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

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  5. I don’t have any grounds for critiquing this part of the argument.

    re: immune response, native americans are noticeably far less polymorphic than most eurasian populations on the MHC loci which confer various levels of resistence to pathogens. the MHC are among the most polymorpic loci among human beings because they are probably subject to long term frequency dependent selection. that is, the ‘red queen effect’ where a rare variant tends to confer resistence to a common pathogen, which results in its increase of frequency, at which point the pathogens that it is vulnerable to also increase in frequency (because of the heightened number of hosts).

    native americans have very few variants are tribal groups are often ‘fixed’ for a particular morph, which results in the inability of a population to respond adaptively as selection response is proportioal to variation. this is why whole swaths of the new world were cleared by disease at first contact with eurasians, once a pathogen emerged which overcame the MHC complex that was dominant in the population it just cut through them because the native americans were not variable enough.

    the most common theories of why the native americans are not diverse on the MHC is founder effect, and/or, relaxed selection in a pathogenically unselection environment (because there weren’t many native new world forms that could jump over from affinal species and long term homonid habitation had not resulted in a large local reserve of bugs).

  6. right — this part of Diamond’s argument does makes sense; it would explain why Eurasians (lots of domesticated affinal species living in close contact with humans, huge swath of long-standing human populations exchanging pathogens) would have multiple disease resistance, and Amerindians wouldn’t. The robustness of this part of the argument strikes me as akin to the old saw about how a stopped clock is right once every 24 hours. he couldn’t write such a long book and get *everything* wrong!

  7. diamond’s thesis is part of the explanation, but i think he annoys people in trying to shoehorn everything into his model. it seems implausible that something as complex as human society could be explained by one parameter (condensing all the various geographical arguments). you might find this discussion between diamond and victor davis hanson interesting (they both have one note melodies to sell).

  8. i am not an anthropologist, nor do i have the specialized scientific background that would allow me to really get into the details about diamond’s arguments. i can say, though, (and i say so respectfully), that many of your criticisms simply don’t impress.

    first, (and this is a minor point), you seem to overstate the conclusions about racial disparities that diamond draws. granted, diamond’s book does attempt to provide an explanation of why different peoples from different regions of the world ended up the way they presently are. this is epiphenomenal, though; the real work in his book occurs elsewhere. diamond certainly doesn’t suggest that we can let colonialists off the hook, nor do i think that it is even a plausible reading of his argument. he is not an historical determinist; he is merely arguing that the capacity for historical dominance was influenced by geographical considerations independent of any innate racial characteristics. to put it simply, geography gave certain people the ability to subjugate others; perhaps human nature gave us the desire to subjugate others, but that’s not really a part of diamond’s argument. (i think diamond would agree to the latter claim, but i don’t remember it being asserted strongly in GG&S.)

    you talk about animal domestication, and suggest that there is no reason to think that humans will reasonably attempt to domesticate those animals in their vicinity. ok, fine, an interesting suggestion—but diamond’s argument, if i recall correctly, was that we have not made substantially greater progress now in domesticating animals of other regions. in effect, whatever could have been domesticated, was domesticated, and we know this, because we’ve tried unsuccessfully to domesticate other things, and we keep trying. as i said, i don’t know whether this claim is correct or not; i suspect that diamond was likely to have exaggerated a bit. but your suggestion that some peoples might simply not have the kind of dominating relationship towards nature, and so would not have attempted animal domestication, strikes me as flat-out unplausible. maybe you can find, in the fossil record, evidence of animals which were domesticable, but which failed to be producitvely used by native peoples somewhere. but i don’t see what evidence you’re offering to support this claim, except your vague suggestion that some societies discourage such behavior. (i would get into greater detail on this point, but my comment is long enough as is.)

    although i found diamond’s argument interesting when i first read it, i recognize that there is a lot of work to be done—in part because the argument is so frighteningly broad. but, and i apologize, i just can’t see why your arguments should be daunting to diamond in the least. it seems that when diamond is undercut, it will have to come from the scientists who can address his substantive claims, rather than those who are troubled by the Big General Picture.

  9. The Eurasian landmass argument is, in fact, ridiculous. Eurasia is not one big open environmental belt from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There’s an awful lot of desert and mountains between Europe and China. To make the argument work, Diamond has to exaggerate the amount of east-west movement and commerce and underplay the amount of north-south movement.

    You missed out on what, to me, is the biggest downfall of the book. Diamond goes into great detail about the geographical influences on the origins of civilization, then jumps forward to the present. But European dominance of the world is a very recent (and perhaps tenuous) fact, dating back only to the full-blown industrial revolution. In the later part of his book Diamond makes a ham-handed attempt to explain why Europe overtook China that relies on the old “Oriental despotism” thesis. Basically, he claims China is one big plan and thus was cursed with a centralized monarch who stifled innovation, whereas Europe’s peninsulas and bays led to political fragmentation and hence productive competition.

    As for published critiques, I thought the following article made some good points, though it does spend an awful lot of time accusing Diamond of writing an apologia for imperialism:
    J. Blaut 1999. Environmentalism and Eurocentrism. Geographical Review 89 (3): 341-408.

