks? It’s a lot like reading GG&S) in order to arrive, at the end, at the truth of one’s own essential goodness.

This is a punchline about race and history that many white people want desperately to hear. Those dying black kids at the end of the special – we know, because We Are Not Racist, that they don’t deserve what they are getting. They are not inferior. In fact, there but for the grace of god… thus affirming that no one but god has any historical responsibility, and that the world as we know it is a regrettable inevitability. Diamond’s account loudly insists that alea jacta wast (pardon the pig latin conjugation) before we even got going. And it poisonously whispers: mope about colonialism, slavery, capitalism, racism, and predatory neo-imperialism all you want, but these were/are nobody’s fault. This is a wicked cop-out. Worse still, it is a profound insult to all non-Western cultures/societies. It basically says they’re sorta pathetic, but that bless their hearts, they couldn’t/can’t hep it. Such an assertion tramples upon all that anthropology holds dear, and is a sham sort of anti-racism.

So that’s my take on Diamond; why he’s popular, why he’s wrong, why it’s not in fact very surprising that he’s long been obsessed with measures of racial difference (this is the tie-in to that Gene Expression link, above) and, finally, why I usually don’t get into the whole long take-down with laypeople. If any of you are still with me, and didn’t pass out drooling 6 long paragraphs ago, SM seems like a great space for accumulating more references and adding on to this take. This was never intended to be definitive – just a little something 😉 to start what we hope will become an ongoing conversation.

*(2003) “Domesticated Landscapes: The Subsistence Ecology of Plant and Animal Domestication” by John Edward Terrell, John P. Hart, Sibel Barut, Nicoletta Cellinese, Antonio Curet, Tim Denham, Chapurukha M. Kusimba, Kyle Latinis, Rahul Oka, Joel Palka, Mary E. D. Pohl, Kevin O. Pope, , Patrick Ryan Williams, Helen Haines, and John E. Staller. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 10:323-368.

66 thoughts on “Anthropology’s Guns, Germs, and Steel Problem

  1. Ozma, I wasn’t at the center of the punctuated equilibrium thing so I may have missed the import. But the way it looked to me, Gould’s co-author Eldridge made a reasonable, sensible explanation of what it was all about and there was nothing particularly new or very interesting there. Fossils tend to show a very limited amount of diversity — it’s as if species quickly settle on a best hard-part morphology and keep it until something changes. When a changed shape does show up it tends to show up suddenly. This would happen if morphology tends to be selected quickly, and then alternatives show up in limited portions of the range and spread fast when they get the chance to spread. A whole lot of the argument can be boiled down to two graphs. Here’s one that shows a novel form taking over a population.

    It starts slow because it’s rare and can only increase so fast, and once it gets common the old type may die out slowly because there aren’t as many left to be replaced.

    Here’s the same graph with the timescale compressed.



    The central question here is why does the fossil record behave the way it does, and the main thing that hadn’t been emphasised as much before Gould was that fossilizable parts tend to have long periods of stasis.

    But Gould said that the fossil record is the reality and so there’s something to explain here. Why is it that species stay exactly the same until they are instantly replaced by something visibly different?

    And Gould also pressed on another front. He claimed that many evolutionary biologists assume that every gene and every observable trait is the way it is because it was selected and is the best version available for those particular selective conditions. Gould was a marxist, while this view of evolution is precisely homologous to the view of economics that says anything that happens in an economic system that isn’t done by a government must be the best possible thing because of the Invisible Hand. I never met an evolutionary biologist who believed that, but I read things written by a few who said they used to believe it before Gould converted them. Gould’s claim is that some things are selected, and anything that happens to hitchhike with those and any trait that’s an unselected side-effect of those will change accidentally at the same time. Probably most changes in the fossil record happen because of selection of some sort, since it takes such a very long time without selection for selectively-neutral changes to happen by drift, and they would tend to show up in the fossil record too. But when selection occurs, there’s no reason to think it involves any visible trait. The things you know about might all be unimportant side effects of the things you don’t know about.

