Guns, Germs and Steel Links

The posts that Ozma and I wrote about Guns, Germs and Steel seem to have struck a nerve, and already there is a fair amount of discussion in the blogsphere. In addition to Brad DeLong’s dismissive pot-shots, there is a very good discussion developing in the comments section of this Crooked Timber post. From there I learned that the Science article mentioned by Ozma (and also by Majikthise and Louis Proyect) has been posted online by Louis. I recommend everyone take the time to read it in full. Also, Nomadic Thoughts is collecting links about the debate, and I will try to mirror some of those here, as well as whatever else I come across as I discover them. And stay tuned – our resident New Guinea expert, Rex, is on vacation, but I’m sure he’ll have something to say when he gets back!

UPDATE: For those who want a quick overview of the debate so-far, go take a look at an excellent write-up by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed.

UPDATE: This is getting very long, so I’m moving everything below the fold.

UPDATE: Stentor Danielson, over at debitage, has some thoughts on GG&S:

As I see it, the main problem with Diamond’s thesis is that he reaches too far back in history to find the roots of Euro-American dominance. He traces the current power imbalance back to the arrangement of continents and biota that prevailed at the dawn of “civilization” some 10,000 years ago. Diamond makes much of Pizarro’s easy victory over the Incas, treating it as the proof in the pudding of the superiority that Europe had achieved. But even as Europe was laying the smackdown on the Americas, it was desperately trying to catch up to the much more advanced civilizations of India, China, and the Middle East. It wasn’t until the the 19th century, when the industrial revolution was in full swing, that we can say with confidence that (western) Europe was the world’s dominant power (see Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient). This suggests that a historically contingent explanation is likely to be better than one positing a long-standing inevitability.

UPDATE: Brad De Long has updated his post with a new cheap shot. He deliberately misunderstands me in order to try to make me look foolish. [UPDATE: Yes, I said some things in sloppy ways which facilitated such misrepresentations, but only if you ignore the point I was trying to make in my initial post. Is the point to try to understand each other, or to play “gotcha” – berating someone until they are tired and say something you can use against them? The latter might work in presidential debates (Kerry’s “global test” remark), but isn’t appropriate for scholarly discourse.] I said:

Addendum: Yes, if the book had been framed in terms of “why, prior to 1600, did the west have more cargo” … fine. But that is not how the book is framed. Nor do I think it would have been as popular if it had been framed in those terms (for the reasons Ozma alludes to).

To which he responds with quotes showing that JD did, indeed say the year 1600 was his ending point, in his book.

All this proves is that Brad is a troll. He deliberately misunderstands and misrepresents what I am saying in order to make me upset (this time it worked). I shouldn’t rise to the bait, but this is too easy….

It is very clear that there are two frames. Yali’s question sets up the larger frame within which the other one is set. I, and I believe Ozma, are arguing that much of the popularity of the book derives from the slippage between these two frames – the fact that answering one question seems to answer another. In my initial post – which was a critique of the TV show, I argued that this slippage begins with Diamond’s setting up this slippage in the book, even though I explicitly acknowledged that he did a better job of it in the prologue than what we see in the TV show. Still, I felt it was important to make it clear that one question does not answer the other, and that in fact Yali’s question was not the one we should be asking in the first place.

Rather than trying to understand all of this, De Long deliberately uses it to dismiss me. If you read our discussion in the forums I think you can see that this derives from the fact that he doesn’t like the implication that capitalism might somehow be at fault for contemporary inequality. But rather than having a civil debate about this issue, he resorts to cheap shots.

The number one rule for dealing with trolls is “don’t feed them.” There are a lot of other people who have contributed interesting points to the threads here, at Crooked Timber, and even on De Long’s post. From now on I will focus any energy I have (I don’t have much these days) on interacting with those who have attempted to make a civil contribution to promoting further dialog rather than trying to prevent reasonable discussion. Don’t feed the trolls!

UPDATE: Our very own Tak is keeping quiet on GG&S (he hasn’t read it) but in a post over at Frog in a Well he has a lot to say about an article Diamond wrote about Japan.

There are also frightening parallels in the history of Japanese fascism to the kind of environmental determinism used by Diamond.

… Instead of reading these simplistic assumptions about race, technology, and stages of civilization, I’d rather wait for the release of Civilization 4, in which the game designers rely on the same assumptions.

UPDATE: Henry Farrell thinks that Tak’s post (together with those on this blog) represent “some underlying deformation of thinking.”

In the comments on that post, Doug, of Fistful of Euros, says:

Maybe Tak et al. are a put-up by the right-ish bits of the academy to make more left-ist bits look silly?

I have to admit – that one cracked me up.

If we anthropologists seem a little to ready to throw around the term “racist” it is not because we are “jealous” of other disciplines (in fact, anthropology is doing better than ever before), it is because we are all too aware of our own history as a discipline. Anthropologists were the foot-soldiers of colonialism, promoting theories of racial superiority to justify colonial expansion. As a result, we are sensitive to the ways in which specific interests can be served in the name of “objective” science.