  10. Randall — I don’t expect Jared Diamond will read my post, so it’s unlikely it will “daunt” him in any event. The point of opening this thread was to begin accumulating references that do challenge specific parts of Diamond’s thesis (which I do — you may want to check them out before dismissing them out of hand). What I wrote was, yes, meant as a big picture challenge. You’ll have to follow up on the subclauses on your own.

    Stentor — thanks for expanding on what you felt I missed. That is, of course, the point of this thread. But I don’t agree with you that the skewed timeframe of the book is more damning than its crypto-racism.

  11. ozma – thanks for the reply; perhaps i misunderstood the point of this post. i thought that you were interested in providing objections to diamond’s thesis from the standpoint of anthropology. i am familiar with various objections to diamond in the literature, and i certainly do not `dismiss them out of hand’. in fact, from my view as a non-specialist, some strike me as quite convincing.

    i’m wondering what anthropology has to contribute to the debate, however, besides merely rounding up various links. it’s a serious request—could you make this clearer for your readers?

    if i were to caricature your position, it sounds as if you’re saying that all of diamond’s supporters are politically correct laypeople who haven’t thought seriously about the issue, but like diamond because he serves up socially reassuring pablum. maybe some are, (maybe even the people who speak to you at these parties), but many are not; many people are interested in the arguments. i know you’re not taking the caricatured position, but i suspect you’re taking a position along that path, and i’d like for you to speak to both kinds of readers.

  12. Randall, I am sorry that I cannot meet all of your needs. If the account I gave of how Diamond’s “anti-racist” thesis does not align with anthropologically grounded anti-racism (which foregrounds history, power, social organization, and culture) strikes you as an insufficient objection to Diamond’s thesis “from the standpoint of anthropology”, I simply can’t help you. I do hope you will find satisfaction elsewhere.

  13. ozma – let me try one more time; i am interested, and i hope you suffer my confusion a bit longer.

    first, i don’t see how accepting diamond’s geographic arguments lead us to the conclusion that imperialist european societies are absolved of responsibility for the march of history. to put it simply: take two cultures, give one guns, germs, and steel, and put them together. what happens? well, all sorts of things could happen. the `germs’ component means that one culture will necessarily suffer more, at least in the short run. but we still have to explain what is done with the guns and the steel. geography did not determine the behavior of cortés or pizarro; geography does not determine neo-imperialist tendencies today. there is still room, i believe for an analysis of history, power, social organization, and culture within this framework. (i could be wrong here; if i am, please let me know.)

    i take it that the stronger worry, from the anthropological standpoint, is that geographical determinism leaves no room for cultural factors in explaining the process of history. is this the worry?

    thanks for your indulgence.

  14. [Disclaimer: personally never read anything by Jared Diamond.]
    What’s nice about this post isn’t the robustness of arguments against Diamond but the fact that, as anthropologists, we can recognize a “disconnect” between what we really do and how people perceive us. For some reason, academics in other fields as well as non-academics tend to expect us to be fascinated by some of those issues.
    Apparently, we’re expected to have read GG&S. First got acquainted with GG&S a couple of years ago through a friend who teaches history. He thought Jared Diamond might be recognized as an anthropologist.

    So, IMHO this blog entry is an interesting piece about people’s perception of anthropology rather than a half-baked “attack” on an author’s work.

  15. Alexandre — not having read the material in question should never stop anyone from contributing to SM! I just commented on a post about Zizek! 🙂 Anyway, thanks for your comment.

    Perhaps I might combine it with the point raised by Randall. Yes, we are concerned about geographical determinism. But that would be irrelevant if JD’s thesis were correct. I am sure the miasmaists were disconcerted by the arrival of the germ theory of disease, but the latter were right and they were wrong so it didn’t matter. It’s not, really, just expert turf-claiming that is at stake.

    First, there is the considerable evidence (some of which we are trying to gather here) that JD is just wrong. If he is just wrong, though, it would hardly merit commentary.

    What distresses anthropologists most about JD’s book & its enormous popularity has to do with a more general problem confronting anthro (and sociology, from what I gather talking with colleagues) (this is the tie-in to Alexandre’s point).

    It has to do with varieties of anti-racism. JD’s falls squarely in the camp of “no nothing” anti-racism, which drives us bananas. “no nothing” anti-racism insistently locates racism at a convenient scale. What we mostly face in the classroom are students who vociferously insist that while there might still be some scary tribes of racists out there (they usually point south, fabled homeland of the last living groups of uncontacted cretins who might hold such retrograde views), they think racism isn’t such a big deal because they look into their own hearts and see none, and into the hearts of their near and dear ones and see none there, either (oh, except grampa joe. and aunt ellen. golly, maybe their brother-in-law, too, and, well, anyway, definitely not MOST of the hearts in question).

    That racism might be a social-stuctural problem as much as an individual one is a point they Stubbornly. Refuse. To. Concede. And they embrace any and all evidence to the contrary. In my own classroom, I try to illustrate the point with reference to Durkheim’s suicide study, which produced the startling piece of knowledge that something that seemed so personal in fact manifested patterns if studied on a different scale. People are willing, in fact accustomed, to think sociologically about those sorts of problems. But racism? In no time they are damply reciting the famous bits of MLK’s oratory in order to tell you how wrong you are.

