Vengeance is his: Jared Diamond in the New Yorker

The April 21 number of the New Yorker features a long article by Jared Diamond entitled “Vengeance Is Ours: What Can Tribal Societies Tell Us About Our Need To Get Even”: Anthropologists have a tendency — increasingly shrill and kneejerk these days — to be very critical of Jared Diamond. Mostly I think this is because he does what they wish they did: write popular, widely read books. I’m not as affected by this sour grapes syndrome as some, and in the case of this article I’ve already had my druthers because I helped fact check it (this consisted in talking for ten minutes on the phone with a New Yorker employee). However there are still some kvetchable things in the article that deserve a going over.

The basic idea of the article is simple. In it, Diamond contrasts a tribal fight in Nembi distict, Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG), and the death of his father in-law’s mother (wife’s father’s mother, or WFM as we say in the kinship biz) in the holocaust. In PNG, Diamond’s friend Daniel undertook a long vendetta to avenge his uncle and was eventually successful. In the holocaust, the killer of Diamond’s WFM was arrested, detained for a year and then freed. Daniel was well-adjusted and emotionally reconciled to his uncle’s death — vengeance satisfied him. Diamond’s father in-law was haunted the rest of his life by the fact that justice was never delivered. The moral of the story, Diamond says, is that procedural justice under a state may not be as obviously superior to vengeance in tribal fighting as we might think. Its a typical anthropological technique: compare The West to The Rest, and open people’s minds by pointing out that They might know something We don’t, and that Our Ways may not be as hot as we imagined.

In its factual reporting, Diamond’s account of tribal fighting in PNG more or less rings true to me, and the things that don’t ring true are most likely simply variants between what is done in Nipa and what is done in west Enga, where I lived. I also appreciate Diamond’s spin on the topic — that tribal fighting is comprehensible and not mere barbarism, and that the people who do it are humans who live normal, albeit culturally distinct, lives.

That said, I do have some issued with what Diamond actually does with his data.

First, throughout this article, as in his other work, Diamond fails to think anthropologically even if the people he discusses are stereotypically anthropological subjects. Anthropologists insist that culture is a force which has its own unique power to shape people’s lives and cannot be reduced to an effect of an underlying, deeper cause. So when Diamond remarks that pigs are valuable to highlanders because they (the highlanders) are ‘protein starved’ an anthropologist is not satisfied. This has probably been true of different places in different times in the highlands (Nembi being a good candidate), and nutritional needs obviously effect human behavior, but so does culture.

Pigs are always valuable in culturally specific ways. When highlanders in PNG give pigs do they exchange live pigs or pork? Who gets the piglets from the live pigs, and who gets the pork when it is eaten? These questions are deeply tied up in issues of nutrition, but they are also culturally structured. Equally, Diamond writes that in Nipa fighters exhibit ‘unchecked’ aggression and then goes on to describe in detail the culturally specific ways in which they fight: rules regarding engagement (or nonengagement if you have relatives on the other side of the fight) and so forth. So in fact while the human desire may be universal (and that’s a big ‘may’), so is the fact that it is always shaped and channeled in culturally specific forms. The more you know about people’s lives, the less easy it is to explain them wholly in terms of protein, geography, genetics and what have you.

There is also a more serious problem with the article which is also the most obvious thing about it: it contrasts ‘tribal societies’ with ‘modern state societies’. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with contrasting Nipa in 1992 with Poland in 1944 — in fact its quite a fascinating exercise. But describing this as an example of a ‘state’ society versus a ‘tribal’ one is kinda loopy. But what makes us think that Nipa is a ‘tribal’ society since it had experienced decades of contact before the events described in the article? And Eastern Europe was a lot of things during World War II, but its not exactly clear to me that ‘state run’ quite fits the description of a warzone superimposed on an ethnic mosaic of Poles, Jews, Russians, and Germans.

Diamond hedges and says that state presence is weak in the highlands, and so we can see fighting in Nipa as an as-yet-barely-touched remnant of a pre-state way of life. I don’t think this ‘historic preservation’ approach to tribal fighting in PNG holds much water, however, and I think I can safely say that most experts agree with me on this. Consider, for instance, the following facts: These events started in 1992, under the Namaliu administration, during which PNG experienced its first major law and order crisis. The feud ended so that the two clans involved could oppose an ethnic Huli in elections. Diamond’s friend was actually hundreds of miles away on the north coast and had to be recalled to his home area in order to avenge his uncle. And of course, Diamond actually met his friend Daniel at an Oil extraction project which has profoundly changed life in Southern Highlands Province.

