Nobbled Savages

by Henry on July 26, 2005

Brad DeLong has a go at the anthropologists at “Savage Minds” for two posts which in turn attack Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. I’m mostly in agreement with Brad, but think that there’s a more interesting question lurking in the background; the Savage Minds critiques seem to me to be less motivated by professional jealousy than by a wrongheaded understanding of levels of causation. Ozma, one of the Savage Minds bloggers suggests in comments that while she thinks that Diamond is wrong on the facts, her more fundamental objection to his work is that it’s the wrong kind of anti-racism.

What distresses anthropologists most about JD’s book & its enormous popularity has to do with a more general problem confronting anthro (and sociology) …It has to do with varieties of anti-racism. JD’s falls squarely in the camp of “no nothing” anti-racism, which drives us bananas. “no nothing” anti-racism insistently locates racism at a convenient scale. What we mostly face in the classroom are students who vociferously insist that while there might still be some scary tribes of racists out there (they usually point south, fabled homeland of the last living groups of uncontacted cretins who might hold such retrograde views), they think racism isn’t such a big deal because they look into their own hearts and see none, and into the hearts of their near and dear ones and see none there, either (oh, except grampa joe. and aunt ellen. golly, maybe their brother-in-law, too, and, well, anyway, definitely not MOST of the hearts in question).
Okay, so a book like GG&S really hits our buttons. [It] is another variety of no-nothing anti-racism, here writ REALLY REALLY LARGE (into geography) rather than really really small (into individual hearts and minds). It helps make impossible the kinds of thinking about race, power, and history that sociological/anthropological scholarship indicate are necessary to bring about (1) genuine causal understanding and (2) change. It obviates what we take to be the all-important “middle part” between human origins and human psyches.

If I’m reading Ozma correctly here, her claim is flat-out wrong. There is absolutely nothing about the study of large scale structural processes that obviates or prevents the study of racism at the meso-level. First off, an interest in macro-processes isn’t inherently right-wing or denialist – see, for example, the work of noted sociologist Charles Tilly. Second, Diamond is quite explicitly reasoning from macro-level causes to macro-level consequences – how various environmental factors affect the ability of societies to accumulate physical resources. That he doesn’t talk about the meso-level is not to deny that it can be important; it’s just to say that the specific questions he is interested in are better examined at a different level of causation. Finally, it’s quite clear that if one wanted to, one could use a macro-level account of the kind that Diamond provides as the starting point for a meso-level account of the effects of racism, examining, for example, how different environmental endowments have privileged groups that have then used their superior level of physical resources to pursue overtly or covertly racist agendas. Ozma seems to be claiming that accounts of human society that stress macro-level non-cultural factors are inherently accommodationist, and that only meso-level accounts provide genuine “causal understanding.” This is not a helpful argument.

{ 3 trackbacks }

The Old Revolution » Fightin’ Words
07.26.05 at 2:38 pm
Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » Guns, Germs and Steel Links
07.26.05 at 10:33 pm
Frog in a Well - The Japan History Group Blog
07.28.05 at 3:42 am

{ 88 comments }

1

Anderson 07.26.05 at 11:27 am

I thought the point of Diamond’s book was to figure out why Europe’s racists came out on top, as opposed to those of China or some other locale.

2

Brad DeLong 07.26.05 at 11:41 am

It’s worse than being “not helpful”: to say that arguments made at the macro level are Thoughtcrime even if they are correct–because you (mistakenly) think that they have an elective affinity for a certain passivity–is not a move allowable in any speech situation. It is the discourse of thugs and hacks.

3

david 07.26.05 at 11:55 am

I don’t see where Ozma is saying what you say she’s saying. I took her to mean, not that macro-level accounts are necessarily accomodationist (though anthropologists are usually quick to scorn them, too quick if you like), but that Diamond’s style of determinism inhibits an understanding of how power works in human society. She’s afraid that, after you get through Diamond, you’ll end up thinking “oh, so things are the way they are because of the goddamn plants and animals” rather than something like “oh, powerful people tend to naturalize power relations and so overlook important ways in which the powerful beat up on the powerless,” or maybe “oh, perhaps an attention to class differences on PNG will explain more about the current state of PNG’s political economy than a deterministic account of western expansion will.” I’m not taking the position, this is just what I thought she was saying.

But I do think Diamond is often silly in his determinism and his accounts of human social organization — he’s much better on domestication. He’s really schockingly banal on the conquest — and the silly clans/tribes etc. distinctions and the reliance on Hugh Thomas for expertise, rather than Delong’s mean-spirited motive attribution, are likely the sources of much of the resentment of Diamond’s fame and fortune by anthropologists (and historians.)

4

francis 07.26.05 at 11:57 am

Henry, Ozma’s claim isn’t just wrong, it’s meaningless. The book is speech, not acts. No one is being prevented from engaging in any kind of thinking, whether as a result of reading the book, reading a criticism of the book or burning it.

More baffling, though, is that Ozma claims (a) that the book is a certain kind of anti-racism and (b) that the book suppresses dissenting views on racism, without even finishing the book!

5

Andrew 07.26.05 at 12:06 pm

“I thought the point of Diamond’s book was to figure out why Europe’s racists came out on top, as opposed to those of China or some other locale.”

No, that is not the point. In fact, people attacking GG&S often point to this strawman to say “Europe and China have similar geographies but different historial outcomes, therefore Diamond’s wrong and it’s all about culture.” Diamond admits that geography only takes you to a certain point – probably about year 1500 or so (at which time China and Europe had comparable technological levels; China may have been a bit higher), and then the importance of culture (i.e., the Commercial/Industrial Revolutions) becomes so big that it overrides geography. He makes a lackluster attempt to explain why Europe and China had different cultures, but is aware that it’s merely a hypothesis.

Where Diamond’s thesis shines is in explaining why Eurasia conquered the Americas, Australia, and Africa and not the other way around. That is the point.

6

Henry 07.26.05 at 12:08 pm

David, if that’s the basis of Ozma’s argument, it’s a pretty fundamental misreading. Diamond makes it quite explicit that there is a middle between plants and animals and social outcomes, and that this middle does involve conquest, exploitation of the weaker by the stronger etc. And anyway, how does Diamond’s argument make thinking about power etc impossible, as Ozma claims? It doesn’t as far as I can see – indeed, as I’ve argued, it can very readily be interpreted as a useful framing contribution to a theory of power and its sources. I suspect (I may be wrong on this) that behind Ozma’s objection is some sort of sense that social explanations which privilege physical rather than cultural factors have an inherent right wing tendency.

7

david 07.26.05 at 12:13 pm

Ack, with the thugs and hacks, please. What has set you off? You may disagree with the point — I do too, probably not as much as you — but from someone who just argued that the pathetic little losers are just jealous, accusations of thuggishness don’t ring all that true.

Looking back at Henry’s post, I think the question is whether “really really large” means all macro-level arguments, or just the really really large argument that Diamond makes. Maybe Ozma will answer that question.

8

stormy 07.26.05 at 12:24 pm

I suggest, as a companion piece to Diamond’s work, you read all “A Short History of Progress” by Ronald Wright.

In many ways, this work is far more pertinent to your general economic discussions. And if would make the likes of Ozma feel very very uncomfortable.

9

tak 07.26.05 at 12:24 pm

Hi. I don’t think Ozma is arguing completely against macro-level analysis. In the paragraph before the two cited in the post she applauds Durkheim’s Suicide as a work that makes good use of larger structural patterns. I think she is simply wary of Diamond’s environmental determinism, which raises a red flag for us anthropologists given our disciplinary history.

BTW, nice post title! Got to remember that one. ;)

10

Ozma 07.26.05 at 12:26 pm

Howdy, I am the great and terrible Ozma. I just became aware of this parallel discussion. I’d like to urge people to read my post on Savage Minds in its entirety before they conclusively decide whether I am a thug and a hack. Afterward, if you still think I am a thug and a hack, we can arm-wrestle!

No, I guess that isn’t possible. But I stand behind my post (including the admission that I did not finish the book, because its punchline is telegraphed miles before the conclusion). I do think that JDs billiyuns and billiyuns of years ago time frame obviates what I believe to be the far more necessary task of understanding, say, the past 500 years or so. That doesn’t mean I think studying older time periods is silly, but I think it they are the wrong place to look to answer the question in which he claims to be interested.

Finally, it wouldn’t matter if he were right but a considerable body of accumulating literature is demonstrating his argument to be wrong. You can’t redeem that, no matter what kind of strong and ugly language you deploy.

11

stormy 07.26.05 at 12:26 pm

I suggest, as a companion piece to Diamond’s work, you all read A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. It is a very short read.

In many ways, this work is far more pertinent to your general economic discussions. And it would make the likes of Ozma feel very, very uncomfortable.

