All posts by Fred and Deborah

Pizarro, Millais, Diamond, and Yali: Our Last Waltz

Below is our last post this time around. It’s been engaging and productive meeting many of you in blogland. Cheers from Fred and Deborah


The anthropological view of history we present in Yali’s Question is crucially unlike Diamond’s in its emphasis on what needs to be taken into account. Diamond, less by default than by design, denies significance to cultural differences — to particular, historically located visions of the desirable and the feasible. The dissimilarity in our approaches is clarified by what we make of Diamond’s book cover. This cover reproduces a large oil painting by John Everett Millais (1845) entitled “Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru.”


The painting, hanging in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is part of a collection (begun in 1852) representing the various, often diverse, aesthetic currents of the Victorian age. In the center, Pizarro, sword in hand, is seizing a darkly handsome, grandly exotic Inca leader from his partially overturned palanquin. On the left are massed Spanish soldiers with a priest holding up a cross for their inspiration. In the right foreground, two Peruvian women and a child are clutching each other in fear. In the right somewhat blurred and darker background, Spanish soldiers are putting Peruvians to the sword. The painting (perhaps anticipating Millais’s later anti-Catholic work) seems directly critical of Spanish conquest. Certainly, this is the perspective of Joseph Kestner, who describes the picture (in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies) as an “anti-Imperialist canvas during a decade of British expansionism and colonial defense” (1995: 55).

When we look at this painting and think about the place in which it hangs, we reflect on a particular and complex history — on the range of sensibilities and political perspectives that existed within this age dominated by capitalism and empire. However, when we look at this painting as it appears on the cover of Diamond’s book, we find it interesting because of the extent to which it is decontextualized, and we think, misunderstood. Rather than a historically located castigation of Spanish imperialism, it is offered as a synopsis of human history in general — a history of morally neutral conquest through the use of techniques and technologies of physical domination. In other words, from our anthropological perspective, we see Millais’s vision, itself critical of the dominant expansionist perspective of his age, transformed into a model that justifies as well as universalizes expansionism: one used to explain what happened to “everybody for the last 13,000 years” (1997: 9). Such a transformation of Millais’s critique of imperialism strikes us as consistent with Diamond’s position about the irrelevance of cultural and historical contexts in understanding what people do. Indeed, given Diamond’s view of history, the conquest that he (rather mechanistically) entitles “Collision at Cajamarca” (1997: 67), was inevitable. From his perspective, if it wasn’t Pizarro who had seized the Inca of Peru, it would have been some other European at some time.
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On Human Nature and Responsibiity

Diamond’s conflation between the necessary and the sufficient grows out of the link between his interest in "history's broadest pattern" (1997: 420) and his determination to develop "human history as a science, on a par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology" (1997: 408).  As he says, his book "attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years .... [and searches] for ultimate explanations ... [that push] back the chain of historical causation as far as possible" (1997: 9).  Crucial to this search for law like explanations that will generate long chains of causation back to first causes (chains of causation that even link mountain range formation to Yali's quandary) is Diamond's distinction between ultimate and proximate causes.  Ultimate causes are those broadly applicable and pervasive forces, such as guns, germs, and steel.  Diamond is interested in these causes because he thinks they are the ones which really drive history – both past and present.  These ultimate causes shape derivative and more immediate occurrences, such as particular battles, conquests, economic systems.  The effects of these more immediate occurrences, in turn, become proximate causes of yet other events. 

Diamond's view of an inevitable and inexorable course of human history, one driven by the operation of ultimate causes over the span of its 13,000-year course, rests (as some of you suggested in earlier postings)  on what seems to us to be an implicit view of human nature.   It is this human nature which, in his vision, keeps ultimate causes active and decisive throughout history.  This is a view of human beings as necessarily leading lives so as to extract maximum advantage over others:  give a guy -- any guy -- half a chance and he will conquer the world;  give a guy a piece of appropriate metal and he will inevitably fashion a sword to cut you down;  give a guy a piece of appropriate metal and he will inevitably fashion a chain to enslave you within the hold of a ship bound for a New World sugar plantation.  In a way that many in the contemporary West find seemingly self-evident --  in a way that does not problematize the way the world works -- Diamond suggests that people everywhere and at all times, if they had sufficient power, would necessarily use it in seeking to maximize their own advantage through the domination of others.  This implicit view of a trans-historical and trans-cultural human nature is consistent with Diamond's explicit rendering of both historical context and cultural perspective as irrelevant.  In fact, Diamond works hard to exclude such perspective and context from his scientific history. 