UPDATE: Now Kevin Drum links to Brad’s Post. Kevin is as thoughtful, polite, and articulate as he always is. I just wish people would stop conflating my comments about the reception and limitations of the book and the TV show with Ozma’s critique of his environmental arguments. And just because people say they aren’t doing something doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it – that’s one of the first things you learn when you do ethnographic fieldwork!

UPDATE: Timothy Burke takes up the discussion at Cliopatria:

It’s a serious mistake to even imply that Diamond is racist, as Henry Farrell properly observes. I would say that he has a stubborn inclination to use racial terms when they don’t serve any empirical or descriptive purpose.


Fourth, on Yali’s question, I have a few problems. Though Brad DeLong insists that Diamond only means his answer to explain the relative imbalance in material wealth and power between many non-Western societies and the West up to 1500 and not afterwards, I think it’s clear that Diamond thinks that post-1500 events are no more than the icing on the cake, that the fundamental explanation of post-1500 inequalities and disparities in the world derive from the grand arc of pre-1500 development, from the luck of the geographical draw. He’s not alone in that: this is a venerable argument which takes on variant forms among world-systems historians and Marxists. But De Long is being a bit unfair to insist somehow that the Savage Minds bloggers have in this respect misread Diamond: he clearly argues that the pre-1500 history is crucially determinant of the post-1500 history.

UPDATE: Brad DeLong responds to Burke’s critique, and Burke responds in the comments. Burke adds this:

It is important to note, though, that Diamond’s latest work makes it clear that he’s not a determinist, not exactly, in that he does think elites can make decisions, that there are multiple pathways a society can travel in relation to its environment.

That book would be Collapse, which I haven’t read.

UPDATE: I missed this one, but De Long seems to have taken Ozma seriously enough to actually read one of the articles she cited, although he ends up ridiculing it. Still, I’m glad he made an effort! That’s all we ask of our readers.

UPDATE: Lawyers, Guns and Money discusses the debate between Ozma and DeLong in ethical terms. (Note: Ozma is a she.) And recommends a few books on egalitarian ethics.

Stentor Danielson has a followup to his own earlier critique.

And John Hawks thinks that “Diamond’s work … is a lot closer to traditional anthropology than some find comfortable” (despite flaws with its historical framework).

UPDATE: Someone over at Crooked Timber posted this link to a review of Collapse by Clifford Geertz.

Also, Tak has an extended reply to Henry in the comments section of his post.

First: I didn’t say that Jared Diamond was racist.

…Yet despite the things I liked about the article, I was disturbed by some of his assumptions, which in my opinion are the kind that help fuel the very racism abound in East Asia today. This is what I meant by him perpetuating racism.

UPDATE: A libertarian take on Collapse by Ronald Bailey.

UPDATE: There has been a significant amount of new discussion on the site. Most of it by Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington. You can see all their posts here. Rex also had a post about the nature of anthropological critiques which has some good discussion in the comments. And I have two more posts: One on the third episode of the TV show, in which Diamond discusses malaria in Africa. And another one about a trenchant critique of his new book, Collapse.

115 thoughts on “Guns, Germs and Steel Links

  1. I agree with Kerim’s proposition that we can study the circulation of ideas, the generation and applicaiton of discourses, and so on. I just think that we have to compartmentalize those things pretty carefully (meaning, not read back what we see in circulations of a work into the work itself) and that studying interpretations and practices that draw their authority or shape from source texts is itself a rigorous business, that you can’t just assume that a reading that you give to a text is a reading which is powerful in the world. A great model I think is Isabel Hofmeyr’s terrific recent book on the historical circulations of the book A Pilgrim’s Progress: it shows we can study how texts circulate in the world, but that doing so carefully is likely to return a lot of interesting surprises. There’s a great little essay published a while back by Jonathan Zilberg on the popularity of American country music in Zimbabwe in the early 1990s that I always think of in this context as well–that an American who simply listened to the music would hear one set of ostensible themes and messages, but it would be a big mistake to assume that those messages were generative of social practice among Zimbabwean listeners. I think we know this when we’re out there in ethnographic fieldsites, so I merely wonder why we suspend that sophistication and caution when we’re talking about Jared Diamond.

    Colin’s also got an important point, that even if you want to prefer a Foucauldian framework for understanding knowledge production, he’s not just talking about the production of falsehood (though I think at times he has the same problem as more generic social constructionism in that his argument derives its energy from a sense of “unveiling” the infrastructure of truth). More importantly, Colin notes that transporting a natural science framework into a social science context is a source of some of Diamond’s problems. Let me note that on the matter of “culture”, which is Diamond’s blindspot to begin with, the problem actually crosses the natural science/social science boundary, in that some studies of chimpanzees in the wild are suggesting very strongly that there are “cultural” differences between different groups of chimps which are in some sense arbitrary (tied to contingent, even random, events in the history of each group of chimp) rather than expressive of some underlying determining driver like adaptation.

