One of the interesting points about Jared Diamond’s books that has come up recently at Savage Minds is that cultural anthropologists don’t write “big books” much any longer, that the disciplinary vision of cultural and social anthropology is now so anti-universalist, anti-teleological, so devoted to the particular character of specific places and times, that a sweeping analysis of large-scale themes or generalized theory seems out of bounds. (David Graeber’s Debt was mentioned as an exception.) Cultural history exhibits something of the same tendency towards the microhistorical and particular, as does a good deal of humanistic scholarship in general.
This alone seems enough to inflame one set of critics who seem to regard it as both heretical and superficial to refuse to pursue generalized, sweeping conclusions and universally valid principles that arise out of empirical data. So this, in fact, seems to me the “big book” that we need an anthropologist or historian to write, aimed at the same audiences that read Diamond, Pinker, E.O. Wilson, Haidt and other sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, neurobiologists and “big history” writers who offer strong universalizing or generalizing accounts of all cultures and societies across space and time. What we need is someone who can write a big book about why the most interesting things to say about human cultures are particular, local and contingent.
That book would have to avoid falling into the trap of being the straw man that Pinker in particular loves to hit over the head. It would need to start by saying that of course there are transhistorical, universal truths about human biology and minds and the physical constraints of environment and evolution. “Nature” matters, it’s real, it’s important. And equally of course, there are institutions which have persistent force across time and space either because human beings carry those institutions with them and reproduce them in new settings, or because there really are functional, practical problems which arise repeatedly in human societies.
A preference for local, situated, grounded studies does not require a blanket rejection of the biological, material or functional dimensions of human history and experience. What I think the “big book” could say is two major things:
1) that many forms of generalizing social science make far stronger claims that they are factually and empirically entitled to make, and that this problem gets much worse when the generalization is meant to describe not just all existing societies but all of human history.
2) that much generalizing or universalizing social science uses a description of foundational or initial conditions of social and cultural life as if it were also a description of particular, detailed experience and thereby misses both what is interesting and important about the detailed variations between different places and times–which includes the fact that there should be details in the first place. Essentially, that strongly generalized accounts of all human history are making a big deal out of the most obvious and least interesting aspects of human existence.
The first point is simpler, but should command far more respect among scholars and intellectuals who describe themselves as scientists and empiricists than it seems to. I’m going to focus on it for the remainder of this essay and take up the second point another day.
Let me use the example of “stages” of world history, which comes up prominently in Diamond’s new book, primarily as an assertion that there are “traditional” societies that reflect an original or early stage of human history and “modern societies”, with everything presumably arranged neatly in between them. (Diamond is not much interested in his new book in the in-between, and actually has never really been interested in it–Guns, Germs and Steel more or less argues that the early migration and development of human societies across the planet has determined all later histories in a directly symmetrical fashion.)
Most contemporary anthropologists and historians react negatively when they come across an account that tries to arrange human societies along a single spectrum of evolutionary change. To some extent, that reaction is conditioned by the historical use of such characterizations to justify Western racism and colonialism. But even accounts of evolutionary stages of human history that scrupulously avoid those associations are factually troubled.
What’s the issue? Let’s take a point that crops up in Diamond, in Napoleon Chagnon’s work and in a number of other sociobiological and evolutionary-psychology accounts of human variation.
If someone says, “Many human societies practice some form of warfare” or “organized violence is common in most human societies”, that’s fine. The anthropologist or historian who pushes back on that simple generalization is just being a tendentious jerk. Sure, it begs the question of what “warfare” is, but the generalization is so gentle that there’s plenty of space to work out what “many” and “warfare” mean.
Step up a notch, “All human societies practice some form of warfare”. This kind of generalization is easy to break, and it is frustrating when someone making a generalization of this kind digs in their heels to defend it. It’s really only defensible as an icebreaker in a conversation about the phenemenon in question. It can only hold as an airtight assertion if “warfare” is defined so generally that it includes everything from World War II to a football game.