What Diamond’s article is really about is the transformation of clan politics and tribal fighting in the context of Papua New Guinea’s rise to independence as a nation. These transformations are no less complex for the fact that PNG’s police force and justice system don’t work like our own (or how we imagine our own work). But this doesn’t mean we can simply assume that there’s been no change at all. What Diamond’s article tells us is not ‘how people used to live 5,000 years ago before states developed, as preserved in Highlands PNG, compared to us, The Latest Word In Social Complexity’.

At root, the problem — and it is not a fatal flaw, just a problem — with Diamond’s article is that it teaches us that Other Ways Of Life Have Something To Offer Us, but the only way it can do so is by making Papua New Guineans appear more Other to us than they really are. What it tells us is that we modern Americans have something to learn from modern Papua New Guineans about our shared modern condition. But, ironically, this is a broad-mindedness that rests on the back of a deep divisiveness: we moderns only find their ways of life interesting if they are ‘primitive’. Anthropologists have argued for decades that this tendency to exoticize other people – ‘deny them coevalness’ is how some put it – is ultimately morally pernicious even if it leads to a shallow relativism which has a surface appeal.

And even if anthropology’s ethical hang-ups are not your own, the fact of the matter is that this sort of thing is just bad science. Treating contemporary violence in the PNG highlands as an example of ‘life without the state’ rather than ‘life with a particular kind of state’ would be like asking what Saddam Hussein’s rule can tell us about Assyrian domination of the fertile crescent. There’s nothing wrong with comparing the two cases, it is just that doing so in this way simply misses most of what could make the comparison interesting. Can PNG tell us about vengeance? Of course. But we will only get the message if we listen carefully, and are willing to realize that familiar models of ‘tribal’ versus ‘modern’ societies may not, however comforting and familiar they are to some, actually be telling us the whole story.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

37 thoughts on “Vengeance is his: Jared Diamond in the New Yorker

  1. “Diamond’s article…teaches us that Other Ways Of Life Have Something To Offer Us, but the only way it can do so is by making Papua New Guineans appear more Other to us than they really are.”

    This sums up my complaint not just about Diamond’s work as a body, but about his career. It’s hugely problematic to me that the closest thing America has to a popular anthropologist is someone who studies such obviously (even stereotypically) anthropological things. (I mean, the Pacific islands? Really?)

    The more attention Diamond gets, the harder it is for us (either the public or the discipline) to conceive of a successful public anthropologist as someone who is unabashedly unafraid to defamiliarize the familiar as well as the reverse.

  2. Rex, are you going to post something about Terry Hunt’s demolishing of Diamond’s Easter Island hypothesis?

  3. It seems to me that there is a deeper critique to be made here – one which is equally true of Durkheim and Weber as it is of Diamond – and that is a critique of the whole notion that society progresses from tribal values to procedural norms, when in fact we can show that modern legal principles are grounded in their own value system and that tribal values have their own procedural norms.

    I’m a little disappointed that Rex starts with the claim that anthropologists are somehow jealous of Diamond. Might it be that anthropologists are upset that biologically and environmentally determinist arguments are now hegemonic, rather than jealousy at Diamond’s personal success?

    I haven’t had time to read the article yet, Rex’s claim that the article’s main point still stands despite the slight “problem” of having to ignored the fact that people in PNG are modern strikes me as rather disingenuous. I’d be curious what parts of the argument Rex feels can still be salvaged once this “problem” is corrected for?

  4. The best thing to do Kerim is in fact read the article. Rex’s post probably overstates Diamond’s tendency to make PNG appear more tribal, more Other. This really only happens on the last page when there is a sudden jump to the “Lesson” – PNG suddenly becomes “non-State” whereas previously there is mention of why Daniel chose not to defer to the police and so on, and notes similar forms of justice in urban American gangs and “other countries where tribal ties remain strong and state control weak.” Reading the essay it seemed to me that the contrast was between two situations where specific people chose different paths when given a choice between local and state agency. The PNG Highlands and WWII Poland are both contexts where such a choice was possible because neither the state nor the local populace had complete authority. Daniel could have notified the police, but chose to exact personal revenge, and was satisfied. Jozef could have shot the guy, but chose instead to notify the police, and was filled with regret.