    Rikespsyc: This is an old argument in the history of slavery; some scholars spend a lot of time trying to come up with a lowest-common-denominator definition of slavery that covers all cases in all societies across time while clearly delineating slaves from other types of servile social classes (serfs, indentured laborers, servile castes, etc.) Other scholars just prefer to try and find historically and geographically local terms for social groups and to define social hierarchy in terms that make sense within a given society. You’re right that most of the attempts to define the term slavery in some general sense focus on the idea of a person turned into a commodity. But by that definition, slaves in West and Central African societies before 1300 or so might not be slaves (which is what we’re referring to when we talk about ‘slavery 1’). Most of the people we might call “slaves” in those societies before the Atlantic slave trade were captives taken in war, or strangers who wandered into a society; they generally couldn’t be freely sold or exchanged. Instead, they were brought into kinship groups as the most junior person in the kinship group. In practice, that meant they got all the bad jobs that no one else wanted to do, and were generally treated poorly, but often just fractionally less poorly than a young “non-slave” who was part of a very junior or downtrodden lineage within the community. The children of such slaves (often from marriages to established lineage members) were increasingly less “enslaved”, though you do find places where everyone knows which lineages were heavily composed of “slaves”. Nor were such slaves necessarily poorly treated or subject to menial labor: in a number of large West African states, slaves held senior administrative or military posts and even in a few cases became kings or emperors when established dynasties failed or were divided by rivalries.

    What makes it especially muddy, though, is there was also a small slave trade between West Africa and the Islamic world, so yes, there were people under “slavery1” who were actually traded or sold as commodities. There were even field slaves in the area which is present-day Iraq who came from Africa. This is why many scholars want to come up with a definition of slavery that covers all such cases and why they would insist (more politely and long-windedly) that you’re right, that all this slavery1 and slavery2 talk is beside the point: a slave is a slave is a slave. I think they’ve got a point, but on the other hand, there do seem to be some substantive differences (not just differences in scale) between slavery within West and Central African societies around 1300 and the slavery of Africans in the New World around 1700.

  2. Rikepsyc, the claim is that while both are slavery, they aren’t the same.

    It’s kind of like the difference between being in a minimum-security prison where you pick pecans and write your novel and get occasional furloughs, versus being in a concentration camp where they’re going to work you to death over months or a few years. It isn’t the same thing, though you’re not a free person either way.

    And of course it can be a gradation more than a dichotomy. You could be a slave who’s part of the family, not that much different from a poor relation or the old widowed aunt who has a place even though nobody wants to actually spend money on her, or you could be in a dysfunctional family where you’re the punching bag everybody takes out their frustrations on.

    And of course in a place like the american south where the whole spectrum might be available, the worst of it colors the best. “Nobody’s going to sell old Ben down the river!” isn’t that much different from “You can’t take Rover to the pound!” or “They can’t make glue and dogfood out of Blaze!”. When you’re worth money they might cash you in when they get into severe financial trouble, and there you are in the death camp after all.

    Sometimes it’s worth making distinctions among different varieties of slavery even though as you point out it’s all slavery.

    But then, what if you’re on salary as an exempt employee, so you’re expected to get your work done without getting paid any overtime. And you couldn’t get the job without signing a non-compete clause that says if they fire you you can’t get another job in the field for a year — and in a fast-moving industry being out for a year means you’re unemployable. So you get thrown into the unskilled labor pool. In principle is this better than slavery? (In degree, it’s obviously worse being in a concentration camp than being unemployed with no benefits — the police or security guards will only go after you if you get out of line.) The employer can work you very hard and then throw you away. If you were a slave at least they’d find you another job. 😉

  3. Slipped Patrick’s comment, but it’s a really good one: I think he pinpoints exactly why this entire discussion was a heated one, and I do think that in so doing, he appropriately places some of the blame on the underlying structures of argument and assumption that presently drive canonical scholarly practice in cultural anthropology and cognate disciplines.

  4. It is really a mistake to call this discussion representative of “canonical scholarly practice.” In fact, most anthropology these days is downright empricist if you ask me. Descriptive ethnography with little effort to engage in wider theoretical debates, foucauldian or otherwise.

    Of course, this is the stuff that gets the most attention… just look at the traffic on this post compared to some of our more traditionally anthropological posts!

  5. Tim and Patrick. I think you guys are really making more of this than meets the eye. I could easily go over Tim’s post about Live8 (which I cited approvingly on my other blog) and say that it was cannonical of Clifford/Marcus as well – but I know Tim’s work well enough not to put him in that category. All scholars in the social sciences take representation and discourse seriously – that is very different from the textual reductionism one finds in Clifford/marcus, which itself is quite different from various strands of lit crit. To so sweepingly put all such discussions in the same bin doesn’t really help things very much.

  6. Even within collections of work in the Clifford and Marcus tradition I find much variety. Talal Asad, for instance, is one who seems to get things right.

  7. Yeah, I’m not citing the Clifford/Marcus tradition dismissively: I was and remain much influenced by it. And there are more touchstones (good ones) to the canon of cultural anthropology that I have in mind. But I think Patrick’s reading of the problems of speaking in particular ways within that tradition is very sound, and usefully predictive about why certain kinds of shorthand arguments that sound perfectly reasonable when you’re gathered with those of like mind sound largely unreasonable the moment they travel beyond that circle. This, I think, is not the problem of those outside the circle.