    Gould claimed that species stay the same until they suddenly change, and he claimed that some new unknown explanation was needed for this. This appears to happen sometimes in the fossil record and the existing explanations were perfectly adequate. People who said that got represented as people who just didn’t get it, and they tended to be ignored by the media. I didn’t see that Gould’s claims were really being taken seriously except that it was not exactly safe to laugh at them in public. Not attacking Gould’s claims meant you weren’t attacking Gould who was at Harvard and on grant committees and so on.

    But it was mostly the public who idolized Gould, and it was his public acclaim that gave him his academic clout, beyond his position at Harvard.

  2. Oh, those graphs absolutely failed. There were spaces to make them do things. One was a sigmoid curve, it went up gradually, and the other one was a step function. The sigmoid curve looks just like a step function if you compress the timescale enough.



  3. I’m not sure what Ozma means by “‘evo’ is in retreat”. PZ Meyers, for example, would probably be pretty surprised to hear that “evo” and “devo” are rivalrous rather than complementary. Ozma cannot possibly mean that biologists are retreating from evolution as the grand unifying framework of all biological science, but it’s unclear what else that sentence could mean, by its plain English denotation.

    Also, I don’t see why Diamond is associating “a very proximal outcome with a very distal cause”, and why this would be a bad thing. The outcome that Diamond tries to explain: the overwhelming difference in power between densely populated Eurasian agrarian societies ca. 1500, and all other societies on Earth. The cause: differential advantages ultimately conferred by geography. Making farfetched analogies, or merely asserting that this causal connection is prima facie absurd because it occurs over a long time peroid, does not disprove this connection.

    Maniaku: Diamond’s idea does not require that he specify a particular causal mechanism behind domestication. It only requires that (1) larger landmasses present more opportunities for earlier domestication, and that (2) domestication grants enormous potential power to the societies that wield it. Neither depends on why or how individual societies adopt domestication — it could be because they believe they have a mandate from God, or because they enjoy cuddling with goats. None of that matters for Diamond’s purposes, though it may be of interest to anthropologists.

    Finally, I’ve read the Terrell article (handy Springer permalink), and Marc’s summary seems basically correct. Terrell et al.’s primary argument is that we should adopt a finer-grained framework than “hunter-gatherer vs. agrarian” for thinking about societies’ strategies for coping with their environments. Now, I’m a layperson, so perhaps someone else could explain why this paper allegedly blows Diamond out of the water; but a passage in Diamond’s book specifically describes possible transitional states between “hunter-gatherer” and “agricultural” lifestyles, and he takes pains to say that there is not a “bright and shining line” between them. If his particular account of the transition relies on outdated research, OK, but once again it does not undermine his broader point — a different narrative would serve just as well. All Diamond’s argument requires is that there exists at least one transitional path, and that greater biodiversity increases the probability that one such path will be taken earlier in history. Examine the summary of Terrell et al.’s four claims (p. 326); none of them contradicts Diamond’s point.

    (Note: a passage on Terrell et al. p. 327 disputes the very notion of dichotomy between agrarian and hunter-gatherer lifestyles, but that seems to me to be arguing about labels rather than meaning. Diamond’s clearly talking about a particular kind of agrarian society whose practices support high population densities, breed disease, etc. To avoid confusion, let us call such societies “JD-agrarian societies”. Now, there is clearly a difference, and hence a transition path, between non-JD-agrarian societies and JD-agrarian societies, regardless of whether other kinds of societies practice systematic intervention into their ecosystems, as Terrell et al. argue.)

  4. p.s. I realized that I responded only to the first part of Maniaku’s comment. The second part:

    Why does one society HAVE to become dominate? It seems conceivable that it would be “some society may/can/might dominate its neighbors”, but thats not very elucidating is it?

    Once again, Diamond’s thesis does not depend on that detail, although it is indeed a tremendously interesting question. Given a collection of societies that can dominate their neighbors, the ones that actually choose to do so, will. In order for this not to happen, every society that can dominate its neighbors would have to refrain; all Diamond’s idea requires is that such a powerfully convergent force not exist.