    For me there is probably enough local contingency in each case that, unlike Diamond, I would hesitate to draw particularly significant lessons from the contrast. For one thing Daniel’s opponent was paralysed and not killed – a situation he acknowledged to be ‘better’ for all sorts of reasons. If Daniel had executed the guy himself (the option presented to Jozef), well, we have no idea how he would have felt in years to come…perhaps even guilty, unsatisfied…he might have been put in jail! As it was he saw paralysis as being appropriate, satisfying punishment. Jozef on the other hand, after declining to shoot the man, saw his family’s killer set free after a year, scot-free and basically unpunished. This tells us very little about how satisfied he would have felt had the state punishment apparatus actually functioned as he had hoped. There’s no real basis for comparison here.

    But anyway, to me a better reaction to this kind of article would be to Anthropologise it – as it stands it is basically a Journalist’s account of some events. You could maybe make some ethnographic points about the reproductive role of Reciprocity in some societies (e.g. PNG), and the role of the Individual in others (e.g. Europe) – cultural facts that make some choices more appropriate in their context. Heck you could talk about Foucault’s Discipline and Punish if you were into that kind of thing…

  5. “The best thing to do Kerim is in fact read the article.”

    I thought Rex was reading it so I don’t have to…

  6. James – I could I guess. Its been mentioned several times on here, and Terry has a book project in the works. But I’ll mention it again when I get a chance.

    On the jealousy claim: I think this is particularly true of Oceanists, so perhaps Kerim hasn’t run into it as much. But I do think its there. I mean the guy won a pulitzer — I know I, for one, am jealous!

    Re: Tim’s point is fair I think — as I say in my piece, its a problem w/the article, not a deal-breaker. Re: how much Diamond ‘exoticizes’ people. If the point is just ‘in one place one person did one thing, in another they did another’ — as if these were interestingly juxtaposed locally contingent moments — that would be one thing. But clearly that is not (only) what he is doing. The subtitle of the article indicates, this is about what one society can learn from another, and its that societal difference, rather than the local contingency, which gets highlights. As I note in the article (and as you point out) he hedges. But I just don’t think that hedging is enough. Particularly if you’re familiar with the PNG highlands.

    The other thing is that this is a recurrent trend in Diamond’s writing — he tends to ‘otherize’ Yali as well so as to radicalize the power of his question as if, for instance, Yali had never been on a submarine, been to Australia, etc. So if it were a one off, whatever. But I think it goes deeper than that.

    Which is curious, because in many ways Diamond made his career pointing out our interconnectedness at a macro-level scale. But I guess the large print giveth and the small print taketh away.

  7. This post was great! The actual Diamond article aside, you made a number of points that I think are important to emphasize and did it in a way that is relevant.


  8. Rex, I am wondering if there are cases in PNG where revenge should be pursued but it is avoided? Would this not provide a contrast to Diamond’s thesis? In other words, the PNG cultural system allows for avoidance of violence in some cases, specifying means to do so. And I don’t means seeking compensation (ie pigs or other goods as repayment for injury).

  9. Well PNG is the size of California, so I’m sure there’s a place somewhere where that happens but in general PNG is not a place to look for authentic edenic conflict resolution.

    And there’s a reson, which is the thing that Diamond should _really_ have told people about PNG (or even ‘Melanesian’ culture) — which is that the goal is not to stop conflict and stop compensation and create ‘peace’ where no one owes anyone anything. The goal is to continue exchanging things with people, because that is how relationships are created and maintained. Compensation payments _start_ relationships, they don’t end them.

  10. Thanks for this, Rex.

    The fantasy Other of the ‘state of nature’ of course has a long history in European social theory, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a thought experiment to get outside the box it’s actually kind of clever, as long as it doesn’t get too literal. The problem with the pseudo-anthropological versions of it is that the slide into literal is much easier with Others who are being presented as real.

    I’m glad that’s mostly not what Diamond does until the moral. But if he’s trying to be practical and have ‘them’ reflect back on ‘us’, it’s a tough sell. Exactly what makes them Other vitiates their relevance to us. We are not that, so why, Jared, should we look there for understanding of ourselves?