    Okay, so a book like GG&S really hits our buttons. Is is another variety of no-nothing anti-racism, here writ REALLY REALLY LARGE (into geography) rather than really really small (into individual hearts and minds). It helps make impossible the kinds of thinking about race, power, and history that sociological/anthropological scholarship indicate are necessary to bring about (1) genuine causal understanding and (2) change. It obviates what we take to be the all-important “middle part” between human origins and human psyches.

    Again, were GG&S correct, none of our cavils would be relevant. But the subparts of his thesis do not robustly support his enormous, overarching argument. We could say that and go home.

    Being anthropologists, though, we are also interested in the hugely enthusiastic popular reception of what is a long, long, tome full of yawn-making details (it’s no harry potter). What motivates the public to embrace such an unlikely book? To anthropologists, it looks like no-nothing anti-racism, a social phenomenon with which we are wearily familiar.

  16. I certainly don’t buy all of Diamond’s arguments in Guns, Germs, and Steel, but I then I don’t recall agreeing with all the arguments of any other book either. It wouldn’t occur to me to get upset at the author because I didn’t think he was an oracle. So I have to wonder about the tone of the objections to Diamond in this thread. Most of the complaints about the book seem to reflect the fact, obviously irritating to many hereabouts, that the book has been phenomenally successful. Rather than responding to what Diamond wrote, most of you are responding to its reception. You aren’t reviewing the movie. You’re reviewing the audience. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing to do, by the way; but I do think it helps to have some clarity about it.

    I think about Diamond’s book under the rubric of the virulence of books to people who only read one book. If you read a lot of social science and know a lot of history, the book is one thing, a set of more or less interesting examples and arguments that modify, challenge, or reinforce your existing ideas. You can register what the author is saying better than a less informed reader and yet the message of the book has less effect on you if only because it is merely one of hundreds of other books you’ve read. Meanwhile, if almost all the information in a book is new to you, as it is for many an intelligent layman, the book is a very different and more impressive object whose author appears as the source rather than the transmitter of all sorts of impressive but traditional ideas. Maybe the public ate up Diamond’s book because it somehow releaved their guilty feelings, but I expect that the pleasures of encountering something new but accessible had a lot to do with it.

  17. Hi Jim,

    This thread is open to comments about both the content and the reception of the book; if you have something important to share about the content, we urge that you post it. But to condescendingly suggest that others are being foolish (or envious) when they respond to the reception of the book, and then to go in your comment to do *exactly that* (and nothing else), is a nonpareil example of bad faith.

    It is, in addition, *rawther* high-handed to say that lots of people liked the book because they are not otherwise very well-read. but congratulations on having read “hundreds” of books yourself. golly.

  18. Since I specfically wrote that I think that the reception of a book is a perfectly reasonable topic, it’s a little odd to complain that I talk about its reception myself. Why shouldn’t I?

    By the way, I presume that everybody who reads Savage Mind has read hundreds of books. I’m not claiming to be especially well read in comparison to folks in these parts. Indeed, the point of my comments was to remind people who take their own hyperliteracy for granted, that books are effectively different kinds of objects to the vast majority of people who read very few serious books. Anyhow, I’m not casting aspersions on the fans of Diamond. I’m the one who thinks they may like the book because it taught ’em something important.

  19. Hi Jim — your point about hyperliteracy is a good one and well taken, but it does in fact cast an oblique aspersion on the critical faculties of a hypothetical population of middlebrow JD readers. I don’t think it’s the right analysis anyway — people might believe all sort of books on that basis, but they’ve *chosen* to read this one and been attracted to it by its central argument, which has the definite virtue of being easily summarized.

    I’ll stand behind the aspersions I’ve cast on the enthusiastic GG&S audience — I think what explains their enthusiasm is a kind of structural predisposition to “anti-racist” accounts that allow individuals to feel let off the social-responsibility hook.

  20. “people might believe all sort of books on that basis, but they’ve chosen to read this one and been attracted to it by its central argument”

    There’s no mystery here, ozama – Diamond’s prose is a model of clarity, and the thinking is genuinely creative and backed by a wide general knowledge (BTW, the argument is not *easily* summarized – as witness your failure to do so properly.)

    None of which makes him ultimately correct, but it does explain why the book made a splash. As to that ultimate correctness, his clarity, creativity and scholarship don’t guarantee it but they tend to make it a bit more likely than amongst those lacking (or, far worse, contemptuous of) such gifts.

    Rather than bewailing the lay reader’s ignorance we should praise his or her discernment.

  21. DD,

    SM would welcome your own, superior summary in this space. What we admire above all here is the ability to walk the walk. so go for it, darlin.

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  23. Jim Blaut wrote a book titled “8 Eurocentric Historians”. One of the chapters deals with “Guns, Germs and Steel”. You can read a version of this chapter that originally appeared in Antipode, I believe:

    I wrote a critique of the first installment of the PBS show at:

    Will follow up with my critique of parts 2 and 3.