Correspondingly, Diamond describes the rise of mercantilism and capitalism as only "proximate forces" in the course of world history (1997: 10).  From his perspective, mercantilism and capitalism are just epiphenomena -- just passing examples of history's general law.  From our perspective, however, mercantilism and capitalism provide particular historical contexts in which (and in different though related ways) expansionist conquest appears an especially desirable activity -- and one made especially feasible by the availability of guns, germs, and steel.  This is to say, rather than merely proximate causes of lives more fundamentally and inexorably determined, mercantilism and capitalism impel the use of guns, germs, and steel in particular manners for particular ends.  

Mercantilism and capitalism have spurred people to be bold -- to go to the ends of the earth if necessary -- in a search for ever greater profits. They have justified the subjugation of the New World as well as parts of Africa.  They have also authorized the creation of lucrative, slave-run plantations in the Caribbean whose profits sustained the lavish lifestyles of the absentee planters and whose sugar sustained (in nutritionally imbalanced sweet tea and treacle-smeared bread) the impoverished lives of the British workers -- those who manufactured the guns, chains, and instruments of torture.

Thus, we see such lives and historical outcomes as made possible by (for instance) guns, germs, and steel but as importantly propelled and shaped by cultural visions of what was worth pursuing and at what cost:  of winning favor from God and King, acquiring gold and silver, attaining certain lifestyles, or achieving national strength.  However, where we see the likes of guns, germs, and steel as necessary but not sufficient causes of such lives, Diamond sees such lives -- apparently all lives -- as inevitably seeking as much conquest and domination as possible.  For Diamond, in other words, the necessary is the sufficient.  To have the power is to express the power;  to have the power to dominate is to use it to dominate in the maximal way possible.  Where we see human activities as propelled and shaped by historically located visions, Diamond sees these activities as determined (presumably) by hard wiring -- as part of the biological nature of the human animal.  In these regards, activities of conquest and domination are simply in the nature of things -- just as, for instance, lions by virtue of their size and armament will inevitably slaughter lambs. 

Where  Diamond sees activities of conquest and domination as simply in the nature of things – as the inevitable outcome of human nature. -- Raymond Kelly's recent comprehensive analysis of the origins of human warfare provides a relevant and contrasting view of human nature and of inevitability.  In this critique of the Hobbesian notion that there is a "trinity of interrelationship between human nature, war and the constitution of society" (Kelly, 2000:  121), he writes:  

Warfare is an episodic feature of human history and prehistory observed at certain times and places but not others. Moreover, the vast majority of societies in which warfare does occur are characterized by the alteration of war and peace; there are relatively few societies — only about 6 percent — in which warfare is continual and peace almost unknown. It is only in this relatively small percentage of cases that something approaching a Hobbesian social condition of pervasive and unending warfare can be found. It might thus be said that it is “the nature of man” (or humankind) to conclude episodes of armed conflict between neighboring social groups by breaking off hostilities, by truce, and/or by reestablishing peaceful relations (Kelly, 2000: 124).

Kelly concludes:

The human propensity to peacemaking, so strikingly evident from the characteristic alteration between war and peace, is central to the nexus of interrelationships between human nature, war and society — and this bodes well for the future (2000: 161).

It is the case that Yali was poor and that the people of the New World were brutally conquered by representatives of the Old.  It is also the case that those who beat up on other people have the capacity to do so.  But are these facts inevitable by virtue either of the nature of history or the nature of humans?  As Kelly indicates, human beings always are capable of a range of behaviors and they always are capable of engaging with each other and their neighbors in a range of ways.  They might make war, but they also might make peace.  Whether they choose one or the other is powerfully affected by particular historically and culturally located ideas  about  the desirable and the feasible. 