12

david 07.26.05 at 12:34 pm

Henry,

I’m just saying that my version of Ozma is a different misreading of Diamond than the one you first posted. One that’s a bit more understandable, I think: It’s not exactly crazy to think that Diamond hedges on the middle ground but trumpets the determinism (Diamond’s occasional call for a really scientific history instead of that crap that normally gets written provides some support.) Ozma-my-version may be wrong, but it’s not nearly so wrong as implying that Charles Tilly does the work of the Heritage Foundation.

I don’t find Diamond as useful as everybody else around the interweb does, but you’re right, there’s no reason that his theory can’t serve as a good framing device, and I don’t see how one can believe that Diamond makes thinking about power impossible.

The you in my second post above was directed to Brad Delong, in case that’s not obvious.

13

Louis Proyect 07.26.05 at 12:42 pm

Jim Blaut wrote a book titled “8 Eurocentric Historians”. One of the chapters deals with “Guns, Germs and Steel”. You can read a version of this chapter that originally appeared in Antipode, I believe:

http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/Blaut/diamond.htm

I wrote a critique of the first installment of the PBS show at:

http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/ecology/pbs_diamond1.htm

Will follow up with my critique of parts 2 and 3.

Finally, I deal with Diamond’s “Collapse”, a much worse book than “Guns, Germs and Steel” at:

http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/my_ecology.htm

14

Seth Finkelstein 07.26.05 at 1:04 pm

Just from an overhead view, I think there’s a bit of talking past each other.

The problem is that, hypothetically, a bare pragmatic statement such as “surplus capital is necessary to build wealth” might be read as endorsing the propagandistic storyline that the rich are rich because they work hard and deny gratification, while the poor are poor because they don’t. In fact, the statement would say nothing of the sort, and surplus capital can be aquired by theft and conquest as much as by savings and productivity. But the vaguaries of language allow for extensive argument over how it will be read, and what the author means, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

15

Rob Breymaier 07.26.05 at 1:14 pm

I think you’re right on here Henry. Diamond is arguing for environmental determinism — a theory that simply states that enviromental differences provide different opportunities and threats that, in turn, benefit people in some places more than others.

Diamond, by the way, is not all that central to geographic thought from what I know. Even though he’s at UCLA (an important geography school), he’s not someone cited often in critical or cultural geography. The more important people in this respect would be David Harvey, Derek Gregory, Doreen Massey, and others.

A great site for an intro to critical geography is Heidleberg’s Hettner Lecture site.

16

jasmindad 07.26.05 at 1:53 pm

Brad delong seems over the top to me in his condemnation of Savagemind posting. Where do they say what Diamond does is a “Thoughtcrime”? Jesus, is it possible to claim (wrongly, maybe) that Diamond is missing a level, and that missing that level reduces the effectiveness of the fight against racism, without such a claim automatically being the same as accusing Diamond of a Thoughtcrime? I agree that I am not myself fond of someone saying to me, “Your belief A if widely accepted would lead to bad thing B,” as an argument against A, since I’d rather that the interlocutor first determine if in fact A is true. Of course, it might also be empirically true that if everyone believed A it might increase the chances of the bad thing B. Suppose my interlocutor first offers arguments for why A is not true or not quite true in the form I proposed it, and then also argues that A in the form I proposed it would increase the chances of bad thing B. It seems to me that this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Calling Savagemind folks “thugs and hacks” for their arguing that Diamond is missing a level,*and* that missing a level might have certain bad consequences is itself avoding the argument by accusing someone of a Thoughtcrime. I am disappointed in Brad.

17

noman 07.26.05 at 2:01 pm

Howdy, I am the great and terrible Ozma. … I do think that JDs billiyuns and billiyuns of years ago time frame obviates what I believe to be the far more necessary task of understanding, say, the past 500 years or so.

Shorter Ozma: “Any comparison of global societies must address colonialism or say nothing.”

Ozma, is that fair?

The following quotation is from your original post linked above:

I will admit I never finished reading GG&S, but I gather that Diamond claims it necessarily follows from the all of the above that given such overwhelming, built-in Eurasian advantages (which somehow condensed to the particular advantage of the Western European part of Eurasia) that it was inevitable that that part of the world would become the global cradle of innovation, invention, and subsequent armed exploratory excursions on the part of its disease-ridden, disease-resistant, bristling-with-lethal-technology inhabitants. We know the rest.

Do we really know the rest? Isn’t it a reasonable expectation that once the general television-watching populace learn that their standard of living is only a result of dumb luck and technical infrastructure, they will be moderately inclined *towards* supporting a more even-handed globalization?

Don’t you think there is an opportunity to build a popular understanding of recent political history, if you think such a thing is important, on top of the new information that JD’s audience has just assimilated with such evident interest?

I.e. “and then a subset of the beneficiaries of this technological luck went out and oppressed their neighbors, which made the differences even bigger …?” There is a tendency to grudgingly (or not grudgingly) admire the great bullies of history as culture-bearing bad-asses. Jared Diamond has created an opportunity to make them look somewhat foolish; it possibly turns out that their only real skill was to be born next door to pigs.

18

noman 07.26.05 at 2:06 pm

… er, that may not have come out quite right. How about “their only real skill was to be born near the wild chickens”. There, that’s better.

19

albert 07.26.05 at 2:33 pm

Isn’t it a reasonable expectation that once the general television-watching populace learn that their standard of living is only a result of dumb luck and technical infrastructure, they will be moderately inclined towards supporting a more even-handed globalization?

Considering that being born to rich or poor parents is already widely acknowledged as dumb luck, I’d say it’s a horribly unreasonable expectation.

…and while I wouldn’t go far to say that “Any comparison of global societies must address colonialism or say nothing.” If your question is wealth disparity between modern nations, colonialism is one hell of an intervening variable in Diamond’s formulation.

20

Ozma 07.26.05 at 2:40 pm

yes, yes, yes. It is eminently fair to say that any comparison of global societies must address colonialism.

the “or say nothing” part is silly — I never called for Diamond’s book to be burned in public rallies. his ideas are out there (in fact, have been out there since at least the 18th century, though with fewer footnotes) and that’s fine by me. The detailed work of refuting them gets repeated in every generation, and — as my original post went out of its way to indicate — is going on right now.

What I *have* said is that the popularity of his ideas tells us a lot about the kinds of historical explanations that people in our society would like to hear. Check out the original post if you are interested.

Before anyone jumps in to tell me that diamond does talk about colonialism: I know, I know. yes. he does. But it’s far down his causal chain, and I think that is a telling problem. You don’t have to agree, I’ve given strict instructions to the thought police to be cool.

21

Ozma 07.26.05 at 2:43 pm

Albert said: “Considering that being born to rich or poor parents is already widely acknowledged as dumb luck, I’d say it’s a horribly unreasonable expectation.”

hee. :)

22

Henry 07.26.05 at 2:58 pm

Hi Tak

Could you expand on the bit about disciplinary history? When reading Ozma’s post (and this is what I was getting at with the bit about physical v. culturalist explanations), my first approximation guess that much of the background to her criticisms lies in arguments between physical anthropology and cultural anthropology. Would be grateful for clarification.

23

Henry 07.26.05 at 3:03 pm

And Ozma, isn’t there a rather big difference between criticism (a) that Diamond “helps make impossible the kinds of thinking about race, power, and history,” and criticism (b)that colonialism is “far down his causal chain, and I think that is a telling problem?” The latter is, I think, still quite wrong, but is a much more limited and defensible claim than the former.

24

a thuggish hack 07.26.05 at 3:34 pm

I have no comment on Diamond vs. Ozma, but isn’t it a bit, well, hackish, to accuse someone of being hackish and thuggish without good evidence?
(Thuggish is ridiculously melodramatic anyway.) Ozma said in her comment that her objections wouldn’t be relevant if Diamond’s thesis were correct.

You can accuse people of being wrong and even silly without calling them thugs. Or anyway, I’ve often managed to do so.

25

des von bladet 07.26.05 at 4:49 pm

J Bradford “Crypo-Staliniste Filth” DeLong a thuggish hack? Say it isn’t so!

26

Ozma 07.26.05 at 5:01 pm

Henry, could you rephrase your question? I’m afraid I don’t understand it.

27

Henry 07.26.05 at 5:46 pm

Ozma – as I understand your original comment, you are saying that Diamond “helps make impossible” the kind of thinking that allows us to understand the real patterns of causation in the world, and to take action on the basis of this understanding. In other words, what you are suggesting as I understand it, is that if you start by thinking in the terms that Diamond suggests, it will be impossible for you to understand what is actually going on, and how race and history can be important. This is a very strong claim. In the second comment that I quote, you appear to be making a much weaker claim – that is, you seem to be saying that colonialism is further down his causal chain than it should be. This seems to imply that you can think about issues like colonialism from a Diamondian perspective – but that you are likely to underestimate its causal impact.