    In history, this is the conundrum of justifying historical study with what’s called ‘presentism’. If we want to understand ourselves better, the right way to do that is obviously to look at ourselves more carefully. Projecting ourselves onto the past just distorts the past. The Other’s role in our reflexivity is finished the moment it dawns on us that things could be otherwise.

    I’m actually interested in much different questions about these stories (forgive me if they’re answered in the article, I am also exploiting Rex as reader):

    1. OK, Daniel was satisfied. Were the relatives of the guy he got revenge on? That is, is there in that system a post-revenge closure mechanism of some kind, or has he now ruined someone else’s life who needs to get revenge?

    2. Are we supposed to assume Jozef’s response of dissatisfaction is normative? Again, is revenge/punishment, whether by kin or state, the only closure mechanism that exists, or is imaginable?

    Just tell me if these questions are too Anthro 101.

  11. Kerim, this is a common misreading of Durkheim and Weber – textbook, in fact – but it doesn’t hold up very well to a sympathetic reading of their actual work. In Elementary Forms Durkheim was interested in showing precisely that there was no fundamental difference between the way the Aborigines ordered their world and Europeans did. He was actually anthropologizing Kant to figure out where representations (the basic units of thought) come from: society, of course.

    Similarly, Weber’s project through much of Economy and Society was to decontextualize rationality as abstract procedural thought, and then show that it could be attached in many specific forms to many specific social contexts and ‘values’ packages among which there is no independent way of evaluating.

    If contemporary anthropology has decided to mythologize its origins by othering these guys, so be it. I’m a historian and they’re my field, so I won’t have it.

  12. Carl,

    Interesting points you raise about Durkheim and Weber. Could you continue a bit and explain how the evolutionary story of development from mechanical to organic solidarity in _The Division of Labor_ fits into your reading?

    It occurs to me that the textbook reading you criticize reflects not only the now conventional rejection of unilinear theories of progress but also their association with “evolution,” which is taken in a Social Darwinist sense to associate different types of thinking with racial stereotypes (or older Great-Chain-of-Being ideas about inherent differences between aristocrats and commoners).

    Thus, for example, you wind up with misreadings of Tyler and Frazer, whose if-I-were-a-horse stories about the belief in the soul or the relationship of science to religion and magic were rooted in the assumption that the primitive is really a fellow like us, curious, inquisitive, intelligent, but only gradually learning the techniques and disciplines of scientific thinking. Their ideas are thus a lot closer to those of Malinowski or Levi-Strauss, who in their different ways say much the same thing: This “primitive” stuff is all of us, when we aren’t being careful to think scientifically.

    Anyway, please tell us more.


  13. Carl,

    I can’t help but feel that you are conflating Durkheim’s argument about the universal rationality of humans with his argument about the progressive rationalization of human institutions. It is our Religious institutions which becomes more rational in Durkheim, not the people themselves. It seems to me that Durkheim is very clear on these points. In fact, he needs us to accept the universal rationality of humans in order for us to see his comparative method as valid – but then the comparison he makes is precisely one in which our institutions evolve from the simple to the complex … and of course as social beings the implication is that this has an impact on the humans as well.

  14. I haven’t read the article yet (for some reason we get the New Yorker about a month behind everyone else – even other people in Honolulu), but I did want to respond to Rex’s characterization of “shrill denunciations” of Jared Diamond’s work by anthropologists since I am probably one of the shriller denunciators.

    I don’t object to Diamond’s work popularizing thinking about macro scale issues and the way they impact culture, as an archaeologist, I was trained to take those kinds of things into consideration. What I do object to is the way in which he consistently reduces complex historical and cultural interactions to one word prime movers: disease, steel, technology, revenge served hot (sorry, I realize that last one was three words but as Bourdieu says, timing is everything).

    I’m not saying these things aren’t important, but if we’re to avoid continuing to bomb and invade other people’s countries because they “hate our freedom” then we’d better get considerably better at communicating nuance and at giving the prime mover community including everyone from Diamond to Samuel Huntington a decent intellectual run for their money. This run includes criticizing faulty logic and analysis as Rex does and it also includes thoughtful popularizing which very few of us have done (I’m not including Mike Coe here for very obvious reasons).