    Finally, I deal with Diamond’s “Collapse”, a much worse book than “Guns, Germs and Steel” at:

  24. I knew Diamond personally and disliked him, thought that he was too full of himself. I was sent a copy of GG&S and began it with evil intent, hoping to pounce on his mistakes. I was very impressed by the excellent prose, the clarity of his message, which is of course oversimplified. It’s a constructive book. It’s not perfect and it slights the multivariate nonlinear nature of our world.

    I’ve been very concerned with the hostility between science and certain religious sectors in American life, always there, but much worse in the last generation. I’m very angry that politicians like Congressman Joe Barton harass scientists who wrote about climate change, that few Americans understand the difference between experimental science and other forms of science, and that some relatively sane people (Volokh) have suggested that it may be illegal to teach evolution in public school because evolution contradicts literal religion and is therefore not religion-neutral. Of course, Volokh doesn’t worry about interfering with the practice of polygamy because “the founding fathers were religious but not polygamists”.

    I don’t find the word racism any more useful than the words Nazi or Hitler. When you mention any of them, except with your drinking buddies, you activate strong emotional responses. They are trump cards, which shut down discussion between people of different political persuasions.

    Teachers of evolution (me included) too often get ourselves into a lather on the issue of schools, evolution and intelligent design. We look down on the popularizers, which Diamond definitely is. The big picture is very important. We need more Diamonds and more popularizers of science who write well. I agree, however, that Collapse is not up to the standard of GG & S. I find your criticisms off the mark, and your focus on racism and anti-racism to be in-group babbling. Evolution built intentionality and “otherism” into our nervous systems. Given an overcrowded, polluted and greenhouse-gassed planet, we need big picture analysis and broader, better education. It’s probably good to criticize all bestsellers, but I find your analysis neither constructive nor persuasive.

  25. Maracucho said: ” [I find] your focus on racism and anti-racism to be in-group babbling. Evolution built intentionality and “otherism” into our nervous systems”

    Could you clarify this “otherism” of which you speak? What is it, exactly? In what way is it built into our nervous systems?

  26. I’m seeing a trend toward conversational monkeywrenching developing here, which is somewhat understandable considering that’s my first impulse when I hear a book I like being criticized. However, accusing a discussion of not being worthwhile is not a valid reply to the points brought up therein.
    Maracucho, I think we all certainly agree that religion needs to stop interfering with science & the whole sort of argument that goes along with that. It is true that we need more popularizing science authors who write well, and we need more people willing to give people a glimpse of the “big picture.”
    Locating some factors that have played a part in the complex weaving and shaping of modern civilization, then isolating them and constructing a deterministic worldview based on them is not showing the big picture, it’s blowing up a small picture. Plus, if your methods are questionable, then you’re just popularizing bad science, which is a Bad Thing. And if you popularize an account of racism that we consider harmful, then we have a pretty legitimate reason to take up beef with you. So that’s that.
    I find your aversion to speaking of racism particularly disturbing. Discussion of such a heated topic necessarily leads to some polarization. Refusal to discuss racism as a potent and systemic force in modern society is exactly what we’re fighting against. (Let me not even get into your allusion to genetic predisposition to racism, as though that alleviated us of responsibility.) It’s true that we are living on an overcrowded, polluted and greenhouse-gassed planet. But we’re also living in societies where oppression is widespread and yet largely ignored. Any author espousing a potentially irresponsible view of racism is fair game for criticism, and any ensuing discussion is legitimate.
    If you found their criticisms off the mark, perhaps you weren’t aware of the mark they were aiming at?

  27. Ozma writes that there’s an abundance of evidence that Diamond is wrong. I’d appreciate more concrete rebuttals to back up this claim. So far I’ve seen two references here to journal articles, which dispute parts of his thesis. Perhaps they refute Diamond, perhaps they do not, but the matter hardly seems settled.

    Also, Ozma’s 3-part summary of Diamond’s argument (“part the first,…” etc.) is wrong in at least the following ways.

    First, Diamond is not primarily interested in explaining power imbalances between races, but between societies.

    Second, even if we charitably read “white people” to refer to “European societies” rather than white people per se, Diamond’s book does not claim to explain why Europeans dominate the globe instead of other inhabitants of Eurasia. His book’s explanatory narrative stops at the beginning of the European colonial era, as Ozma would have discovered had (s)he finished reading it, or even paid close attention while reading the introductory chapter.

    (As for why Europe came to dominate the world rather than China or India, in the book’s final section Diamond only appends a tentative hypothesis that geography might have been one of the causal factors, and it’s quite clear from the text that he expects other works to have more useful things to say on this subject than his book does.)

    Finally, Ozma’s objections seem to fundamentally confuse “for all” arguments with “exists” arguments. Diamond does not say that “for all societies in Eurasian conditions, those societies will become centralized, agrarian cultures that dominate their neighbors”. He says, “given Eurasian landmass conditions, there will exist a society that becomes centralized and agrarian relatively early in history, and that society will dominate its neighbors”.

    Therefore, as Brad DeLong wrote, Diamond’s argument operates at a higher level than that which most anthropologists seem to be interested in — i.e., understanding how individual societies develop within some environmental context. But, however interesting this question is, its answers can only be complementary to Diamond-style environmental explanations — just as developmental biology describes the growth of an individual organism, whereas evolutionary biology explains how these organisms (however they develop) were selected to produce our modern ecosystems.

