Anthropologists vs. Jared Diamond in the NY Times

Long-time readers of this blog will no doubt remember the Guns Germs and Steel kerfuffle , in which it was widely concluded that Anthropologists as a whole hate Jared Diamond because they are jealous of his success as a popular writer.

Today’s New York Times has picked up the story, and while they don’t mention Savage Minds, they do interview previous SM guest blogers, Frederick K. Errington and Deborah B. Gewertz. (You can see all their posts here.)

Times reporter George Johnson attended the “Choices and Fates of Human Societies” seminar at the Amerind Foundation and presents the contest in a somewhat more generous light than some of our readers and critics on the web, seeing it as a battle between “big picture” theories and the focus on the particular:

By the time I left Amerind, I realized that what I had witnessed was a clash of world views. Central to the “cosmology” of Dr. Diamond’s tribe is a principle celebrated throughout the physical and biological sciences — to understand is to simplify and seek patterns.

… For the anthropologists, the exceptions were more important than the rules. Instead of seeking overarching laws, the call was to “contextualize,” “complexify,” “relativize,” “particularize” and even “problematize,” a word that in their dialect was given an oddly positive spin.

Its a formula I’m not entirely happy with (I happen to like grand narratives…), but if the alternative is being a bunch of jealous backbiters, I’ll take the accusation of particularism any day.

4 thoughts on “Anthropologists vs. Jared Diamond in the NY Times

  1. Thank you, Kerim, for the link of Frederick K. Errington and Deborah B. Gewertz’s old posts. I don’t like Diamond’s theory for similar reasons but it is great pleasure to read their posts/points which were so well written and well argued.

  2. For an effective critique of Diamond see (if you don’t know it already) James Blaut, Eight Eurocentric Historians (2000).

  3. I really liked the critique of seeing things through the lense of “cargo” or commodities. This is clearly a form of alienation as you point out, and is tied to the recent trend to ignore all things relational or distributional.

    But as you point out economists like Sen cite relative poverty as often more significant than absolute levels of purchasing power, in terms of health and life quality. .

    De Long’s accusation of “injelligence” is just another argument along the lines of “you are jealous because we are rich” which Diamond’s take on Yali’s question is also quite close to.

    Blaut’s points that Diamond’s thesis does not really extend well into the periods of European domination makes it clear that there is a kind of supremacist “manifest destiny” argument hidden in Jared’s account.

    Neither commodity fetishism nor Euro – American economic dominance are inevitable historical products of nature, and you do well to point this out.

    Having said that, I welcome Diamond’s points about how dependent on food sources human groups have been at some points in history. That aspect of his work I find refreshing, since it reminds us that our sense of inevitable power over nature may well be hubris.

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