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. Kerim: your post 27 makes an explicit claim that is directly contradicted by the quotes that Brad provided from the introduction to the book. The book really is overwhelmingly focused on understanding why the distribution of resources and technology was so unequal prior to the colonial era. There are parts at the end that tangentially, and tentatively, link these early developments to the contemporary world. It is not uncommon for authors to toss off bits, like JD does in the epilog, that can be basically summarized as

    “Although my main thesis is elsewhere, it does in fact have some bearing on issues x, y, and z. Here are a few speculations on what those implications are”.

    I really do hope that you understand this; I’ve searched in vain for evidence that you and your fellow SM posters get that this is a primary reason why you’re catching so much heat. The casual accusations of racism in others by you and your fellow website probably haven’t helped either, of course. But I’d disagree with you and Ozma, root and branch, even without them.

  2. Marc,

    A claim contradicted by Brad? If you read post 27 out of context – yes. But not if you read the original post and the whole thread that followed. This isn’t a game of “gatcha” – we should try to understand what each other is trying to say rather than just playing word games. Just as you are trying to explain what you think JD is trying to say. (Although I disagree that these are just throw-away lines. I think there is a clear trend.)

  3. Louis,

    Thanks for all your contributions. Please be advised, however, that it is against our still-unposted comments policy (I was going to post one this week – before I got so distracted) to reproduce articles in full in the comments section. We encourage people to post summaries with links elsewhere. You can even link to the individual archives in the listserv you manage. Here is a link to the message you posted. This makes the comments threads much easier to read!

  4. part of the overall argument being made on this blog is that the biological deterministic one is necessarily wrong because of limitations deriving from its premise.

    Did you really just say that my entire discipline is “wrong”? I’m not really sure what to do with that. Of course biology is limited, but how does that make it “wrong”? (I accept that you’re not making that argument right now, but I gather that you agree with it.) Of course I’m willing to leave the issue aside for now, but I’ll look forward to seeing a more fleshed out form of this argument later on…

    But it is wrong to say that I’m going on little more than cocktail parties here.

    I didn’t say that, and I’m sorry if something I said implied that. (In fact, – again, as a non-anthropologist – I suspect that a systematic study of cocktail party reactions to GGS might be fruitful, though I guess methodologically that would be quite difficult.) I would like to hear more about the study of the history of the reception of books like E.O. Wilson’s that you’re referring to – links, brief outlines of argument…?

    the fact that things need to be framed in a certain way to be popular – or get funding, is an important social phenomenon, and is well worth our attention.

    I certainly won’t argue with that! As I said, though, I think this question is independent of the truth value of the arguments being framed – that is, if people love GGS because it helps them sleep at night, that would be true regardless of whether Diamond is right, wrong, or somewhere in between. If people only want to fund basic research that claims to have medical applications, that would be true regardless of whether the research actually does have medical applications. You’ve said you disagree, but I am curious to know why.

  5. Okay, at this point I am sitting on the floor of my empty apartment as the movers take stuff at the door but I can’t stay away. I haven’t read all of these posts in detail, but I have been thinking about the viciousness of the response over the past few days. It is *fascinating* that Professor DeLong is now adding increasing doses of “oh, but I have problems with Diamond’s argument, too, just not the same ones you thuggish morons do” caveats to his posts.

    Here’s what I think has happened: we posted some critiques of Diamond that, within our universe, are well understood and sort of taken for granted. But we didn’t realize they would take so many people out there by surprise. Those people, who had basically taken for granted that Diamond had written a landmark work — a work, incidentally, they personally had found to be an enormously satisfying read — suddenly felt wrong-footed. they felt especially wrong-footed by the suggestion that Diamond’s work was not only not brilliant, but in fact a bit silly, and appealed to people’s standing prejudices rather than to their intellects. We have wounded many people in a tender spot indeed: their pointy-headed amor propre.

    The reaction has been that we MUST BE PROVEN WRONG AT ALL COSTS. If we are the teensiest bit correct, having thought Diamond had a good (nay, brilliant) point makes one a bit of a gump. heaven forfend. therefore, we must be proven criminally insanse, or, barring that, irredeemably stupid. Professor DeLong seems to be realizing at least that it’s time to stop digging the hole that we have — rather gently I believe — suggested he may be in.

    Look, if we are wrong, we will be covered in ignominy in the end. Surely that is reassurance enough? But all of the name-calling fury to which we have been subject suggests that there is not a lot of confidence out there that we are in fact wrong. Rather, it’s the tantrum thrown by folks who have been unexpectedly made to feel credulous when they pride themselves on their critical faculties. But shooting the messenger is not going to help.

  6. Ozma: You have disgraced yourself utterly and in public. The fury you’ve induced in others is solely a result of your own unwillingness to engage with the ideas of others and your lack of intellectual standards. When Brad called you “a thug and a hack”, I thought he was way out of line, but reading your comments has convinced me that he’s half-right. You are a hack.

    A bunch of people, most of whom you do not know, like a book. Somehow you have been graced with such a keen discernment into the character of others that you can safely ignore every reason they give you for why they liked it? You possess a moral blamelessness that guarantees people solely disagree with you because of their own failings?

    I have close to no opinion on GG&S. I read it and I liked it, but I’m familiar enough with the gap between pop science and real science to know that it could be totally wrong. When I first clicked over here, I was ready to be convinced that it was wrong. Brad’s initial comments were so mean that I was already inclined to read whatever Savage Minds said on the subject sympathetically. Reading your comments here and at Crooked Timber, I learned a little bit about why Diamond might be wrong, and a lot on your inability to convince anyone of anything other than yourself on the subject of your greatness as a human being and the pettiness of anyone who wasn’t born agreeing with you.

    Kerim: I read the book the exact same way that Brad and others have read it: as a book whose main point is to explain the world as of 1600. Maybe your reading is right and ours is wrong, but blithely reducing our reading of the book to our own secret desires is hackery indeed.

  7. Prof. DeLong’s claim that you and Ozma are thugs may be heightened rhetoric, but the two of you are certainly guilty of extremely poor scholarship, and poor conduct.

    starting w/ Ozma’s first post, we get the first substantive line: “Diamond showily positions GG&S as the definitive anti-racist take on human history.”

    well, no. that’s simply false. Anthropologists may interpret the book that way, but that’s not at all what the book says.

    second, Ozma purports to destroy Diamond’s principal environmental thesis. But as the comments on that thread and elsewhere show, she’s a long way from doing so.

    third, in comments on her own post, Ozma likens JD to a stopped clock, right twice a day, and accuses the author of “crypto-racism”. [and she wonders why she is getting attacked!]

    next, she makes the suppression of dissent comment which starts the Crooked Timber thread: “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.” [what does this sentence mean? how does a book help make a kind of thinking impossible?]

    next, Ozma stands behind the aspersions she casts on those who like GG&S: “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.” [how the hell does she know what explains my enthusiasm for the book? Calling me a pseudo-racists is CLASSIC thuggish behavior.]

    next, ozma makes an evo-devo claim, even though she’s not a biologist. A link to the arguments at, say, Pharyngula or Panda’s Thumb would have been appropriate.

    next, ozma says (a) she thinks that JD is wrong, because if he’s right he’s the Galileo of his age and (b) his book is unserious. [but there’s no recognition of the cognitive dissonance needed to write those two sentences within an hour.]

    over in Crooked Timber, we get Ozma saying the following: “a considerable body of accumulating literature is demonstrating his argument to be wrong” [This statement is unsourced] and “So why are people so angrily insistent that we must think as Diamond suggests?” [but no one is; what we are angry about is OZMA’s manner of discussion.] We also see a blunt refusal to address in a substantive manner those who believe, and argue, that GG&S is not telling only a Just-So story.

    after all, it is indubitably the case that Pizarro arrived in Peru long before Peruvians landed in force in Europe. Why? Just luck / happenstance? If Superman spun the world back to the end of the last Ice Age a thousand times, would the invasionary forces be flipped the other way 1/2 the time?

    now, over in Kerim’s first thread, we get a series of comments along the following lines: “again, again, we disagree on Diamond’s basic question.” but again JD’s basic question is WHY the europeans landed in South America and not vice versa. Is Ozma’s claim that the question is meaningless? If so, then she’s just wrong; it’s not her province to decide what historical questions are worth asking.

    notably, in this thread Ozma gets substantially more snide: “what if I wrote a book called “why I am cooler than you, explained”?”