    Incidentally, “evo-devo”, which blends these two branches of biology, is a pretty hot subfield these days. I think you’d get a lot more mileage out of Diamond if you could see the potential synergies between his explanations and yours, rather than seeing them as somehow rivalrous.

  28. Um, evo-devo *is* rivalrous, and devo, as far as I can tell, is winning. It’s far more robustly explanatory of many of the most interesting questions, while evo is a backdrop. In fact, evo’s most ambitious claimants are skulking about in the space created by the absence of positive knowledge, and devo is gradually flushing them out.

    Look, obviously the world would be different if it were knee-deep in paperclips. everything would have turned out differently than it has had the baseline been different. that’s a given. But Diamond doesn’t make that general claim — he attempts to explain a very proximal outcome with a very distal cause (again, this is why evo is losing arguments to devo as devo’s knowledge base expands, btw). I think this Diamond’s approach is both (1) not persuasive and (2) given the question he chooses, highly suspect.

    As for demanding more references — babe, this is just another way for you to insist that I have not persuaded you. let’s make a deal. You read the references I did offer, and the ones that others have appended (including on Kerim’s thread), and return with a report. Then you’ll be allotted some more. If you aren’t bothering to try and be convinced, why should we waste our time?

    Actually I’ll do one better — *just* read Terrell’s article and come back with a cogent written critique. after that, feel free to march around on SM asking us what we’ve done for you lately.

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  30. OK, here’s where I am on this at this point.

    Diamond wrote a popular book that looks like an academic text. He has a grand theme that isn’t fully supported by his detailed subthemes and factoids — but how could it be? At our current level of understanding we couldn’t support any detailed grand theme adequately. I personally like what I got from his explanations, but I don’t expect them to be “true”, they’re just interesting ideas that make sense. For my own purposes he could have cut the bulk of his book considerably by presenting them that way. When he presents reams of garbage facts as if he’s proving his point, it just gets in the way. Ideally we’d have somebody else who writes just as well come out with another book that polishes a completely different facet, and he’d write as if he was proving his points, and the public could read both of them and compare them. Three would be even better. People who’d read the books could have arguments in bars and such about them, and maybe some of them would grapple with the question of what sort of evidence you need to actually decide such things, and how much of an open mind to keep before the evidence is in.

    Then I’m hearing an argument about the social consequences of the book and the TV show. There’s a claim that they are irresponsible, the show more than the book, because they confirm people in bad habits. For this argument to work Diamond doesn’t actually have to talk about race or racism, all that’s required is that racists use his book to confirm their bad opinions. Diamond’s own intentions or actions are almost irrelevant. I can’t really support that approach. Racists and other people with weak or selective analytical skills will distort whatever they see to their own ends. And then to take it a step further, Diamond as a popular write has no obligation to be responsible for society. He’s writing in a long tradition, aquatic apes and territorial imperatives and so on. If he got enough background right that actual scientists are taking him seriously, that’s a plus.

    Scientists tend to specialise, they hardly ever get the chance to professionally focus on the big picture and how everything fits together. If you do that it doesn’t result in more-and-better papers in your little specialty. It’s hard to deal with big pictures, the machinery mostly isn’t there. So if scientists do take potshots at Diamond’s work it will be in the form of objecting to specific little factoids. Given sufficient time perhaps almost every factoid he mentions will be opposed. And yet the big picture will remain. I don’t know what if anything to do about that.

    Finally, people object because Diamond tends to write as if geography trumps everything else. But of *course* he’d do that. He’s a professor of geography. What else would he write about?

    So I have no animosity against Diamond, and none against people who want to collect references that refute his points in detail, and so on. I hope he makes a lot of money and I hope some of his readers actually learn something. I’d be very glad if one of you here follow his example, and write something completely different with the same style that’s just as successful.

  31. It demolishes the bright line demarcating agricultural domestication in human prehistory that sustains this entire portion of Diamond’s argument.

    I unfortunately cannot access the whole article referenced here (available online only to subscribers), but I did read the abstract. As far as I can tell, it seems that the article argues that there’s a whole range of practices between full-fledged gathering and full-fledged agriculture. (Please correct me if I am wrong on this!) Hence destroying a putative bright line.

    But this portion of Diamond’s thesis does not rest on a bright line. He himself argues that there was probably a gradual, even inadvertant, shift of a society’s provisions spreadsheet from gathering to farming, at least in the people who first “discovered” farming. In fact, I think he even mentions cases of “gatherers” who pro-actively modify their environment to increase food output, e.g. burning forest to clear it for more edible plants. Just because there are lots of things between full-fledged farming and full-fledged gathering does not imply that moving slightly in the direction of farming will not also move you slightly in the direction of producing more food and living a more sedentary lifestyle. It’s just that plants that were genetically very close to domestication at the end of the Ice Age would be domesticated faster than those that needed a bit more work.

    Re: domesticable animals – “given the presence of potentially useful animals, it is not a foregone conclusion that humans will set about domesticating them” – no, but in a large landspace over a long period of time with a large variety of human cultures, it seems *likely* that *at least one* society will try it. If one culture is finds pastoralism conceptually alien, perhaps the neighboring culture won’t; or the culture may change over time. It seems to me a stretch to suppose that for 12,000 years, all the Native Americans across all of the Great Plains never domesticated bison solely for cultural reasons. An alternative explanation: it’s hard to herd bison without horses.