While I’d maintain that the latter claim is still wrong,it seems to me to be more defensible and less tendentious. Why is it wrong? It may be that it’s “culture all the way down” and that the kinds of physical variables that Diamond is interested in don’t have much appreciable impact – but at the very least, the case is not proven on this. And to the extent that Diamond-type arguments have any explanatory power at all (i.e. that material factors are important), he is _exactly right_ in positioning colonialism as an intervening cause rather than a primary. Diamond’s causal chain is external environmental variables ->human agency (wars of conquest, colonialism etc)-> resources available to a given society. What’s the alternative causal chain? That we should be looking at how colonialism affects external environmental variables? (I can see specific instances in which you could make a sort of argument for this, but it’s very hard to make the general case that this is the direction we should assume the causal arrow is pointing in). So either it is culture all the way down, and environmental factors have no independent impact (i.e. they are irrelevant, or are entirely determined by political factors such as colonialism etc). Or physical factors do have some independent impact – in which case the appropriate chain of causation is indeed from environmental factors to human agency effects to outcomes. Again, you seem to me to be confusing chains of causation here – Diamond’s style of argument is perfectly respectable, and by no stretch of the imagination precludes or makes impossible more finely grained arguments about the effects of colonialism, culture etc.

Finally, you seem to be making an implicit claim here (when you talk about how “telling” Diamond’s priorities are) , and an explicit claim on your own blog (when you say that his question isn’t “innocuous” and that his way of answering it is “even less innocuous”), that Diamond has some sort of ulterior purpose or agenda in constructing the causal arguments that he does. This seems to me to be an extremely far-reaching attack, and so far you’ve presented neither convincing evidence or argument to support this claim; it seems to me quite unjustified.

28

david 07.26.05 at 5:59 pm

I don’t understand why you think, Henry, that if physical factors have some effect they are first on the causal chain. First, physical factors may very well be conditioned by human manipulation of the environment all through the course of Diamond’s long history, making the distinction between independent and dependent effects pretty hard to determine. Second, that independent effect may be much less than Diamond describes, and so he’s chasing shadows rather than looking at real issues, no matter the relation between chicken and egg.

It’s not so much confusing levels, as disagreeing with Diamond that he’s found the answer by focusing on independent physical effects. And, rereading Ozma’s original post, I think her point is even stronger than I originally thought. The idea that all this talk of environmental determinism leads to weeping in an African hospital does seem likely to lead to viewers ending up thinking “gosh, that’s too bad, what an awful thing about those domesticatable animals.”

29

Caleb 07.26.05 at 6:06 pm

In addition to the two possible criticisms of Diamond that Henry lays out, there’s also a third possible claim that the rhetorical strategies of his book (or PBS’s portrayal of the book) might encourage a certain way of thinking about global inequities that reinforces an acceptance of imperialism as politically and socially acceptable. That is, that his particular macro-historical narrative might make thinking about meso-historical processes “improbable” rather than “impossible.” (This is the claim that noman is disputing, and it’s a claim that I think is getting tangled up in the other two.)

30

Henry 07.26.05 at 6:21 pm

David – as stated above, the appropriate chain of causation is from environmental factors onwards, if environmental factors have “some independent impact.” Clearly, you can argue that there are going to be some interaction effects, as noted. Equally clearly, one could make the argument that environmental effects have no real consequences (although imo that would be a damn silly argument). But unless the interaction effects overwhelm the independent effects of the physical environment so that colonialism does indeed “create” the environment, which is an extremely tough case to make, then the causal chain that Diamond proposes (which does, very obviously have room for interaction effects along the way) is the appropriate one. Doesn’t mean that you can’t do more finely grained studies of colonialism or whatever while holding the physical stuff constant (I’m a social scientist; it’s what I do all the time). But in the end of the day, there has to be a material basis (even if only an implied one) to our explanations. And as stated, Diamond makes it entirely clear that wars of conquest etc are a key part of the story – he isn’t reasoning directly from environmental factors to social outcomes without looking at the role of power relations in between.

And do you rally find that Ozma’s argument (a) that Diamond is popular because it allows people to explain away racism as a non-structural cause, and (b) that Diamond has some ulterior purpose in making these claims, holds water on the basis of available evidence? At the least, it would have to explain why people like me and many other social scientists, who have no trouble whatsoever in accepting that there is institutionalized racism, find Diamond’s style of argument attractive? As stated, my working hypothesis is that Ozma’s post reflects a hostility among cultural anthropologists to materialist arguments _as such_ as being somehow politically retrograde and dubious. Which I simply don’t think holds water (if in fact this is what is going on). There’s no necessary mapping between materialists and right wing agendas, or indeed between culturalists and left wing ones (as witness, say, in history, the broadly left perspective of some of the original _Annales_ types, and the unabashed conservatism of _histoire des mentalites_ writers like Aries).

31

Ozma 07.26.05 at 6:26 pm

Henry,

Thanks for re-phrasing.

First, I do think I cover a lot of this ground over at SM and so would refer you there.

Okay, but, yes, you are right my problem with Diamond is far-reaching. And it has to be addressed at multiple levels.

a) There is the most important question: is he right? In one way, this is not answerable — his hypothesis is “this is why the world turned out the way it did” and there is no way to test such an enormous hypothesis experimentally. So then the question becomes, is his data good and is his use of it good? Now, there is a burgeoning body of specialist literature — some of which is noted over at SM — that says no. Diamond’s strongest champions are not in the fields of anthropology and geography; in fact it is in those fields that he comes in for the most criticism. But let’s bracket the question of whether he is correct; I think not, and you (maybe) think he is. But neither of us can definitively resolve that question in this space.

b) There is the levels of causality problem. This one comes under the rubric of (a). If JD is right, the historical perspective becomes sort of irrelevant. It might still be interesting, but it’s not very significant. Still, though, because we don’t know the answer to (a), we can’t resolve (b).

c) Comes the influence of Diamond’s thesis on modes of thought. I think this is a less strong claim, because if he is correct at level (a), his influence doesn’t matter at (b), and we should be glad for it here at (c). The thing is, we don’t know about (a) and (b) — and, as I have said several times, there certainly is not a scholarly consensus that Diamond is right.

So why are people so angrily insistent that we *must* think as Diamond suggests? Why do they get so upset at the suggestion that maybe it’s not a good idea to think as he does? Now this, I think, explains the seduction of his account. I don’t at all take it to be a conscious “agenda” on his part. I think, instead, he feels as warm and fuzzy about the implications of his argument as his fans do. He’s not trying to trick them for some ulterior purpose of his own.

anyway — the warm fuzzy implication of his argument is that it lets white society off the historical social responsibility hook (which, in the united states especially, includes the legacy of racism). It also confirms, in a “soft” rather than a “hard” mode, their amorphous sense that their society is superior to other societies. That is, it doesn’t make that claim in a chest-pounding way; it makes in a soft regret way. But it still makes it.

okay — so. If he is correct, all well and good. People probably should think that way. But if he is wrong, as — let’s not kid around — I am convinced he is, that mode of thought is very pernicious. It rewards a feeling that present inequality was inevitable, removing part of the motivation to change it; and it reinforces a naughty old lesson about the radical gulf between ‘civilized ‘ and ‘uncivilized’ societies. I do think if one accepts Diamond’s argument, it will affect one’s willingness and ability to think critically about the “middle part” between the environmental past and the immediate present. My ‘attack’, then, is — yes — far reaching. But I think your feeling that my stance is “unjustified” has less to do with my not articulating it effectively than it does with our seeing the world differently. Let me know your thoughts.

32

david 07.26.05 at 6:44 pm

I suspect we’re not going to get anywhere, largely because of my late afternoon beer drinking (it’s really hot here in DC). But here goes, for time wasting’s sake.

There may be some hostility between materialism and some anthropologists, but as a discipline anthropology does not so suffer. The anthropologists who I went to school with, and to whom I am married, are to a person materialists. The new book Yali’s question, which goes after Diamond it seems, is by PNG specialists who surely look as Marxist as you get in the academy these days. I don’t think you’re working hypothesis on anthro works, though maybe it does in the case of Ozma; who knows?

The causal chain you’ve tied to Diamond doesn’t have to be the right one. Even if there are independent physical effects, long term really really important ones, and nobody thinks differently except the straw people, they don’t necessarily have much to say about why the west won out over the last 500 or so years. So, there’s no reason to say that independent physical effects have to be the first place to look. BTW, you can have a really solid materialist argument that doesn’t rely on Diamond’s style of materialist argument, and I prefer Mintz. So I just don’t see why one has to support Diamond on his emphasis. To say that the environment comes first may be obvious, but to say that it comes first in the explanation of why Europeans beat up on others is not nearly so obvious, and you’re wrong to think so. There is also no reason to assume that environmental determinism is big stroke but social analysis “fine-grained.” (I once aspired to spend my life doing fine-grained social analysis, and have been employed to do it, so I know where you are coming from.)

On the area I know most about, Diamond is lame. His account of the conquest is drawn from fine pop history meant to appeal to people who want to spend the afternoon getting an easy-reading account of why Europeans kicked so much ass. Thatcherite complancency mixed with an appealing style. I found most of his bits on human social organization suspect, probably because the “scientific history” crap is pop nonsense; the kleptocracy stuff inadequate; the evolutionary explanation for why PNG “savages” are smarter than the rest of us disturbingly weird. And, again, I can see why one might wonder why an environmentally deterministic account of history might lead to complacency towards current problems. And, cheap post-grad student hostility aside, I liked some stuff in Diamond’s book.

