Jared Diamond Doesn’t Make Me Mad…

Barbara King has a thoughtful piece up at Cosmos and Culture asking why Jared Diamond makes anthropologists so mad. I think its a good question, which Barbara has only partially answered. So I’d like to take a crack at it here.

There are lots of ways that anthropologists have responded to Diamond’s work, including strong support (as I said earlier, a lot of worthwhile people have his back in his latest book). Admittedly, a lot of people are angry (for a lot of wrong reasons in my view, as I’ve said) but I’m not one of them. A lot of the exaggerated language about his work s overblown. When Jason Antrosio refers to Diamond’s work being ‘porn’ he is either being hyperbolic, and/or else we’ve just learned something very depressing about Jason’s private life. When James Mullooly calls him an ‘armchair anthropologist’ he fails to give Diamond due credit for the tremendous amount of time he has spent in the field in PNG (studying birds rather than people, but still). I have always likes the work of both of these bloggers and enjoy reading what they write, but I do think the tone gets a bit strident at time. I don’t know, maybe in person he’s not a nice guy but then again I haven’t met him in person…

As I’ve said (in an article behind a paywall), my concern is that he’s diluting my brand by doing two things: first, framing the study of humanity in a way that is not satisfying to me (and should not, I’d claim, be satisfying to others) and second, realying (at times) on faulty reasoning and inaccurate facts. He does not understand that culture is a sui generis force, his focus on the big picture gives him a few blind spots, and he still relies too much on biology for his philosophy of science. But that is another, different, series of posts.

In her post Barbara asks what other ‘big picture’ books anthropologists have written since Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History. The answer that comes to mind for me is Debt, which is the anti-Diamond. Other than that, it is true that there have been few others, I’ll admit. But this is not a fault unique to anthropologists, it reflects that fact that ‘big’ books are hard to write and most people are more content to pursue their specialized studies. Not all biologists are Ernst Mayr. Not all historians are Fernand Braudel. Not all anthropologists are Claude Lévi-Strauss. And let’s face it, given the more embarrassing excesses of Elementary Structures, that might be a good thing.

That said, there are a lot of books that do what Diamond does which do deserve to get mentioned. For years, Meredith Small has written popular books about how culture shapes childrearing bringing her focus as an anthropologist to light. In a much, much, much breezier mode, I think that Mei-Ling Hopgood’s How Do Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm? is worth recommending to new parents. Its light. Real, real light. But its accessibly written, has a lot of ‘story’ to it (as they say in the trade) and she has clearly done her research and interviewed all the right people. Most anthropologists will probably run from it screaming popularizer! popularizer! (or actually, since she’s not a White Man maybe this makes her work more palatable?) but I’m enjoying reading it. If you have a friend who got her BA in literature from Vassar, works in The City, and is worried that being a mom will impair her ability to discover the hottest new lunch truck before Yelp does, this book is for her.

For big history books I’ll recommend, again The Human Web by the McNeill’s. It’s a bit drier than Diamond (who I already find very dry) but it’s the best one-volume history of the world that I’ve read, written by the people who do world history for a living, and it’s under four hundred pages long. Although I’ve not read it (and it relies on Diamond!) A People’s History of the World should satisfy the Zinn-heads out there.

Rob Weir, on the other hand…


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 rex@savageminds.org

16 thoughts on “Jared Diamond Doesn’t Make Me Mad…

  1. I quite enjoyed David Christian’s Maps of TIme, which is not just a history of humans, but of the universe. Puts us in perspective.

  2. I’m glad you’re taking this tack on Diamond. There’s been a trend towards ad hominem in discussions of his books, which is a little worrying. I’m not bothered by the tone so much as the content (‘I met Diamond once and he was an asshole’) – as if it’s necessary to hate Diamond for something, even if it’s not his work. If the tone were equally strident but the arguments better, there wouldn’t be a problem here.

    Calling him an ‘armchair anthropologist’ is a little ridiculous when you consider that Levi-Strauss did about half a year’s worth of fieldwork in his entire life and was a worthwhile and interesting fellow to have around (Elementary Structures is, IMO, his best work – sure, he over-reaches, but its influence on studies of non-state social structure couldn’t have been greater or more important, even if its central ideas had already been anticipated by Dutch anthropologists, not to mention Mauss). It’s the work that matters – the insights, not the experiences.

  3. Did anyone see Diamond’s interview on Colbert a few days ago? It was disturbing to me how he couldn’t combat the worst popular impressions of anthropology when Colbert joked about them – in five minutes they touched on how we can’t call other people primitive because it’s “politically correct” (as opposed to empirically wrong), other cultures are pretty bizarre, and what looks terrible in other cultures (widows being strangled, not much context given) is “voluntary” (probably not time to explain structural violence, but still!).