    Re: poisonous whispers – Diamond’s thesis emphatically does *not* say that geographic determinism implies that colonialism is no one’s fault. Obviously, colonialism is the fault of the perpretrators. Determinism does not rob one of moral reponsibility. And if people believe this poisonous whisper, that is their own stupidity, not the incorrectness of Diamond’s thesis. (He actually takes care to try to refute the idea that explaining Eurasian domination somehow justifies or excuses it.) To take an analogous example, right-wingers often claim that trying to understand the root causes of terrorism is tantamount to justifying or excusing terrorism. Obviously it is not. Similarly, explaining European conquest of the world in terms of geography does not absolve Eurasians of moral responsibility for said conquest.

  32. Diamond’s prose is a model of clarity, and the thinking is genuinely creative and backed by a wide general knowledge

    Not only that, but real his story ends about 1500. He is really explaining why colonialism worked, not justifying it or going into the process, and he does insist that many of the “losers” are actually smarter and “better” than the winners in terms of abilities (due to the stress to survive in harsh environments).

    I enjoyed the book. Found it interesting, find many of the “demolishing” replies as persuasive as the claims that yellow cake uranium will eventually be found in Iraq.

    In real life the book makes a good foundation for discussing why racism is wrong, why it stands on bad foundations and is the wrong explanation for what happened.

    Others can write about how the Incas and Aztecs were close to the earth and paragons of virtue destroyed by colonialism of the sort only invented in Europe or how the Zulus were spreading peace and enlightenment when the English failed to stop the Africaans Dutch from disrupting their holistic migration. That isn’t the point.

    Maybe I should watch more television, but the book isn’t so bad. I think you’ve missed the point on how the book actually affects real human beings who read it.

  33. Re the Terrell et al article: I did read the article, and to borrow from the Princess Bride, I don’t think it means what Ozma seems to think it means. The article is a reasonable effort, at least to a nonspecialist (I’m an astronomer). It makes the case that there is not a clear line between hunter/gatherer and farmer. This does not, however, have much at all to do with Diamonds thesis. It does not address at all the difference in population density between “agricultural” and “hunter/gatherer societies, with all that such a difference implies. If Mesoamerican societies fed corn to deer for ritual sacrifices, fine. It simply did not have the same consequences for their culture that raising herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs did for Eurasian cultures. And there are sound reasons why people still don’t raise large herds of deer for food today. History would have been quite different if there was a single analog of the large Eurasian mammals in the New World. The fact that there was not does matter in reconstructing the why of history. It does not follow that it is the only thing that matters, and I doubt that Diamond would claim so either.

    Guns, Germs, and Steel has very little to do with the last 500 years or so of history, and the main objection of the folks here seems to be the desire to treat humans as being a blank slate. The environment doesn’t matter…culture is all. This strikes me as human arrogance rather than specialized knowledge. To each their own, I suppose.

  34. J Thomas, I agree with your first paragraph.
    What I see here is that Diamond has written a book in which he touches on a lot of concepts that concern anthropologists. However anthropologists have a list of complaints about him:
    – He doesn’t actually use the concepts born out of anthropology & the way he presents the concepts that fall within anthropologist’s interests is questionable.
    – His anthropological methods are sketchy.
    – The perspective on this is mine, but: the demands of being an actual scholar and a public intellectual (as the author of a popular book) are different, and it’s hard for academics to take him seriously because he does things they(we?) think are silly.
    The extent to which these things effect the validity of his thesis, I can’t say. The extent to which people I have seen in this discussion think that these things effect the validity of his thesis seems to be roughly proportional to the extent to which they annoy are annoyed by them.
    That is to say, people who aren’t really into the same sort of fine grained conceptual analysis of racism and cultural politics that our SM friends are into, read their complaints and think “whateverrrr.”
    At least that’s my take on it, I don’t mean to imply anything about anyone.
    Anyway, J Thomas, on to your discussion on the social consequences of his work. See, the problem here is that it’s not just racists in white robes versus an intelligent anti-racist populace. The people who make the biggest impact on the way race is treated in America are the people who don’t really have an opinion, or even those that would like to think of themselves as Not Racist. This is really the biggest segment of our population, so it’s obviously these people who determine the climate of racial attitudes and who support the structures that may contribute to institutional racism. If an account that purports to be anti-racist is popularized, these people are the ones reading it, and if that account contains concepts that are harmful (read: bolster a view on racism that does not encourage people to critically evaluate their effect on society and change) then that account is harmful. It’s not that we’re worried that huge mean racists will wave the book around citing it (this sort of thing is unlikely,) it’s that we’re worried that it won’t have a helpful effect on the general populace. We DO think that popular writers have to make an effort to be responsible for the effect their work has on society.
    Anyway, I feel sort of ridiculous contributing having not read the book, even though my contributions have been mostly aimed at the arguments of others. So I guess I’ll have to pick it up and evaluate it myself.
    Also, I just read a discussion about this discussion elsewhere in which the various people around here were accused of many unsavory things, not the least of which was being “Marxist-Leninist” “postmodernists”. Heh!

