How can we explain human variation?

I’ve been struggling to find a way to blog regularly about Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday (WUY, henceforth). After some thinking I’ve decided to do two things. First, I’m publishing my notes on the book as a Google doc for everyone to see so that people can get a sense of the layout and argument of the book. Second, I’ll chose one topic in each chapter that I think is particularly interesting or worthy of your time and attention. Today, I’ll start with the prologue.

The prologue to WBY concerns itself with laying out the subject, plan, and assumptions of Jared Diamond’s book. It begins with a set piece describing Jacksons, the airport in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG). PNG, he claims, is a great example of ‘the world before yesterday’ — the world of ‘traditional societies’ which used to exist but which rarely do now (they are ‘before yesterday’ because from an evolutionary point of view 40,000 years ago is a mere blink of the eye). He contrasts traditional societies with modern ones, and argues that traditional societies have features that we have lost, and perhaps should reincorporate into our lives.

There is a lot to say about this first chapter — for instance, that there is no way that his concept of ‘traditional society’ makes any sense, that human societies are not “natural experiments” in creating human society, but rather one connected natural experiment that we have only just begun to run, that ultimate causes are often the least interesting ones to discuss, and so forth. But what I want to focus on here is Diamond’s conception of what he (and others) are doing. What kind of project can the explanation of human variation be? And what kind should it be?

In his book, Diamond describe three ways to study human variation.

First, there is the evolutionary approach (his approach). The evolutionary approach seeks “to recognize broad features differing between societies of different population sizes and population densities, but shared among societies of similar population sizes and density; and to infer, and sometimes to observe directly, changes in a society as it becomes larger or smaller” (20). Adaptation is a key idea for this approach, as is generalization. The evolutionary approach “encourages one to formulate generalizations, and to interpret changes of a society with time in terms of the conditions and environment under which the society lives” (20).

Its clear that this is Diamond’s preferred approach, because his discussion of the other two approaches is pretty muddled. Not only are the approaches not named (always a bad idea when you’re making a list), but they’re not described. The second approach “views each society as unique because of its particular history, and considers cultural beliefs and practices as largely independent variables not cited by environmental conditions” (20). The next sentence begins “let me mention one extreme case… the Kaulong people… formerly practiced the ritualized strangling of widows” (20-21). Note that this is not an example of this method of analysis. It is, presumably, an example of the sort of thing that it studies. Diamond argues that “it seems necessary to view Kaulong widow strangling as an independent historical cultural trait that arose for some unknown reason in that particular are of New Britain” (21)

The third approach that Diamond describes is to “recognize cultural beliefs and practices that have a wide regional distribution, and that spread historically over the region without being related to the local conditions” (22). Again, his example here is the widespread distribution of monotheism and non-tonal languages in Europe, another example of the phenomena such an approach would study, not an account of the hallmarks of the approach.

What exactly is going on here? I ask because I honestly cannot tell what Diamond has in mind here. There have been so many different ways of cutting up the cake of the human sciences, and Diamond’s trichotomy could fit into any number of them. Is this trio evolution, humanistic historical particularism, and humanistic trait-distribution mapping? Is he arguing that there some things, like widow strangling, which are non adaptive and hence unstudyable by science? But surely evolutionary types have become geniuses at finding function and adaptation everywhere — in fact, cultural anthropologists often criticize evolutionary arguments for being nonfalsifiable, so good are their exponents and finding arguments in their favor. At times Diamond speaks of societies as ‘natural experiments’, as things which ‘evolve’. When he talks about the distribution of culture traits across space, is he arguing that it is impossible to scientifically study acculturation, culture contact, and culture change? I can’t believe that.

Despite claims that Diamond’s book demonstrates incredible erudition what we see in this prologue is a profound lack of thought about what it would mean to study human diversity and how to make sense of cultural phenomenon. Instead, what we have is someone with a very basic, text-book answer about what constitutes an acceptable study of human variation. Diamond seems unable to comprehend other answers to this question (or maybe he does and just didn’t want to write a treatise on method, who knows?) and doesn’t understand the difficulty of taking his answer, developed in one field (life sciences), and applying it to another (social sciences). To a certain extent, its perfectly understandable that Diamond does not delve into the philosophy of the social sciences — like many Scientsts (with a capital S) he is more interested in getting the work done than reflecting on the conditions of its possibility.

