The Times Literary Supplement recently ran a longish review by Ira Bashkow of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday. Ira is a very close friend of mine and so I can’t really claim to objective, but I think anyone who reads the review will find that it’s one of the most substantive and anthropological takes on Diamond’s book that has been published.
Bashkow’s review is very different from, say, Stephen Corry’s activist review of Diamond. Partially this is because Bashkow is simply much more careful than Corry. Although Corry’s title proclaims that Diamond’s book is ‘completely wrong’ Corry says that chapter 11 contains “a vitally important message that cannot be overstressed”. He also says that ““self-help manual” sections of the book [chapters 2, 5 and 6] are pretty unobjectionable, even occasionally thought-provoking”. So in fact Corry does not believe the book is completely wrong, and that in fact a good quarter of it is actually acceptable. Bashkow’s much more judicious review spends time giving credit where credit is due and doesn’t really bite into Diamond until the reader is halfway through the piece.
But it is not just that Corry is reckless and emotional where Bashkow is careful and scholarly. The differences between the two reviews reflect differences in outlook as well as temperament. Corry is an activist, and is closely aligned with anthropologists who see their discipline as fundamentally about criticism. Bashkow, on the other hand, is much more committed to relativism as a core anthropological value. “Most of us,” he says at one point in his review, “would… encourage our audiences to get beyond the framework of their own needs by trying to see the world from the perspective of the people being discussed”. For him, “the study of any culture might reveal superior possibilities for humanity, for the future”. This is not an author who argues that the anthropologist knows best. In his other work, Bashkow has championed the adequacy of Boasian notions of culture against the supposed innovations of Appadurai and other authors, and emphasized that traditional anthropology is still possible and necessary. Bashkow’s review of Diamond is, then, if not exactly from the right, definitely a voice from the center of the tradition, someone who differs from Diamond for reasons other than a general belief that anthropologists ought denounce.
And differ from Diamond Bashkow does. Many of his criticisms are similar to those raised by other reviewers (“He seems to forget that states can also wreak havoc through war, oppression, dispossession, concentration camps, detentions and other atrocities. Or that they can be good to some people while harming others at the same time”) but there are also new insights here. A scholar who studies Margaret Mead, Bashkow astutely notes that Diamond tends, as Mead did, to overplay American’s ability to change their culture, and overestimate how controlled ‘traditional’ people are by theirs.
Where Bashkow’s review is at its best, however, is when he explains, patiently, all of the things that anthropologists know about Diamond but are too weary to explain. Here, for instance, is his explanation of why the term ‘traditional society’ doesn’t make any sense:
“Yes, societies in the deep past were stateless, relatively small and non-industrialized. But do they therefore form a category with contemporary societies that manifest some of these same features?… This is like categorizing tigers with toads because in having four legs, both make common difference from us who have two. If Western societies really do represent an extreme edge of the spectrum of human diversity, then categorizing other peoples as like one another because they are all different from us becomes increasingly meaningless. It obscures from view the many dimensions of variation that distinguish them from one another. Neither my Semitic ancestors nor Montezuma had iPads, but how alike does this make them? It is a fallacy to treat them as similar because both share features which we do not.”
It’s a worthwhile piece to read, if only because you get the feeling that Alfred Kroeber could have written it (I mean this as a compliment). Although the review was free to read when I checked it this morning, it seems to sometimes go behind a paywall. I would actually recommend buying the week-long pass to the site to read Bashkow’s review (It’s less than three dollars) and to snap up some other anthro-related content on the site while you’re there.