  35. JS Nelxon, yes, people on Brad Delong’s blog have picked up all sorts of weird ideas about you guys, and one of their big complaints is that you criticise Diamond without reading all of him. I was expecting to find postmodern criticisms here until I actually read what you wrote.

    Racism isn’t such an issue to me, I’m one of the people who’d say ‘whatever’. I’m clear the USA has a problem about people with different ethnicities living together, and it could result in a bosnian sort of situation eventually, and I don’t have any idea about the timing of that. I’m going to free associate a little and try to type fast enough to keep up, or else fill in later. I sympathise with blacks who have trouble getting jobs because they’re black, but if I switch careers I’ll have trouble getting a job too, I have to convince some employer that I’m better for the job than every other applicant, and that’s the same problem the black guy has. When there’s a labor shortage it’s no big deal, and when there aren’t enough to go around I’ll worry about the black guy after my own job is secure. So micro level, yeah, but on the macro level there’s this stuff that could build up, like Rodney King, and uh, institutional racism, and it could turn real ugly …. Hey, something could just come up out of nowhere any time in the next ten years and get me killed …. This is a real big problem and it’s kind of a secret problem, nobody’s going to talk about it much because all it takes is a bunch of young black guys getting the idea people think they’re a serious threat and they’re going to try it out …. Two snipers terrorised the DC area for awhile, they only killed a few dozen people but millions were scared of them, if it was 200 doing it…. get a bunch of innocent people killed because somebody thought they looked threatening and their skin was dark…. Bosnia here we come. And trying to head it off won’t get publicity, it’s a secret crisis.

    OK, thirty seconds thought was enough to persuade me americans need anthropologists to finesse this for us. To persuade us to do the right things for the wrong reasons, because as groups we aren’t going to think it out.

    So, can you discuss the plans in public? Some of what I’ve heard here sounds like plain old complaining. Is Diamond being irresponsible? But he isn’t a member of your club, he’s just somebody who’s picked up enough anthropology tricks to be dangerous. If he doesn’t know the secret handshake why would you expect him to share your ethics? If his book has an effect on the public, that’s just something to take into account when you’re setting up your own effects. And it sounds like you’re going to be changing people’s habits and making institutional changes. Is theory all that important for that? Myself, I can pick up theory pretty quick but when it comes to acting like an anthropologist I say arigato to the koreans and give a thumb’s-up to the iraqis and notice what I did later. The theory doesn’t seem to have much affect real-time.

    You’re collecting references to discredit Diamond in detail, but does that really matter? Professionals will read Diamond’s books as popular-science, and the public won’t really care about the citations. How would you approach it? Wouldn’t it be better to act all professorial? “Ah, yes. Diamond. I read that. Not professional work but a good storyteller. He isn’t an anthropologist|archeologist|geneticist|plant-breeder|ecologist]animal-trainer|etc, you know. He got a lot of the details wrong. I expect soething kind of like he said was what happened though. Yes. Geography is very important, you know. One of the key factors. Can’t do without it. He has something of a point there.”

    If you do it right you can put him on a level with the search for Noah’s Ark. And if they do want to argue the details you can go “That isn’t my field, but I went to a seminar where Smith-Wesson said….” and you’re quoting a higher authority all the time without actually having to defend your points because you’re just saying what you recall the real expert said.

    And if it matters, why not set up a couple of other Diamonds? You can craft a message that people want to believe but that’s harmless or even beneficial, and come up with some interpretation of history that will support it, and run with it?

    Speaking of what people want to believe, I twice tried to float an idea on Brad Delong’s weblog that no one every picked up on the least little bit. It went, if things had gone just a little bit different we wouldn’t be discussing the superiority of western technology. Instead we’d have some mongol experts arguing why it wsa inevitable that eurasia would wind up with the best horse-pasture in the world. Because eurasia inevitably produced the best horse-nomads and the best archers and they were the best at slaughtering the city-folk and reverting their cropland to pasture.

    If the mongols had taken all of europe and sacked the monasteries where the R&D was going on — the new plows, the new wheat, etc — where would we be today? Was it anything more than sheer luck that stopped them?

  36. Okay, there are a lot of points here, some of them good, some of them wacky. The posts are getting too long to easily keep in mind, which I guess in a way is a good thing. Let me just make (if I can) 2 short points.

    (1) Diamond’s work is not taken seriously in academic anthropology and academic geography (he’s actually a prof in physiology) (which is important, but — cripes — never mind). Maybe this is because we’re a bunch of cranky wankers, but it is important to be aware of this, okay?

    (2) It seems like no matter what we say about GG&S, a lot of the public just returns to the same point: it must be true, it totally makes sense, we LOVE THIS BOOK.

    It feels, therefore, that the book is approached as a kind of creation story, origin myth, explanation for the world as we know it. As I’ve said umptyump times, if Diamond is right, if he’s the Galileo of our age, none of the cavils of cranky wanky anthros and geographers will matter. However, if he is wrong (and I believe he is), the question becomes: why is it *so important* to people to believe he is correct? That’s one of the questions I tried to answer in my original post.