    Kerim, you haven’t exactly covered yourself in glory either. But since BdL’s thug post was directed at Ozma and since there’s ample evidence to show that she is in fact acting like one, i’ll leave this overlong post here.

  8. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t all the people insisting on a 1500 AD “cut-off” for the relevance of Diamond’s argument acting in, at best, bad faith. The PBS series that is the occasion for Ozma’s original post explicitly covers the last 500 years — as far as I can tell from the website(yeah, like I’m going to *watch* a PBS pop-science show!), only the first episode covers the pre-1500 secene.

    Part two, “Conquest,” explores the impact of weapons and disease in shaping the conquest of the New World.

    The final episode, “Into the Tropics,” examines the development and colonization of Africa by South Africans and Europeans, and explains why geography is still a factor in forming the divide between those with money and resources and those without.

    The conquest of the Americas brings us into the 17th century, and the colonization of Africa brings us well into the 20th century. If Diamond’s argument cannot be extended into the colonial era, why is the PBS series primarily focused on the colonial era?

  9. I’ve been staying out of this thread until today, not having read GG&S myself and not much caring. But I have been following along, and it seems to me that there’s a set of themes developing that are exactly why Ozma’s investigation of the *reception* of the book are warranted. The first is the pre-1600 argument I discussed above — clearly Diamond thinks his argument has a direct bearing on what happens post-1600, and is willing to bring his argument almost all the way to the present. The second is the argument expressed by Francis, above:

    …again JD’s basic question is WHY the europeans landed in South America and not vice versa.

    Ozma’s contention, as I read it, is that this is not an argument supported by JD. JD’s work supports the argument that, as of the dawn of the colonial era, the European powers were *more materially prepared* than the residents of either the Americas, Africa, or South and East Asia to embark on a wave of conquest and win. You can buy his argument or not — I happen to think that there is something comelling to it, although it remains true that Africa has had steel for almost as long as Europe, China has had gunpowder for longer, etc. Still, we’ve seen how the more or less happenstance co-occurence of severla factors can have radical material effects on a cultural lifeway — consider the more or less random confluence of guns and horses in the Midwest and the rapid rise of the horse cultures this sparked. But, while several commenters have said the same thing I just did — that JD is only concerned with the material wherewithal, not the political/social/etc forces that set the conquest in motion — Ozma’s argument (as I read it) is that all too often this material wherewithal is taken as the “Why” itself, as in Francis’ comments — “JD’s basic question is WHY the europeans landed in South America…”. But JD’s argument is, in itself, wholly insufficient to answer this question — to answer it, you havew to know an awful lot about the history of both Europe and South America, about the sociocultural and political systems that had emerged in each area, about the ideologies that informed their response to otherness, and so on. For my money, Tzvetan Todorov’s explanation of the Conquest of the America’s comes a lot closer to explaining WHY the Conquistadores were successful than the argument that they were successful because they had guns, germs, and steel. For that matter, there is more explanatory content in Columbus’ journal entry on the Arawaks — “They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want” — than in what I’m hearing of Diamond’s argument.

    This is not to say that Diamond’s work might not be an important part of the story, but the problem is that it is so often taken for the *whole* story — I’ve gotten enough GG&S “blowback” from both peers and students to see quite clearly where Ozma is coming from. Blaming this on the “necessary gap” between pop-science and “real” science, as if we anthros should accept the misunderstanding as an inevitable product of popularization, seems disingenuous to me — if the work is making people falsely comfortable with their (pseudo?) non-racism, I think an anti-racist response is warranted. Is this the *only* reason Diamond’s work is popular? Probably not — a lot of the dissent in these comments seems based on the disconnect between what Ozma (and myself) makes of the reasons people who accost us with GG&S seem to have for liking the work and the reasons that some of the commenters here liked the work. Fine — Ozma’s argument isn’t universally valid. I’m sure there’s people who find in Darwin’s work good reasons to appreciate it — that doesn’t mean that we cannot meaningfully bemoan the fact that a lot of people appreciate it because it reassures them of the unfitness of unsuccessful peoples.

  10. Question (for anyone who wishes to comment): Would you describe a person as being racist for promulgating spurious beliefs about a culture; or would you only label a person racist if that person *maliciously* promulgated spurious beliefs about a culture? I tend to label people racist for the latter reason instead of the former. And I tend to label the former as just “misguided”. To my mind, if everyone who had a misinformed view of another culture (any culture) was racist, then I would have guess the entire population of this planet would fall within this category.

    Anyway, I’ve always categorized Jared Diamond’s arguments as little better than Marvin Harris’ cultural just-so stories. There seems to be a yearning by some within the field of Anthropology to explain away cultural differences using historical, technological, and economic arguments. I won’t deny that these factors may and do contribute to the evolution of culture, but I doubt if these factors are the entire story. I suspect those who argue the case of materialistic determinism are just looking for a simple answer (but I will entertain the notion that, depending on the proponent, they may have a racist, imperialist, religious or Marxist ax to grind).

    But if someone wants to argue that the modern American taboo against nose-picking is based on a cultural selection against the behaviors that facilitate the transmission of disease, I won’t label them racist. I’ll just label them silly 😉

    best regards,

  11. Francis,

    Ozma’s original post offered sources on Diamond’s weaknesses. You could read them.

    Now Tak is in for it because he too suffers, says Henry of Crooked Timber, from some strange anthropological malady.

    Would somebody who is going on about how great Diamond is and how his book is so wonderful about the pre-1600 story please explain or at least acknowledge the picture of him weeping in an orphanage in Africa (in the TV series, the subject of the original post)? At least admit it’s not unreasonable to find that a twisted picture?

  12. Yes, Ozma offered a source, Terrell et al., which disproves a strawman version of Diamond’s argument – i.e., that there must be a bright line between agriculture and hunter-gathering. Diamond said nothing of the sort and explicitly says that there are lots of strategies for getting food between “pure” agriculture and “pure” hunter-gathering. Several comments on that thread have pointed this out, and no one has rebutted them.