Refine it a step using an evolutionary schema: “All human societies once practiced some form of warfare, but warfare grew into a more rarified, restricted and directed phenomenon as states grew in scale and organizational sophistication.” This sounds like it’s being more careful than the “all human societies practice” generalization but in fact it is even easier to break, because it rests on a linear account of the history of the state (and then a linear account of warfare’s relationship to that history). This is simply not true: human political institutions across time and space have all sorts of variations and really haven’t moved progressively towards a single form or norm until the exceptionally recent past. Even now there are some striking variations at a global scale–and it’s equally clear now that Fukuyama’s End of History assertion that liberal democracy is the final stage of human political evolution is just plain wrong. Beyond the present moment lies the unknown as far as political structures and practices go.
You can break the general assertion not just by citing endless examples of political structures that don’t fit neatly between “traditional” and “modern” societies or endless examples of “warfare” with non-linear relationships to changing political structure over time. You can also break it at the end that Diamond and Chagnon focus on, in the assertion that “traditional societies” in recent history are unchanged survivals, a window into the distant past. There’s increasing evidence, for example, that there have been a succession of large-scale polities in the Amazonian rainforest and the eastern Andes over a very long period of time that simply happened to be absent or weak at the time that Europeans first pushed into these areas. Assuming that small-scale societies of various kinds in the same region where such a history unfolded were unchanging, pristine and unrelated to other societies is at the very least unsupported by any direct evidence. More to the point, such an assumption actively overlooks evidence in many cases in the modern world that “pristine” societies of this type live where they live because they were trying to get away from larger or more centralized polities, that there is a dynamic relationship between them. Which surely includes ideas and practices of violence and warfare.
This is where the use of evolution as the organizing idea of such accounts is so aggravating. Not because it’s “scientific” but because it’s not. Evolutionary biologists know better than to describe speciation as progress towards an end or a goal, to assume that natural selection must always produce more complex or sophisticated organisms over time, or that evolutionary processes should ever be represented by a single line of descent. Go ahead, show an evolutionary biologist a single line that goes from Devonian tetrapods to homo sapiens with every ‘transitional’ animal in between neatly marked as one more interval on the way to us and get ready for a big eyeroll and an exasperated sigh.
Sure, there’s a successive relationship over time between forms of political organization in human history, but if you were going to chart it, you’d have something that looked hugely bushy, with all sorts of groupings, thousands of radial and convergent movements at all scales of time. And if you tried to place “warfare” in relationship to that complexity it would get even messier and more intricate.
Anything that arranges human history as a matter of “stages” progressing neatly towards the modern is just factually wrong before we ever get to the troubled instrumental and ideological history of such schema. Yes, that includes most versions of dialectical materialism: the dogged attempts of some Marxist historians and anthropologists in the 1970s and 1980s to get everything before 1500 into some kind of clear dialectical schema long since crashed into either an assertion that there’s only been one general world-systemic polity ever in human history (the “5,000 year-old world system”) or that lots of variant premodern histories collapsed into a single capitalist world-system after 1500.
When scholars who see politics or culture or warfare or many other phenomena in granular and variable terms rise to object to strong generalizing or universalizing accounts, their first motive is an empirical one: it just isn’t like that. Human political structures didn’t ALL go from “simple tribes” to “early states” to “feudalism” to “absolutist centralization” to “nation-states” to “modern global society”. They didn’t even go that way in Western Europe, really. Certain kinds of structures or practices appeared early in human history, sure, and then recurred because they radiated out from some originating site of practice or because of parallel genesis in relationship to common material and sociobiological dimensions of human life. Other common structures and practices appeared later, sometimes because new technological or economic practices allow for new scales or forms of political life and structure. But there is a huge amount of variation that is poorly described by a linear relation. There are movements between large and small, hierarchical and flat, organized and anarchic, imperial and national, etc., which are not linear at all but cyclical or amorphous.
That’s the “big idea” that people with their eye on variation and particularism could try to sell more aggressively: that the stronger your generalizations and universalisms about human culture and societies are, the more likely they are to be just plain wrong, factually and empirically wrong, and that the only way to dodge that wrongness to sustain those generalizations is to cherrypick your examples and characterize anyone who calls you on it as a pedant or ideologue.