    One of the reasons Diamond’s hypothesis is so intellectually compelling is that it is very general, requiring relatively few premises. He may get many of the details wrong, and probably does; but the general argument is surprisingly robust. (If I may lapse into math analogies again, the existence argument is relatively independent of the construction.)

  5. Cog, that seems to be one of the problems here, that people are thinking of Diamond’s work at different levels.

    If you think of it as if it’s supposed to be scientific, he goes out on a whole lot of limbs that aren’t very well supported. Apart from the stuff where he’s quoting the traditional ideas without much new.

    But if you think of it as grand ideas along the lines of the aquatid ape and the territorial imperative, then the grand ideas make perfect sense even without any supporting evidence. The evidence is only brought in so people who don’t like the general ideas won’t claim it’s just bullshit. Never mind whether the evidence actually supports the beautiful bullshit, it’s a better sell if there’s something that looks like evidence included.

    One thing that surprises me a little is the people who say that Diamond is providing them with new analytical tools they can use elsewhere. I don’t see anything new in his thinking, I don’t see techniques that weren’t used by Darwin (who got evolution all wrong but at least said evolution was going on), or Marx, or Marsh on ecology, or CN Parkinson, or Lawrence Peter, or Marvin Harris. For that matter Aristotle wrote about how to make things sound plausible. What are these new tools?

  6. Ozma, just come out and say it: Europeans came to dominate the world not because of geography and native plants and animals, but because they are evil, greedy, blue-eyed devils. Little brown south americans, on the other hand, who think of animals as their equals couldn’t possibly engage in something as nasty as imperialism, even if given the opportunity. Damn that racist, jared diamond.

  7. savageminds- This is the usual Patrick, not part of the incursion of new readers.

    If you want to get a handle on this bloginvasion, you’re gonna have to post some new, interesting content.

    I only know anthropology a little bit, and I know economics even less. But I do know argument, rhetoric, and people.

    You started with two posts that you didn’t expect to be scrutinized in depth, and you made some mistakes in them. You mixed good critiques with bad, and you phrased a few things poorly. For example, I’m willing to believe that you are qualified to intelligently discuss this book even having not read all of it; I’ve not read the entirety of Leviathan, but after as much time in political science as I spent, I can discuss him intelligently.

    Anyways, the format of a blog means that your initial comments will always be a baseline for further discussion. They’re on the front page, everyone reads them, not everyone reads refinements in the comment threads. So its tough to salvage an argument gone bad if the genesis of the problem was in the original post.

    On the other hand, look what’s happened. How much has your readership gone up in the past couple days? That’s a good thing, if you were looking for high readership. Now, these readers are here mostly to trash on you… but that’s partly because there’s nothing else to do.

    Post something new, move this discussion out of the top slot, and sooner or later, all will be forgiven.

  8. Patrick. You are right, and Oneman has a mega post of some kind that should hit the site soon. Rex is still on vacation. I’m half on vacation, and Ozma is moving to Canada … just in case you are wondering why it seems like we are at a standstill here. But I’m sure things will pick up again soon.

  9. Hi,

    New reader, old anthropologist.

    Thanks to everyone for posting such cogent discussions, as it helped give me ammo for answering questions, pro and con, about this book.

    Mea culpa, I liked it (and Collapse) while at the same time said, to quote Ozma, “Here we go again.”

    I took the Eurasian landmass thingamajiggy, and snuggled it in with some Carl Sauer for my short discussion on agriculture in my intro classes, basta la.

    However, my biggest problems to date are:

    He is freakin’ physiologist, what IS that anyway? How did he get into a geo department, at UCLA? GGS seems like an attack on geography/history/anthro from someone who hasn’t read the basics. Collapse is even more pointed in its dismissal of anthros.

    So why is he taking old boring crap (without thanking its true authors) putting it in hot new packaging, and then disparaging whole disciplines? Rivalrous or not, I find that distasteful and aggravating.

    Biggo Problemo Duo – the PBS series, which I thought might be cool (again for intro folks who’d never watched anything on PBS in their whole lives) is HORRIBLE.