To our position concerning history's rootedness in human culture, rather than in human nature, we would add an emphatic stipulation.  Since it has become clear to anthropologists that cultures contain multiple perspectives about alternatives and how they might be pursued and otherwise dealt with, it follows that human beings have a measure of choice about how to act.  Thus, for instance, from American ideas of the worth of the individual, one can generate political perspectives as diverse as libertarianism and welfare statism, the first position holding that no individual should be interfered with or regulated, the other, that no individual should be neglected or deprived.  The existence of such alternatives means that human beings may, realistically, be held accountable for the choices they make.  We find this stipulation important both in combating Diamond's general world history and in constructing an aspect of Papua New Guinea's more particular one.  Pizarro (for example) had the capacity and resources to behave with remarkable brutality in the New World -- he had both the technology and will to conquer.  But the mere capacity to behave brutally does not absolve him from having done so.  Likewise, Europeans had the resources to treat Yali and other Papua New Guineans with contempt.  But that position should not absolve them from having done so.  Such considerations, we argue, are important in rethinking historical outcomes.  Indeed, the haves may be prompted to do such rethinking themselves by recognizing that the have-nots may already have come to their own conclusions.  

A response to Timothy Burke

We appreciate that Timothy Burke in his blog, “Easily Distracted,”: has taken seriously our posts about Yali and Diamond on “Savageminds.” He does not give us the opportunity of responding to him directly, and so we will do so here. We’re afraid that those of you who have not read his blog may have to do so to make full sense of what we are saying. But, we also think that most will be able to make some sense of it all.

The “we” in the “West” mentioned in our posts (and mentioned again by Burke in his response to us on this blog) refers primarily to the sort of audience that many of us – at least as teachers of anthropology – encounter in our students, in their parents, and in many non-academic readers who ask us our opinion of the book. (We make this clear, we think.) Our speculation (and it is such) that Diamond’s book resonates with this audience because they are socio-economically the “haves” is designed to encourage readers who did like Diamond to think more about what appealed to them about his argument – and, in so doing, perhaps become interested in thinking about our more general critique. We don’t know how inclusive this “we” is, but certainly Diamond’s views of human nature and the inevitability of conquest are widely held. (We will say more about these views in our next post on Savageminds.)

We try not to depict Yali or other Papua New Guineans in an essentialized fashion. We do make clear in the book from which our posts are excerpted (especially in our discussion of Ramu Sugar Limited, a sugar plantation which is our primary ethnographic focus) that PNGuineans are thoroughly caught up in history and are not all alike – but differ considerably according to cultural group as well as social class. In addition, we discuss the fact that they engage with each other and with Europeans in a range of ways, including both gift exchange and commodity transactions. That being said, what we find in Yali — as well as in cargo-cult practitioners with whom we have worked, in the PNGuineans we have lived with in urban squatter settlements as well as those in affluent suburbs — is an abiding concern with establishing worth relative to others, including with Europeans. Indeed, one of the real problems for those of the PNG middle class is figuring out how to accumulate wealth without alienating – certainly without humiliating – kinsmen and other PNGuineans. They know that (unatoned for) slights will never be forgotten.

As anthropologists, we do work hard to understand the perspectives of others – as well as trying to get clear about our own. Our desire to comprehend Yali’s understanding of the world (and we do recognize that Yali’s experiences were complex) is itself historically rooted as is anthropology more generally. And, we do try to present our political perspective as explicitly as possible, in full recognition that it too is historically rooted. But we don’t see this as, in itself, precluding a serious effort to get Yali’s question right.

And this leads us to issues in representation. Who represents whom, with what right, and with what accuracy? Yali’s question may, as Timothy Burke says, be his – but what is Yali asking? How do we understand it? Does it need interpretation, contextualization, translation? How should we listen to Yali and to other PNGuineans – as well as to a much larger number of historically located others? And this returns us to the first point of Burke’s critique – that Yali is just Diamond’s literary device. We agree that he is, but find it a telling device. That Diamond got Yali’s question wrong is consistent with Diamond’s lack of concern with listening to what differently located people say – with trying to find out what they think is going on, what they think the point of life is. And this is because Diamond thinks he already knows what human nature and history are all about.