    Someone else offered the Blaut paper. Now, I do not have a copy of GGS to hand and I don’t want to put words in Diamond’s mouth. However, I have a feeling that Diamond deals with at least some of Blaut’s criticisms. I’ll just list some counterarguments that I can come up with off the top of my (non-expert!!) head. On diffusion: the range of adaptation for crops to latitude changes is wide, but *it takes time*, which is the whole point under discussion, i.e. the relative speed of agricultural/technological advancement in Eurasia v. elsewhere. For example, Blaut cites maize as a counterexample to the idea that north-south axes slow down diffusion, when the relevant factor is not *whether* maize reached North America (it did), but *when* it did (several thousand years after it was domesticated in Mesoamerica, and only a few centuries before Columbus arrived). Blaut mischaracterizes Diamond’s argument about axes – it’s not that midlatitude climates are the best for agriculture, but that it’s eas(ier!!) to adapt crops to a neighboring area that is at the same latitude, but hard(er!!) to do so moving north or south. On nutritious crops, yes you can survive just on potatoes, but a more nutritious “package” of crops will, all else being equal, spread more quickly than a less nutritious package. Diamond explicitly talks about the idea of a successful “package” of crops (grains, pulses, fibers) and animals and some areas of agriculture-origin had earlier or more complete “packages”. Also, Blaut says Diamond ignores sorghum, and I am pretty sure that Diamond does not (someone with a copy of GGS to hand can check on this). In several cases he accuses Diamond of making unsupported claims without then offering counter-evidence showing that Diamond is wrong. For example, he implies that Diamond simply assumes that the fact that wild teosinte is small means that teosinte was hard to domesticate into maize, but he (Blaut) doesn’t provide countervailing evidence that teosinte is easy to domesticate. (In fact, if I recall correctly, Diamond offered plenty of arguments that teosinte was hard to domesticate, e.g. it is enclosed in hard fruitcases, unlike modern corn kernels; teosinte required a lot of genetic modifications to turn it into corn, whereas a single mutation in wheat [from dropping the seeds to keeping them on the stalk] vastly enhanced its usefulness.)

    Blaut doesn’t deal at all with Diamond’s argument about the availability of easily-domesticatable animals, nor with the idea that some plants are easier to domesticate than others. He ignores Diamond’s disease argument, which, after all, is one-third of GGS’s title. When he criticizes Diamond for ignoring deserts and mountains separating China from India from Western Asia/Europe, he himself ignores that the Silk Road was an important transport link since at least Roman times. (This road, after all, is what brought inventions to backward medieval Europe like paper, silk, gunpowder, Arabic numerals, etc etc etc.)

    Well, I could go on, but I won’t.

  13. I posted a note at Crooked Timber attacking Brad Long for what I thought was an over the top post attacking Ozam’s original post in Savageminds. Now after reading the entire discussion, I feel, similar to Walt Pohl, that I owe Brad an apology. Ozma was bad, but Kerim here is worse — I think the term “thug” fits him like a glove. I come from from one of the colonized cultures, and I am sympathetic to worries about overt or hidden racism, but to dismiss Diamond on the ground that he is popular because he enables people to sleep better at night is stupid. As Andrew says, so what. I am a computer scientist, and I start with a respect for facts and arguments, not moral posturing. If savagemind represents the current flower of young anthropologists, the field doesn’t have much future.

    To deny that China today is better the chinese across the board than the China of Mao Tse Tung is on a par with the kind of anti-reality bubble residing that Bushies do so well. I have traveled extensively in China and talked to a variety of people. They have huge number of complaints, but very very few think they are not much better off today than under Mao. The kind of thinking that the young anthropologists display on this site must be the 2005 version of radical chic.


  14. I’ve read the book and a lot of the comments here. To me this really boils down to an academic turf war and a political agenda. I find that very little of the criticisms of the book here have real academic merit. Just as one example, I can’t help but note the number of times Diamond is accused of bringing race into the equation. This is completely false. His book specifically states that race plays no role whatsoever in advancing his thesis; and he’s right, it doesn’t.

    And calling Brad DeLong a troll is unconscionably while continuing to debate him is nothing but a smear. It’s a sure sign that you know you are losing the debate.

  15. I’ll stay out of the strong charges and counter-charges here, though I think Oneman’s proferred defense of Ozma’s argument is a pretty classic mode of retreat and retrenchment, and not very profitable at that. (“Oh, the problem isn’t the book, it’s the people who read the book.” Think about the implications of that argument on a larger scale, and the kinds of critique it commits you to.)

    But let me offer a modest observation that I think the Savage Minds bloggers could spin into a new and generative conversation. Diamond’s book, and similar forms of world-historical materialism, have a kind of egalitarian address to the causation of European expansion. He implicitly argues that any society could have expanded and in fact would have expanded if they had been subject to the same material conditions as Western Europe.

    So what is it that makes so many historians and anthropologists bristle instinctively at this? I know I do, before I have a chance to take a deep breath and think about it for a bit. The very fact that I bristle suggests to me that I may have some unexamined assumptions operating in my own intellectual architecture. One of them is a need to preserve a moral critique of colonialism which vests its causal agency singularly with European actors and within European culture or society, and a primal, prerational sense that anything that unsettles that critique is “dangerous”, that it lets people “off the hook”, as Ozma puts it. But why? I think this is where there are some very deep and problematic ways that anthropology and non-Western history are driven as intellectual practice by a imperative to do service to the nationalist imagination in postcolonial societies. It’s a complex imperative but I think we should ask why we read it back into the early modern era of contact in the way that we do, why we sometimes read back the late 19th Century, with its totalizing discourses, its enormous asymmetries between the West and the Rest, and so on back to a kind of European “original sin”. In this sense I think Diamond and others like him provide useful defamiliarizing services. Look again at West Africa in 1500: it’s a cultural and social world where slavery exists on all sides of the early Atlantic exchange. Look at the early Portuguese documents of their travels around Africa: they’re just one power among many in the worlds where they travel, without any real dominion. They’re pirates, really, once they get into the Indian Ocean.

    It’s not that all societies would invade and enslave each other given the right material conditions: that’s what’s interesting about other major processes of expansion and migration that we know about. Some of them are conquest and extermination driven (the Mongols), some of them are trading diasporas or involve intermarriage and interconnection. Some involve all of those interactions (Bantu-speaking expansion) on an apparently contingent basis. But in 1500, there appear to be plenty of societies whose moral character is at least comparable to that of some European societies, and whose causal contributions to the early expansion of Europeans into the world were substantial. Cortes’ victory has as much to do with local resistance to Aztec hegemony in the region as it did to his military technology (more so, really). The Atlantic slave trade was crucially shaped by African agency in its early development, from a position of relative strength rather than weakness. There were many of what Richard White has called “middle grounds” in the early modern world, places where Europeans and non-Westerners met and related on relatively equal if violent grounds. Moreover, we know that the diversity of European motives, social systems, experiences, within the contact zones was considerable. How is it explanatory in the least of those historical worlds (or their relation to the present) to describe them in terms of an indivisible and one-sided moral argument about the disposition of the present? Why are we constantly stalked by this primal fear that somehow people may be “let off the hook”?

    There’s much more going on here, of course, and I think the SM authors would benefit by slowly and carefully untangling their reactions to Diamond: some of the other things at stake are cultural anthropology’s relation to materialist argument, the importance of contingency to humanistic analysis, and a deep disciplinary distaste for any account that posits a universal human subject. But I think it’s really worth taking a step back first and asking, “Why do we need to produce an account of the genesis of a postcolonial world that begins with the assumption that Columbus’ diary morally differentiates him in a radical fashion from the non-European world around him, and from that derive a larger order of things, a larger poetics of history?”

  16. Not to be overly simplistic here, but isn’t this just the conservative critique of liberal explanations of crime, transposed to intercultural relations? You know, “I can’t believe you say poverty causes crime, you’re excusing all those criminals for what they’ve done!” Except now its geography instead of poverty, and imperialism instead of crime?

  17. I think that’s one of the interesting ironies here, Patrick: that the subsurface logic of the way many of us were taught to talk about the causation of modern imperialism invokes a kind of “personal responsibility” narrative.