Ultimately, though, this is a problem. In order to understand human variation as it actually exists (for instance, Kaulong widow-strangling) we need a framework that takes terms like generalization, history, adaptation, diffusion, and culture and realigns them. This is what anthropologists have been trying to do for a century, as their data prompted them to reexamine their assumptions. There is a lot to like about Diamond’s book — what anthropologists can’t endorse a critique of ethnocentrism and an endorsement of non-Western cultural practices? — but it begins with premisses which ultimately render it unable to account to the things that it purports to explain.

In my next blog post I’ll explain more about what how Diamond’s premisses affect his interpretation in problematic ways, and how anthropology — real, actual anthropology — has come up with a better way of doing things. Here my goal was just to describe Diamond’s approach in WUY, and point out his inability to imagine other acceptable ways of going about the task he has set himself. Stay tuned!


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

24 thoughts on “How can we explain human variation?

  1. This is very important work. Please keep at it!

    It sounds like from your description that Diamond is playing (badly) with three ideas from early anthropology, the evolutionary approach, historical particularism (a possible version of Boas?) and the attempt to map widespread traits, or a version of diffusionism (Kroeber).

    Thanks! Looking forward to more!

  2. Lovely. I feel the urge to read along with you now…we’ll see if that turns into actual practice…

  3. Thanks for this – very useful. I’m looking into buying the book, but I’ll wait until the price goes down a little or I can get it second-hand.

    Diamond’s approach has been explained in a number of works, including Natural Experiments of History and, I suppose, Guns, Germs, and Steel. It’s not an entirely adaptive approach by any means, although there certainly is an element of that.

    I think we should keep in mind that ‘trait distribution mapping’ can be a very useful exercise when it comes to certain features of human life – language, for instance. It is useful and interesting to know that Chinese is a descendant of proto-Sino-Tibetan. It tells us something about human prehistory to know this, and thereby helps us to partially explain a facet of human diversity. Not useful with everything, of course. I’ve seen too many papers (one is too many) that assert pre-Columbian connections between southeast Asia and the Americas because of the presence of the blowgun in both areas. (And it usually is geographers who write these pieces, so it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Diamond indulged in it, although he seems smarter than that.)

    I’ve just been reading The Origins of Inequality by Flannery and Marcus, and they make the claim that organised ‘corporate’ descent groups only arose c.15,000 BCE – almost certainly not 40,000 years ago (they didn’t just pull this figure out of thin air, and good reasons are given). Given that clans and ritual houses, not to mention horticulture, are prominent aspects of life in almost all of the societies Diamond surveys, he’s not actually reaching that far into the past. Not to the earliest times of human society, that’s for sure. (And of course, ethnography can only allow us to make inferences about the past – it’s not a window into our earliest times.)

  4. LOL – I love your slip to plural in the first sentence: “The Worlds Before Yesterday”. Seems like the essence of the problem wrapped up in a single letter!

  5. This is both smart and timely. Lots of discussion about this book without people having read it. Thanks for reading it, thinking about it, and blogging it.

  6. Looking forward to reading this, Rex.

    I really don’t know all that much about Diamond’s background and how he developed his ideas about history and “human variation.” Would be interesting to see what (if any) anthropology is a part of his reading/thinking.

    I remember one prof during my undergrad told me that Diamond is trying to do something along the lines of what Julian Steward was up to in the 50s and 60s–but that Steward did things much better.

    Anyway, read on Rex.

    PS: Here’s Wade Davis’s review of the book:

    (take a look at the comments section–interesting)

  7. Long time reader, first time commenter.

    Just want to say that Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders is, overall, a nice voice to have out there in the public that provides an alternative perspective to JD.

  8. Actually, I managed to screw up the entire name of the book — I wrote “The Worlds Before Yesterday” when it is actually “The World Until Yesterday”. I’ve corrected it in the body of the post.

    Thanks for the positive feedback. This will likely become a weekly thing for me.