Diamond’s Argument about the Haves and Have-Nots

In earlier postings, we suggested that Diamond gets Yali's question wrong.  Whereas Diamond understands Yali to be asking about "things" -- about Western "goods" -- Yali was actually asking about social equality.  Whereas Diamond thinks Yali envied nifty Western stuff, Yali actually resented the not-so-nifty Western condescension that allowed Europeans to deny PNGuineans fundamental worth.  The misunderstanding matters, we think, as more than an issue of factual error.  That Diamond does not stretch his imagination to understand Yali's cultural views is consistent with the history he presents.  This is a history that he believes happened for reasons that we in the contemporary West already believe in.  It is a history that accords with our view of how the world fundamentally works.  Because such a history conveys the perspectives of the "haves," it not only hinges on the (seemingly) self-evident, it also sustains the self-interested. 

Many of you know the 13,000 years of human history that Diamond sets out in response to Yali's question – and so we won’t repeat it here.  In telling this history, readers learn that Yali's circumstances did not reflect any lack either in his intelligence or in that of other PNGuineans (and, of course, we agree).  Rather, we learn that Yali was poor and relatively powerless in his own domain because his ancestors lacked access to the mineral resources, domesticable animals, and the other advantages that allowed some to conquer others.  He was born, in terms of the luck-of-the-environmental draw, on the wrong side of the great geographical divide.  

Yet neither Yali nor most of the other PNGuineans we have known over our years in PNG would be satisfied with the inexorability of Diamond's luck-of-the-draw sort of answer, with the implications of his "that's-just-the-way things-were (and must-be)" sort of response.  Such an answer would strike them as a perverse justification of colonial forms of inequality, part of a story that denied them moral worth in the past, to say nothing of the future.  However, it is just this sort of answer, just this sort of invocation of historical inevitability, that tends to satisfy those who are already the haves.  In this regard, the ideology inherent in Diamond's reasoning goes well beyond the particulars of the history he presents.  This ideology supports the status quo, the interests of the already powerful.   For them, the inevitable and the inexorable are readily synonymous with the interests of the haves over the have-nots.  

More broadly, the ideology inherent in Diamond's reasoning is one we confront as teachers and scholars dealing primarily with the haves.  Students tell us that their parents encourage them to read Diamond's book, finding it invigorating.  The (former) president of Fred's college urged his faculty to read it.  In fact, he sent copies of Guns, Germs, and Steel to members of the faculty as a model of the kind of book he admired.  All over the United States, we learned, deans and presidents of other pricey institutions applaud the book.  At Cornell, it became assigned reading for all freshmen.  Moreover, many institutions pay Diamond generously to summarize his views in person, generally in packed lecture halls.  And, of course, there is his National Geogoraphic series.    We think such educated haves like the book so well because it resonates so much and so easily with their own concerns -- in effect, because it so readily sustains them.  They come away from the book (or lecture, or TV show) feeling pretty good about themselves -- both enlightened and open-minded.  They come away seeing the world without racial prejudice and having learned some important new facts and connections.  Furthermore, and significantly, they come away comfortably convinced that they have their cargo (unlike Yali and his people) for inevitable and impersonal geographic reasons.  No one is to blame for the fact that some people are, and no doubt will continue to be, the haves and that others are, and will continue to be, the have-nots.  Thus, Diamond's history is not only the delineation of an inexorable and inevitable trajectory.  It is, as well, both retrospective and prospective.  His depiction of the past provides a far from disinterested model for understanding the present and for shaping the future.  This is to say, he presents the world as one in which the have-nots, whether in PNG or elsewhere, must (seemingly) forever deal with the haves under conditions of fundamental disadvantage. 

But, what exactly is wrong with the history that Diamond presents?   Didn't the events Diamond relates really happen?  Must a history necessarily be disqualified because it conveys the perspectives and interests of the victors, of the haves?  Isn't Diamond's view simply informed by hard-headed realism about the way the world works?  