  15. Sorry folks, this is not CKelty this is another Chris (Rex knows who I am), I should have looked more carefully before signing on.

  16. This was really beautifully done Rex and I am enjoying the discussion. I agree that there is some territoriality, and some clanishness, often going on in anthropological response to Diamond. And as you suggest, some of this is motivated perhaps by a narcissism of small differences, or I guess, just envy. I read the article real fast a week ago, like, in 3 minutes, cause of a deadline, but my initial impression was that it is (heresy!) not all that bad for what it is — pop anthropology based largely on a yarn. But then, as I always say, life is an inexorable process of lowering your standards.

    I like your emphasis on reciprocity. I wonder (but doubt) if Diamond, has for example read the work of Simon Harrison? (Mask of War) It is partly concerned to show the sociocultural dynamics of war in Melanesia, and makes the point as I recall that war could be as much about reciprocity as gift exchange is. I think a lot of western readers bring to accounts of violence a utilitarian bias, as if violence is transparent and universal, a sort of reversion to naked interest or the seething human nature threatening our social institutions. Melanesian emphases invite us to reconsider this presupposition. As I recall, Diamond hints at some of the cultural styling of warfare in PNG (as between conventional differences in types of fighting depending on the relationships involved).

    The Papua New Guineans I know are deeply ambivalent about all this. No one likes being paranoid all the time, so most folks think that traditional enmities are a big problem and they welcome efforts to tamp them down so that they can focus on more important things, like eeking out a living (in order to purchase fuel for the generator when Xena comes on). On the other hand, men in particular are enlivened by stories like the one that Diamond recounts, they take a great deal of pleasure in talking about their warrior prowess, and there is a palpable sense in which men feel they have in part lost some of their purpose in the absence of the pervasive threat of violence.

    I would underscore the point about diversity across New Guinea, and even across highland New Guinea, in respect to these dynamics, a point which further illustrates the social and cultural embeddedness of war there, because ways in which it unfolds, reasons for it happening, values attached to it, and so on, are all various. The blunt edge of ‘state’ and ‘non-state’ as ways of thinking about this, as you argue, really creates a rather crude picture of what is going on.

  17. Harrison has really become one of my favorite Melanesianists over the past couple of years, and in particular his ‘Fracturing Resemblances’ has become central to my thinking about how Marinesian (that’s Marilyn + Melanesian) philosophy and political anthropology can be knit together. The main point I remember from Mask of War is that warfare in the Sepik involves the _creation_ of ‘groups’ out of fluid social networks so that there are entities which _can_ be opposed to one another. This fits in well with my own writing on group incorporation around resource developments in PNG.

    But anyhoo no, I don’t think Diamond actually read any ethnography of PNG. My guess is that he read neo-evolutionist stuff back in the day (he is still stuck on the bands chiefdoms states typology) and hangs out with archaeologists (i.e. he is still stuck on the bands chiefdoms states typology). The rest I think he gets by osmosis talking to anthropologist about their work when he runs into them in PNG or elsewhere.

  18. Anthropologists who have a problem with Diamund:

    Please write a book that I can give to my 70 old grandmother so she can understand, at least in a general way, anthropology. I have yet to find a book that will both engage and inform her about anthropology, but she loved Diamund. (i also gave her ‘a short history of progress’ by ronald wright which she also liked.)

    I guess I’m of the opinion that if you can’t communicate your work to the general public, or at least to undergrads, you had best do a better job. Diamunds project in GGS was to present a popular alternative to racist arguments about who has the power now. Yes, it is ecologically determinist (to an extent). But it IS popular, and it’s better than racisim.

    Most people don’t know where PNG is, and they isn’t enough room to paint such a complex situation in a short article. Does this mean that such articles shouldn’t be written? Doesn’t that just contribute to the erasure of PNG in popular media?

  19. Wintermute, give this to your Gran:
    “Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction”:

    For Rex and the curious: Diamond’s Intro to Anthro came via the archaeologist John Terrell (Field Museum, Chicago) who invited him in 1974 to a SAA conference with the rather long title of: “The application of models in population biology and animal biogeography to the archaeological study of similarities and differences among human populations”. The proceedings were published in “World Archaeology”: in 1977. Diamond’s contribution was called “Colonization Cycles in Man and Beast”. It was here that he started to make the jump from Melanesian Birds to People. So I think the biogeography stuff is what he mostly drew on.
    Terrell for his part seems to be totally anti- this kind of thing nowadays.