  9. Rex, thanks so much for taking this on. I managed to get just the prologue as a Kindle sample on Amazon, so I have read that but no more. I agree with your analysis entirely and look forward to more thoughts on this from you.

    One thing I think is interesting is the idea that consensual decision-making is somehow connected primarily to population size and/or density, and so is an aspect of “traditional” (read: non-urban, hunter-gathered, etc) societies conceived of as part of the “past”. Even JD’s passing mention of these techniques among contemporary urban gang members belies this, but he never really explores this glaring contradiction.

    It seems that part of consensual decision making could be tied instead to a lack of wage-labor. If one is working for money, then one is expected (usually) to follow someone else’s dictates in exchange for a salary. Where the coercive power of money (or, indirectly, the state) is not involved, we can see consensual decision-making arise. For example, see sociologist Chen’s book on Burning Man: In this situation, people are dealing with volunteer labor and so people cannot simply be told to do or not to do specific things; other mechanisms of resolving issues come into play. I think simplifying this to traditional vs modern is misleading at best.

    I feel like this is not a fully formed thought, but I’ll throw it out there.

  10. I went to check the price of the book in kindle–19.99! A bit steep for an ebook, especially when the hardcover is selling for 20 bucks new on Amazon. I don’t get it. I liked the idea of reading along as well. But maybe I’ll follow Claire’s lead and get the prologue…and then wait a few months for it to show up in the local thrift stores for about 3.99!!

  11. First, allow me to join the chorus of praise for Rex’s project. I look forward to upcoming installments. Also allow me, however to offer a few words of caution.

    When I opened this morning’s edition of _The Japan Times_, I found a full-page story on Diamond reprinted from _The Observer_ []. It occurred to me that, rhetorically speaking, what Rex is doing is preaching to the choir. In a manner characteristic of academic critique with axes to grind, he is hammering Diamond for sloppy use of dated ideas—and in this regard he is not wrong. But is there a missed opportunity here.
    When _The Observer_interviewer writes that

    “The book’s message is simple but politically charged: there is nothing special or innately superior about western people. They are not the master race. They are simply geographically privileged,”

    isn’t he saying something with which most anthropologists would wholeheartedly agree (except perhaps for the emphasis given to geographical factors). When the interviewer goes on to write,

    “His book, subtitled ‘What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?’, is a form of rescue anthropology, he explains, a bid to save the last useful nuggets of tribal life before it is finally destroyed by the spread of nations and states,”

    isn’t he describing a project that has been at the heart of anthropology ever since the discipline’s founding?

    It would be one thing if we could offer better answers to the issues that Diamond raises. But if all we can do is quibble about the answers that Diamond has formulated, aren’t we, ipso facto, condemning ourselves?

  12. Here’s another excerpt of the new JD book available to all:

    I present it here without comment, but I find it far too similar to the new atheism of Christopher Hitchens to be compelling. Perhaps in the context of the entire work this reads differently. A more sustained critique is in order.

    To respond to John — I agree that JD is engaging in projects that are not new to anthropology. However, I think there is something more disturbing about Guns, Germs and Steel (which I have read in full).

    Fighting racism is a project we can all get behind, sure, but anti-racism is now an establishment position, one that most of our popular readers also accept. And thank God for that! But is that enough?

    What I found troubling about GGandS was the feeling that it was excusing the West from doing anything about global inequality. Instead of dealing with causes of inequality such as colonialism, predatory lending, development aid, and war — things that have human causes and human solutions — instead it focuses on the environment. The end conclusion seems to be, yes, people in PNG (or wherever) are our equals, and if only they had wheat/horses/small pox instead of potatoes/llamas/syphilis, they’d be running the world economy now instead of us.

    What a convenient story for the West to tell itself. Yes, we are all equal. The reasons for our inequalities are completely beyond human control. So, we don’t need to (or simply can’t) take action.

    Of course, there are far more detailed critiques to be leveled against that book (as an Andeanist, I find his section on the Conquest of the Americas very problematic). But I think this accounts for the book’s popularity with a general audience. It is what people want to hear. Few want to hear that their wealth is predicated on genocide conducted by their ancestors, or banking practices that promote poverty among the already the poor, or educational systems that are not designed to be real meritocracies but instead to maintain class differences.