  18. Tim,

    I wanted to clarify that despite my emphasis on the role of colonialism in contemporary inequality, I am actually a strong critic of “dependency” theories. I am more influenced by the emphasis that subaltern studies places on the internal power struggles within nation states than between them. Precisely because I have problems with the ways in which such critiques have served nationalist purposes. In my dissertation I specifically argue that the power structures in contemporary Taiwan emerged in the late Qing and themselves shaped the nature of Japanese colonial rule (rather than simply being a product of the latter).

    I am planning a longer post on this critique of dependency theory, but the short version would be the way I re-frame Yali’s question, which is that we need to look at inqualities within societies as well as between them.

    Regarding Columbus. He was pretty morally dispicable – but I don’t consider that the main point. For me it is the question of explaining his actions, and here I think a dependency theory history, like Global Rift does a good job of explaining the difference between Spain’s Columbus and China’s He. This is because differences in the metropole are important for understanding why one society chose to colonize, while another pulled back its ships.

  19. Timothy Burke writes: “Look again at West Africa in 1500: it’s a cultural and social world where slavery exists on all sides of the early Atlantic exchange. Look at the early Portuguese documents of their travels around Africa: they’re just one power among many in the worlds where they travel, without any real dominion…. The Atlantic slave trade was crucially shaped by African agency in its early development, from a position of relative strength rather than weakness.”

    I think an adequate understanding requires that we break the category of “slavery” into two:

    As I understand it, the slavery that existed on the African side–call it slavery1–was that in which the slave was a subordinate in a largely kin-based division of labor. Slaves were captives, yes. Slaves could be sold, yes. But the day-to-day life of a slave was not *that* much different than that of a younger cousin.

    But the slavery that existed on the European side–call it slavery2–was a very different animal: 30% mortality on the Middle Passage… iron cheap enough for chains and shackles… plantation agriculture… life expectancies of five years or less after you hit the shore in Jamaica.

    Yes, something called “slavery” existed on all sides. But I have never been able to believe that the first generations of African princes along the coast knew what they were doing when they sold their slaves to Europeans for guns. I have always thought–hoped? wished?–that they believed it was simply a transfer-of-household within the category of slavery1, and did not understand how slavery2 was different from slavery1

  20. I think you’re right, Brad, but the crucial thing is that slavery as a social and legal institution in the two different places was just close enough to articulate, with consequences that I think neither side in the transaction expected, even while the internal models that each party in the exchange maintained about what was happening was quite different until fairly late in the development of the Atlantic system. Remember that the radically alienated character of a slave in the Atlantic system wasn’t really in place at the very beginning of Portuguese-West/Central African exchanges–this came later, though not that much later.

  21. (Let me add: I think that the Europeans *also* did not understand what slavery2 was until well after slavery2 existed…that’s the crucially difficult argument whose implications get glossed over in the way we frame a moral argument about the slave trade and its consequences.)

  22. Tim and Brad: What about the Arab slave trade of the 9th and 10th century? My understanding is that this looks like what Brad calls slavery2, even though the scale was much smaller. I’ve always thought that what changed in the 15 and 1600s was precisely the rise of mercantalism in Europe which necessitated this change in scale.

  23. Lots of interesting stuff here. Tim Burke’s long July 30 post especially.

    I see two big things coming out of that post. The first is thinking about the cultural background of the people who make the moral arguments concerning Diamond. If, say, some maori anthropologists were to visit us, what would they think about this aspect of our culture? The second was about slavery and its different forms.

    About the culture, there’s the question what value do we get from moralising. When we criticise other people for their immoral or amoral actions, what does it get us? It looks like a form of social control in that people who feel like part of your own group will avoid doing things that get that criticism because they don’t want to be shunned by the group. But when you criticise somebody who isn’t in your group how will he respond? Won’t he often try to get his group united against your group? So that’s a second payoff, it reaffirms both group identities when the groups squabble.

    A beautiful french communist woman once explained another use of “fairness”. She said if you’re in a meeting and you want to make sure nothing happens, you can argue that it has to be fair to everybody. People can argue endlessly about what’s fair, particularly when they’re arguing about what’s fair to third parties who aren’t present. I have observed this works as well in american liberal groups as it does among french communists. But it doesn’t work at all for libertarians, who tend to say that whatever contract people sign is valid for the ones who sign it, and it doesn’t work for dittoheads who say not to worry about being fair to their enemies until after the enemies start being fair to them.

    I think it’s useful to talk about what’s fair when we’re talking about what we’ll do together. And it can be useful when you’re trying to rein in somebody who’s solidly in your group. And it can be useful when your group is starting to disintegrate and you need an external enemy to help revive it. But apart from those, it isn’t very useful to publicly judge other people’s morality.

    Diamond is not part of Ozma’s group. By criticising Diamond on moral grounds Ozma got members of her group to stand up for her, and her group got a lot of attention that it wouldn’t otherwise have gotten which might lead to new members. For that purpose, the ideal attack would be one that members and potential members of her group would support, but that those who would be poor candidates for membership would tend to oppose. I don’t know enough about the group to guess how effectively she did that.

  24. Brad’s slavery2 is interesting too. 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….

    I’d never put that together quite that way. They take people of a different race and put them on plantations and work them to death. And people say the nazi concentration camps were unprecedented! But it’s practically the same thing! I’d never really understood the abolitionist objections on principle, I saw that slavery was bad but not that much worse than a one-company coalmining town where everybody’s in debt to the company store. But this makes perfect sense. We didn’t really believe in the concentration camps when we fought WWII, but abolitionists knew about the plantations when they participated in their war.

    (Just as a minor matter, was it always that way for american field slaves? I had the vague idea that new plantations in places like alabama were much more lethal than established ones. It’s more dangerous when you first clear out an area, cutting down lots of trees and clearing out rattlesnake nests. And in later years when it was hard to import slaves and prices were high, it seems like it would be uneconomic to work them to death too fast.)

  25. I don`t want to pull too much offtopic, just have to comment on this: “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.”

    The distinction between “Slavery1” and “Slavery2” is an essentially important one. I seriously question, you had “Slavery1” in the North American South. “Slavery1” implies a different kind of inequality than “Slavery2” does.
    Not exploiting-to-death, not torturing and christianizing and allowing them slaves to marry (each other) does not make “Slavery1”!

    @Savage Minds,
    a distinctive characterization of these two different types of slavery would be worth an own entry, wouldn`t it?
    I´m not enough expert in this, as I ve read on African history only in contexts of studying North American history. It might be necessary to draw lines as well within “the origins”(?) as within the various appropriations, non?

  26. Orange, I’d be very interested in a good explanation about the difference between slavery1 and slavery2. I may have misunderstood it. Things like Mark Twain’s fictional Huckleberry Finn story seemed to show something that looked to me like slavery1 between the slave Jim and Aunt Polly. Some written autobiographies of slaves have tended to look like slavery1 to me. (Of course the ones who went to the death camps tended not to learn to write, escape, etc.) Surely southerners believed and believe to this day that slavery1 existed in the south, they believed there were slaveowners who treated their slaves like family, like poor relations.

  27. Pingback:
  28. Re: “What about the Arab slave trade of the 9th and 10th century? My understanding is that this looks like what Brad calls slavery2, even though the scale was much smaller. I’ve always thought that what changed in the 15 and 1600s was precisely the rise of mercantalism in Europe which necessitated this change in scale.”

