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!