  8. Put that way, I think we are in agreement.

    One of the reasons for starting this blog was to get anthropologists to engage with a wider audience – as anthropologists (several of us have been blogging for a while, but not specifically or consistently about anthropology).

    I think it is telling that there are so many economists, scientists, and historians with blogs, but so few cultural anthropologists. I personally think it would be really good for the discipline if more anthropologists tried to engage with “those outside the circle,” but as has been shown here – it isn’t always easy to do so!

  9. TB said:

    “Right now, I think you’re trapped in one of the most problematic closed circles of academic practice: a neo-Foucauldian concern with wider public discourses and what you see as their enabling effects in relation to particular forms or structures of power, and an argument that somehow those discourses have their genesis in and sustanance from particular texts or books or words-in-error, and that the way to fight the wider discourses is to deny them the textual oxygen they need. ”

    First, I don’t see how sparking the widest, most publicized, and most intense discussion of JD’s book in the scholarly community counts as denying it “textual oxygen”. If that had been my intent, I would have written an airless, dead boring post similar to …. [cough cough] Second, I did make several substantive criticisms of the book in my original post, all of which have been ignored for the sake of others’ polemics (I would pay to know how many of my most vociferous critics have finished the book; I only committed the rather equivocal sin of admitting I didn’t). Finally, yes, I would repeat a thousand times over that the most important thing about the book is its popular reception, not its substantive content. Its content is warmed-over environmental determinism, which has been around for centuries. (Kerim — the two foregoing points also go for what you call the “problem” with my address of JD’s text).

    Colin — your point seems to me similar to the point you made on another thread, about forcing people to “define their terms” (what Bernard Cohn called the scholarly call to the field of battle). I call TB on a point he makes; you interject that I am going too far. What follows is Kerim, TB, Patrick, J. Thomas all sagely agreeing that of course the middle ground is best. This is, of course, as reliably safe a scholarly bet as insisting endlessly on precisely defined terms.

    (the similar cautious harrumphing about slavery 1 and 2 was even more dispiriting — if you go back to the original point in the context in which it was made by the original poster, it was clearly an apologia for slavery in the context of the United States. worth taking a stand on and condemning, as rikespyc unabashedly did).

    Actually, TB, this is reminding me of our contretemps over on your blog — about being “reasonable” in context of U.S. Supreme Court choices and what you saw as the contemptible extremism of some elements of the left.

    All of you are welcome to that cautious middle space. Some ideas *clearly merit* heated debate and hard words — yes, yes, yes that is what my post evoked. GG&S was evidently long overdue for it. The wide shock that anybody would go after the book was the most surprising thing that came out of this. Those measured moderate criticisms you all recommend were *already* out there — to manifestly insufficient effect.

  10. Not at all. If you think something is important — and you are concerned that it hasn’t received much “loud” attention — it’s a bit cowardly to just cautiously poke your toe at it. Or, worse, to not engage it at all; to privately think, ‘hmm, I think that’s not quite right but, whatever.’

    The original post came out of the many encounters I had with people who just assumed that *of course* I, as an anthropologist, would think the book was brilliant and laudable. These always left me feeling evasive, uncomfortable, and dishonest (believe it or not, I don’t invite conflict into my existence on a regular basis). I didn’t want to impugn anyone’s motives for liking the book, but the truth was, I felt most of the favorable response the book received was for highly impugnable motives. So the post was about coming clean — describing why I thought the book was neither brilliant nor laudable. I’ve been careful to say that although I think I am correct that the book is wrong — and that therefore, it is only honest to forthrightly say that I think the book is wrong — that the book may be right and that any ultimate scholarly judgement of rightness or wrongness is made collectively, across time. As one scholar among many, I have made *my* judgement. I have put forth *my* evaluation of the book. And because I think I am correct (though it is a given that I may be wrong), and because I think acceptance of the book’s central thesis is both wrong in itself and wrong in its effects, yes, I think it is important to state my position “loudly”. It would be less important if my position were generally held; in that case, I would just be adding my voice to a general chorus. I could choose a volume at will without making much difference. “Loud” has seemed like the right volume here.

    One of the weird things about this experience (from my perspective) is how the criticism has shifted from “you are wrong and should shut up” to “you might be right, but you should state your views more cautiously”.

    Or maybe it’s not weird. Maybe it’s progress.

  11. RE: “I didn’t want to impugn anyone’s motives for liking the book, but the truth was, I felt most of the favorable response the book received was for highly impugnable motives. So the post was about coming clean—describing why I thought the book was neither brilliant nor laudable. I’ve been careful to say that although I think I am correct that the book is wrong—and that therefore, it is only honest to forthrightly say that I think the book is wrong—that the book may be right and that any ultimate scholarly judgement of rightness or wrongness is made collectively, across time…”

    May I suggest that the first part of the above is not very credible? And that you have given only the weakest of reasons to support your belief that the book is wrong?

  12. Argh!

    I haven’t argued for any middle ground, and you will definitely never, ever see me claiming that the middle ground is somehow inherently virtuous. I’d hope that my comments on this blog have proven me enough of a jackass to be immune to that accusation.

