On Diamond (Not Again!)

I don’t really mean to get drawn into recurrent arguments about Jared Diamond’s work, because my actual feelings about the actual books are rather mixed and indifferent. Guns, Germs and Steel reads well, it’s a useful teaching book for fueling a discussion about the merits and limits of materialism and environmental determinism, and it can provoke a very interesting conversation about moral responsibility, global inequality and the post-1450 expansion of Europe (almost in spite of itself). I appreciate that Diamond thinks his argument in GGS is strongly anti-racist, I appreciate why others think it has the opposite effect, and think that neither is entirely correct. Even in terms of synthesizing works, I think there are better choices for most of Diamond’s signature arguments, however.

I appreciate that Collapse is, in a way that I find awkward and roundabout, trying to think about the question of determinism. I appreciate that his current book is working hard not to get drawn into sentimentality about hunter-gatherers, that Diamond believes himself to be steering a middle course between ethnocentric arrogance and romanticism about ‘noble savages’. I appreciate that Diamond thinks The World Before Yesterday is deeply appreciative of “traditional societies” and so is baffled to be accused of hating on them.

I also appreciate not just that his audiences are looking for a clear writer who seems knowledgeable about many issues, but for “big theories” of human history and culture that do not require having a Ph.D’s worth of knowledge and training in order to understand or articulate.

The problem is that there are a lot of problems with Diamond’s work in both his command over the literatures he’s synthesizing, the selectivity of his synthesis, and the uncharitable and at times incomprehensible framing he makes of any potential objections (when he can be bothered to acknowledge that such a thing could exist). Scholars who try to point out these things politely get ignored or acknowledged in passing, as in Razib Khan’s update to his post at Gene Expression. I’ve been in a number of discussions over the years with people who like Diamond’s books who then say, “But yeah, he gets a lot of things wrong” or “yeah, his theory is really overexaggerated and simplistic” as if that’s not even worth talking about and as if you’re a hater for even wanting to talk about it. Small wonder that some scholars, particularly anthropologists, lose their shit when there’s a new Diamond book out there. Sometimes you lose your shit when people insist that they don’t really want to talk about all the people (including you) who are not losing their shit. Why doesn’t Khan want to talk about Alex Golub’s careful, detailed response to Diamond’s book? Why isn’t Golub the “typical anthropologist” for Khan but some folks working for an NGO are? Probably because that would take a longer, smarter entry.

I agree with Khan that sometimes the shit-losing leads people to say things that are just as problematic–to sneer at Diamond’s readers, to condemn anybody who tries to have a “big theory” about human history and culture, or to go too big in characterizing what’s wrong with his work. But have some sympathy here, because Diamond and a few others in his intellectual neck of the woods like Stephen Pinker, specialize in cherrypicking big fields of scholarly work for a few friendly citations and then acting as if what they’ve found is the entirety of those fields. Diamond and Pinker also seem unable to resist setting up straw man versions of legitimate criticisms (and then a few of their critics can’t seem to resist falling into that characterization).

In an earlier comment, I mentioned at least a few areas where there seems to me to be a genuine debate with a range of legitimate positions that require respect, if not agreement, in terms of Diamond’s latest (as well as Pinker’s latest book, which has some overlap):

1. Maybe New Guinea isn’t representative of all modern “traditional societies”, let alone hunter-gatherers in all of human history. Maybe there is considerably more variety in terms of violence and many other attributes than Diamond lets on. Maybe he’s not even paying attention to the full range of anthropological or historical writing about New Guinea. Maybe Diamond isn’t even living up to his own stated interest in the variations between such societies.

2. Maybe modern hunter-gathering societies are not actually pristine, unchanging survivals of an earlier era of human history, but instead the dynamic consequence of large and small-scale migrations of agriculturalists and even more recently, industrial workers. At least in some cases, that might be why hunter-gatherers inhabit remote or marginal environments, not because of preference, but as a response to the sometimes-violent movement of other human societies into territories that they used to inhabit. Meaning taking whatever it is that they have been doing in the 20th Century (violence or otherwise) as evidence of what they’ve always done is a mistake.

3. Maybe defining violence or war in a rigorous, consistent, measurable and fully comparative way is much harder than Diamond or Pinker think it is.

4. Maybe between what Diamond calls a “traditional society” and modern “WEIRD” societies (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) there are lots of other models. Maybe “between” is the wrong term altogether since it implies that there’s a straight developmental line between “traditional society” and modernity, an old teleological chestnut that most anthropologists and historians would desperately like to get away from. I haven’t read very far yet into the book, but Diamond doesn’t seem to have any idea, for example, that there have been numerous societies in human history where there have been many connected communities sharing culture and language at high levels of population density and complexity of economic structure that have nevertheless not had a “state” in the usual sense. What are those? Also: maybe Diamond frequently confuses “traditional” and “premodern”. Much of the time when he says, “Well, we modern WEIRD people do X, ‘traditional societies’ do Y”, the “Y” in question would apply equally to large premodern states and empires.

Or to summarize: maybe Diamond is pushing way, way too hard for a clean distinction between two broadly drawn “types”: “traditional society” and “modern society”, and is distorting, misquoting, truncating or overlooking much of what he read (hard to tell what he read, since there’s no footnotes) to make the distinction come out right.

This is not nit-picking, this is not complaining about a spelling error or some mildly errant footnote on p. 79. This is not pedantry. This is important. The more airtight you want to make your universalisms, the more that you tend to spring leaks–and the more leaks you spring, the faster your boat sinks. A “big theory” that’s advanced with generosity and gentleness, which grants its own provisional character, is a sturdier way to inspire discussion and create understanding. As Golub points out, that is not what Diamond is doing, so much so that his description of other ways of thinking is very nearly incoherent.

Good, simple, accessible synthesis does not require a lack of generosity towards the scholarship that makes it possible. And a good synthesis should always be as much a guide to the possibilities of interpretation around a complex subject as it is a defense of a singular interpretation.

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4 Responses to On Diamond (Not Again!)

  1. Brad DeLong says:

    Now that’s a *lot* better…


  2. Sherman Dorn says:


    I’ve been wondering whether I should be on a rant about not only Diamond’s macro-historical bent but those of others — Graeber, Acemoglu and Robinson, and Reinhardt and Rogoff — but then I’m not sure whether I should be mad at them for oversimplifying or mad that none of them are historians or mad at history as a field for discouraging “big history” to leave the genre open to these interlopers. But then again, we’re supposed to be interdisciplinary, and Peggy Reeves Sanday’s “big anthropology” book on creation myths and gender never bugged me.

    I think you’re right that there is use in teaching Diamond, perhaps jointly with some of the other “big histories” as well as small histories. Read Diamond against Acemoglu and Robinson, or maybe Graeber against Viviana Zelizer (to pick an historical sociologist Graeber doesn’t apparently know about), and be all Gerald Graffian.

  3. Brad DeLong says:

    I suspect the McNeills have the best chance of lasting…

    Karl Polanyi and John Maynard Keynes, read together, still seem to me to have considerable legs…

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I really enjoyed David Christian’s Maps of Time, which seems to me to orient itself to science without making that an exclusive or aggressive choice–there’s plenty of provisional language throughout when he knows either that he’s drawing on a literature with depths that he doesn’t have a lot of personal command over, or a literature that has met with disagreement within its own specialized community. Moreover, though he’s not personally interested in microhistory, I thought he left plenty of room for it to have its own relevance and character.

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