    I’m not sure how much of it was just Diamond wanting to have fun and not having prepared sound bites for what he encountered – “media training” isn’t exactly a common academic skill – and how much of it was the result of looking at culture through an evolutionary framework in which other people might BE primitive, even if we can’t call them that for PC reasons, which is a deeper issue. But I was disappointed that he’s our big spokesman.

    I loved the Wade and Little pieces in the Guardian and NPR, though, and I hope they had a decent audience.

  4. “It’s the work that matters – the insights, not the experiences.”

    Don’t forget that Lévi-Strauss himself always wrote that his expedition to Brazil had major influence in most of his insights. And he does not detail a lot of “micro fieldworks” he did in the State of São Paulo, accompanying Dinah Dreyfus and Mário de Andrade.

  5. Nevertheless, it isn’t necessary to do constant ethnographic or archaeological fieldwork to produce valuable insights, and Levi-Strauss, while doubtless influenced by his fieldwork, wrote about a number of topics he had only experienced in museums and from the writings of others (including that nonsense about ‘house societies’).

  6. You do realize that Graeber’s “Debt” is an absolute empirical disaster when it gets to the post-WWII period, and that strikes all of us as the equivalent of the clock that strikes XIII in terms of making us suspicious of the rest of it?

  7. @DeLong
    I’m sincerely curious as to what your investment in Diamond’s argument is given your eagerness to defend him whenever the opportunity presents itself. His latest book, at its best, states the obvious; more frequently, it more or less ignores at least 100 years of ethnographic evidence regarding so-called “primitive” peoples and, as others have mentioned, does a bang-up job of relegating those peoples to Trouillot’s “savage slot” outside of modernity. I imagine that Berkeley offers a decent anthropology 101 that may deepen your insight into such matters.

  8. @Radokane, you should have that jealousy problem looked at. It’s unsightly…

    I assign Diamond’s GGS (and Wolf’s EatPwH) to my students, but as I haven’t read Diamond’s latest book yet, I’m not in the business of defending it right now. If you want to attack somebody who is defending Diamond right now go to /2013/02/08/pacification-the-scene-in-papua/ and ask Thomas Strong why he believes that Diamond has it right and Rex has it wrong on freedom-of-movement in Papua New Guinea.

    I am, here and now, talking about Graeber.

    I am always looking for better things than GGS and EatPwH to tell people to read. I thought about assigning Graeber’s Debt for passages that strike me as wonderful like: “[W]hat anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, ‘wow, nice cow’ and he’d say ‘you like it? Take it!’ — and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all — if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils. So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of ‘I owe you one’ turn into a precise system of measurement — that is: money as a unit of account? By the time the curtain goes up on the historical record in ancient Mesopotamia, around 3200 BC, it’s already happened…. So really, rather than the standard story — first there’s barter, then money, then finally credit comes out of that — if anything its precisely the other way around. Credit and debt comes first, then coinage emerges thousands of years later and then, when you do find ‘I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow’ type of barter systems, it’s usually when there used to be cash markets, but for some reason — as in Russia, for example, in 1998 — the currency collapses or disappears.”

    The problem is that Debt also contains passages like:

    “Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages.”


    “When Saddam Hussein made the bold move of singlehandedly switching from the dollar to the euro in 2000, followed by Iran in 2001, this was quickly followed by American bombing and military occupation. How much Hussein’s decision to buck the dollar really weighed into the U.S. decision to depose him is impossible to know, but no country in a position to make a similar switch can ignore the possibility. The result, among policymakers particularly in the global South, is widespread terror.”


    “One element, however, tends to go flagrantly missing in even the most vivid conspiracy theories about the banking system, let alone in official accounts: that is, the role of war and military power There’s a reason why the wizard has such a strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him, there’s a man with a gun…. The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, drop bombs, with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capability. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world military system, organized around the dollar, together.”

    that are completely, 100%, totally wrong analyses of important things like employment patterns in Silicon Valley, of the origins of Gulf War II, and of why the dollar is the world’s principle reserve currency and why China holds so much U.S government debt.

    I would like to know whether Rex thinks that Graeber’s “Debt” is an excellent book except for chapter 12, which is riddled with errors and has very little of value, or whether Rex thinks that Graeber’s “Debt” is an excellent book all the way through.

    What do you think of Graeber’s chapter 12?