    I don’t have an informed view about 9th and 10th century Islam (or, indeed, about much of anything in pre-Ottoman Islamic civilization). So I’m no help…

    Necessitated… say “enabled.” Without mercantile capitalism there’s no point in taking guns to west Africa and either using them on raids or selling them to intermediaries to then take millions and millions of slaves back across the Atlantic. But once you have (or can develop) sugar plantations in the Caribbean, once there’s sugar demand back in Europe, and once there are markets so that you can shift your profits to where you want to live…

    There is, Jan de Vries tells me, an analogous connection between the coming of Dutch mercantile capitalism to the Baltic and the “second serfdom” in the Vistula valley. Before the merchants came, there is no point in oppressing your serfs–how much rye can one family eat? Nobles wanted to encourage immigration so that their regions could have dense enough populations to have a local division of labor. But once the Dutch will buy as much rye at Danzig as you can get there, your conveniences and luxuries come from Amsterdam, and the goal of the landlord became not to encourage craftsmen to live nearby but to get as much rye as possible harvested and exported.

  29. “There is, Jan de Vries tells me, an analogous connection between the coming of Dutch mercantile capitalism to the Baltic and the “second serfdom” in the Vistula valley. Before the merchants came, there is no point in oppressing your serfs—how much rye can one family eat? Nobles wanted to encourage immigration so that their regions could have dense enough populations to have a local division of labor. But once the Dutch will buy as much rye at Danzig as you can get there, your conveniences and luxuries come from Amsterdam, and the goal of the landlord became not to encourage craftsmen to live nearby but to get as much rye as possible harvested and exported.”

    Sorry to belabor the obvious, but this is what comparative advantage means. Before, they were under autarky and needed craftsmen to supply all their needs. But given a lot of trade, their comparative advantage was to provide rye and only rye.

    Something about this leaves me with a nameless doubt….

  30. I’m back, for a day anyway.

    I wanted to respond to a critique of my original post that I have seen come up both here and elsewhere.

    It is quite accurate that I argued that Jared Diamond’s book proposes a form of argument about Western dominance that, potentially, has bad effects.

    As I have said many times, this will not matter if he is right. If he is right — if the substance of his book is correct — then he ought to win this debate in the end; his thesis ought to be embraced; and we should all think as Diamond urges us to think: that post-1500 developments were basically set in motion by pre-1500 conditions outside agentive human control.

    If the process of scientific persuasion works as it ought, if JD is correct over time his thesis will become broadly accepted. People like me who doubted its truth will have played our role as useful fools. Perhaps someday the name “Ozma” will take its place alongside “Lamarck” in the annals of intellectual history.

    but entertain for the moment the possibility that he is wrong. If he is wrong, he is clearly not wrong in an obvious way (ie, “rain is caused by fairies”). He is wrong in a persuasive way. In my original post, which — yes — moved from the premise that he *is* wrong, I considered why it is that his wrongness is persuasive to an enormous audience. Again — if I am wrong about his wrongness, this is a stupid question. If I am right about his wrongness, it’s a pretty compelling problem.

    Now, the recurring critique made of my original post is that by suggesting a reason for the compelling nature of (what I take to be) his wrongness, and by suggesting that his wrongness perpetuates and participates in a larger kind of wrongness, that I am committing still another kind of wrongness: namely, that I am warning people away from bad ideas because they *might* lead to bad effects.

    So, let me clarify.
    (1) The entertaining of both bad and good ideas is a necessary part of serious thinking. Please, have at it.
    (2) The distinguishing of bad from good ideas is likewise an important part of serious thought. That’s what we are engaged in here, as far as I can gather. I offered my original post in that spirit and — if I may be permitted to say so — managed to get rather a spectacular thing started along those very lines. I will also be the first to admit that the highlights in all of this have come from people other than myself.
    (3) The only reason it is important and worthwhile to distinguish bad from good ideas is because of their effects in the world. When (to quote an example used in this discussion) the administration says “don’t criticize the war in Iraq, that only gives comfort to the enemy” this is not bad *in itself*. IF they are right, then we should obey them, and good results will follow. The catch is that it takes lively debate to resolve whether or not they are right.

    Not once have I attempted to quash debate; not just because it would hardly be my place, but also because that’s not why I posted in the first place. It’s true that I am quite convinced I’m right, and I can see that this makes many respondents apoplectic. But I have not asked them to hush, I’ve repeated my position as necessary (no, I have not modified it — the point [of course] is not to convince me, but to influence the general direction of opinion), and I have acknowledged — over and over — that history will judge whether or not my position has been the correct one.

    As a goodwill gesture, I will refrain from quoting Fidel Castro in closing

  31. Ozma, I disagree about one important thing here.

    You say that you look at why Diamond’s work gets such interest and support, and you say that this question is irrelevant if he’s right, but important if he’s wrong.

    But I say that the question why his work gets so much attention is completely independent of whether he’s right or wrong. There’s no connection between them. The questions are in different domains.

    If you can correctly analyse why Diamond is successful, you might be able to use it to be successful yourself. A publisher might use it to predict which of a number of competing manuscripts he should print. This would be very very useful knowledge in itself, completely independent of right and wrong.

    If Diamond is wrong (or so vague that his results are useless), that won’t matter to the public. They’ll go on being influenced by him until something newer and popular comes along to influence them. If the scientific community over the next 5 or 10 or 20 years utterly discredits Diamond, that will have no more affect on the public than if the scientific community discredits von Daniken, or Carlos Casteneda, or Jean Dixon, or Robert Heinlein.

    So whether he’s right is a completely different question. Here is another different question that I think is also useful — how many testable hypotheses will Diamond’s work cause to get tested, that wouldn’t be tested otherwise? If Diamond is wrong but he gets scientists thinking in useful directions, that’s valuable too. If his ideas get us to do experiments we wouldn’t have done otherwise, and find out things we woulnd’t have found out, that’s a good thing.

    So, can anybody think of some interesting experiments that Diamond’s work has inpired them to?

    Back to your point, you have said that Diamond panders to people’s passive racism, he implies that the things being done in their name are basicly inevitable, and it’s bad for people to believe this. Do I have that right?

    My first thought on that is that Diamond is not actually a member of your peer group and you can’t expect him to share your ethics. He’s found a line that gives him tremendous money and prestige. He doesn’t share your values. So what good does it do to tell him he shouldn’t have done it?

    My second thought is that there is probably room for a competitor for Diamond. As it is, he can probably do this for a few years before the public gets bored with him or develops a reaction against him. (“billyuns and billyuns…”) But if someone else who wrote as well as he does came up with an alternative that was as credible as his, people would get interested. Everybody likes to watch a good knockdown dragout fight. They could argue the points back and forth themselves. And the very fact that it was controversial would give people the idea that no one view — including Diamond’s — was scientifically proven yet.

    The work could even be done by a committee, if the result was clear enough and well-written. But then you’d have to split the money.

    Since you figure Diamond should have considered the effect on the public, you’d have the chance to work that out ahead of time. What public effect would you want to have? You need to reassure the public and persuade them of something they’d like to believe. If you leave them angry and unsettled they’ll ignore you, or at best they’ll hope Diamond will win the argument. Is there any good idea you could encourage that people would enjoy believing?

    Which of Diamond’s assumptions would you like to question? The problem with a dichotomy is that people will tend to believe the parts you agree on without even noticing. Which parts would be harmless to agree with Diamond about? If you disagree *too* fundamentally it will be hard for people to compare the two, they’ll tend to act like it’s completely different discourses, like a neurologist arguing with a freudian. But the more fundamentally you can get away with disagreeing, the more you display the fragile web of assumptions the whole thing is built on.