    Truncated as they are, the arguments just scream racism to me AND they are faulty, like when the narrator intones, “Why did the New World not have any diseases to give back to the Old World?”

    Uh, they did?

    So, thanks, ’cause now I don’t have to think about this anymore.


  10. joe foucault-

    I’m still reading the post and its comments(from the bottom/new up to the top/old) but that
    “…because they are evil, greedy, blue-eyed devils…”
    deserves a return.
    It isn’t a choice between noble superior blessed-and-chosen, and evil greedy blue-eyed devils.
    How about people?
    They’re all humans, doing human things to each other. The problem is the assumption of moral superiority rising out of, and based entirely on, physical dominance.
    The resistance comes from a culture that has to see itself as morally superior, or its legal system, its culture really, collapses from hypocrisy and untruth.
    Not that the Incas weren’t harsh and self-interested, not that the Aztecs weren’t cruel – but that their conquerors were no better, by their own codes.
    Too much of what we’re asked to accept, in order to support the culture we’re born into, is founded on its being morally centered and just. And way too much evidence contradicts that completely.

  11. Can someone tell why the “fertile crescent” with all its technological advances (writing, steel, paper, etc) became a third world area? Why, with all the advances did they not become the most intellectually advance society in the world. Please tell me what I can read to help me understand. Thank you.

  12. “Can someone tell why the “fertile crescent” with all its technological advances (writing, steel, paper, etc) became a third world area? Why, with all the advances did they not become the most intellectually advance society in the world. Please tell me what I can read to help me understand.”

    They did become the most intellectually advanced society in the world, for a time. Try the recent book “No God But God” for a good overview of Muslim history.

  13. Diamond discusses this late in the book. Unsurprisingly, he blames geography: The Fertile Crescent’s ecosystem is not very resilient, due to sparse rainfall and other factors. After thousands of years of overfarming and deforestation, the Middle East has become more arid and hostile to farming than it was 10,000 years ago. In contrast, northern Europe gets tons of rain and has thick soil, so farming is still going strong there 10,000 years later.

  14. I read the book and know what he said but it just seems that there must be other factors because of the technology. That had should not have been destroyed as if it were a crop.

  15. Also we haven’t been doing that much agriculture in northern europe for 10,000 years. A thousand years ago a lot of it was thick forest.

  16. I apologize in advance if I’m about to repeat any points made in any of those 62 comments up there, but there are 62 of them.

    Anyway. My problem with GG&S is that it seems sketchy and simplistic, which I think I recall being points Diamond concedes in the text; I don’t have the formal education and academic credentials to climb on a high Expert horse about this stuff, but nevertheless large parts of it strike me as quite plausible based on my years of reading whatever looks interesting.

    As for the picture of Native Americans as being such gentle creatures that they (that is, my grandmother’s people) didn’t domesticate animals because they felt too equal to them, well, in the first place the fact that they ate every animal that looked tasty strikes me as fundamentally non-egalitarian — few things better express “superiority” than chewing, swallowing and defecating something — and they certainly understood and fostered inequality among people (and ate some of those too). So not only does this “gentle Injun” stereotype fall short of the facts, it’s also a damned insult of the condescending variety. That “argument” implies that America’s Natives lost “the New World” because they were too soft and wussylike to keep it, too busy weeping over litter, instead of having the continent stolen from them by main force by a more vicious, dishonorable, numerous and powerful enemy that happened to carry contagious diseases they’d never seen before.

    As far as allegations of racism goes, I get a kick out a bunch of white people (and most American academics and “intellectuals” are, for reasons of structural racism, white people) sitting around calling each other racist. It’s also funny that people seem to think that unless one has a “high-level degree from a reputable institution of learning” one is automatically too dumb to say anything about it. Do you need a PhD in bovine husbandry to grill a steak?

    The issue of why China didn’t conquer the world instead of England and Spain doesn’t bother me, and I doubt it would if I knew more about China; we could test that if someone wants to explain why there were no modern-style factories in Shanghai until the English gunboats showed up. As for calling Diamond racist, his point is that certain people just happened to luck out, which strikes me as the least racist explanation for what happened. Luck, remember, is always dumb, with no “merit” or “superiority” involved.