Anyway, yes, I think that Diamond appeals to the public, and to social scientists, especially economists, at least to some degree because of some vague appeal to scientism that doesn’t hold up in his argument. The article by Jim Blaut linked to above is pretty good on this, as may be the articles cited by Ozma; who knows? I see the affection for Diamond as similar to the affection for evolutionary psychology.

And, anyway, it’s not at all a tough thing to say that colonialism shapes the physical environment. That’s what Alfred Crosby’s all about. A plague of freaking sheep — early and late.

33

Ozma 07.26.05 at 6:44 pm

David, it’s so nice to hear that someone liked anything that I’ve said so far.
And I think you are right that when we are talking about humans, we can’t assume environmental factors are always “prior” in the chain of causality. My own research is with an indigenous group in Bolivia that carries out massive irrigation projects in an very arid climate. They have a strongly hierarchical social organization as well. Now, which came first? Did they successfully colonize an arid area cause they are so socially disciplined, or did the social discipline follow on being forced to reckon with an arid climate? Always assuming these things can be put in an easily arrived-at series is a mistake.

Caleb — right, part of the point is about the power of rhetoric. on that note, perhaps I should not have used the stronger term “impossible” but instead the more flexible “improbable”.

Henry — I’m overlapping with you, but of course I agree that materialist vs. idealist perspectives do not have a set right or left alignment. Marxism is “materialist”, right? but it’s a smarter sort of materialism, being dialectical and recognizing that one can’t always establish the most prior stratum. My problem with Diamond is he goes: stratum>outcome, zippity-zap.

and, just as mat/ideal left/right alignments depend on context, you have to think contextually to understand why this formulation is *so* persuasive to people when in fact, we just don’t know if what it says is true.

Finally, I think my suggestion that embracing Diamond’s anti-racism is to embrace a sham anti-racism is what has made so many people so angry. This is understandable, but the thing is, I still think what I said is true.

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Henry 07.26.05 at 6:54 pm

Ozma – I don’t see how Diamond’s account does what you say it does. Now OK – macro-level accounts like Diamond’s do make agency fuzzy – that’s something that’s sort of inevitable when you’re dealing with big causes. Howeverthere are two crucial buts. First of all, this doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination that macro-level explanations are necessarily right wing. As stated, Chuck Tilly’s work provides eloquent evidence to the contrary (as indeed do many Marxist approaches to history in a somewhat different sense – Hobsbawm’s work, if not Thompson’s). Second, macro-level approaches don’t, contrary to your earlier implication, rule out middle-level explanations that lay a heavier stress on colonialism or similar factors. Why can’t one construct an account, say, of European colonialism that includes many of Diamond’s causal factors as helping explain why Europeans were in a position to exploit other civilizations? It seems quite clear to me that this is not only compatible with Diamond’s account, but it is strongly implied by it. I find it difficult to accept your claim that Diamond’s argument affects “one’s willingness and ability to think critically about the “middle part” – in large part because I can see a plethora of arguments that might be made exactly about the implications of Diamond’s claims for that middle part.

It could well be that Diamond is wrong – but it seems to me that your argument goes much further than this. You’re saying, or am I misunderstanding you, that this whole _style of argument_ is wrong; that is, that thinking about external physical factors is ineluctably going to lead to a failure to theorize middle ground phenomena. I disagree – I see macro-level materialist explanations as at the least not interfering with, and at most offering an interesting basis for, middle level phenomena. Nor do I see why such explanations necessarily have to be right wing, or to excuse the sins of colonialism. It may be that Caleb is right – that Diamond is rhetorically making a larger case than his causal explanation would support (I’d like to see specific examples of where this happens, if it does). But my strong impression when reading Diamond was that he was unusually sensitive to the limits of his explanation – far more so, say, than evolutionary biologists or the like.

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Henry 07.26.05 at 7:01 pm

A quick addendum now that I see your most recent post. You say that:

bq. And I think you are right that when we are talking about humans, we can’t assume environmental factors are always “prior” in the chain of causality. My own research is with an indigenous group in Bolivia that carries out massive irrigation projects in an very arid climate. They have a strongly hierarchical social organization as well. Now, which came first? Did they successfully colonize an arid area cause they are so socially disciplined, or did the social discipline follow on being forced to reckon with an arid climate? Always assuming these things can be put in an easily arrived-at series is a mistake.

But the environment _is_ at the beginning of the causal chain in both of those accounts. The question is whether the climate caused a cultural trait, or whether an existing cultural trait allowed your indigenous people to adapt more easily to a given climate than would otherwise be possible. You’re not asking whether either the existing cultural trait, or the new adaptation in some sense ’caused’ the climate. There are circumstances in which it might be very reasonable to inquire into whether cultural traits caused environmental factors; for example, whether Bedouin grazing practices caused widespread desertification. But (at least as you present it here), that doesn’t seem to be what you are saying.

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noman 07.26.05 at 7:02 pm

(Ozma) There is the most important question: is he right? In one way, this is not answerable—his hypothesis is “this is why the world turned out the way it did” and there is no way to test such an enormous hypothesis experimentally.

This seems to me to be Ozma’s entire argument. That JD’s thesis is not falsifiable, and therefore cannot strictly speaking have any meaning. Consequently, the only thing that can be said about it is to analyze its contemporary political effect.

(Ozma) What I have said is that the popularity of his ideas tells us a lot about the kinds of historical explanations that people in our society would like to hear. Check out the original post if you are interested.

and

anyway—the warm fuzzy implication of his argument is that it lets white society off the historical social responsibility hook

So, the burden of proof is on JD’s proponents to explain what good his theory is anyway? Now that one understands this new mechanism at work in history, can anything be done with it? Does it have any application aside from being a plausible non-racist solution to the problem of explaining unequal levels of social development?

I think there may be some applications, but they haven’t been articulated yet, and (presuming they exist) they don’t fall cleanly within the boundaries of existing academic specializations. The “evo-devo” comparison is suggestive.

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Stephen M (Ethesis) 07.26.05 at 7:24 pm

Having actually read Diamond’s book, while on my second honeymoon (hey, we had down time, my wife and I both read it, not much else to do on long airplane trips, etc.) I was struck that he makes the point that many of the “primatives” he dealt with are probably a good deal smarter than the Europeans he dealt with.

In terms of the usual “racist” type statements (as to whether a group is smarter, physically stronger, etc.) he doesn’t make any of those, and he seems to conclude that up until guns and steel enter into the picture that success had nothing to do with racial superiority.

That he doesn’t really get much past 1500 or so seems to be merely part of the fact he hasn’t written his next book yet.

I think you are on to something. Unless everything that fails to address the influence of concepts of race is wrong, the fact that he isn’t addressing racism (this isn’t “no nothing” racism, his book clearly condemns racism as the opposit of reality and based on false premises, but doesn’t discuss how far spread it is) Ozma’s post is silliness vis a vis the discussion at hand.

GG&S is, I would say, one of the first steps in combating racism. Anyone who has read it comes to the conclusion that Europe prospered without regard to the racial group there and continues to prosper in spite of not being the smartest group on the planet (to the extent the term race means much).

Once students understand that, they are much better prepared to understand how invidious racial issues are and how completely wrong they are as well (that is, those issues that cause people to engage in racist activity, lest anyone mistake what I meant).

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Marc 07.26.05 at 8:19 pm

I think Ozma here utterly misunderstands the negative reactions that she is getting. I sympathize fully with being a specialist in an area where there is a lot of popular material; I’m an astronomer. I therefore grant a provisional trust in someone who has studied an area deeply. However, the aspects that Brad touched upon in the Savage Minds reviews are precisely the sort of thing that revoke this trust. And I have not seen a single rebuttal to the central issues, either those raised by Brad Delong or those raised by Henry.

Brad thinks it is arrogant to put up a long post where the specialists attack a book that they haven’t finished, and where one of them says they barely remember it.

He notes that there is a factual claim about the economy of Nigeria that is simply wrong. If I had an astronomy blog and claimed that Mars was one of the largest planets, people would legitimately doubt that I knew what I was talking about, at least on the planet front.

Henry and Brad both note that the Savage Minds posters seem focused on issues that are basically irrelevant to the thesis of the book in question. In effect they would prefer a book written on a different subject. Fair enough; some folks like chocolate and some like vanilla. That isn’t a reason to attack a book about chocolate.

Finally, the Savage Minds posters are claiming that some people might interpret these results in a way that leads to undesirable political consequences. Again, this is hardly a scientific critique of the hypothesis; it’s an attempt to assume a posture of moral superiority to privilege their approach. It’s the irrelevance of the racism charge, and its clear dissonance with the tone and substance of the book itself, that is leading to the reactions that we’re seeing here and elsewhere.

