Diamond’s Vengeance

by Jon Mandle on May 19, 2009

Around four years ago, there was some controversy about Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (and, I gather, a PBS documentary based on the book). Various bloggers at savageminds.org – a group anthropology blog – for example, here and here and elsewhere – attacked Diamond for various reasons, up to and including calling him racist. Brad DeLong replied by accusing the critics of being “positively green with envy at Jared Diamond’s ability to make interesting arguments in a striking and comprehensible way, and also remarkably incompetent at critique.” Henry discussed the flap here, here, and here, writing: “I strongly suspect that the ‘Diamond=racist’ claim is a more-or-less pure exercise in boundary maintenance – I certainly haven’t seen any substantial counter-evidence to date. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a real, substantive argument to be had between different ways of knowing, or that there aren’t advantages to anthropological approaches which can’t be captured in a big, sweeping structuralist account like Diamond’s.” And he linked to Tim Burke, who here and here offered a critique of Diamond that was more – shall we say – nuanced (and interesting!) than the one at savageminds.org.

Now there’s a new controversy. About a year ago, Diamond published an article in the New Yorker called “Vengeance Is Ours.” Abstract is here – full text available to subscribers only (I think) from that link.

In it, Diamond recounts a story told to him by Daniel Wemp, who served as Diamond’s driver when Diamond was doing environmental field work – recording bird songs – in Papua New Guinea in 2001-2002. The story begins when Wemp’s uncle was “killed in a battle against the neighboring Ombal clan.” Diamond tells us that in Papua New Guinea, “traditional methods of dispute resolution still coexisit uneasily with the methods of state government,” and under these traditional methods (which Diamond surveys), it fell to Wemp to exact vengeance for the death of his uncle. Eventually – I’m cutting to the chase, ignoring many of the controversial details – Diamond quotes Wemp saying that Henep Isum, who was the target of Wemp’s vengeance, was hit by an arrow which “cut his spinal cord. That’s even better than killing him, because he’s now still alive today, eleven years later, paralyzed in a wheelchair, and maybe he’ll live for another ten years. People will see his constant suffering.” Diamond reports that Wemp’s attitude toward this was “unapologetically positive: a mixture of exhilaration and pleasure in expressing aggression.”

Then, there’s this exchange, which Diamond reports has “haunted me ever since”:

I asked Daniel why, on learning of Soll’s death, he hadn’t saved himself all the effort and expense, and just asked the police to arrest Isum. “If I had let the police do it, I wouldn’t have felt satisfaction, he replied. ‘I wanted to obtain vengeance myself, even if it were to cost me my own life. I had to ask myself, how could I live through my anger over Soll’s death for the rest of my life? The answer was that the best way to deal with my anger was to exact the vengeance myself.”

Unfortunately, it turns out that much of the story is demonstrably false, and Daniel Wemp is suing Diamond for $10 million. The critique is led by stinkyjournalism.org. Their information about the case is here. And here’s an article about the case from The Australian, which includes a link to a very detailed letter sent to the New Yorker by a Ph.D. student in law who is apparently serving as Wemp’s adviser.

From the outside – far outside – it looks to me as though Diamond was at a bare minimum awfully sloppy and possibly worse. But it’s not hard to imagine the possibility that as they drove through the highlands of Papua New Guinea, Daniel Wemp told some tall tales for his foreign visitor, not realizing that his stories would form the basis of a New Yorker article. Speculating wildly, it may be that Diamond was overly eager to believe the tall tales that Wemp presented because they resonated so deeply with another, more personal story. At the end of the article, immediately after reported the “haunting” conversation, Diamond tells us about the other story through which he “came to appreciate the terrible personal price that law-abiding citizens pay for leaving vengeance to the state.”

The story is of his father-in-law, a Polish Jew who fought against the Soviet invasion in 1939, was captured and sent to a concentration camp in Siberia, then fought in the Polish division of the Red Army. In 1945, he took a platoon to his village in Poland to try to find what had happened to his family. It turned out that his mother, his sister, and his niece had remained hidden for two years before being discovered and shot. He was told who the killer was, and was prepared to kill him, but he held his fire, thinking to himself, “This man behaved like an animal, but I don’t want to become an animal myself by shooting him.” Instead, he turned the killer over to the police, who “imprisoned the murderer, investigated – and then, after about a year, released him.” Diamond reports: “Until his own death, nearly sixty years after the murder of his parents and his release of his mother’s killer, Jozef remained tormented by regret and guilt – guilt that he had not been able to protect his parents, and regret that he had failed in his responsibility to take vengeance. That was the responsibility that Daniel had satisfied, and the terrible burden that Daniel had spared himself, by personally orchestrating the shooting of Isum.”