  17. Pingback: Ethno::log
  18. And his new “Collapses” deserve being read. It’s about hte reasons of former societies collapses. He analyses what caused the falls down of many ancient and simply old societies and distinguishes several reasons.

  19. Sorry to break it to everyone, but Jared Diamond’s GGS theory is just “scientific predestination” theory rehashed:,_Germs,_and_Steel#Criticism_of_Eurocentrism_and_determinism

    Instead of Europeans being superior by their DNA, now Europeans are predestined to be superior by their ENVIRONMENT’S DNA. The “magic” remains Eurocentric, even though most major inventions prior to 1492 were NOT invented by Europeans (e.g. the wheel, cities, writing, guns, gunpowder, steel, crossbows, windmills, water wheels, geometry, castles, paper, books, printing press, magnetic compass, chariots, 360 degrees, zero, and on and on…)

    Read James Blaut’s “Eight Eurocentric Historians” to see Diamond’s theory demolished point by point:

    Caution: For those infatuated with Jared Diamond’s theory, your heart will be broken after reading Blaut!

    Reading Jared Diamond’s books are like Apple Macs: young White males are in love with it, and the rest seem indifferent to the gushing emotion-fest that is being displayed over it.

  20. I am a cultural anthropologist and just reading this book finally in 2007 wondering why I had not heard anthropologists engage with it constructively. I found this website tonight and am glad to see less of the usual academic bravado of straw men and the like, but certainly some of it. I find Randall’s posts very constructive, and I find the Field Museum article the most well articulated engagement with Diamond mentioned in this post. The book should not be dismissed as environmental determinism or you’ll go down the slippery slope of rejecting the entire field of archeology as material determinism. I would like archeologists to weigh in here. I find Diamond’s work one of the more environmentally INFORMED syntheses out there of a literature we cultural anthropologists aren’t great at perusing (paleobotany, prehistoric geography). I really want to hear from archeologists. Also, why in the world hasn’t an anthropologist put together as an accessible book sythesizing available prehistoric evidence they way Diamond did? He has done a great service to engage the public around these questions in such a widely read way. Shame on anthropology for letting a evolutionary bird specialist do this first, regardless of its criticisms.

  21. Not an expert nor an academic. I would like to add my two sense about something. I’ve seen commenters on this site as well as others referring to very recent (relative the time span covered in the book)systems such as capitalism to refute the book.

    In my judgment, self-determination for various peoples has been declining rapidly for at least three centuries. “Advances” in military technology, communication, beaurocratic systems, economics, etc… make it much easier for the conquerers (particularly when conquering a people with significant technological disadvantages) to squelch any meaningful independent political, economic, or scientific acitivity deemed “undesireable” that begins to arise from the conquered.

    Look at Israel and Palestine. Israel very deliberately and effectively tries to keep Palestinians as “backwards” as possible, regardless of what the Palestinians wish.

    In fact, keeping people enslaved nowadays is much more subtle and “clean” than it oncce was. Corporations and governments,either very secretely or subtlely, maintain hegemony over nations and regions from afar using puppet figures willing to sell out their own people for cash and ego.

    If anyone is still reading this thread and has any thoughts on what I’ve said, I’d like to hear.

  22. Thanks to all, has been an enlightening read (article and all 80 comments). My previous position is currently in the process of revision — but i’m finding it difficult to continue. It’s not just a matter of where to put the bricks that have been taken out of the GG&S model, which sits there in a more or less half dismantled state, but i am in need of an alternate, more factually accurate, more accountable, less skewed, less “crypto-racist”, more considering of structural racism, but perhaps steering clear of reverse racism, explanatory model.

    i will read James Blaut next, as well as continue reading more of this blog. but no review of his work suggests that it will provide such an alternate model. i do hope i find something akin to what i am looking for somewhere but something tells me that maybe it doesn’t exist, or at least not in the concise form that i hope for — perhaps it is just too complex ???

  23. The human web : a bird’s-eye view of world history
    Author: John Robert McNeill; William Hardy McNeill
    Publisher: New York : W.W. Norton, ©2003.