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Jake McGuire 07.26.05 at 8:26 pm

How is the GG&S theory unfalsifiable? If you could actually show that South Americans didn’t domesticate large land animals because their relationship was one of co-equals, or if you could show that Diamond has his horticulture wildly wrong, or if you could show even a few examples of where one culture displaced or conquered another even though it labored under large ecological disadvantages of the sort that Diamond said doomed the Americans and Africans, you’d at the very least be most of the way there.

Instead we’ve got one side asking the question “why were Europeans able to dominate everyone else”, and the other side saying “not only is that question pointless, but asking it is pernicious in the extreme.” There’s a reason the two anthropology departments at Stanford are on opposite ends of the campus, and this discussion is about as clear of a demonstration as one could hope for.

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eb 07.26.05 at 8:34 pm

A few quick thoughts:

And, anyway, it’s not at all a tough thing to say that colonialism shapes the physical environment. That’s what Alfred Crosby’s all about. A plague of freaking sheep—early and late.

Well, there’s more than one relevant Crosby work here. Columbian Exchange, (which I haven’t read) is, as I understand it, mostly about exchange between the new and old worlds. His later Ecological Imperialism is the most like Diamond’s; in fact it’s not too much of a stretch to say that most of GG&S is derivative of Crosby’s work.

Only while Crosby writes almost exclusively about areas that now are dominated by populations of European ancestry (the so-called neo-Europes) Diamond is generalizing Crosby’s arguments to apply them to the question: why does one population dominate another? Having read Crosby before Diamond only the historical linguistics seemed to be Diamond’s own original contribution.

The interesting thing about Crosby is that he went on to write another book about what I suppose you could call the preconditions of European conquest, The Measure of Reality in which he expresses his dissatisfaction with heavily materialist explanations. Measure of Reality is devoted mostly to cultural factors, particularly things having to do with quantification (the subtitle is “Quantification and Western Society”).

Plague of Sheep is Elinor Melville, not Crosby. I haven’t read that one, but it’s about environmental change after the conquest of Mexico.

As for the substance of the discussion:

Some of Diamond’s rhetoric is indeed grating. (I also think Crosby’s a better writer, but that’s beside the point). I can see how he can rub both racists and other kinds of non-racists the wrong way. Sometimes he pronounces that everyone’s equal. Other times he pronounces that hunter-gatherers are more intelligent. And occasionally he makes wild claims about the potential of societies today to dominate the world. Mostly these seem like unwise rhetorical fluorishes meant to put an exclamation point on his more substantive arguments.

Finally, I have this theory that Diamond’s book was a bestseller mostly because it was marketed as science-writing, for which there is a huge target audience.

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Caleb 07.26.05 at 10:00 pm

It may be that Caleb is right – that Diamond is rhetorically making a larger case than his causal explanation would support (I’d like to see specific examples of where this happens, if it does).

By “rhetorical strategies” I didn’t just mean to refer to the presence or absence of qualifications, to the degree to which Diamond’s tone is over-reaching or tempered by the limitations of his evidence. I mean: what does he want his reader (or viewer, in the case of the PBS show) to come away thinking, and how does he go about framing questions and providing answers in order to compel that desired reaction in his audience?

I haven’t read the book; I watched the first two episodes of the show. So whatever I say about Diamond himself must be taken with a large grain of salt due to my limited exposure to his work, and to the fact that Diamond probably did not have unfettered control over the show’s scripting (although he must have had some).

Based on that limited exposure, I think that Kerim (the other Savage Mind commenter) is right to point out that the show encouraged viewers to leap from his macrohistorical explanations of how human societies began to become differentiated to conclusions about the present arrangement of power and wealth in the world.

For instance, Diamond says on the show (I’m using Kerim’s quotation):

The modern U.S. is the richest, most powerful state on earth. It’s crammed with more cargo than most New Guineans could ever imagine. But why? That’s what Yali wanted to know. How did our worlds ever come [to be] so different?

That question (variations of which were repeated in both of the episodes I saw) leap-frogs across many centuries of macro-, micro-, and meso-historical change, and it implicitly tells the viewer to think that the punchline to Diamond’s deep structural theory is an explanation for why “the modern U.S. is the richest, most powerful state on earth.”

The use of the shadowy Yali figure to authorize the asking of this question also “grated” on me, to use eb’s term. It allows Diamond to take for granted that the disadvantaged human societies he is studying define success and advantage according to wealth and power, which is itself a rhetorical move that leaves the material hegemony of powerful modern states unquestioned: it frames the problem as one of why the U.S. is the most powerful and richest nation-state without moving to the question of whether one nation-state should be so rich and powerful. (The implication that the U.S. is what New Guineans can only “dream” about also carries a value-laden valence.) To oversimplify, it could be argued that the rhetorical strategy of the show naturalizes the existing distribution of power among modern nation-states (which is not the same as excusing that distribution; it simply marks it off as beyond the scope of inquiry).

I take it from other posts I’ve read, though, that the book is much more subtle and qualified than that: this may just be a case where a TV show mangles a book. (I’m shocked!) And it could be that the rhetorical strategy of the third episode (which I didn’t see) managed to soften the impression that the series is meant as an explanation for why the U.S. as the richest, wealthiest state on earth.

I’m also not wedded to my particular interpretation of the show; I just wanted to point out that a critique of the show’s rhetorical strategy is more complicated than just saying Diamond reaches past his evidence: it’s also a question of narrative choices, pace, plotting, visual imagery (when the quote above is read, as I recall, we are flashed scenes of Times Square and then flashed scenes of people in grass skirts, and that sequence of images has “rhetorical” import in a broad sense), and so on.

[Ill-thought-out conclusion: Perhaps there’s another discussion going on here between the lines over the question of whether explanatory language can be so valueless and objective that we can discuss human power relationships and explain racism or global inequality in ways that are wholly dispassionate. And perhaps that leads to the larger question of whether words themselves–ideas, classifications, names–have to be part of the explanation or interpretation for how the world came to be what it is.]

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Caleb 07.26.05 at 10:02 pm

I realize in one of my parenthetical comments I attributed the word “dream” to Diamond when he used the word “imagine.” Sorry for the error; I hope it doesn’t change my point too much.

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eb 07.26.05 at 10:37 pm

The histories of the Fertile Crescent and China also hold a salutary lesson for the modern world: circumstances change, and past primacy is no guarantee of future primacy. One might even wonder whether the geographical reasoning employed throughout this book has at last become wholly irrelevant in the modern world, now that ideas diffuse everywhere instantly on the Internet and cargo is routinely airfreighted overnight between continents. It might seem that entirely new rules apply to competition between the world’s peoples, and that as a result new powers are emerging—such as Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, and especially Japan.

On reflection, though, we see that the supposedly new rules are just variations on the old ones. Yes, the transistor, invented at Bell Labs in the eastern United States in 1947, leapt 8,000 miles to launch an electronics industry in Japan—but it did not make the shorter leap to found new industries in Zaire or Paraguay. The nations rising to new power are still ones that were incorporated thousands of years ago into the old centers of dominance based on food production, or that have been repopulated by peoples from those centers. Unlike Zaire or Paraguay, Japan and the other new powers were able to exploit the transistor quickly because their populations already had a long history or literacy, metal machinery, and centralized government. The world’s two earliest centers of food production, the Fertile Crescent and China, still dominate the modern world, either through their immediate successor states (modern China), or through states situated in neighboring regions influenced early by those two centers (Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Europe), or through states situated in neighboring regions influenced early by those two centers (Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Europe), or through states repopulated or ruled by their overseas emigrants (the United States, Australia, Brazil). Prospects for world dominance of sub-Saharan Africans, Aboriginal Australians, and Native Americans remain dim. The hand of history’s course at 8000 B.C. lies heavily on us.

Guns, Germs, and Steel p. 417

FWIW, he then goes on to discuss cultural factors for a few pages.

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Dale 07.27.05 at 2:47 am

There was plenty of colonization going on within the Western Hemishpere before the European conquest. So what I get from Diamond is an interesting take on why Eurpopean oppressors were able to defeat Native American oppressors (and their oppressed.)

That Diamond says this in not the effect of superior minds or culture- or is in no way deserved- but more or less the result of geography and the seemingly random distribution of domesticable plants and animals- seems a remarkably objective and healthy way to avoid the pathologies of exceptionalism.

Someone above mentions the sly subversion of stating that eurasian material superiority (or whatever we are to call it) is the result of sleeping near pigs or chickens. I like that.

I’m not an academic, so I don’t have a theoretical axe to grind here. But it seems to me that some of the left wing critics of Diamond are trying too hard to find fault. I thought Diamond’s framing- the source or rise of inequality- was brilliant and much needed. That sets the whole rise of civilization as the rise of inequality. Out here, in my world, that seems a pretty radical way to structure a historical inquiry.