We certainly do not deny that certain forms of power had a significant role in effecting the kinds of historical events that Diamond delineates.  Diamond's depiction of the role that guns, germs, and steel played is often plausible.  What we do challenge is his conflation of the necessary with the sufficient.  This is to say, just because guns, germs, and steel were necessary to make certain historical outcomes possible, including those so upsetting to Yali, we do not have to assume that their possession was sufficient to explain these outcomes.  Just because sources of power are available, we cannot conclude that the power will be used for certain ends, or even that it will be used at all.  And, simply because European colonists had the power to pursue their interests at the expense of Yali and other PNGuineans, does not fully explain – or justify –  the ways in which they chose to use this power.  More later…….

On cargo and cults — and Yali’s Question

As we suggested in our first posting, Yali and other PNGuineans became preoccupied with the refusal of many whites to recognize their full human-ness -- to make blacks and whites equal players in the same history.  In their efforts to establish the exchanges on which the elusive equality would be based, many PNGuineans sought, often through magical and ritual means, the European things -- the "cargo" -- that whites so evidently valued.  It would be an error, however, to believe that it was the things alone that interested them.  Rather, with these things, they hoped to become interesting and socially significant (exchange-worthy) to the Europeans.  

In Road Belong Cargo, Lawrence describes the attempts of Yali and his neighbors to acquire this cargo with a definition of what is now known as the cargo cult:  

"It is based on the natives' belief that European goods (cargo) -- ships, aircraft, trade articles, and military equipment -- are not man-made but have to be obtained from a non-human or divine source.  It expresses the followers' dissatisfaction with their status in colonial society, which is to be improved imminently or eventually by the acquisition of new wealth.  It has, therefore, a disruptive influence and is regarded by the .... Australian Administration ... as one of the [its] most serious problems " (1964: 1).

Deeply resenting their inferiority in colonial society, PNGuineans sought for decades to improve their status by gaining access to cargo.  In fact, during Fred's early PNG research in New Britain on the island of Karavar (in 1968 and 1972) local people remained preoccupied with gaining long denied respect from Europeans.  In discussing their contemporary cargo activities (which focused on learning how to place an order such that a small payment would elicit a shipload of manufactured items), they described a history of their efforts to compel Europeans to recognize mutual human-ness.  In particular, they referred to the "dog movement," a series of meetings they held during the 1930's.  The question addressed with perplexity and anger at these meetings was why the Europeans persisted in treating them with contempt -- driving them away, telling them to get out, as if they were unwelcome dogs.  Through obtaining cargo, they sought to win European respect by having that which Europeans so obviously valued.   

Over a considerable period of time, hence, PNGuineans frequently sought to acquire and master the ritual techniques by which Europeans accessed cargo.  Influenced by Yali or other cargo-cult leaders, they tried a combination of recalcitrance and ritual experimentation.  They interrupted and transformed normal routines:  they refused to pay taxes, repudiated the directions of colonial administrators, established alternative governments, wrested theological control from missionaries, and mobilized villages, if not whole regions, in fervent invocation and prophesy.  

Diamond, hence, misunderstands what many PNGuineans desired when he explains the background to Yali's question (about the differences between white and black people).  In Diamond's words:  "whites had arrived, imposed centralized government, and brought material goods whose value New Guineans instantly recognized, ranging from steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas.  In New Guinea all these goods were referred to collectively as 'cargo'" (1999: 14).  Because Diamond misunderstands that Yali really was asking less about cargo per se than about colonial relationships between white and black people, he describes the introduction of centralized government as almost parenthetical to the indisputable fact that whites and their goods had arrived.  Thus, he presents local resentment as directed not at the nature and use of concerted colonial power so much as at the differential access to goods.  

We might also note here that in using the term "goods" Diamond implies that such items were inherently desirable -- instantly recognizable as worth acquiring.  In defining cargo as goods, Diamond suggests that local people will do whatever it takes to get such things:  that in their desire for goods, local people are the agents of their own domination.  In so doing, he displaces our attention from the nature of colonial power relations.  These relationships are not vested in the "nature of things."  They are not inevitable because of the instantly recognized value of manufactured items.  Instead, colonial relationships have been forcefully imposed, often to the resentment and resistance of local people.  

