Go read my review of "World Until Yesterday" at The Appendix

This announcement went out yesterday over social media, but I wanted to blog it here just to make sure as many eyeballs as possible saw it: my review of World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond is now available at The Appendix. The Appendix is an interesting new magazine with a lot of energy behind it, so give a few of their other pieces a try while you are at it.

I had originally planned to live blog my entire reading of Diamond’s book here on SM, but as time went on Diamond’s claims got increasingly vague and difficult to handle — it became too hard to turn them into concrete questions that could be answered and evaluated. At some point I would still like to explain, at length, what does and doesn’t happen in Papua New Guinea when people go to ‘war’. But until that unlikely event, take a look at my review and let me know what you think. I worked pretty hard on it, so hopefully that will show.


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

8 thoughts on “Go read my review of "World Until Yesterday" at The Appendix

  1. An entirely admirable review, a generous yet critical reading that draws an important distinction between the anthropological project, understanding from inside-out, and the naturalist project, understanding from outside-in. Bravo.

  2. an important distinction between the anthropological project, understanding from inside-out, and the naturalist project, understanding from outside-in

    I agree that the review is excellent, but isn’t that a false dichotomy? Humans are natural creatures, and Collingwood was wrong; we can only ever understand human beings by what they do, say, and leave behind (ie, from the outside-in, as it were), because we don’t have privileged access to other minds (and it is even arguable whether we have privileged access to our own minds). When humans try to understand one another, they are using precisely the same kind of reasoning as any naturalist. To believe otherwise is to believe that humans are supernatural.

    Diamond should certainly have looked at the interesting things that people in New Guinea believe rather than merely what they do, and his failure to do this is clearly the Achilles’ heel of the book. It is also probable that he failed to discuss these things because he is a naturalist used to concrete ‘scientific’ facts. It may even have been due to an a priori belief in the determination of culture by ecology or selection. But Diamond overlooking these things is a personal failing. It isn’t evidence that beliefs are not amenable to naturalistic analysis or that naturalism and social anthropology are in some way incompatible.

  3. Wow, that is a great review, full of many deep and important insights. It is both deeply sympathetic to Diamond, and harshly critical of his book. The naturalist/anthropologist distinction is very nicely drawn, not by throwing out the value of the ecological perspective, but by showing its strengths and weaknesses (and the strengths of anthropology). This is one of the most insightful things I have read in months. Very impressive. I think it identifies why many of us appreciate some aspects of Diamond’s work but are very uneasy about much of it.

    Now maybe “The Appendix” is great, and SM is certainly great, but if anthropologists really want to get our message to a wider audience, then insights like these need to be presented more forcefully (and perhaps more succinctly) in more popular places. Please consider taking things like this on the road; this essay really brings out the best in anthropology.

  4. Thanks folks! We’re planning to do a panel at AAAs comparing Mead and Diamond — there, I’m hoping to present a longer paper on the influence of Ernst Mayr on Diamond, and to focus more on Natural Experiments in History, which I think is an important book that Diamond Scholars (if there is such a thing) need to focus on much more.

  5. Hmmm… I’m not really sure how calling his book a “triumph” counts as being “critical” there Lunarchist…. ;D

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