    I will, however, argue vociferously for going into debates with your eyes open, and with awareness of the full implications of your own arguments.

    One of the implications of your argument is that the accusation that you’re just a run of the mill leftist trying to dispose of arguments you find politically inconvenient by accusing their supporters of thoughtcrime is now ethically acceptable, and in fact, guaranteed to be launched.

    If someone begins an argument with “you believe X because it justifies your unethical actions,” there are only a few responses available:

    1. You can claim that you really believe X because it is really convincing.
    2. You can claim that X does not justify the alleged actions.
    3. You can claim that you do not perform the alleged actions.
    4. You can claim the allegedly unethical actions are in fact ethical.
    5. And, you can throw the SAME ACCUSATION back at your critic.

    So, if you’re going to make that attack, get ready for the retort, and don’t act all put out when it arrives. If possible, be prepared for it. You cannot impugn someone else’s motives without your motives coming into question. It simply does not work.

    I’d go into a discussion of how to structure arguments so that you’re less vulnerable to these attacks, but I already did.

  13. A minor point — it sure looked to me like the slavery1/slavery2 talk was an apologia for slavery as it was traditionally practiced in africa, NOT as it was practiced on field slaves on plantations in the american south. The implication was that african slavery was different in kind and africans didn’t know what they were selling their slaves into when they sold to europeans. Also there may have been a little bit of apologia that europeans took awhile to notice what was happening in the cane fields and the cotton fields etc. This is not the first time I’ve seen you read something and get a very different reading from me about what the writer was saying. ON top of the things like the wealth of nigeria, it appears to indicate a lot of carelessness.

    If you’re going to get a lot of attention it’s good to be careful, people have a bad habit of dismissing the position when they see reason to dismiss its proponent, and you do a disservice to your claims by making yourself easy to dismiss. It probably isn’t real good for your reputation either.

    I would agree with you that the most important thing for a science-popularising book is its reception, but for an actual scientific monograph the most important thing is the content. It’s important to distinguish whether this is one, the other, or both. It looks like sheer popularisation to me, and in that context warmed-over generalisations are about as good as you’re likely to get. What surprises me is the number of people from other fields — economists particularly — who say that it’s a breakthrough, who say the methodology is new and they want to apply it in their own work, who say the conclusions are new and exciting and will require decades of testing to prove them. They are claiming that this is science and further that it’s seminal science. If you want to discuss it with them, you need to get past that fundamental difference in viewpoint. Sorry to be noticing this so late, I was doing it some but I didn’t have it thought out well enough to say what was needed.

    One approach to that might have been to quote some other science popularisation that covered the same areas, to point out that it wasn’t new. Another might have been to look at some economics popularisation, Lester Thurow maybe, and start gushing about what an incredible scientific breakthrough it is and how clear the writing is and how it’s going to have wonderful implications for science over the next decades as the details get proven, and how wonderfully well Thurow proves his points and how important his methodology is. 😉

    You wound up arguing with a bunch of people who wanted to believe in environmental determinism, about how bad environmental determinism is. And on the scale Diamond discusses, there’s no way to tell how true it is. (Apart from how bad it is, where as you agree if it happens to be true how bad it is doesn’t matter.) You could point to vastly different cultures occupying very similar environments, and that wouldn’t say anything to Diamond. He agrees that vastly different cultures can occupy the same environment — but he’s interested in what it takes for one of them to develop the weapons to destroy the other. Once the more vulnerable one is destroyed we no longer have two vastly different cultures in the same environment. And he’s talking about a scale where there can never be enough data to test his ideas — he’s used up every inhabited continent already to describe his theories, leaving none to test them against new data.

    Looking back, it seems like people may have been strongly attracted to an explanation why people of european ancestry dominate the world, at just the time that such domination may be ending. They were glad to hear that it was all luck that put them on top, when they were hearing it confirmed that they *were* on top. I’m not sure where to go with that. Maybe when people ask you about the book you might start talking about the new book that discusses cultures that didn’t make it, and start talking at length about how we’re losing ground on all fronts and what we should do to avoid total destruction. That might give them a new perspective on Diamond. 😉

    Finally, I haven’t had much experience with actual anthropologists. Once I wandered into an anthropologist’s office because they were on the floor above ours, and he told me fascinating stories about what he did. Like, he’d been involved in an effort to help a native american tribe. So he had them invite the President’s daughters to come visit, and they made a big fuss over them and served them traditional meals and gave them headbands and doeskin dresses and made them honorary members of the tribe. And for awhile after that the BIA bureaucracy started opening up. And then it started closing down again. He told jokes that american black women told in the days when a lot of them worked as “maids”.

    A white woman was driving her cadillac and she stopped on the street where a black woman wa walking, and she rolled down her window and called out, “Yoohoo, do you know where I could get a maid?”. And the black woman said, “Try the swedish embassy, that’s where I get mine!”. It wasn’t very funny to me but I could see how it could be funny, and listening to him I could imagine how you could tell a lot about people from their humor.