    I don’t know if JD himself would agree with all this (I hope not), but I think that is how the book has been read by many, and that worries me. Apathy has always been a privilege of the rich, of course, but I don’t think anthropology should be in the business of naturalizing that.

  13. Claire, I agree with everything you say here. But it still doesn’t address the issue I raised. it offers lots of reasons not to like Diamond’s analysis—but neither improves that analysis nor offers a compelling alternative to it. It evades completely the question of how Europeans came to be successful empire builders, the ones in a position to commit genocide, impose their banking system, and leave others in poverty, etc. It addresses only motive—and that with a simplistic,”Our ancestors were bloody bastards” (I won’t deny that, and some of us still are). It says nothing about means, opportunity or timing.

    Why the West instead of the rest? That is the question that, for better or worse, Diamond addressed in Guns, Germs and Steel? Why during a span of three or four centuries that now appear to be ending? That is a question his geographical determinism fails to answer. Do we have a better big-picture story or only our usual litany of complaints?

    Or turning to the most recent book, can we add anything to the obvious counter to appealing to “traditional society”? It seems reasonable to assume that thousands of years of prehistory with thinly scattered human populations resulted in lots of traditional societies adapted to an immense range of ecological niches and, thus , at least as different from each other as different species of Galapagos finches. Do we have any big-picture stories to tell to explain their differences? Or are we, as Edmund Leach asserted a good many decades ago, just butterfly collecting—only now we’re supposed to feel ashamed of what happens to the butterflies?

    The challenge is not to point out flaws in what Diamond writes. It is writing something better as compelling to readers as what Diamond writes.

  14. What I found troubling about GGandS was the feeling that it was excusing the West from doing anything about global inequality

    I take it you didn’t read the book? Or even take the less time-consuming option of watching the television show? This literally couldn’t be more wrong if it tried. Diamond explicitly tried to motivate such action at the end of both book and series on the grounds of our shared humanity.

    And what a paradox you create! If Diamond said that white people were the master race, he would have been implicated in generating and sustaining ‘western’ supremacy. If Diamond says that white people are nothing special, and that geographical circumstance made their conquest of most of the planet incredibly easy and not a sign of supremacy, he is implicated in generating and sustaining ‘western’ supremacy. There doesn’t seem to be any way out for the man.

    But I think this accounts for the book’s popularity with a general audience. It is what people want to hear

    It told European-derived populations that they were privileged precisely because of genocides their ancestors committed, and it told them how they were able to undertake these genocides. If that’s what people want to hear, and if that supports ‘western’ hegemony, then I really don’t know what Diamond could possibly have said that could have failed to support it. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t – but only if you’re Jared Diamond, a man reviled primarily for being a writer on anthropological topics without any formal training in anthropology (a discipline which, in any case, leaves most of this sort of stuff out of its university programmes).

    As for his parts on the conquest of the Americas, what is it that you objected to? It’s true that germs played a large part in it – an absolutely unremarkable point. It is also true that guns, horses, steel, mastiffs, and European military tactics played a role as well, as did the internal structure of the states and tribes encountered by Europeans. Is there another factor you wish to add of such astonishing explanatory power as these?

    Why the West instead of the rest? That is the question that, for better or worse, Diamond addressed in Guns, Germs and Steel? Why during a span of three or four centuries that now appear to be ending? That is a question his geographical determinism fails to answer.

    I’m a little fed up with these accusations of ‘geographical determinism’. Diamond isn’t saying that the geography of earth entirely determines human actions or the rise and fall of empires, which is what geographical determinism would be. He is saying that the geography of earth makes certain actions much easier than others.

    It is far, far easier to get to the Americas from Europe than it is from China, and Europe’s zany coastline and maritime connections with two other continents from an early period encouraged the development of sophisticated naval technologies. It is easier to traverse the Indian Ocean than the Atlantic. It is easier to conquer and unify China proper, a plain, than it is to conquer mainland Europe, a spiky area with several mountain ranges. It is easier for domesticates and technologies to flow east-west (or vice versa) than north-south (or vice versa), because the climate varies drastically between the poles, while it remains relatively constant along lines of latitude, and the climate determines, at least, which plants are likely to thrive or fail. It is easier to steal wealth from populations decimated by newly-introduced diseases and deliberate genocide than it is to take it from equals. It is easier for diseases to begin and spread in densely-packed urban environments than sparsely-populated countryside. These simple factors, and many others, influence in a big way – but don’t wholly determine – human actions, and it would be ridiculous to conclude otherwise.