  24. Thanks for the suggestion. this web-of-interaction model looks like a good contender to round off or complement the geography/resource model — which i’m not going to abandon at this time. For while i recognize the validity of a lot of your criticisms, and see the outright falsehood of parts of Diamond’s claims, as well as short comings in some of his thinking, i do think the work remains useful, as well as having predominantly positive, i.e. against ignorance and racism, effects on the world…

  25. Sometimes a micro perspective can help to clear the air. Thus, for example, on Boxing Day (12/26) my wife and I made a day trip to the Tomioka Silk Mill, where, the local story goes, the industrialization of Japan began. The tour guide did an excellent job of combining the global and local dimensions of the Silk Mill’s founding.

    The year was Meiji 3 (1871). The Meiji oligarchs, pursuing the goal of catching up with the West, were eager to import Western technology and Western experts to teach Japanese how to build and use it. But they needed something to sell to pay for the imports. Japan produced silk, and foreign traders based in Yokohama were ready to buy it. In Japan, however, silk was still a cottage industry. The irregularities in the thread caused stoppages and wastage in European industrial looms, reducing the price and thus the income generated. The new silk mill would solve that problem.

    But that was just part of the story. Historically, the silk thread used by European silk textile manufacturers had been produced in France, Italy or China. Then, however, a silkworm plague decimated silk production in France and Italy, and China fell into the chaos following the Taiping Rebillion (1850-1864) and subsequent events leading to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. That is why those foreign traders were in Yokohama, looking for silk from Japan. One of them was Paul Brunat, the French silk expert whom the Meiji government commissioned to find a suitable site and arrange for the construction of their new silk mill.

    How, then, did the mill wind up in Tomioka, in Gunma Prefecture, instead of in Nagano or Yamanashi, neighboring prefectures were silk was also produced? Our guide listed five factors.

    1. A large chunk of available land on which to build a factory. In Japan, where property rights are fiercely protected, this was a serious consideration. In Tomioka, the government already owned land, a site acquired by the Tokugawa Shogunate for a never completed military training ground.
    2. Locally accessible clay suitable for bricks. Five kilometers in one direction.
    3. Locally accessible coal to power steam-driven machinery. Five kilometers in another direction.
    4. Water for simmering the silkworm cocoons to loosen the thread. A deep river running beside the site.
    5. A welcoming local community. Here it is important to remember that foreigners were still unwelcome in Japan and the Meiji government was still on shaky ground. The Satsuma Rebellion, the last uprising of the samurai against the new government occurred in 1877, two years after the Tomioka Silk Mill went into operation in 1875, Tomioka, however, was home to several prominent silk traders already doing business with Yokohama, who saw the new mill as a chance to expand their business.

    Together, these conditions made Tomioka the site of choice. Brunat, who was French, engaged a French architect working on the new imperial shipyards in Yokosuka (down the coast from Yokohama) to design the factory, which thus bears a striking resemblance to the shipyard buildings and is now one of three major historic brick structures surviving in Japan in which the bricks are laid in the French instead of the British style.

    Brunat also engaged several young French engineers to install the plant’s machinery and four French women, all experienced industrial spinners, to train their Japanese counterparts. One of the women they trained became a trainer herself, traveling around Japan and training spinners for other factories that soon sprang up in other parts of the country. Her diary is now the primary source for information about the working conditions of the Japanese women who provided most of the new silk industry’s factory floor labor force.

    What impresses me most about this case is the clear articulation of an historic opportunity (demand for Japanese silk due to the collapse of silk production in France, Italy and China), the availability of resources, both natural resources in and around Tomioka, and human resources, the French engineers and spinners, who, I suspect, were willing to travel half way around the world to a very strange new place because their industry at home was in the pits, the related technology, and a new government bent on catching up with the West and preventing Japan from sharing China’s fate during its encounters with Western Imperialism.

    How to model these processes? Need something at least as sophisticated as Sim City. The usual sorts of simplifications to which the social sciences are prone are, alas, too simplistic.

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