    So I got this stereotype of cultural anthropologists as people who could go visit cannibals and say the right things to be accepted as visitors and not eaten. People who could understand cultures and learn enough about how they worked to get results.

    You guys haven’t been nearly as impressive as the old man telling old stories. You tried to set moral standards among people who didn’t share your values. You blasphemed their idol. You got them to dismiss you, and you, Ozma, acted like you accomplished something by doing it, like you are used to so low a status that you wouldn’t dare say what you thought, and it was a victory to speak out and say things that got them to treat you as a child who was babbling. And it may have been. But a really godlike anthropologist would have understood their values, and found a way to make some points that would be useful to them that fit into their own beliefs, and left them thinking she was a great person.

    You’re real people and not the gods I imagined, but I’d really like it if next time something like this happens you turn out more like my fantasy.

  14. To Ozma: I sense *rapidly* diminishing returns here, but in the following passage, “seems to me” is the operative phrase:

    “Colin—your point seems to me similar to the point you made on another thread, about forcing people to “define their terms” (what Bernard Cohn called the scholarly call to the field of battle). I call TB on a point he makes; you interject that I am going too far.”

    No. Simply questioning Tim’s terms would have been fine. You advanced a thoroughly tendentious, mistaken interpretation of his post, ending on this helpful note:

    “Do you really live by this farcically high (or perhaps low) standard of intellectual discourse? REALLY?”

    In my response I did *not* say you were “going too far,” as an inspection of #89 will reveal. I said you deliberately misconstrued Tim. Misconstrual does not count as critique and thus it’s hardly a question of taking misconstrual “too far.”

    Look, there’s a basic question about how you carry on a conversation if people start with different priors, concerns, frameworks. You encounter a difference. What does the difference mean? How do you deal with it? Surely this goes to the heart of what this blog is for. If you enjoy slanging matches, then, yes, what you do is caricature people at manic length and try to tie them up denying the caricature. If we want to actually learn a little from each other, we need to avoid flying off the handle.

    To JThomas: Check out some ethnographies! No discipline’s common-room chatter is going to be as good as its best polished work. Several good ones have been mentioned on other threads lately, maybe someone should make a list of best reads. Let me start with a nomination for Sidney Mintz’s _Worker in the Cane_, which maybe isn’t exactly an ethnography, but is good among other things because Mintz is up-front about what he does not understand, and his key informant emerges as a complex figure.

  15. Ozma, the strangest thing of all about your responses is that my own critique of Diamond aims squarely at his environmental determinism and materialism. Both because I think his use of those perspectives is empirically flawed in various ways, and because I disagree at a deeper philosophical level with it. You seem determined to read past (or not read at all) what many people are saying. Your misconstrual of the slavery1/slavery2 thing is another example of that. It came up in this thread the context of the venerable argument (championed first by anthropologists like Igor Kopytoff) that kinship-based forms of slavery in West and Central Africa were quite different than the practices and forms of slavery introduced by the Atlantic slave trade. It’s got nothing to do with an apologia for plantation slavery in the Americas: it’s quite the opposite. Some critics have asserted that the argument is an apologia for slavery in precolonial Africa, and that’s a legitimate possibility. But you basically didn’t read before you snarked, which seems to be a habit. Go back to post #68: DeLong is referencing a huge body of anthropological and historical work on the Atlantic slave trade which is the exact opposite of an apologia for American plantation slavery; in fact, it argues that American plantation slavery is uniquely immoral in the context of world history.

  16. Actually, one of the biggest reasons that Western European countries have more “cargo” is Western Europeans DESIRE for equality between people. “Western Altruism” is so far as we see, not talked about at all on this message board. North Western Europe is about as socialistic as you can get. The cold environment forces certain behavior, altruism in a modern society is one of them…

    Also note, western civilization has a history that forcluded the scientific reasearch at a scale, and ability that no other culture has ever displayed. One can make parallel comparisons with ancient Greek society, the steam engine, etc…

    Diamond supposes that given the proper resources, any group of people would be flying helicopters, but this is untrue. While China did have its Picaso, they did not have the psycological perspectives of the West to advance thier civilization to western standards. Its a matter of ethno-psycology, although one has to agree that environment played a major role in European peoples evolution, development, and superiority. I have also seen people say that Diamond “agrees” with “the Bell Curve”, as cultures who could not support a huge middle class, could not produce an intellectual class of people, etc…so that is why the “average western IQ” of certain African groups stands unchallenged at around 75 or so…

    I find the “appology” for slavery an interesting concept, as only western europeans were evil slave traders, and any form of slavery practiced in Africa is nothing like American slavery.Anti-western sentiment seems to be cart-blanch on most anthro message boards, as though all other ethnic groups are angels, or are “pure and noble” savages…


  17. Hello All,

    I’ve had a lovely weekend and just can’t get it up for this. But I did want to apologize for misreading the original source for the slavery 1/2 distinction. I missed Brad DeLong’s earlier ref to it, and mistakenly remembered the first one as:

    _”In the american south we had both slavery1 and slavery2. A family that had one slave, or even 10 slaves, couldn’t really afford to work them to death. Arranging that would be too much like hard work. Their slaves were kind of like family, and might get converted to christianity or even married to another slave. Slavery1. And that’s part of what made it such a big deal to get sold down the river….”_ [from J. Thomas of July 31st; for some reason numbers are not appearing for me today].