  37. Maybe there’s some other thread that would be better for discussing race relations?

    When I think about the reception this is getting, it reminds me a lot of SJ Gould and punctuated equilibrium.

    Gould presented a simple idea that anybody could understand, which was either obviously true and well-known or obviously false and wacky depending on what you thought he was saying.

    It provided a grand overview of evolution, one that unfortunately provided essentially no testable hypotheses or interesting new ideas.

    But the public loved it, and scientists had to say something about it to them.

  38. But isn’t a major difference that not just parts of the public, but parts of the scientific community for which Gould’s thesis was relevant, embraced the book? ie, the debate over it was inside the public and inside the world of specialists, too? So that there was some popular, but much more expert, debate over it?

    where with Diamond’s work, the reaction from anthros and geographers is mostly: here we go again. I mean, GG&S is definitely not tearing us up internally. There’s a consensus that it recycles a kind of explanation that’s been around for ages; it’s not hotly controversial _inside_ our disciplines. it’s regarded as unserious.

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  40. The popularity of Diamond’s book is not a big mystery. He offered an explanation of striking facts of human history, one that people like because it is explicitly non-racist. In the popular consciousness, the only alternative explanation is that of intrinsic European superiority.

    You (Osma and Kerin) are not having much success in mitigating Diamond’s success because your response is non-sequitorial. Your response to Diamond’s theory seems to be either a) deny the facts he explains, or b) claim that the facts are not important. (I’m not sure which; you seem to do a little bit of both.) Since any reasonably educated person will be familar with those facts, and since a reasonably educated person who is not a racist (or even would like to think of themselves as not racist, even if they subconsciously are) would like a non-racist explanation of these facts, what did you expect?

  41. [quote]Finally, Ozma’s objections seem to fundamentally confuse “for all” arguments with “exists” arguments. Diamond does not say that “for all societies in Eurasian conditions, those societies will become centralized, agrarian cultures that dominate their neighbors”. He says, “given Eurasian landmass conditions, there will exist a society that becomes centralized and agrarian relatively early in history, and that society will dominate its neighbors”.[/quote]
    I may not have understood completely, but I don’t see that he has given a causal explanation for domesticization. Definitely he couldn’t be making the “for all” assertion, because that doesn’t fit the facts. The second I think, fits the empirical facts but seems to lack causal explanation. 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? More like pure description, which is fine and is then just a matter of picking over details. Jonathan Friedman’s “Marxism, structuralism and vulgar materialism” truculent critique of Harris seems to be relevant to this neo-materialism…

  42. What is “otherism” – see #23 and 24
    Humans began as pack animals, like dogs and most monkeys. We quickly decide whether another person belongs to the pack. This is best shown in the vision arena. Humans and monkeys have different emotional responses to familiar and strange faces. If we get a 35 msec glimpse of a face from another ethnic group, a metabolic response can be detected from the amygdala, probably an “emotional alerting”. If the exposure is leisurely, 500 msec, the response to black and white or Chinese vs. Australian faces becomes very similar – the rapid, “automatic response” alarm can be set aside. Psychologists have known for decades that humans are much better at recognizing faces of their race or in-group than of other groups. Adjustment for individual degrees of “race prejudice”, whether explicit (self-report) or implicit (derived from reaction times) doesn’t eliminate this “other race face effect”. It is found in 3 month old infants and monkeys (familiar v unfamiliar faces). There is limited data suggesting that infant responses can be modified by seeing many pictures of other race faces before testing. This other race face response has a biological core that is overlaid by non-biological factors. It reliably extends to members of our own group with deformed or wrinkled faces, unless we know them well. All mammals and birds with good vision pay special attention to the eyes of another person or animal. This provides some information about their focus of interest, what they might do. It’s why dogs don’t like a strange human to look them in the face. The brain machinery for gaze processing and facial analysis is somewhat different but both are quickly activated in novel situations.
    “Otherism” is the partly automatic tendency to immediately categorize people as members or non-members of our pack. It’s not limited to primates. It and the gaze detector seem to work poorly in many humans with schizophrenia or autism (two different syndromes). All normal humans seem to have this “detector racism” but it doesn’t automatically control our behavior.
    1. Golby, AJ, et al, Differential responses in the fusiform region to same-race and other-race faces. Nature Neurosci. 2001;4:845-50.
    2. Ferguson, DP, et al, ‘They all look alike to me’: prejudice and cross-race face recognition. Br J Psychol. 2001;92:567-77.
    3. Lehmann, C, et al, Dissociation between overt and unconscious face processing in fusiform face area. Neuroimage. 2004;21:75-83.

  43. Maraucho, there is a case to be made that “otherism” has a genetic basis and was selected for by evolution, but imaging studies of brain activation in response to faces are not it. Just because something has a biological basis does not mean it is innate. *All mental phenomena* have a biological causes, because the mind is the creation of the brain. This means that social influences (like racism) that influence how we think and behave must *necessarily* have an influence on the brain, because it is only through neural signaling that thinking occurs. Thus, an equally plausible explanation for the same-race/other-race face phenomenon is that social influences have conditioned us to react differently to same-race faces and other-race faces, and this is reflected in the neural wiring that underlies said reactions.

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