What Diamond’s father-in-law went through is horrific. But it’s hard to know exactly what lesson Diamond wants us to draw from it or from Wemp’s story. The subtitle of the article is, “What can tribal societies teach us about the need to get even?” After re-reading the article, I still don’t know exactly what Diamond thinks that we should learn. The closest he gets to an explicit answer is this: “while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discouraged, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged.” What does Diamond mean by “acknowledging” our vengeful feelings? The closest he comes to a practical recommendation is this: “Many state governments do attempt to grant the relatives of crime victims some personal satisfaction, by allowing them to be present at the trial of the accused, and, in some cases, to address the judge or jury, or even to watch the execution of their loved one’s murderer.” Personally, I have mixed feelings about this practice. But in the age of “suck on this” celebrations of personal vengeance seem less than compelling.

To me, these stories illustrate the great importance of having an effective system of law. Diamond doesn’t say – and probably doesn’t know – why the Polish police released Jozef’s family’s killers. Perhaps they – or witnesses – thought the killing of a few Jewish women wasn’t a big deal. Perhaps it was bureaucratic bungling during the early stages of the reconstruction of Poland. Or perhaps it’s just possible that there wasn’t any admissible evidence against the accused. Here’s how Jozef had identified them:

Jozef demanded that the villagers bring him the man who had led the gang of killers. Initially, they refused or professed ignorance. At that point, Jozef and his men rounded them all up and he told them, ‘If you don’t bring me the man within one hour, I will shoot every fourth person among you.’ From the expression on Jozef’s face, the villagers saw that he meant it, and they brought him the man.”

Well, they brought him a man, and it might have been the man. But Jozef was right not to shoot him.

I’ll give the last word on the subject to Nietzsche (Genealogy II.11.4):

From a historical point of view, law represents on earth … the struggle against the reactive feelings, the war conducted against them on the part of the active and aggressive powers who employed some of their strength to impose measure and bounds upon the excesses of the reactive pathos and to compel it to come to terms. Wherever justice is practiced and maintained one sees a stronger power seeking a means of putting an end to the senseless raging of ressentiment among the weaker powers that stand under it (whether they be groups or individuals) – partly by taking the object of ressentiment out of the hands of revenge, partly by substituting for revenge the struggle against the enemies of peace and order, partly by devising and in some cases imposing settlements, partly by elevating certain equivalents for injuries into norms to which from then on ressentiment is once and for all directed. The most decisive act, however, that the supreme power performs and accomplishes against the predominance of grudges and rancor – it always takes this action as soon as it is in any way strong enough to do so – is the institution of law, the imperative declaration of what in general counts as permitted, as just, in its eyes, and what counts as forbidden, as unjust: once it has instituted the law, it treats violence and capricious acts on the part of individuals or entire groups as offenses against the law, as rebellion against the supreme power itself, and thus lead the feelings of its subjects away from the direct injury caused by such offenses; and in the long run it thus attains the very reverse of that which is desired by all revenge that is fastened exclusively to the viewpoint of the person injured: from now on the eye is trained to an ever more impersonal evaluation of the deed, and this applies even to the eye of the injured person himself (although last of all, as remarked above).

{ 293 comments }

1

giotto 05.19.09 at 11:30 pm

“…it may be that Diamond was overly eager to believe the tall tales that Wemp presented because they resonated so deeply with another, more personal story.

Well, such tales also resonate deeply with long and deeply held stereotypes about how savage are all those savages off in the savage lands. Can you imagine Diamond hearing that story in, say, Minnesota, and accepting it without question? I’m willing to believe that Diamond is not a racist, but it would be much easier to do so if he would stop quacking like a duck.

2

rea 05.19.09 at 11:41 pm

Can you imagine Diamond hearing that story in, say, Minnesota, and accepting it without question

It would not surprise me in the least if such a thing happened in Minnesota, except maybe for the use of a bow and arrow. Vengeance is a rather common motive for murder.

3

Kieran Healy 05.19.09 at 11:55 pm

OW at scatterplot had a good summary recently.

4

notsneaky 05.20.09 at 12:30 am

“why the Polish police released Jozef’s family’s killers. Perhaps they – or witnesses – thought the killing of a few Jewish women wasn’t a big deal. Perhaps it was bureaucratic bungling during the early stages of the reconstruction of Poland. Or perhaps it’s just possible that there wasn’t any admissible evidence against the accused.”