    My bad. As for the rest of it — I’ve said the same things over and over again and again, I feel the same way about them as I did on day one, if I had it all to do over again I’d repeat every statement (no — I take that back. I also feel bad for calling Tim Burke’s post boring. That was mean of me, and I’m sorry for it). Otherwise — well, if anyone is left reading about this — I just continue to stand by each part of what I have said.

  18. Firstly, Yali’s question is misleading. Really, it is the old historians question of the ‘rise of the west’. There have been many attempts to answer this from ninetennth century writers positing geographic determinism, to racial differences, to religious differences. More recently, answers have been put forward by William MacNeil in his “The Rise of the West”. Yali’s question is a rhetocial device (“cargo” being a metaphor) to place in the reader’s mind a central theme which the book hopes to answer, viz, how is it that all people begining at the same place have come to end with such disparity in wealth. It is not cargo per se, but cultural, political and economic dominance that is the heart of the question.

    Secondly, the approach Diamond uses is loosely ‘ecological history’. An earlier version of the same topic Diamond presents is in the historian Alfred Crosby’s book, “Ecological Imperialism: the biological expansion of Europe, 900-1900” (published 1986). The effects of disease in the colonial history is presented in William MacNeil’s “Plagues and People”. It is worth contrasting Diamond’s book, with its primary emphasis on the role played by geography, with another recent work by Alan Taylor, “American Colonies”. While Taylor presents the ecological consequences of colonization, it is the role of empires that is most profound in the history of colonisation. In short, geography has a role, but empire is more the primary causal agent.

    Thirdly, the emphasis on Europe and America does not explain the more interesting questions raised by historians. Why was it Columbus and Magellan et al. who sailed the oceans and not the Arabs? If one had to place a bet in 800 AD as to the success of regions in the world, India, China and the Islamic nations were better bets than Europe. This is the fascinating question, and historican have focused on it in two directions. Historians, such as Janet L. Abu-Lughod have focused before European dominance in “Before European Hegemony: The world system A.D. 1250-1350”; while Kenneth Pomeranz in “The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the making of the modern world” look to the role Empire plays in the political-economy of the near past and its role in the rise of the west. These are debates that are ongoing within the field of history. Unlike Diamond, who traces the rise of the west into the Neolithic, these historicans see the origin of the modern world in the last 500 years. In short, it is not just guns germs and steel, but better ships, long terms bonds to pay for such voyages, navigational advances, emmigration enmass, diplomatic overtures (Niall Ferguson is correct in asking how so few Englishmen could control all of greater India: clearly it is not just guns germs and steel).

    Fourthly, Europeans did not fare as well as might be thought. In America, the planting of tobacco in Virginia occured because it was easy to grow and not physically taxing. As Ferguson notes for the Plymouth settlers, disease rid the region of indigenous people occuring only after they had tilled the land and buried stores of corn for the winter. Without this helping hand, it is likely the Plymouth settlers of 1621 would have vanished as did those at Roanoke. By contrast, Africa and the Caribbean were death sentences to most who went there, including Africans repatriated to Liberia and Sierra Leone. In the early nineteenth century, chances of dying in Sierra Leone, 1:2; in Jamaica, 1:8. As Crosby notes, these regions of high mortality did not become the Neo-Europes. Queensland is an exception and worthy of study.

    Finally, the solution of disparity has less to do with the legacy of guns germs and steel, and more to do with governance and capital investment. This is the realm of economists (and beyond my epxertise), but it is one in which progress is being made. However, in this age of globalisation, the flow of capital investment is principally directed towards developed nations (eg. Japan, China, Europe, India). The basket case of the world is Africa, and it is the absence of capital development which in part is holding back this region. What monies these nations generate is siphoned off to repay debt to banks, or simply removed from the country into foreign banks. Amatyra Sen’s latest book addresses such questions of underdevelopment, and is worth anyone’s time to read.

    Well, there is my review. Not scathing, but hopefully presenting Diamond’s book within a broader context. However, as a lay reader, I would recommend people read Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, but then also give over to some of the other texts mentioned above.

  19. Re: “DeLong is referencing a huge body of anthropological and historical work on the Atlantic slave trade which is the exact opposite of an apologia for American plantation slavery; in fact, it argues that American plantation slavery is uniquely immoral in the context of world history.”

    I would say that large-scale Classical Mediterranean slavery–latifundia, ergastula, et cetera–was probably equally immoral. Who was the Roman Senator who said that Rome was doomed because the armies were no longer bringing in slaves by the hundreds of thousands, and so now a pretty-boy cost more than a sword?