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Ginger Yellow 07.27.05 at 6:43 am

Ozma’s logic seems to be exactly the same logic that argues evolutionary theory leads inevitably (and logically) to social darwinism. All this talk of geographical determinism is remarkably reminiscent of talk of genetic determinism. It should be noted that almost no geneticists, even Dawkins, actually are genetic determinists (as the term is used), and the people who brandish the term tend to have a weak grasp of genetics. Diamond doesn’t address why Eurasians were colonialists because it’s outside his scope. His point is that even if Australian aborigines had the desire to conquer the world, their lack of ocean going vessels and guns would have been a bit of a hindrance. Of course colonialism is a major reason why Europeans in particular did so much conquering, but it scarcely begins to explain why they were in a position to do the conquering in the first place.

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Ozma 07.27.05 at 10:03 am

I’ve made some posts over on _Savage Minds_ that address some of the issues raised here.
Ginger Yellow — it’s a red herring in this conversation, but to suggest most critics of Dawkins have a “weak grasp” of genetics is ridiculous.
It is interesting that evolutionary psychology has started to pop up, however. It is the same form of argumentation that appeals in Diamond’s work: pose an incredibly immediate problem, and then propose an incredibly distal explanation of it. I do always wonder, hmm, what’s the motivation for skipping the middle part, which might be more robustly explanatory? (evo-devo is extremely relevant here, as someone mentioned)
As for Diamond saying hunter gatherers are “smarter” than other human beings; this is not a non-racist statement. It’s like the old saw about the most rabid anti-semites being convinced Jews are hyper-clever.
Okay — I’ll stop, I’m just making random points. Some broader ones are over at our site.

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Ozma 07.27.05 at 10:23 am

I forgot to respond to something Henry said about the group I work with in Bolivia not “causing” an arid climate. Then he sort of caught himself and acknowledged desertification (elsewhere). (as it happens this is not relevant where I work)
but anyway, I think again this is a question of levels. At one level we are all materialists — there is no culture that could ideologically conjure up a continent made of grape jam.
righty-o.

but the point is that JD doesn’t make the general claim that “geography is pre-existent to humanity and broadly enables and constrains the development of human societies”. He instead claims to explain something *very specific* and *very recent* with this enormous broad anterior material cause. Yes, yes, I do question the validity of that form of argumentation. And yes, given the outcome he purports to explain, I think it is not just silly but suspect.

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Henry 07.27.05 at 10:37 am

Caleb – haven’t seen the TV show, so I can’t comment on it, but the book is considerably more subtle in its argument.

Ozma – the point with your group in Bolivia is that it _doesn’t_ serve as a good illustration, by your own description, of the causal complexity that you say it does (another argument, such as manmade desertification might). But the key point that I would like to see you reply to is a defence of your claim examining big causes _necessarily_ rules out the middle ground. It doesn’t. Diamond demonstrably doesn’t do this. You can quarrel with his depiction of the intervening middle range, but he does, quite explicitly include it as part of his story. To reiterate my original point – _why_ do you claim that Diamond-type accounts “help make impossible,” or even improbable, the study of the middle range? I just don’t see that they do.

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Ozma 07.27.05 at 10:48 am

Hi Henry,

All I can do is refer you to my original post at SM, by which I still stand. Unfortunately I’m in the midst of a move and so will not be commenting as often after today, but it might not matter anyway — I feel like I’ve made the same point over and over.

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Pat 07.27.05 at 10:57 am

marc, you rock.

I’ve long thought someone ought to write out a pamphlet or something on exactly that topic.

“A Dummies Guide to Evaluating the Work of Smart People” could be the title. If it weren’t for trademark law, that is.

There are a number of warning signs that make the hackles of any reasonably skeptical person just rise. You’ve listed a few of them.

A nonspecialist may only understand a few of the arguments or claims in the writings of a specialist. But if those are blatantly false, misleading, or are apparently connected not with the specialization of the specialist but rather with a political agenda, that brings into question the authority of the specialist. And that authority is what the nonspecialist relies upon in determining whether to accept the arguments and claims beyond his capacity to personally evaluate.

This is part of a larger issue I’ve been thinking about the past few days. I’ve been considering trying to post something about this on thevalve, since they’ve been discussing Theory and critiques thereof. A lot of the reason that students hate Theory, postmodern humanities and its decendants too numerous to list, and so forth, is because the presentation they receive introducing them to these issues is often fraught with these warning signs. When general principles of deconstruction, which can be explained neutrally and logically, are explained in a context of, say, the more depressing sort of radical feminist deconstructionist writing, the student is faced with a set of arguments which include some extremely difficult to understand jargon about the meaning of texts, and a very easy to understand normative claim about the patriarchal sins of a particular novel that often is relatively innocuous once placed in larger context. The student is liable to dismiss the validity of the jargon without further investigation due to the often clearly ends driven political agenda.

Add in some experientialist philosophy justified by reference to the larger field of Theory and post modern critique, and next thing you know the student has extended their conclusion about the ridiculous nature of theory writ small to Theory writ large across the humanities. And soon after that, the student has ceased studying Theory, and gone off to law school, the land where Theory Shall Not Tread.

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engels 07.27.05 at 11:06 am

As for Diamond saying hunter gatherers are “smarter” than other human beings; this is not a non-racist statement. It’s like the old saw about the most rabid anti-semites being convinced Jews are hyper-clever.

Sorry, but I think this is a very sloppy line of argument. I’ve heard it lots of times but it always strike me as received wisdom. Yes, if someone repeatedly refers to the physical superiority of black people, this could be a way of implying that they are mentally inferior. Equally, calling Jews “clever” could easily have negative implications, according to the old stereotypes: devious, untrustworthy, etc. But it seems to me sloppy and unfair to infer from Diamond’s claim that certain people seem “smarter” than contemporary Westerners that he is a covert racist. (“It’s not a non-racist statement” means “It’s a racist statement”, right?) You should only make these claims if you have a reasoned argument to back them up: invoking an extremely vague analogy with anti-semitism doesn’t do it.

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Henry 07.27.05 at 11:10 am

Ozma – fair enough if you can’t comment further for external reasons, but it seems to me that you haven’t been making the same point so much as you have been making the same claim (and not really supporting it with a rigorous set of arguments/evidence, as Marc notes above).

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Ozma 07.27.05 at 1:01 pm

Engels, we just disagree. Perhaps that does not seem like a racist statement to you; it quite definitely does to me. Are you prepared to explain how attributing a characteristic like superior or inferior intelligence to an entire social group is not racist? I think in this case the burden of reasoned argument is quite definitely on you.

Henry & Marc, I have in fact made a case for why I think GG&S replicates a quasi-racist (because it is not a traditionally racist book, this I will concede) framework in the guise of a non-racist one. You all don’t agree. I don’t have other points to adduce to my case; I think you either agree with me or you don’t. But again, I do think you are so insistent that I *must* be wrong because I’ve suggested finding GG&S persuasive indicates a problem with one’s worldview. If you find GG&S persuasive, then my asserting this is a kind of insult. I take full responsibility for it; I think finding GG&S persuasive *does* indicate a serious problem with one’s worldview.

The difference in our positions is that it’s okay with me that you all don’t agree with me. I think that the GG&S problem is such an overarching problem that learning there are another dozen people out there persuaded by it doesn’t really shake me to the core. But you all seem driven slightly bananas by the fact that I don’t agree with you. “but how can anyone not love this revelatory tome that speaks the truth?” cries the blogosphere. I just don’t. I don’t know how many ways I can say it. I just don’t.

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Walt Pohl 07.27.05 at 1:07 pm

Ozma: It’s not that you don’t like the book; it’s that you a) didn’t really read the book, b) misread the little that you did read, and c) accused everyone who liked the book of racism.

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Henry 07.27.05 at 1:21 pm

Ozma – you’re getting a little silly here. You’ve been challenged – repeatedly – to explain exactly why a book like Diamond’s, which focuses on macro-scale environmental factors and technology, is, in your description, “quasi-racist” and avoiding the real issues. You haven’t as far as I can see, come up with anything that even begins to approximate an argument that might persuade someone who wasn’t already in agreement with you. Instead, you’ve articulated a set of vague dislikes and rather disconnected criticisms. You’ve certainly repeatedly avoided addressing my request for clarification. You don’t seem to want to be pinned down as making a clear set of claims, backed up by arguments and facts, which people can then agree with or disagree with. And frankly, your last comment suggests a rather peculiar idea of what academic debate is supposed to be about. For you, it seems to be about fundamentally incompatible worldviews – you have yours, we have ours, and if you think that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our worldview, there’s nothing that any of us can do about it, except agree to disagree. That isn’t how it’s supposed to work. Academia should involve a commitment to reasoned argument, to adducing of evidence in support of those arguments, and to openness to being persuaded in the case that you are, in fact, wrong in your initial claims. You seem to be mistaking requests that you properly specify your arguments here, and disagreements with such of your arguments as it is possible to discern, for people being “driven slightly bananas by the fact that [you] don’t agree with [them].” That’s very clearly a mischaracterization of what is happening here.

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Ozma 07.27.05 at 1:24 pm

Walt,

As for (a) and (b), nothing I’ve learned from this process has led me to believe my take on the book is mistaken.