It might’ve been bureaucratic bungling. But it could’ve also been something else. While lots of Poles, like Józef, fought alongside the Red Army simply to fight against the Nazis and throw them out of Poland (both my grandfathers did, though they were also in the Home Army) overall the communists that were installed in Poland had no strong base of support. While there were plenty willing to volunteer for fighting the Germans alongside the Krasnoarmiejcy and even, initially at least, for the milicja (regular police force), there was very few people who were willing to sign up for the dirty work in the security services (which did involve torturing and killing many innocent people). As a result the Commies took whoever they could. Basically that consisted of four kinds of people; fanatics, sadists, opportunists and those compromised in some way. That “some way” usually meant having collaborated with the Nazis or have done some really awful things during the occupation. The communists gave those people the choice – join us and profit or we’ll try you for collaboration. Since the groups “sadists” and “compromised” and even “opportunists” had a lot of overlap, for obvious reasons, these people joined wholesale.
So in the end a good chunk of communist party members, particularly those doing the real dirty work, ended up being former … “fascists” (or fascist collaborators) . And ironically enough they were the ones mostly in charge of prosecuting those accused of fascism that actually spent the previous six years fighting it.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what had actually happened to the murderer of Diamond’s father-in-law’s family.

Totalitarian regimes always rely on these kind of people. Most of the Cheka was made up of former Ochrana personnel.

5

Bloix 05.20.09 at 12:34 am

If you’ve read GGS, you know that he does not articulate those “long and deeply held stereotypes” about “savages.” To the contrary, the origin of the book is his conclusion, based on observation, that modern stone age people like those of Papua New Guinea tend to be “more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is.” He wrote GGS in order to explain this apparent paradox.

6

giotto 05.20.09 at 12:34 am

It would not surprise me in the least if such a thing happened in Minnesota, except maybe for the use of a bow and arrow. Vengeance is a rather common motive for murder.

The question is not whether it would happen in Minnesota; the question is whether Diamond would run with the story without further evidence supporting its veracity. Or would he just believe the tale, because, after all, that is just how those people are on the northern plains, what with their running corpses through wood chippers and all.

But you’re right about the bow and arrow; probably a compound crossbow in mossy oak.

7

notsneaky 05.20.09 at 12:52 am

Also agree with rea. Don’t know about such stories in Minnesota but definitely heard them in Mississippi. And yes, believed them. A little bit of introspection also suggests that if placed in similar circumstances I really don’t know whether I’d be like Daniel or like Jozef.

Whatever the truth of the anecdote, Diamond’s obviously saying that the desire for vengeance (somewhere someone called it “the only true justice”) is universal and present among the people of PNG as it is among Minnisotans. The difference is that in the latter, a particular type of a social institution prevents the expression of this desire, although it occasionally will do it for you (well, maybe in Texas).

8

Witt 05.20.09 at 1:53 am

Giotto gets it right. It’s not about whether a story like this could have happened in Minnesota or Missisippi, or even whether you or I would believe it if it did. It’s whether a US journalist writing for a major national magazine would accept it uncritically enough to publish it, and whether his editors and fact-checkers would let it pass.

I’m willing to believe that if they did, the murderer would be a member of an ethnic minority or other marginalized group, unlikely to take financial or reputational vengeance on the New Yorker.

I haven’t read GGS and have no dog in that fight. But yes, this story as it currently stands is one big quack.

9

chrismealy 05.20.09 at 2:02 am

Once of the few things I remember from my time as an anthro major is how easy it is to screw with an anthropologist. For example, there’s the famous case of Chagnon dutifully recording kinship data for months, only to find that he’d been told names like “hairy cunt” and “eagle shit.” The ability to bullshit suckers and then sue them for millions is a new twist on the subject/object relation.

Or maybe Diamond is just full of shit. Anyway, he didn’t need to go to PNG to find altruistic punishment. It’s right there in the ultimatum game.

10

jim 05.20.09 at 2:14 am

I worked for a few years in PNG and spent some time in the Tari-Nipa-Kutubu area where these events were supposed to have taken place. I read the Diamond article when it appeared and it looked like a fairly plausible story. But if you follow the link to the PhD student’s letter, that letter is written by someone who knows what he’s talking about and isn’t exaggerating (and it’s an interesting read). So it looks like some sloppy work from Diamond (of whom I’m a fan).