    Doesn’t it sound like fun? And both of you could make more money than Diamond is making now….

  32. Ozma:

    Can I be frank? That’s a pretty damn muddled comment.

    First, all of the dizzying stuff about the rightness and wrongness of Diamond’s substantive arguments. Here I suggest you just cut the Gordian knot and substantively deal with the substantive arguments. Don’t “entertain the possibility that he is wrong”, just argue that he is or is not as specifically as you can. You can even argue at a grand theoretical level that any account of history that dispenses with agentive human intervention or minimalizes it to the point of marginality is wrong regardless of its empirical contents, I suppose. But drop all the disorienting hypotheticals and just roll up your sleeves to deal with the specific contents in specific terms. I don’t think you’ve offered much so far about what you “take to be his wrongness” save that you take it so, or more importantly, you’ve shoehorned your subsequent concerns about the consequences of his wrongness back into the substantive content of his book and used the consequentialist argument to somehow demonstrate that the substantive content is wrong, too.

    Second, you don’t think it’s reductionist to say that ideas are only important in terms of their effects in the world? How is that different from the recent list of “dangerous books” compiled by conservatives that most liberal bloggers were having a good laugh about? Is there nothing about ideas either in terms of truth or aesthetics that’s a source of value, value which is non-reducible to effects? Does a novel matter only in terms of what actions it inspires in its readers? A work of philosophy matter only in these terms? etc.

    Third, you’re a better ethnographer than I by far if you think you can straightforwardly account for all the meaningful effects that a given work (right or wrong) will have through its circulation and reproduction for all future time, let alone in the here and now. There’s a really scary hubris implied behind the proposition that our evaluation of books is about our prescient management of the consequences of their circulation, on multiple levels. I used to think that one could at least account concretely for the social and historical effects of particular narrowly defined visual or representational tropes, but even there, I’m finding that the more I look, the more explosive and uncontained the uses and reuses of culture and images and ideas are across time and space. I’d hesitate in making an ironclad evaluative judgement of a single quote, sentence, picture or metaphor in terms of the short and long-term consequences of their circulation, let alone a book.

  33. “Don’t “entertain the possibility that he is wrong”, just argue that he is or is not as specifically as you can.”

    My own view is that for the high-level stuff, it’s impossible to tell what degree of truth there is in what Diamond says. Maybe future research will turn up more data that will give more confidence one way or another.

    If Diamond were to say that there are space-aliens hiding in tibet, how would you prove him right or wrong? He could point to items in tibetan mythology and history and religion that are consistent with space aliens. He could point to weird stories the chinese soldiers tell. You could argue about how well he understood the literature he quoted. But to prove he was wrong, wouldn’t you have to search tibet thoroughly enough to be sure that if they were any space aliens you would find them?

    Well, Diamond is making claims that are harder to tell about than space aliens in tibet. And you want Ozma to prove he’s wrong? I agree that her criticism looks muggled but this criticism of her criticism doesn’t look good to me.

    “You can even argue at a grand theoretical level that any account of history that dispenses with agentive human intervention or minimalizes it to the point of marginality is wrong regardless of its empirical contents, I suppose.”

    I haven’t seen Ozma argue that.

    “…you’ve shoehorned your subsequent concerns about the consequences of his wrongness back into the substantive content of his book and used the consequentialist argument to somehow demonstrate that the substantive content is wrong, too.”

    She didn’t say that. She said that the consequentialist argument only matters if the content is wrong. I gather she thinks if it’s the truth then we need to just suck it up and live with the consequences whatever they are, but if it’s wrong then bad consequences matter. She hasn’t explored the other side of that, whether it’s OK to lie when you think the consequences will be good. It would seem to me logical that if she thinks the consequences only matter when it’s wrong, then she’d say it was OK to lie when you expect good consequences. Otherwise it would be important to tell the truth regardless of consequence, lying would always be bad. But she hasn’t clarified that and she doesn’t have to agree with my logic.

    “…you don’t think it’s reductionist to say that ideas are only important in terms of their effects in the world?”

    When she says that truth should be spread regardless of conesquence she’s contradicting the idat that ideas are important only in their effects.

    “…you’re a better ethnographer than I by far if you think you can straightforwardly account for all the meaningful effects that a given work (right or wrong) will have…”

    Yes. I found that bothersome too. Of course, I’d think you’d have a responsibility to do due diligence. You might not be the sharpest ethnographer on the campus but you should still do the best you can. But then, Diamond isn’t an ethnographer at all. He came from other traditions and so he isn’t responsible. If there’s an issue here at all it’s with the people who gave him the loaded gun in the first place.

    Here’s a way that might make her stand make sense, though. If she’s fighting a war, anything that helps the enemy would seem bad. Maybe Diamond appears to be providing aid and comfort to her enemy. If it’s an undeclared war, where third parties don’t understand the issues or really even understand that there’s a war on, then of course she wouldn’t explain all the details. If she said all about what the war was about, some people who heard about it from her would join the other side.

    When there’s a war on you don’t have to look at the longest-term effects. Anything that helps the enemy in the short run is bad, because if the enemy wins that’s bad in the short run and the long run.

  34. Is part of what Tim is getting at in #64 that GG&S makes history look too contingent for comfort? Think of all the meanings that get set in motion by the term “Europe,” especially when it is treated as the obvious motor of history, for good or ill. (Think in particular of what is means within the USA to treat “Europe” that way.) One gets too easily delivered into a very narrow, confining, was-it-good-was-it-bad discussion that treats “Europe” as an obvious central (and coherent) term, as the active party. The postcolonial literature, which I think Kerim is perhaps invoking as well, tries to avoid these discursive traps.

    As a lot of people have pointed out, anthro has the disciplinary-history problem of having built itself as a “European” gaze. Using the results of that gaze to admonish “Europe” does not undo the way it keeps “Europe” central and pretends that “Europe” is a single coherent thing — self-centered self-via-other-crit is a literary device that’s been around since Montesquieu.

    I might also question the way Tim invokes “societies” as obvious wholes with distinct qualities. I realize it’s shorthand, but it leads to a style of argument that is one of the great weaknesses of GG&S.

  35. Oh, I think that’s a fair comment, Colin (re: societies). Certainly not my own preference, as I tend to microhistorical scales when I can. But this does come to something that the defenders of GGS point out, that trying to offer any world history is going to lead to the loss of granularity and detail, and necessarily going to also lead to the positing of some kind of universal causalities or drivers to historical change. One can write against all such world history on that basis, but then Diamond is not specifically in error while others are not.

    I also recognize that Ozma *has* made substantive criticisms in her own post on GGS, but I think most of them were fairly weak criticisms, particularly when Ozma acknowledges they’re made from a pretty casual reading of the text, a reading anxious to proceed to the question of the uses and circulation of the book. This is what I mean by saying that the consequentialist argument backdates into Ozma’s reading of the content: the consequentialist argument begins her reading and is the primary condition of it. There’s a cart before the horse. Let’s also not be absurd here, JThomas: Diamond’s arguments have empirical specificity to them and can be responded to in those terms. Many have done so. This is not an occasion where we need to question the entire concept of proof and disproof: the book can be responded to largely within the dry disputational norms of historical and anthropological scholarship and found wanting in those terms alone.

  36. Timothy Burke, what I’ve seen from various experts is that Diamond is mostly uncontroversial on the small details, and that he’s apparently made a strong effort to be uncontroversial that way.

    The issue is not the little details that can be checked, but the big abstractions that cannot. And those are what people care about, aren’t they?