    That doesn’t mean that Columbus was determined solely by geography to venture forth to the Caribbean. It doesn’t mean that Qin Shi Huangdi was inevitably going to conquer China whether he wanted to or not, simply through the commands of geography. It is not geographical determinism, or even anything remotely close to it, that you will find within the pages of G, G, & S.

    This whole thing about Diamond shouldn’t be a tribal thing. “What have we got that is better than Diamond’s ideas?” isn’t the way to approach this. It shouldn’t be about ‘anthropologists’ against Diamond. It should be about understanding the world a bit better. Diamond did a good job of it, whether you like to acknowledge this or not, and I’m tired of the constant cavalry charges against a line of Diamond-shaped straw men.

  15. Al – Yes, I did read the book, although I will admit it’s been a while. Obviously we had very different takes on it. I’ll thank you to take my critiques seriously rather than try to dismiss me off-hand as uninformed, even if you disagree with me. I’ll try to do you the same courtesy.

    “If Diamond said that white people were the master race, he would have been implicated in generating and sustaining ‘western’ supremacy. If Diamond says that white people are nothing special, and that geographical circumstance made their conquest of most of the planet incredibly easy and not a sign of supremacy, he is implicated in generating and sustaining ‘western’ supremacy. There doesn’t seem to be any way out for the man.”

    Yes, there is, because these are not the only options. People being “nothing special” does not mean that they cease to have history, unequal access to power, etc. Power is something that is maintained through social interactions, not something that you acquire and put under your bed to use when it’s convenient. One could argue that’s not the scale JD wants to examine history at, which would seem a better (if imperfect, IMHO) defense. But I find that deeply unsatisfying.

    As for objections to his analysis of the Conquest of the Americas, I could respond at length but instead I will refer you to the much-more-eloquent-than-I-could-be-in-a-blog-comment book by Matthew Restall, “Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest.” ( Although Restall never mentions JD, it seemed to me that this book could be read as an extended response to GGandS.

    I will offer this, however — JD seems to think that similar geographies are inherently advantageous, while disparate ecologies are a problem. There are cases where that might be true, but not always. In the Andean case, political and economic power of the Inca and other Andean civilizations was predicated on access to multiple, widely different ecological zones separated by short distances (as the crow flies). John Murra’s concept of “verticality” theorizes this, and it’s one of the first things that anyone working in the Andes learns about. JD makes no mention of this concept, which seems like a major omission given his interests.

    As for maintaining disciplinary boundaries — please. I don’t have a problem with non-anthropologists. For heavens sake, I assign books like this one ( as reflexive ethnography for Anthro of Tourism.

    John — I agree that salvage anthropology is part of our discipline’s history, but I disagree that this currently defines the field. I find it strange that JD seems to think that’s (still) a viable project.

    In short, JD tells a compelling story and there are elements of it that even I appreciate. But overall, I think there is no comparison between him and say, Wolf’s “People Without History.” That was a serious consideration of history and power, and one that JD, to my knowledge, never addresses. That’s unfortunately, because Wolf is asking all the same questions about global inequality that JD is, with quite different answers.

    There is a lot more to be said, obviously, but honestly, it feels like we are beating a dead horse. 🙂

  16. As this thread is about Diamond’s new book, I’ve posted my response on my blog. I certainly don’t think we’re flogging a dead horse! It seems pretty important to me to get Diamond right, because he’s pretty close to being on the money with his explanation of (effectively) the last five hundred years of world history. You seem to be putting the cart before the horse, expecting to explain inequality in terms of colonialism. What caused colonialism? That’s Diamond’s question. Anyway, I wrote a couple of posts about the issue.