  20. I think an important point is being diminished in these comments. Diamond is saying that vengeance is part of human nature and that when the state takes it over we lose something fundamental to human experience. Where there is either no state, or a weak vacilating state presence, we see something like what Diamond did in Nipa. This is true in Baltimore (if the Wire is indeed as true to life as it appears) and south Auckland too. So, the critique about him overplaying the otherness of PNG is a weak critique of the article.

    Wintermute – have a look at Cultural Anthropology Tribes States and the Global System by Bodley. You and your grandma might both like it.

  21. Well it looks like Wintermute votes for the ‘sour grapes’ hypothesis. Winter you should read “Guests of the Sheikh” by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Trust me on this one.

    Oh and btw Hal, you’re right, since ‘vengeance’ is a part of ‘human nature’ then I guess Auckland, Baltimore, and the Southern Highlands are all ‘fundamentally’ the same. So much for the cultural mediation of both emotion and the state.

    But sarcasm aside, as you say, it is a weak criticism of the article. As I say in my entry, I say that this is a ‘problem’, not a ‘deal breaker’.

  22. There’s a great line from Henry Louis Gates, ‘if you can’t explain it to your mother you don’t understand it yourself.’ Of course my mom has a PhD and is the only person who I know for a fact read every word of my diss., so there goes that…

    Harrison, who Rex steered me to, also has some fresh things to say about identity as denied resemblance, an antidote to the obsession with difference in group-formation.

  23. I linked to Diamond’s article on EBSCOhost and almost immediately noticed that Diamond used an example from the folks who are my primary research interest, the Cherokee: “For instance, about two centuries ago, the formerly separate Cherokee chiefdoms gradually formed a unified Cherokee government in a desperate attempt to resist pressure from whites.” This shows an ignorance of Cherokee ethnology as the documentary record of the past three centuries shows no evidence that Cherokee political organization approximated anything like the theoretical construct of the chiefdom (and the prehistoric archaeological record is ambiguous on the question). I’m also not sure that the Cherokee Nation’s government could really be called “unified” for the initial decades of its existence given the factionalism that was present. These are just cavils that won’t matter to anyone who doesn’t study the Cherokee but they do lead me to wonder about the thoroughness of Diamond’s scholarship in general. I personally try to have some basic understanding of my exemplars before using them as, well, exemplars.

    I am sympathetic to Diamond’s work in so much as he tries to convey information to a non-academic audience–has any other anthropologist gotten booked by the Colbert Report ? Anthropologists tend to obfuscate already complex ideas with jargon, colons, and 75 word long sentences and I appreciate any anthropologist who takes the time to write clearly. (To paraphrase one of my undergraduate professors, “You can say Lacan wrote like that to subvert my desire, but I think if you’re really that smart then you’re smart enough to write intelligibly.”) I do wonder, however, if the success of Diamond’s work rests partly with the fact that his analyses are grounded in relatively common sense concepts? That doesn’t necessarily mean that the analyses are wrong, but it does mean they are more accessible to middlebrow audiences. They are also much easier to convert into clear prose. I’m not saying that using cultural ecology to attack your research problem is any easier than using semiotics but I do think we can agree that writing an article for general consumption would be exponentially more difficult for the semiotician.

    I hope my own writing has been somewhat clear in this post. I don’t mean to beat up on Diamond–like I could beat up on Jared Diamond–and I’m always glad when an anthropologist reaches a general audience.

  24. Sure Rex, I agree that there is something relevant going on in the realm of “the cultural mediation of both emotion and the state”. I don’t think it’s the primary issue. You say that you don’t either, so, I guess we agree overall. However, you’re patrolling the turf of cultural(ist) anthropology a bit too vigorously for my taste. I think Diamond’s description provides some good data on how things work on the ground and we should encourage what he’s doing rather than carp at it.

  25. I agree. There is a version of this article that could be written by a number of anthropologists in which Diamond is roundly denounced for having committed a special list of sins (that only anthropologists care about) and his work is dismissed on this ethical basis rather than actually examined — where he is, in other words, drummed out for being Orientalising, Denying Coevalness, etc. etc.