  20. I always wonder how “Anthropologists” can have an openly bias political veiw, and tend to fit “Social Anthropology” conveniently within that political veiw, usually far left. This seems to be the main cause of controvesy in Anthropology today. If the openly biased leftwingers would leave their political baggage at the door, so to speak, there wouldnt be so much “controversy”…

  21. Does anyone know the answers to the questions in the back of the book, if so email me and you will have my gratitude. Email is, i only need the first ten answers, or any ten answers that you know.
    Thanks truly,

  22. Came upon website purely by accident…wondered throughout the reading what opinion(s) (this is not necessarily attached to the subject at hand)…what is the opinion of readers regarding supplementing expenses for cultural minorities like native americans, hispanics, etc… just another debate someone in the office is having at the moment over tribal cultures in Hawaii that they say are being considered as being added as a minority for supplemental benefits in the near future….

  23. Pingback: Sherman Dorn
  24. Guns Germs and Steel is one of the flimsiest historical theories I have ever encountered and I can not understand how Jared Diamond has garnered the attention that he has. Leave it to a Geography professor to take on the job of an Anthropologist/Archeologist and get it all wrong. I believe what Jared Diamond attempts is benign justification for Western stereotypes and misconceptions about the rest of the world. He seems to believe that nobody outside of Eurasia has benefited from cultural diffusion, nor have they contributed anything of value to world history or civilization.

    Ironically, Northern and Western Europeans have contributed among the least to what we could consider human civilization. For example, there is no sign of relevant civilizations ever existing in Scandinavia.

    African nations have been trading with other parts of the world for millennia. Ancient Nubia had strong trade relationships with nations inside as well as outside of Africa for thousands of years and at one point even ruled over Egypt. Ethiopians were also among the first people to adopt Christianity in 4th century AD. How could this have come about if there was little contact with countries outside of Africa? Yemen is only a stone’s throw from Ethiopia; the countries are divided by the “Bab el Mandeb” (Red Sea/Gulf of Aden).

    To convince one’s self that civilization and technological advancement have only come about within the parameters of that arbitrary border confining what Jared Diamond refers to as Eurasia is ridicules, especially in the face of Archeological and Anthropological evidence to the contrary. Any first year Cultural Anthropology student would know this.

    In East Africa Swahili were building ships for centuries that were superior in quality to early European ships called “mtepe;” and were trading with China, Arabia and India by sea, becoming very wealthy as a result. Most of China’s ivory for some time came from direct trade with the Swahili. According to many authors including Schmidt and Avery (1978, 1979, 1986) and a review in American Anthropologist (Kusimba, 1997), Africans between 1500-2000 years ago were smelting iron at temperatures not reached in Europe until the industrial age. These Africans (in Tanzania) are believed to be among the first to produce carbon steel, using a special preheating method.

    In West Africa the civilizations of Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Timbuktu attracted people from all over the world. In the early part of the fourteenth century to the time of the Moroccan invasion in the late sixteenth century, the city of Timbuktu became an important intellectual and spiritual center of the Islamic world, attracting people from as far away as Saudi Arabia to study there. Great mosques, universities, schools, and libraries were built under the Mali and Songhay Empires, some of which still stand today.

    A large number of innovations that many Europeans today recognize as being uniquely their own, such as fire arms and the old trade ships once used for commerce (The kind used by Columbus for example) trace their history back to technologies and influences acquired through Islamic contacts in the Iberian Peninsula. In the year 711 AD, Islamic invaders conquered that part of Europe known today as Spain and Portugal and ruled over the region for close to 800 years (711 to 1492). Europe as a result saw a number of improvements in various areas of life and interest, ranging from the medical sciences to military; to paved roads, and street lamps. The Moor also introduced Europe to its first Universities and the numerical system currently in popular use today.

    Scholars describe the Moor as originating in the Senegal River valley in Southern Mauritania as Almoravides, and then gathering followers from many ethic groups before overwhelming the Iberian Peninsula. The Almoravides were a group of devout Muslims also partially responsible for the destabilization and eventual demise of the Kingdom of Ghana — located in what is today Northern Senegal and Southern Mauritania — in and around the same time as the Iberian siege.

    The spread of Islam into Africa is not mentioned in Jared Diamond’s theory, nor is the fact that the Saharan Desert is only between 5000-2000 years old, making his claims of isolation seem all the more ridiculous in from a broad perspective. Further, it has also been shown that the current inhabitants of Europe do not resemble Neolithic and Bronze Age Europeans in craniofacial form, but share close affinities with sub-Saharan Africans (Brace et al, 2006). I am curious why Jared Diamond does not incorporate these bits of historical, geographic and Anthropologic information into his makeshift post hoc hypothesis.

    At the time of Columbus’s arrival in the America’s the Aztec were using math, astronomy and agriculture that was superior to Europeans. If it were not for contact with South American Amerindians (initially by accident) much of Europe would have likely died of starvation; as the continent was experiencing sever famine at the time. It was South American agriculture and crops that saved Europe from near death. Ironically, in exchange for this vitally needed learning the Europeans inadvertently killed off between 80-95% of Amerindian populations; completely wiping out many Aboriginal Caribbean native groups with new-world diseases, and then slavery.


    Africans had access to guns, too – but like the Arabs, who introduced the weapon to Europeans, initially found them inconvenient for traditional warfare. In effect, Africans also had guns germs and steal, which refutes a large part of Jared Diamond’s ridiculous theory.

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