I think one spot where Diamond looks particularly contrived is where Wemp explores the different options available to him – ‘vengeance’ or the state criminal justice system. The justice system is non-existent in that part of the world. Southern Highlands province is, in size, about as big as Massachussetts, with a population of 600,000, widely spread over incredibly rugged terrain, and only a few passable roads (def 4wd only). When I was there the police had, charitably, about 200 officers, with few vehicles and little funding (including for fuel). There are no modern communications. The court system is underfunded and most courts had backlogs of cases running back five years or more.

I think that puts a different slant on the propensity of highlands tribes (generalising a bit here, there’s a lot of diversity) to engage in tit-for-tat killings. Before the modern state people needed some way of holding each other to account for misdeeds, and until the state has real resources and capacity (which is a whole ‘nother story) they’ll go on using the traditional systems. People I met who had engaged in tribal fighting generally would have preferred to use a modern justice system, but that’s not on the menu.

11

Doug M. 05.20.09 at 2:31 am

Jon, you’re suggesting that Diamond’s New Guinea vengeance story may have been influenced by his Polish vengeance story.

But, um… given that the second story turns out to have been completely untrue, why should we believe what he says about the first one?

Really. Seriously. If he lied (embroidered, was very very sloppy, whatever) with one story, why not the other? Is there any other account of the Polish story, or is it all Diamond? and if the latter, isn’t his account of what an elderly relative told him about something that happened three generations ago on another continent *less* reliable than his account of what his driver told him happened recently and nearby?

Doug M.

12

herr doktor bimler 05.20.09 at 2:41 am

“Many state governments do attempt to grant the relatives of crime victims some personal satisfaction, by allowing them to be present at the trial of the accused, and, in some cases, to address the judge or jury, or even to watch the execution of their loved one’s murderer.”

Is there any evidence that this works?
One of the most bizarre news reports I ever experienced came after the execution of some US murderer, and consisted of a reporter sticking a microphone in the face of a victim’s relative to ask if she “felt closure” after watching the execution. The answer was No, and the relative complained of feeling, if anything, more distressed than she had been before. A whole body of received opinion had led her to believe that the vicarious vengeance would Give Her Closure, and Heal the Trauma and so on — hence the disappointment.

The sooner the word ‘closure’ is returned to literary theory, the happier I will be.

13

musical mountaineer 05.20.09 at 2:55 am

I haven’t read GGS and have no dog in that fight. But yes, this story as it currently stands is one big quack.

I’ve read it. It’s almost annoyingly anti-racist. To begin with, the entire theme and justification of the book is to show that cultural differences (especially differences in technological progress) result from environment and not race. The annoyance results from Diamond’s repeated insistence that it is not racist to ask such questions as “why did Spaniards have steel, and Incas did not?”

Perhaps he protests too much. But reading some of these comments, I can see why Diamond felt these apologies were necessary. Some people see racism in everything! What if, instead of being too credulous about this revenge tale (which supposedly shows his willingness to regard other cultures as savage), Diamond had been skeptical, investigated, and found the story to be false. Why, those macho-posturing, mendacious savages!

14

Doug M. 05.20.09 at 3:03 am

N.B., there are other instances in Diamond’s writing of him embroidering anecdotes for dramatic effect.

To give a single example, in _Third Chimpanzee_ he makes a dramatic claim about false paternity rates… that turns out to be completely unsupportable and almost certainly bogus. To be specific, Diamond cites a false paternity rate that’s likely in double digits (“5 to 30 percent”) based on two cases — an unpublished 1940s study of blood groups in babies, and later anecdotal evidence from “several studies that did get published” suggests this is typical, and goes on to spin an airy castle of evo-devo supposition thereon. Unfortunately, the unpublished study turned out to be completely unavailable, while the “several” published studies don’t seem to have existed. Basically, he seems to have been flying on anecdotes and half-remembered studies that he hadn’t read very carefully.

(In case you’re interested, the modest literature on “nonpaternity” rates suggests that false paternity rates in modern Western societies may float around 2%. Still perhaps a bit high for our male readers, but far below Diamond’s “5% to 30%”. See, e.g.:

Kermyt G. Anderson, Department of Anthropology, University of Oklahoma,”How well does paternity confidence match actual paternity? Evidence from worldwide nonpaternity rates”
http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/504167

and also

Professor Michael Gilding, Director of the Australian Centre for Emerging Technologies and Society, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, “Rampant Misattributed Paternity: the Creation of an Urban Myth”, People and Place, vol 13, no 2, 2005)

So. While this is much, much milder than the Vengeance anecdote, it’s the same sort of thing. And he’s been doing it for quite a while now.

Doug M.

15

Shawn Crowley 05.20.09 at 3:15 am

Amen to herr doktor bimler. If I had known that “closure” was going to become such a standard media meme I’d have taken notes on its spread over the past 5 or so years.