    I’m sympathetic to these critiques (my main criticism is that he is using a sort of Victorian ‘Comparative Method’ which many of us consider to be problematic). But reread the article — do you think it really constituted ‘crapping all over him’? And do I ever say that ‘only anthropologists can write about this’ or ‘you can only write about this in an anthropological way and he doesn’t’? No. I think it is easy to imagine Diamond facing such an opponent, but I also think its important to recognize that opponent isn’t me.

  26. I said “carp” not crap. Did anyone else say crap? Or some of the other things you say were said about your article? Who are you quoting in your comment?

  27. John, I appreciate the invitation to elaborate; since I’ve never done this particular argument in less than 60 pages or in exactly this context I was holding until I got all my papers graded. Btw, pleased to see that some of my students, at least, got a little more ‘careful about thinking scientifically’.

    Kerim, you make a nice distinction: “you are conflating Durkheim’s argument about the universal rationality of humans with his argument about the progressive rationalization of human institutions. It is our Religious institutions which becomes more rational in Durkheim, not the people themselves.” I would only quibble with one premise and one word. The premise is that Durkheim was always doing the same thing. The word is progressive. You could make a progress argument about Division of Labor and maybe even the Rules. But in his later work, including the second Preface to DoL plus, of course, The Elementary Forms, he wasn’t talking about progress at all, in an evaluative sense.

    (I felt bound to answer but apologize for this long post tangential to the thread.)

    So John, to come back to your question, Durkheim simply gave up on the mechanical/organic schema later because it was much too linear and simplistic. The reason for it in the first place was that DoL was a work of sociology in the present; it was about ‘organic solidarity’. He was talking about a changing situation, implying a ‘before’, and so he sort of concocted ‘mechanical solidarity’ as that which had been changed from. He became aware of two things as he got older: that what he called mechanical solidarity was consistent with various forms of association in modern societies (e.g. “professional ethics and civic morals”); and that what he called organic solidarity characterized the general moral order of all societies.

    The Elementary Forms is accordingly another crack at organic solidarity (not called that any more), only now understood not as a stage in human history but as the structural format of all human conceptualization. So Kerim, I agree with you that he’s working on establishing the universal rationality of humans in order to ground his comparative method.

    Again, where I don’t agree is in the implication of judgment in the social ‘evolution from simple to complex’. John is right that there’s danger of a conflation of evolution with social darwinism here. Societies are objectively more or less complex, just as any other whole with parts is more or less complex. My tennis team is less complex than my college; my social ‘self’ in those two contexts does flex in and out. The point is that by evolution Durkheim did not mean progress, he meant adaptation. There is no sense of higher and lower, better or worse forms in Durkheim.

    He argued that demographic expansion drives a complexified division of labor in modern societies. Well right, it does. That and its consequences are a lot of what we criticize (impertinently) about modern societies, when we’re in that mood. My brother designs sewer systems for suburban developments. That is a sentence that would not have made any sense for a variety of reasons in 13th century Europe, not least that coping with masses of poo had not yet emerged as a sort of problem that required layers and layers of professional specialization to cope with.

    Of course, people in 13th century Europe coped with their poo just fine; probably better, from an environmental perspective, than my brother’s systems do. But there were fewer of them, less densely packed, with a lot less poo to cope with. So without getting into ‘progress’ or ‘civilization’ as terms of evaluation, the kind of society in which poo can be composted for fertilizer or left in the street to eventually wash into the river by rainfall is a different sort of adaptive environment than the one in which unprocessed poo would saturate every waking moment.

    My brother is only very dimly aware of the larger environment in which his specialized local knowledge operates. My specialized academic local knowledge involves being aware of larger environments but not of where my poo goes when I pull that handle. I am no more or less adapted to my situation than he is; like him, I would be helpless without it. Durkheim’s point might be that society ‘evolved’ each of us to do work that needs doing, and equipped us interactively with the general categories of understanding (‘habitus’, later) that would enable us to funtion effectively in the various milieux we encounter. Of course this all has to be coordinated, which is where institutions come in. And they do need to be rationalized, just in the sense of procedurally getting stuff done reliably.