  37. Quite the contrary: I think on the small details he is often wrong, has been concretely described as such, and still more often leaves out other important details. Moreover, I think you can debate his abstractions in empirical terms (as you can most abstractions in historical or anthropological writing). You can of course also suggest that Diamond’s history is peppered with just-so stories, but note that’s not just a kind of theoretical shoulder-shrugging. It’s also a critical evaluation of and response to concrete evidence, much as it is to those evolutionary psychological claims which rest on untestable and unverifiable assertions about the way humans behaved prior to the Neolithic Revolution and find support for those assertions in studies of contemporary human behavior.

    Otherwise there could be no “rightness” or “wrongness” of a big-picture, abstraction-laden history of any kind, and Ozma’s offer to accept the status of a Lamarck should Diamond be proven right is beside the point for this or any other work which makes general, universal or abstract claims about human history or societies.

  38. Yes, of course he “leaves out other important details”. And of course you can debate the abtractions. I believe they’re endlesslyl debatable. You can even make a rational guess whether they’re more right than wrong. Like, did agriculture come first, or nomadic herding, or did they develop independently? I can imagine looking at the evidence and deciding that it’s 50$ agriculture came first, 30% they were independent, and 20% herding came first. I have trouble figuring one answer at 100%, given the sort of data that’s available.

    Yes, I consider much of Diamond to be collections of JustSo stories, and that isn’t a bad thing. It only makes my hackles go up a little when people talk about what he’s proven, when what he’s done is provide a clear plausible story that somewhat fits the available data.

    It’s possible to make big-picture stories that don’t fit the data. We might say for example that humans evolved from a specialised ape that ate only raw elephants. We developed special cognitive skills by learning how to outsmart elephants in an increasing number of different ways. The elephants we ate were in the process of inventing agriculture when we realised we could increase our population by eating what they ate as well as eating them. But to do that we had to learn to cook the food. And when we learned to cook elephants they were so delicious that we drove them extinct and had to do the agriculture for ourselves.

    It’s no problem to come up with objections to this story on multiple levels. I’d say pretty definitely that it’s wrong. But I think we could get multiple stories about as good as Diamond’s, that fit the data about as well, and no good way to decide which of them is closer to the truth.

    And I wouldn’t speak for Ozma, but she hasn’t said whether she thinks Diamond could be proven right or wrong. Saying what she’d do if he was proven right might possibly be a rhetorical device.

  39. TB: it seems that we disagree about the sources and motivations of Diamond’s argument. As I have said elsewhere, his hypothesis is not falsifiable; one could not run the course of human history over while controlling for the factors he invokes nor could one design a model of sufficient complexity to “test” his hypothesis. So one must evaluate his argument in other ways: what would count as “enough” evidence to prove a point as sweeping at the one he attempts? What would count as a counter-factual (especially when many of his “positive” pieces of evidence are of a negative sort: the absence of domesticated animals means the absence of domesticable animals, etc.)? Can the various parts of his evidence be persuasively cobbled into an explanatory whole?

    To my mind, his thesis collapses under these three challenges. It isn’t necessary to pick apart the argument on each continent and each context to realize he’s got a basic plausibility problem (though I appreciate J.S.’s optimism about the multiple research agendas Diamond’s work may stimulate; that is a happy thought indeed).

    I understand that you disagree, I hear your disagreement, I acknowledge it, and yet I still think GG&S can as easily be challenged in toto as it can be done away with in death-by-a-thousand-cuts fashion.

    I read you as suggesting that until we track down the history of domestication of every last plant and animal cited by JD, we can’t even begin to address the massive, glaring, and obvious problem posed by his book and its popularity. Cripes. I might be 80, or dead, before that happens. So I have presumed to offer a response while I still have my wits, such as they are, about me.

    Again — if the book is right, and I am wrong, may the future be ruled by the spirit of Jared. But in the interim, it seems to me that the book is not really about empirical facts (for all that it parades a sort of pornographic excess of airbrushed bits of data). Instead, it’s a canny intervention into an ongoing conversation in the West about race, history, and responsibility. It’s very recognizable as such. _Why_ do I have to wait to say so?

    But maybe I have misuderstood your post — perhaps you could clarify what you meant by this:

    “You can even argue at a grand theoretical level that any account of history that dispenses with agentive human intervention or minimalizes it to the point of marginality is wrong regardless of its empirical contents, I suppose.”

    Are we required to leave our minds open to *any* kind of “supposes”, treating them as possibly true until absolutely, definitively proved otherwise? I could list a half-dozen right now, and by the criteria suggested above you would be required to waste your energy on them because it would be intellectually wrong to use any of your critical faculties for sussing good from bad hypotheses on the basis of your knowledge of the world, of previous failed hypotheses of the same type, or just internal consistency.

    Okay, so here goes. Remember, it is *wrong* to criticize any of these until you’ve exhaustively documented that they are not correct:

    1) Leprechauns caused history, not human agency.
    2) Liberace formed the universe, later incarnating the musician avatar familiar to us. Human agency has nothing to do with the world as we know it.
    3) The Matrix revealed the truth, man.
    4) Don’t forget the Knights Templar.
    5) Aliens. Aliens. Aliens.

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

    I …really…. did offer my original post in hope of sparking a conversation that would be *other* than tendentious. It’s had its moments, but the points you are making seem to me to be offered in a spirit of merciless tendentiousness. But surely I am wrong — please, do say I am.

  40. Re #88, I’ve run into this dodge so many times on the blogosphere that there ought to be a name for it. You suggest, as Tim approriately did, that an encounter between claims and evidence might be a useful exercise. The response is deliberately to misconstrue this as calling for an impossibly-exhaustive catalogue of data.

    Social science and history *live* in the space between mere bullshitting and mere fact-compilation. Bullshitting is a fine way to generate hypotheses, but we need some kind of check on the tendency to believe that the world corresponds to our mental picture of it.

    JThomas, If you look up the relevant literature you’ll find that people spend whole careers working to pin these things down, frame questions properly, use evidence well and generate new evidence. If multiple stories fit evidence, you go looking for evidence that might help you sort them out. From a certain distance this may just look like endless disputation, but it’s not, and it’s not just guessing based on what one happens to think is plausible.

  41. Ozma:

    If you’d like a good working definition of tendentiousness, #88 is it. I don’t know why you bother with the language of “right” and “wrong” with regard to Diamond’s actual text at all, given that you’ve evidently got zero interest in the actual text. This is about a wider view of all materialist or sociobiological argument, and the uses to which they are put. I’d say that you don’t do yourself any service by ever bothering to consider the particulars of Diamond’s argument or any model of academic norms that dictates that it’s important to respond to such: you should progress directly to the circulations of sociobiological materialism in the wider public sphere and engage them without much regard for their genesis in texts.

    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. This first asserts the paramount importance of scholarship itself (because it assumes that scholarly texts are an important, perhaps the important source of ‘bad discourse’ in the wider world) and simultaneously denies that the everyday practice of scholars in relation to the texts they produce is essentially irrelevant, that the critical and pedagogical work of exegesis and interpretation of other scholars’ texts is unimportant and even a part of the machinery that allows texts to generate “bad discourse” in the wider world. But of course if one is an academic, one has to do some of the “standard” activities, so you end up committed to a kind of performative reading of the content of texts for themselves or an evaluation of argument qua argument when all you really think matters is what the text does in the world.