    Brad DeLong

  9. Thanks for noticing the ethnohistorical snippet I pulled out for provocation, but perhaps I should add that I’m not here ‘defending’ Diamond, to the contrary, as you may have noticed when I used other evidence in response to your question about moving around in PNG circa-1900. I just think there’s more to the say than either/or stories about state/non-state situations and personal freedom. This is why I cited the example of trading partnerships and routes along which people and prized goods moved. In the Asaro where I work, these partnerships united folks into networks of exchange relations and barter, and people tell stories of the routes they traveled along in order to trade. Both *then* and *now*, these relationships were sustained through the enterprising initiative of folks willing to march up through the high mossy mountains to bring wealth to those elsewhere:

    “The Asaro valley is a ‘region’ of sorts. There is a long history of trade, affinity, and enmity among its peoples and those that live in adjacent areas, from the Bena Bena in the east to the Dano and Simbu speakers at its headwaters. Thus, people in the upper Asaro refer to people to the north across the Bismarck range in the Ramu River watershed as genderise, the Simbu peoples to the west across the Asaro mountains as isihe, the Siane-speaking peoples to the southwest of Watabung as fomaive, and to themselves as gahoso. In the past, genderise, those sometimes known as “Wesan” people, traded salts distilled from leaves for other forms of wealth, as did fomaive. According to my informants, those in the upper Asaro traded pigs fattened on the produce of bountiful gardens for valuables found elsewhere; they also traded stones (guru’ runu) for making axes (bai). Gold-lip pearlshells (hurungisi), relatively rare before the colonial era, were obtained primarily from isihe along trade routes that today sustain a similar flow of desired goods: alcoholic beverages travel from the Asaro valley over bush roads into Simbu, which has prohibited their sale. There is at least one young man I know who engages in this highly profitable black market trade. Pearlshells entered the highlands from New Guinea’s southwest coast, through the Papuan Plateau and the southern highlands. Strips of cowrie (fitiri) and egg cowrie (ratene) obtained from genderise were more common shell valuables in the Asaro valley.”

    I’m inclined to think, in fact, that the danger one faced traditionally was not from strangers, but from known enemies. Being far away from home may not have been as dangerous as being quite close, in other words.

    Personal autonomy, visualized as ‘freedom of movement,’ is a strong value in Melanesian societies and long has been. But autonomy (= something like ‘freedom’) is not an abstract feature of a world unburdened by warfare. Rather, it is a quality of relationships, and one achieves autonomy (freedom from burdens of debt and obligation) through attention to relationships, rather than in contradistinction to them. That’s a culturalist point that probably doesn’t work well in the WUY frame, but gets much closer to what is at stake for PNGeans with respect to these questions.

  10. Re: “Thanks for noticing the ethnohistorical snippet I pulled out for provocation, but perhaps I should add that I’m not here ‘defending’ Diamond, to the contrary, as you may have noticed when I used other evidence in response to your question about moving around in PNG circa-1900. I just think there’s more to the say than either/or stories about state/non-state situations and personal freedom.”

    Of course there is more to say than quick thumbnail generalizations about state/nonstate ideal types that never have and never will be seen in this Fallen Sublunary Sphere…

    But the question is whether Diamond is broadly right when he claims that Americans today have more freedom of movement than PNGans of a century ago, or whether Rex is broadly right when he says not so–that PNGans could simply “put some sweet potato in their netbag and go” while Americans are hemmed-in wage slaves who can’t get time off.

    You are saying that in order to travel in PNG a century ago it would be wise to have or quickly establish thick-tie positive relationships with the people you are going to see if you want to go 50 miles ESE. Modern Americans don’t even think about whether they have or can establish guest-friend relationships before they travel from Berkeley to Livermore. You are thus coming down on the side of Diamond in the fight that Rex is picking with him.

    From my perspective, the most interesting things are (a) why Rex is so eager to overlook the fact that the typical pattern of human history–found, say, in the Scottish Highlands of 1700 that are the prototype for James Scott’s Zomia–one had to be careful where one went and stick to the territories of clan allies lest one fall in the hands of clan enemies who would kill you or strangers who might well rob you; and (b) why you are so averse to stating that you are in fact on Diamond’s side of this dispute…


    Brad DeLong

  11. @Brad DeLong:

    What’s your overall take on Debt? Also, have you written up a critique of chapter 12 anywhere yet? I looked around on your site and haven’t seen one.

    As for the problems in Chap 12 you highlight here, the “Apple” example, while wrong, isn’t exactly a devastating error. It’s an error, but I don’t think it’s something to get too worked up about, personally. I have seen that particular error trotted around here on there online, and I think it’s quite a lot of attention for what was basically a small footnote to a much larger argument.