  17. Al,

    Your post does manage to salvage the horse somewhat (Although I still think that GGandS in general has been talked to death). The book has no mention of “verticality” or John Murra, but does reveal a long section on how illiteracy contributed to the defeat of Atahualpa. (?!) It is this kind of misconception that Restall responds to so eloquently.

    You comment in your post:
    “I don’t think Diamond said anything about Inka agriculture being a specific weakness, because it wasn’t…”

    Yes, it wasn’t a weakness, we agree on that. But that’s not, I suspect, why JD didn’t mention it. Perhaps he didn’t mention it because it would contradict his main thesis, or maybe he just didn’t think it was very interesting. Fair enough; all academics have to pick and choose what they think is important or interesting enough to write about. But not writing about something is not the same as accepting its importance.

    As for whether JD made the claim that the Americans thought the Spanish were gods… well, sorry, but he does in reference to the Aztecs (p. 80). Back to Restall.

    But these are quibbles. There are larger issues here. I almost hesitate to bring this up, because it seems so obvious, but colonialism is far older than 500 years. Spain was a Roman colony long before they colonized the Americas, for instance. If we want to explore causes of colonialism as a system, then we need history in-between the major moments JD seems to be interested in, i.e., the advent of agriculture and 1492. That seems to me to be what Graeber is doing.

    I would never claim that disease did not play a role in the Conquest of the Americas. I think that was *the* major reason the Conquest went as it did. But JD also attributes importance to things like literacy and other factors that I would consider minor or largely irrelevant.

    I’ll think about putting a post of my own together on the excerpt I linked to above. But I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on JD, Al.

  18. Yes, we probably will have to agree to disagree. And it’s disappointing to see that Diamond bought into the Spaniards=gods myth. I’d say, however, that G,G,&S has only been done to death in that it was talked about a lot – but whether any sensible conclusions were reached about the book is a different matter. If it’s wrong, then why is it wrong? What can we do to improve on it, instead of seeing it as a foreign body in the discipline of anthropology? I think Diamond is nearly right, and where he isn’t, it’s primarily because of specifics rather than massive over-arching problems. It’s a theory that can be hammered into something a little better, a little sharper. I don’t think that the history of European pre-sixteenth century CE colonialism is all that relevant, honestly; the Aztec Triple Alliance functioned on a similar (albeit not identical) basis to the early Roman empire, but it was conquered by the Spanish. Not because the Spanish had a superior idea of colonialism, but because they had a bunch of technologies, cultigens, and parasites that the Aztecs did not.

    I agree that we need history for the time between the rise of agriculture and sedentism and 1492. But I don’t think this history undermines much of what Diamond said, frankly. And Diamond did pay attention to this period, of course; the propagation of most of the diseases Diamond saw as key to the European conquest of the Americas happened long after the rise of agriculture, and the development of steel tools was also a late occurrence. I think Diamond’s theory needs work in the details – it doesn’t require a massive overhaul or an outright rejection, because in its basic features, it isn’t wrong. Europeans conquered the world primarily because geography favoured them in so many over-lapping senses.

  19. Diamond uses highly questionable ‘data’ to support colonial ideas about ‘pacifying savages’. Were he to be believed, it risks pushing the advancement of human rights for tribal peoples back decades. Survival International will shortly release a critique of Diamond.

  20. On January 30 2013, Survival released a critique of The World Until Yesterday

    On February 4 2013 Jared Diamond was interviewed on BBC TV about his new book ‘The World Until Yesterday’. He would not agree to a Survival International representative being there to debate his points.

    During the interview, he addressed the critique, claiming that Survival’s policies rest on ‘falsehoods’, and that the universal finding is that violence almost always decreases when there’s European contact of ‘traditional’ societies.

    Please visit to see more of Mr Diamond’s claims, and Survival’s response to them.

  21. I made a stab at addressing your claims here. I have to say, I find your views tired and wrong. Tribal societies are more violent than states; given the state of the archaeological and ethnographic records, that shouldn’t be in dispute. The only debatable point here is whether European (or, rather, state) intervention inevitably leads to a decline in violence. I would agree with you that it doesn’t, and Diamond is clearly wrong there (if there were any Beothuk people left alive, I don’t doubt they’d agree with you).

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