As for c, guilty as charged. Not of genetic racism, no. But guilty of what I called in my original post “no-nothing anti-racism”, yes, absoutely.

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Matt McGrattan 07.27.05 at 1:26 pm

“Are you prepared to explain how attributing a characteristic like superior or inferior intelligence to an entire social group is not racist?”

Well, not to nit-pick or anything but saying that a social group may be more intelligent (on some measure of intelligence) than average or than another social group is clearly NOT racist in any way, shape, or form.

If the social group, for example, was ‘Nobel Prize Winners of the World’, or whatever, then it’d be a pretty straightforwardly true claim to make. Social groups can be delimited in all kinds of ways and some social groups are, as a matter of contingent fact, delimited in ways that map on to differences in intellectual abilities of some kind or another.

Saying that one racial group is more or less intelligent than another for innate reasons to do with their racial origin, on the other hand would be racist.

If someone like Diamond was to allege, for example, that hunter-gathers tend, on the whole, to have better memories, be more observant of their environment, show greater ingenuity in solving certain classes of problems etc this would only be a racially suspect claim if he was alleging that this was because of some intrinsic difference between members of that racial group and others.

If on the other hand he was claiming that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle necessarily required the development of certain intellectual tools then I don’t see where the problem would be.

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engels 07.27.05 at 1:38 pm

Are you prepared to explain how attributing a characteristic like superior or inferior intelligence to an entire social group is not racist?

If intelligence is well-defined, then so is average intelligence of a group. Drawing this strictly mathematical inference does not make anyone a racist. However, the concept may be scientifically useless and it may be used for racist purposes. Diamond, though, was using it for an anti-racist purpose: in the passage in which he makes this claim he is arguing against the racist idea that Europeans got where they are because they are more intelligent. So no, he was not being racist, quite the opposite.

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engels 07.27.05 at 1:59 pm

Also, there seems to be an inconsistency now in what you are saying. You said you were only accusing Diamond of “no-nothing” racism, not “genetic racism”. But if you are saying that Diamond’s claims about the apparent intelligence of the hunter gatherers he encountered are racist, surely this is a charge of “genetic” racism (and of a rather obscure “Non-White Supremacist” variety)?

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Walt Pohl 07.27.05 at 2:09 pm

If you really agree with (c), then how you can you say this: ‘But you all seem driven slightly bananas by the fact that I don’t agree with you. “but how can anyone not love this revelatory tome that speaks the truth?” cries the blogosphere. I just don’t. I don’t know how many ways I can say it. I just don’t.’

No one is being driven slightly bananas by the fact that you don’t agree with them. They are being driven slightly bananas by the fact that you’ve accused them of “no-nothing anti-racism”, which you have described in perjorative tones. Why pretend to be surprised by the reaction?

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Marc 07.27.05 at 3:00 pm

Pat: thanks much. Your comments on theory struck a chord with me. It reminded me of an article, which I think was in Physics Today, about the problem of jargon in scientific writing. They had a nice example of a writing style that they described as designed to make the reader feel badly about themselves. In such a style there are a lot of technical words strung together with abandon. Individually they make sense. Collectively, however, they do not. And upon careful reading this is the fault of the author, not the reader.

Obscure words are sometimes required for precision, but there are some places where they can be used instead as a sort of code to keep the unwashed at a distance. I’m interested in understanding critical theory – the concept is an interesting one. But I have never been able to get past that initial hurdle, including the admixtures you describe so well. Would there be any lay-accessible readings that you could recommend?

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Kerim Friedman 07.27.05 at 3:58 pm

I wanted to point out that my discussion with De Long has been continuing in the comments to this post, as well as links to posts on other sites.

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Pat 07.27.05 at 4:14 pm

I’m not the best person to ask, I’m the student I described who looks at Theory, sees all the warning signs he remembers from looking at pseudoscience and politicized nonsense, then runs away to law school.

Of course, once in law school, I spent the past 2 years studying textual interpretation. And the more down to earth “its just a job, don’t make it hard on yourself” atmosphere let me learn enough that I now have a much better grasp of Critical Theory, which, while different, is still about interpreting a text.

So, I haven’t got a good, accessible reading. Its also a very large topic, so I’m not sure that just one reading could cover it.

In its most simple form, deconstruction (which is not the entirety of critical theory) is just the idea that you can figure out hidden assumptions of an author by analyzing a text closely. So, you could argue that a particular war movie was really a crypto-fascist piece, because it designs a fictional universe in which acts of violence and savagery are always rewarded, pacifists are always weak and wrong, and the brave and unthinking are always noble and right. This type of deconstruction is, I have found, easy to do as a lay person. If you’ve ever watched an action tv show and thought, “great, the black guy died first AGAIN, I wonder what that says about the writers” you’ve done this. Step two is questioning those assumptions.

Theory usually gets weird when people start talking about what they’ve discovered by use of Theory, and what should be done about it. I think this is really a separate issue, and its the grouping together of the two that makes theory so obnoxious as practiced. Its the difference between advocating evolutionary biology, and social darwinism.

Really, people like Derrida put that all into one thing and called it “deconstruction.” But I think its clear that its separate. For example, I like doing the part of deconstruction I listed above, but if you read the wiki entry you’ll see a discussion of Derrida’s technique for the deconstruction of binary oppositions: I think his critique is ridiculous in its normative claim that one ought to overprivilege historically underprivileged concepts in order to change society. I think deconstruction exists more comfortably when it merely describes, and then lets people reach their own conclusions about morality, rather than trying to create a belief system.

Ach, I’m writing too much in the wrong forum. Read the wiki, its useful, and hopefully someone else will come along with a good article.

If someone sees your post and suggests a good text to you, let me know.

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soru 07.27.05 at 5:20 pm

_Are you prepared to explain how attributing a characteristic like superior or inferior intelligence to an entire social group is not racist?_

Isn’t the obvious explanation for this class rather than race?

In a hunter-gatherer society, the people who would, in California, be trial lawyers or biophysicists are, presumably, hunters. Wheras the people who would be lumpenproles are probably dead.

JD, coming from a hierarchical classist society, was just surprised to meet a member of his own class in an unexpected social role.

More or less the same reason the Ghurkas have their reputation as soldiers.

soru

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seth edenbaum 07.27.05 at 10:49 pm

I’m not sure if anyone else has said this since I lost patience and skipped the last third of the comments, but the problem seems to me to be that the anthropologists at ‘Savage Minds’ as part of their jobs are obliged to sit and talk for long periods of time with grown men and women- not teenagers- with rings through their noses and planks in their lips; and that quite logically, almost necessarily, they become quite fond of these people. DeLong is a condescending ass and the anthro-types don’t like their friends being treated with such disrespect.

Details of specific arguments may be wrong – I’m speaking of Kerim and Ozma The Terrible- but in the larger arena the anthros are correct to see a problem: Why the arrogance? What are the implications? What is DeLong taking for granted?
(much too much).
DeLong like most economists is an intellectual primative.
The folks at Savage Minds are not.
I’m drunk
good night

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Hobes 07.27.05 at 11:42 pm

Who is the real racist?

The implication of Ozma’s argurment, at least as I see it, is that if the middle has some explanitory power, then it must be true if a different set of people had the advantages of europeans they would have acted differently.

Essentially, if the south americans, or some other savages they seem to think are so noble, had cows, hourses and pigs, they being so enlightend would not have enslaved them. (Ozma directly makes this argument)
Furthermore, if they did make the beasts work and increased thier wealth and developed technologically, they still wouldn’t have tried to colonize the rest of the world.

The implication is something about western culture, capitalism, (which really didn’t exist in the 16th centry), whatever is inherently evil and wrong. That the domination of the west sparks from its cultural depravity. The west is evil, people in small societies with lip-plates are good.

This is foolish, great empires rose and fell in the americas long before cortez. War was known and empire prized. The same in Africa. Any large difference in power creates oppertunity for imperialism, essentially this is a question of whether conquest and colonialism were crimes of oppertunity or the result of a particularly evil society that gained power. This is a falsifible claim and I think the history of africa and the americas before european arrival would tend let the west off way eaiser then Jarred Diamond could ever hope too.

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Luke Weiger 07.28.05 at 12:46 am

Brad has a penchant for eviscerating folks who are stupid and/or blinded by dogma. Ozma’s just the latest recipient of a well-deserved intellectual gutting.

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Cog 07.28.05 at 3:12 am

I just want to clarify re: eb’s quote from GGS above: this quote appears in the epilogue of the book, and is not central at all to Diamond’s main argument.

Also, Diamond presents his only thoughts on the divergent post-1500 paths of Europe and East Asia as tentative hypotheses, also in the book’s epilogue. IMO he made very clear that these ideas were speculative, and that the work of other scholars will have more to say on this subject than GGS does.

Diamond may have committed the authorial sin of engaging in some grandiose and ill-founded speculation in the epilogue of his book, but we should be wary of condemning the book’s central premises based on the epilogue’s relatively tangential musings.