    I read the book last year and found a lot of value in it. To be honest, chap 12 doesn’t stick out in my mind all that much, so I’m going to go back through it. What really stuck me in the book were the discussions about the barter myth, the rise of money, slavery, and of course the meaning of debt.

  12. Ryan, I can’t speak for Brad Delong, but I suspect his writeup of Debt would largely resemble this thorough discussion by Henry Farrell:


    I’m not an economist (although I’m interested in economics) and I don’t always agree with Prof. Delong (although I frequently do), but his take on Graeber’s contribution seems to me rather representative of that of most economists who have recorded their reactions. If anything, Delong is a bit restrained. I read Debt, and I enjoyed it quite greatly—until he came to the 20th century, where he’s clearly wrong. All that came before, you’re correct, is much more central to his thesis, and as far as I can tell he’s entirely right about all that.

    But the thing is I have utterly no way of evaluating the rest of his point, at least not reliably. I’m simply unfamiliar with the economic relations of Mesopotamia, so I simply have to take Graeber at his word. The problem is, when he gets to Bretton Woods and the reason the USD is the world’s reserve currency, I do actually have a way of evaluating Graeber’s point, and he is conspicuously wrong. Which does make one wonder: What exactly are the chances Graeber could have gotten 1945-2003 so bizarrely wrong in the same book as he got 1400bce right? And if those odds aren’t good, well, what am I to make of the portion of his book I can’t reliably evaluate?

  13. RE: “Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages.”

    Graeber has already said that this is a mistake and the next version of the book will corrected on this matter. Nor does it seem at all essential to the larger argument Graeber is making. DeLong has read Graeber’s disavowal of this particular passage (even left comments on threads about it) and yet continues to wield it against him without mentioning the fact that Graeber has disavowed it.

    What I find particularly interesting is that such isolated (and disavowed) passages are used to discredit an entire book, yet the numerous ethnographic failings of Diamond (documented thoroughly in numerous Savage Minds and Living Anthropologically posts) are excused because “Diamond is broadly right.” I have read numerous text critical of the factual claims in all of Diamond’s books, but have yet to read any critique which takes issue with the factual claims in the first 11 chapters of Debt. Yet somehow it is Diamond who remains “broadly right”?

    It is this manner of argumentation which has me hesitant to engage in any serious way with DeLong’s comments here and elsewhere.

  14. RE: Kerim: “RE: “Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages.” Graeber has already said that this is a mistake and the next version of the book will corrected on this matter.”

    Ah, but Graeber has said many things. He has said:

    * @markgimein: Don’t know about Wolff. But I don’t think Apple was founded by IBM refugees. And when it was founded there were no laptops. @davidgraeber: the laptops thing was a result of a compression of two sentences, that was silly @davidgraeber: Richard Wolff actually and I think he led me astray @davidgraeber: yeah I know I think Wolff was just kind of wrong about a lot of this; I tried to check with him but he didn’t answer the email…

    * Actually it was about a whole of series of other tiny start-ups created by people who’d dropped out of IBM, Apple, and similar behemoths. (Of them it’s perfectly true.)

    * The passage got horribly garbled at some point into something incoherent, I still can’t completely figure out how, was patched back together by the copyeditor into something that made logical sense but was obviously factually wrong. I should have caught it at the proofreading stage but I didn’t…. I did catch it when the book first came out, tried to get the publisher to take it out, and have been continually trying since July. All to no avail. I have absolutely no idea why a book can go through eight editions and it’s impossible to pull out a couple lines of obviously incorrect text but they just keep telling me, no, I have to wait until July…

    So either (a) it’s Richard Wolff’s claim, and Graeber now thinks it is wrong; (b) it’s correct, but not of Apple but rather of other–never specified–companies; or (c) it’s neither Richard Wolff’s claim nor true of companies other than Apple but rather “horribly garbled at some point [in the editorial process] into something incoherent.”

    Pick one. Then ask yourself what this rather bizarre series of mutually-contradictory explanations tells us about Graeber…

  15. @Delong
    I’m confused why you feel the need to edit explanations B and C and present them as if they’re not part of the same passage. And it isn’t clear how those two explanations are incompatible. It was a passage about other companies and that description was valid of those companies. In the editing process it got garbled and was attributed to Apple. Even if you think its a lie, its internally consistant.

    And that doesn’t address why you feel a mistake in one of Graeber’s passages invalidates his whole book, but that Jared Diamond shouldn’t face that same degree of scrutiny. Is that the standard by which you would like your own work to be judged?

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