    It’s a bad trap because it has a very simple causal idea about the genesis and renewal of “bad discourse” that also is a sort of self-denigrating self-flattery, in that it makes academic scholarship out to be very important as a causal driver while denying that scholarly norms produce a kind of knowledge that has a potentially intrinsic and disinterested value (e.g., that the values which academics uphold in their professional culture are mere window dressing for the instrumental work of their scholarship, which is either bad or good depending on what practices it hinders or enables.) The interior of academic professionalism gets hollowed out when you trap yourself in this intellectual apparatus, replaced by an instrumentalism that dare not speak its name; the outer shell of scholarly professionalism becomes a kind of charade that the academic performs but does not really believe in.

    You might protest that you are not in this trap. Then I suggest you don’t offer the kind of all-or-nothing-at-all tendentiousness of #88. There is a modest, unspectacular middle ground between committing to a lifelong project of taking apart every single claim made by Diamond and the sophistry of throwing up fairies, aliens, etcetera. One of the components of that middle ground is academic specialization. You personally do not have to take apart everything Diamond says: just concentrate on the claims most immediately proximate to your own base of specialized knowledge. It didn’t take me much effort to describe concretely the problems of Diamond’s writing about the Bantu-speaking migrations, both conceptual and empirical problems. From that critique, I can sift the flaws that suggest larger problems with the thesis and the flaws that ad arguendo might be small or relatively insignificant. To suggest this is impossible, or that such a critique is comparable to trying to explain why the world is not actually the Matrix, is tendentiousness itself.

  42. I like Tim’s middle ground here. At the same time I think it is important to say that there is another middle ground here – one which theories about “bad discourse” can themselves be grounded in an understanding of how institutions operate.

    One need not deny the scholarly norms of disinterested investigation to, at the same time, argue that the discourses produced by such disinterested observers serve particular interests. SAT tests, for instance, were not constructed with the intent of discriminating against underpriviledged minorities, and yet they have demonstrably had such a disperate impact.

    Ozma expresses concerns about a particular mode of argument, of which GGS is the most popular example. The problem was that she then refused to engage directly with the text itself, which is essential for such a critique to carry weight, substituting instead some empirical arguments. I think Tim rightly picked up on this contradiction, but I don’t think this invalidates the critical project Ozma initially put forward. And since this was a blog post, not a published article, I think one should be forgiven for mixing things up a little – especially when you do so in the service of linking to other critiques that might be of interests to our readers.

  43. “Social science and history live in the space between mere bullshitting and mere fact-compilation.”

    Thank you! I’ll want to quote that.

    Try this thought: when you’re working at the level of natural selection among cultures —

    which cultures get invaded and subjugated versus which ones do the invading, at the highest level of continents —

    and you use all the available data you can find to help you create your original hypotheses —

    what are you going to use to test the result?

    If I want to make a hypothesis about what kind of bacteria will be selected in a particular environment, I can run the experiment repeatedly and test my results. This gets done. Like, in one case it turned out that the evolved bacteria were more resistant to starvation, (because in continuous culture they were always hungry) and stuck better to glass surfaces (because the ones that stuck didn’t get sucked away with the used medium) and some of them could transport citrate (which was in the medium as a buffer, and normal cells couldn’t absorb it). With billions of cells in each generation of each run, the results are moderately reproducible.

    But we only have a few billion individuals total on the earth, and only one run. It looks to me like you’ve got a relative scarcity of facts. You can dig up a village and get some facts that way, but when you extrapolate to the whole world…. I get the impression that the bullshit:fact ratio is probably much higher in your field — and yet honest workers can still do a very good job.

    On a meta level this is something that I don’t think has been fully worked out anywhere. I remember talking to a theoretical chemist in a bar. He was drinking heavily. The way he explained the story, when his theories fit the known data the experimental chemists dismissed his results. “We already know that.” But when his theories predicted something that was not known, they dismissed his results. “You have no evidence.”

    So, how has Diamond done by your standards? Has he done well at framing questions properly, using evidence well and generating new evidence? Has he noticed multiple hypotheses that fit the data and looked for evidence?

    Or has he more picked out the most obvious data and fit his hypothese to that, and then picked the remaining data to fit the hypothesis, and thrown away the rest?

  44. Lot of big questions in #s 91 and 92 so I will just sort of point inadequately a couple of directions. GG&S straddles natural and social science. On the natural science side, I’d note that natural science deals with lots of big processes, like evolution or the formation of the universe, that you can’t reproduce in multiple petri dishes, and you fall back on saying OK, how do the logic and implications offer us ways to sort stories out.

    2nd, I’d be more hesitant than JD in extending concepts and methods of natural science into social science. There is a tendency to think of human cultures analogously to different species of animals, evolving and competing, and I think this is generally a mistake. One of our functions then is a critical one of probing concepts and base assumptions. I’d actually cut JD more slack than a lot of folks because I like efforts to explain a lot with one big theory — there are always some new insights, plus seeing where they fail is useful. In the case of GG&S there are assumptions in the questions he poses that need more thought.

    Finally just to faintly echo Tim and pick up on Kerim, I agree with Kerim that one can study discourse, good and bad, and how institutions operate — and of course this also requires evidence and argumentation. (And if we’re in a Foucauldian framework here, note that for Foucault, knowledge produced within power relations is still knowledge — his is not a theory of the production of mere ideology or falsehoods. What MF gives you is an additional angle for examining the whole process.)

  45. I just want to put a cautionary note in here. (A long one, the only kind I’m capable of writing.)

    If you intend to study and comment upon issues like “why is JD’s work so appealing to so many people?” and then conclude that it is because it excuses colonialism and justifies do nothing anti racism, you’d best be ready for the consequences.

    That argument is logically identical to the claim that the reason that JD’s work is such an anathema to so many anthropologists is because they are taught a knee jerk leftist outlook on colonialism, and have sold out the academic aspect of their discipline in favor of posturing on normative issues under the guise of mock-science.

    Now, just because two arguments are logically identical does not mean both are correct. But if you make the first one, (you like JD because you are bad) someone is going to return with the second one (you hate JD because you are bad).

    Now, the discussion at this point can descend into a screaming match. In fact, it may be guaranteed to descend into a screaming match. After all, haven’t both sides begun with the assertion that the other is arguing in bad faith? Not a good start. So, don’t act put out when a fight erupts.

    This was inevitable from the beginning.

    The original post in the discussion, and many of the followup posts, contained arguments about both the accuracy of JD’s thesis, and about the politics surrounding JD and his acceptance by the public. If you are going to question whether do nothing anti racism prompts public acceptance of JD’s work, you’d best be prepared for people to look at your arguments, note that the claim that JD’s work is poor is right next to the claim that JD’s work is politically dangerous, and conclude that there’s a link from the second to your belief of the first. This is, after all, exactly what you are doing to the reader.

    I’d also like to note that this is exactly the reason I think anthropology needs to be less politicized, as we discussed in previous debates about anthro’s alleged moral core. I take comments like “it is impossible to work for the CIA and to do *real* anthropology at the same time” to be self evidently false, for the simple reason that every other social science discipline under the sun has both academic and applied versions, and there’s no reason that anthro can’t be the same. But for this discussion, its worth noting that once you make a claim like that, you’re killing your credibility later when this debate arises.

    I’m not saying that questions like, “why is such and such so popular with the general public” should never be answered with “because that such and such justifies beliefs the public wishes to maintain.” I am simply saying that if you intend to make this argument, you had better either get ready for a logically isomorphic backlash against you and your beliefs, or you had better make the argument from as objective a position as possible. Or else you’re just asking for a muddled rhetorical fight that gets nowhere.

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