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soru 07.28.05 at 4:08 am

anthropologists at ‘Savage Minds’ as part of their jobs are obliged to sit and talk for long periods of time with grown men and women- not teenagers- with rings through their noses and planks in their lips

Am I right in saying that the implication of this is that the point is more one of ‘professional ethics’ than objective fact?

If a good lawyer always considers their client to be innocent, a good anthropologist always considers the kind of things that can be found out by anthropological techniques to be interesting and important.

soru

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david 07.28.05 at 7:07 am

Delong is certainly not stupid, but he has been known to be blinded by dogma, as he was in this case.

And Diamond seems to elicit weird acritical devotion in people who are normally willing to take the good with the bad in a book. Must be a nice power to have.

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Henry 07.28.05 at 7:47 am

Given how this and parallel conversations have gone, one might prefer to say that Diamond seems to elicit weird accusations of racism from people who are normally willing to take the good with the bad in a book. Of which the latest example is the “Frog in a Well”:http://www.froginawell.net/japan/?p=106 post above. This is not the way in which smart cultural anthropologists should be arguing (or in my past experience, have argued). There’s something strange going on.

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seth edenbaum 07.28.05 at 8:31 am

DeLong is an economist and uses one measure of behavior. That form is not money itself nor even number but a form of reasoning based on desire. As I’ve mentioned before, somewhere or other he admits that Scandenavia is a puzzle to economists. I suppose he means it is a puzzle in the way tribes in the Highlands of PNG are a puzzle: “Why do they do such strange things?” But we do not speak of Swedes as we speak of aboriginals.

“Am I right in saying that the implication of this is that the point is more one of ‘professional ethics’ than objective fact?”

I’m not in a position to judge GGS. But I wonder at people who describe the lives of others in the language of determinism.

The attack on GGS may have been intellectually sloppy but that doesn’t make it wrong; just as economic thinking being vulgar and simplistic doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

Still I look foreward to the day when Brad DeLong looks at himself in the mirror and asks: “Why do I do such strange things?”

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Brad DeLong 07.28.05 at 10:30 am

Re: “DeLong is an economist and uses one measure of behavior. That form is not money itself nor even number but a form of reasoning based on desire. As I’ve mentioned before, somewhere or other he admits that Scandenavia is a puzzle to economists. I suppose he means it is a puzzle in the way tribes in the Highlands of PNG are a puzzle: “Why do they do such strange things?” But we do not speak of Swedes as we speak of aboriginals.”

But Highland New Guinea is not a puzzle: the people there have a comprehensible culture and act in comprehensible ways. Scandinavia is different: what we think we know about the limits of reciprocal altruism and how it doesn’t scale indefinitely… Scandinavia appears to provide a counterexample.

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seth edenbaum 07.28.05 at 12:05 pm

You seem to think the Scandinavian model is one of freely chosen reciprocal altruism. I don’t think such a thing exists, in Sweden of New Guinea.

Anthropologists don’t think anyone is ever ‘free’ of culture.
There is no such thing as context free value and numbers are not a value. The teleological fantasies of scientists are not science. Steven Weinberg’s defense of supercolliders is not science. And from what little I’ve read of Diamond, he seems naive as regards culture, ours or anyone’s, and policy.

I’m sounding a bit like like Larry King talking about books I haven’t read but I’m talking more about the argument over the book than the book itself.

There’s a difference between a correct observation and the meanings that are applied to color it. What is the teleology behind GGS? What are the values that it seems to hold? What are the values Diamond claims for it?

Maybe some of the people at savage minds got a little impatient. I sympathize.

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Brad DeLong 07.28.05 at 12:33 pm

Re: “You seem to think the Scandinavian model is one of freely chosen reciprocal altruism.”

No I don’t.

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Steve LaBonne 07.28.05 at 12:34 pm

What is the teleology behind GGS? What are the values that it seems to hold? What are the values Diamond claims for it?

Sensible people might prefer to read the book themselves and see what they think about that rather than discussing it without having read it…

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seth edenbaum 07.28.05 at 12:45 pm

Steve, I’m asking a question to those on either side of the argument. There seems to be a bit of a disconnect, and that’s all I’m trying to resolve. I’m in no position to answer that question myself, and won’t pretend otherwise.

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Steve LaBonne 07.28.05 at 12:58 pm

Well my answer is, I read a book like that by asking how well the author’s facts support his conclusions (suggestive but much additional work needed, would be my answer). I couldn’t care less what “values” prompted him to write it even if I could be persuaded they were objectionable ones, any more than I’ll give up listening to Wagner’s music because I can’t abide his values. I’m an unimaginative old-fashioned old fart of a scientist, what can I say. ;)

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seth edenbaum 07.28.05 at 1:02 pm

Your’re a scientist, therefore, you’re not interrested in values…

game over

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Steve LaBonne 07.28.05 at 1:06 pm

Nice straw man there, seth. Speaking of game over…
Surely you grasp the concept of judging a piece of intellectual work by its quality rather than the motives of its maker. Have we gotten so postmodern that such a thing no longer matters? Solid work can readily be used for purposes remote from those of its maker, shoddy work has no use.

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seth edenbaum 07.28.05 at 1:28 pm

You’re talking about numbers and I’m talking about language. You’re talking about physics and I’m talking policy. Again, there’s a disconnect. I’m aware of it, are you?

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Steve LaBonne 07.28.05 at 1:33 pm

You’re talking about what IMHO is one the later questions, rather than the first, that one should ask of a book of this kind. Moreover, you’re attempting to do so without even having read it. Do you just like to argue for the sake of being argumentative? You might better use the time to… read the book, for example.

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seth edenbaum 07.28.05 at 2:02 pm

I’m not arguing with the book, I’m arguing with you as to whether such questions are important. Kerim et al. are discussing the framing of the issues.
It’s not a question about whether cars run on gasoline or prayers, but the implications of the preference for cars over mass transit. I don’t read Car and Driver or Scientific American for discussions of social policy.

And to really appreciate Wagner is to have a taste for a sort of overblown, drunken rhetoric of power, to want to see meaning rather than meaninglessness in absurdity. it’s all very problematic, but even fascism is good for you in moderation: it keeps you on your toes. I drink for the same reason, but I don’t drink and drive and I sing Wagner in the shower not the voting booth.

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Steve LaBonne 07.28.05 at 2:08 pm

No, compared to whether Diamond is on the right track or not, they’re not important questions, or much less important. Even the decision about cars vs. mass transit needs to be informed by, say, accurate figures for energy usage. One of my favorite environmental examples, indeed, is the use of styrofoam cups vs. washing reusable cups, which as it turns out can easily consume more energy to heat the water than it takes to manfacture the disposable ones. Blathering about values before making sure of one’s facts (Quine be damned) is a waste of breath, or electrons. Read the damn book and see what you think about it.

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eb 07.28.05 at 2:23 pm

I just want to clarify re: eb’s quote from GGS above: this quote appears in the epilogue of the book, and is not central at all to Diamond’s main argument.

Diamond may have committed the authorial sin of engaging in some grandiose and ill-founded speculation in the epilogue of his book, but we should be wary of condemning the book’s central premises based on the epilogue’s relatively tangential musings.

Agreed, although I’d susbtitute “did” for “may have.” Arguments against the points in the epilogue for the most part do not damage the central arguments of the rest of the book. But that doesn’t mean that they should not be engaged with either, simply because of where they appear.

Now, I’m not at all convinced by the critiques at Savage Minds, and like Henry I don’t quite understand why there’s so much focus on examining Diamond’s supposed racism. My point in reproducing that excerpt was to give an example of the kind of language people seem to be responding to. Because like everyone else, I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on.

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seth edenbaum 07.28.05 at 2:30 pm

I think I made a mistake comparing Scientific American to Car and Driver. Live and learn.

However:

“History gives the Japanese and the Koreans ample grounds for mutual distrust and contempt, so any conclusion confirming their close relationship is likely to be unpopular among both peoples. Like Arabs and Jews, Koreans and Japanese are joined by blood yet locked in traditional enmity. But enmity is mutually destructive, in East Asia as in the Middle East. As reluctant as Japanese and Koreans are to admit it, they are like twin brothers who shared their formative years. The political future of East Asia depends in large part on their success in rediscovering those ancient bonds between them.”

That’s not science, and it’s silly.

I’ll put the book on my list. Right now I’m reading Edmund Burke and then I’ve promised myself I’d finish The Charterhouse of Parma. If nothing else comes my way after that I’ll pick it up.

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Steve LaBonne 07.28.05 at 3:40 pm

You might also want to take a look at comment #8 on the new “Cultivating Ignorance” thread, which says more or less what I was trying to convey, only much better.

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seth edenbaum 07.28.05 at 5:18 pm

Clifford Geertz on Jared Diamond:
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17850

And i just read the short piece from Reader’s Digest or wherever and was not impressed. You seem to like things neat and tidy but I don’t think that’s the way the world works.
(But 1+1 does equal 2, cars do run on gasoline and planes fly without magic.)

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