PNGuineans such as Yali wanted cargo not because of its inherent and instantly recognizable value, but because of a desire to transform the relations of inequality between whites and blacks that were pervasive in colonialism.  They wanted cargo primarily because they objected to the ways in which the centralized, colonial government used power and, correspondingly, diminished their relative worth.

About Yali

We have read with interest your responses to Jared Diamond’s book and TV series about Yali’s question and we thought in this first posting we could add to the conversation by telling you something about who Yali actually was and by beginning to tell you why we think Diamond got Yali’s question wrong.  Although we never knew Yali ourselves, we worked in a part of coastal Papua New Guinea where he was politically active and, as well, read a lot about him in the anthropological literature (as he has long been a very famous man). 

Some of what we have to say is inspired by Marilyn Strathern’s discussion of how Australian prospectors misunderstood the PNGuineans they met when they first entered the interior Highlands during the 1930’s. The Australians assumed that these PNGuineans were impressed with their complex technology -- for example, their guns and steel.  However, in Strathern's view, possession of this novel technology initially marked these explorers as spirits, and from the perspectives of PNG Highlanders, the appearance of spirits among the living was extraordinary but ultimately not very important.  Spirits, after all, would likely disappear without affecting social life very much.  Only when Highlanders discovered that these Australians not only had large quantities of pearl shells but wished to transact with them did the Australians become plausibly human.  Pearl shells, traded up from the coast, were for a long time central in the Highland exchanges through which marriages were contracted, compensation for death or injury was paid, and alliances were established.  In other words, only when the Australians showed that they apparently valued what the Highlanders already valued and desired did the Highlanders regard them as interesting and socially significant.  Only then could the Highlanders fit these otherwise strange and peripheral beings into their own ideas about full human beings:  only then did they become persons with whom they could, and would want to, engage.  

Of course, Yali's, and other coastal groups, had a much longer history of European contact (often dating from the latter part of the nineteenth century).  Yali, himself, had especially extensive contact with Europeans.  He served as a policeman in New Guinea's colonial administration before World War Two and as a member of the Allied Intelligence Service during the war.  In fact, there is a photograph taken in 1944 in the Australian War Memorial archives commemorating his military service.  In it, Yali is inside the Dace, an American submarine, together with other members of his company of intelligence-gathering "Coastwatchers."  In advance of a major Allied landing, Yali's group of twelve -- seven Europeans, one Indonesian translator, and four PNGuineans -- was sent to Hollandia, then Dutch New Guinea, on a hazardous mission to gather strategic information.  After the war, as a distinguished veteran, Yali embarked on a controversial political career, one which kept him in extensive contact with Europeans.  Indeed, he was sent to Australia to learn European ways.

Yet, like for the Highlanders Strathern describes, Yali's life and aspirations remained largely PNGuinean.  He remained concerned less about the material attributes of things themselves than about the social uses to which things were put.  For him and many other PNGuineans both then and now, things have value because they can be used in transactions to establish relationships of recognition and respect.  They are more like gifts than commodities.  They are exchanged to establish relationships of obligation, alliance, and friendship rather than to get "good deals."  Therefore, when Highlanders desired pearl shells, and they did desire them with a passionate intensity, it was not for the sake of the shells alone.  Indeed, men acquired the coveted shells so as to be able to give them away at a later time.  

Because the Highlanders were relatively inexperienced in European ways, they apparently thought that the prospectors were generous in offering them the coveted pearl shells that affirmed their fundamental worth -- their shared humanity.  In contrast, Yali’s coastal peoples had long before learned that the colonists were stingy, offering them only meager wages (often for plantation labor) that denied a common humanity.  More than lots of stuff, they wanted (just a little) respect.    

More later – about “cargo” and “cults.”


Hi, everyone. And, thanks to Rex for his introduction of us. We’re happy to be here — and will begin to post as soon as we figure out how this software works.