    I am certainly aware that judgments about higher and lower, more and less, better and worse have been attached to concepts like complexity and civilization. I get it that these evaluations serve the interests of oppressive power and must be resisted. But if that spills over into denying that scale and context have any effect on societies or the people in them, which is what Durkheim was arguing, then I don’t see how we can get much of anywhere toward understanding the real diversity of human experience.

  28. Thanks, Carl. Your historian’s reminder that we too often flatten an author’s thinking into a single, static scheme when, in fact, it evolved with the passage of time (if not in a single book—I think of J.L. Austin’s musings in _How to do things with words_) is an important one.

    Your remarks about complexity are also important. It is one thing to insist that we respect and take the time to understand the complexities of life in smaller groups and another to deny that larger groups are, indeed, more complex in what may be interesting and important ways.

    I also have to admit it; the poo is a wonderful example. What a marvelous demonstration that you have your sh**t together.

  29. Thanks for the book suggestions everyone, I’ll check them out when I finish reading the n books I need for my thesis proposal. I do hope they pass the grandma test: diamunds has managed to convince her that evolution is probably true and that progress isn’t neccesarily so great: it could be time to move on to other things.

  30. On the jealously issue- my father’s work was extensively used in Guns, Germs, and Steel, but his contributions are never acknowledged. He is a prominent political economist in his own right, and has never expressed frustration that he was not recognized. He is happy just to get the ideas out there and understands that Diamond does what he cannot: make the ideas popular and accessible.
    On the other hand, I think Diamond’s appropriation of other academics’ theory leads to essentialist arguments. He removes the complexity and nuances of their argument until they fit his grand narrative. I firmly believe that his work is important, but all encompassing theories will necessarily be open to criticism.
    He recently held a “conference” which ended up being him picking the brain of a variety of academics. So look for a new book about how past societies can show us how to build a sustainable future…

  31. I don’t think humans can build a sustainable future as we are made right now. Too much testosterone, leading to territorialism, and too many “old fashioned” genes that we can’t use in a modern society. Both modern western ‘Liberalism’, and ‘Conservatism’, are much too primative in our fast changing world.

    Money and power, and those without money and power is what it seems to boil down too. Yet the “power” controls both parties in modern countries.

    Global Warming, Pollution, Food shortages are all fast comming upon us. Yet so called ‘Liberals’ have abandoned the notion of overpopulation, and China is barely on the radar for its secondary American regressive industrialism. That is to say American corporations skirt American environmental laws by going to China or elswhere.

    The chickens are comming home to roost.

    What exactly is the reason for humans to peacfully co-exist and how could this possibly be accomplioshed with the levels of diverstiy and want of resources?

    Humans have been fighting and killing, just as most life forms do, over territory and resources. What exactly will compel such primatives to stop? This question has been asked for millenia, lots of science fiction movies from the ’50’s explore the issue.

    Humans are too stupid to deal with these issues. Are you going to use genetics to accomplish your social goals? That’s about the only way to do it, but it may take near extinction to get there.

    We humans have about worn out our welcome.

    Interesting site.

  32. Pingback: More on Diamond
  33. Does culture or genetic behavioral programming influence us the most? Actually the two can powerfully reinforce each other in a loop that can be nearly impossible to break — for male “hunters” at least. I have found males to unbendingly unable to accept new pathways on more than one old issue.

    I see males as so programmed to “check in” with what everybody else is thinking before they allow themselves to decide their what their own agenda will be that they will permanently freeze out what would be the most obvious practical approach in purely abstract terms. Prime example: the inability of America’s progressive economic elite to pick up on the easy solution — that could be even more easily sold — to America’s uniquely low labor pay: sector-wide labor agreements (I’m not the least bit kidding about any of this) — American supermarket and airline workers would kill for legislated sector-wide agreements.

    But males are programmed so heavily — this was an all important survival mode — to integrate their thoughts with everyone else in the group — this is not the time for new ideas: the wild pig is getting away! — that they are impervious to the most practical abstract innovations. When they are alone in the library at one in the morning they are still on the “hunt.”

    Meantime 20-25% of America’s workforce is earning less than the minimum wage…
    …of 1968! Meantime top one percentile income averaged $1.2 million in 2006 according to CBO* — while our intellectual males (unconsciously) chase ever receding wild pigs.

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