I suspect that many crime victims state their need for closure simply because they have seen so many others on television make the same statement and are living up to media expectations.

If anyone has any actual data on crime victims and closure (particularly in death penalty cases) I’d love to know of it. Prosecutors here in the US routinely make a pitch for death to provide closure to victim’s families.

16

Witt 05.20.09 at 3:23 am

If anyone has any actual data on crime victims and closure (particularly in death penalty cases) I’d love to know of it. Prosecutors here in the US routinely make a pitch for death to provide closure to victim’s families.

The nonprofit Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights has a page of Victim Stories on their website. It begins:

Victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty come to that opposition from a variety of experiences and beliefs, but all challenge the common assumption that anyone who has lost a family member to murder is in favor of capital punishment. All challenge the notion that executions are the way to achieve justice or closure for the family that murder leaves behind.

17

Jake 05.20.09 at 3:26 am

But, um… given that the second story turns out to have been completely untrue, why should we believe what he says about the first one?

Isn’t it a bit premature to say that the second story turns out to be completely untrue?

On the one side, we have Jared Diamond, a known writer of popular anthropology. He is the target of some grudges from “real” anthropologists, but these appear to be largely political or professional. If forced, most would say that he simplifies stuff too much but is basically honest.

In the middle, we have Daniel Wemb. Diamond says that Wemb drove him around in Papua New Guinea to look at birds, and while doing so passed along tales of vengeance from the Handa region.

On the other side, we have Mako Kuwimb, a Ph.D. student who comes from the Handa region. He needs to publish a paper to finish his Ph.D., but the draft comes back from the referees with a note that says “this Diamond guy said a bunch of stuff that contradicts your thesis. You didn’t mention his work. Is writing about your home region biasing you?”

Kuwimb then goes and finds Wemb, presumably asks him what the hell he told Diamond and berates him for making their people look bad, says that he has to tell the New Yorker that Diamond made it all up, and then goes off to save his paper by discrediting Diamond’s article. Lawsuits follow, and hilarity ensues.

It looks like there’s probably a decent case to be made that Diamond, like so many anthropologists before him, got snookered by his subject. The defamation lawsuit is going nowhere (should have filed in Australia), the notoriety will probably let Kuwimb get his Ph.D., and Diamond will probably sell a few more books.

18

herr doktor bimler 05.20.09 at 3:42 am

From what I remember of GGS, much of the argumentation follows the general form:
“One reason why cultures in continent X lagged behind Eurasia in material culture is that no animals were available for them to domesticate. The absence of any such animals is shown by their failure to domesticate any.”

Prosecutors here in the US routinely make a pitch for death to provide closure to victim’s families.

“Cherish no apprehension on that score,” replied the far-seeing Wong Tsoi capably. “In cases of absolute wrong-doing it is impossible for even the least experienced official to deviate from the iron rule of conduct. Cause and effect; effect and cause: these two facets of an integral system corollarate with absolute precision. Two persons having committed a Category One crime, two persons will automatically suffer a Category One punishment, and the Essential Equipoise of justice ill thereby be painlessly maintained.”

“It is what the scrupulous would look for,” assented Chun.

“It is what they will inevitably see,” replied Wong Tsoi. “Should your leisurely footsteps chance to turn in the direction of the public execution ground on the occasion of the next general felicity, your discriminating eyes will receive assurance that the feet of the depraved find no resting-place on the upright soil of Hoo-yang.”

“It is indeed a matter of rejoicing that your penetrating gaze recognised the degraded miscreants who will thus be brought to an appropriate end.”

A faint absence of agreement for the moment obscured the well-balanced exactness of the law-giver’s expression.

19

musical mountaineer 05.20.09 at 3:58 am

Do not take this as a defense of Diamond who, for all I know, is as shoddy and fraudulent as anyone says he is; but the revenge anecdote is completely believeable, in any culture. Anyone who has experienced the primal desire for vengeance would recognize the characters and motivations in the story. And yes, the rule of law can be profoundly frustrating in those circumstances (I say this as an ardent proponent of the rule of law).

The discussion of “closure” is interesting. It doesn’t surprise me that e.g. relatives of murder victims don’t get much relief (and may experience greater distress) from witnessing the execution of the murderer. I suspect it is because the revengee is not seen to suffer enough, and death puts him beyond the reach of further retribution.

20

musical mountaineer 05.20.09 at 4:04 am

From what I remember of GGS, much of the argumentation follows the general form:
“One reason why cultures in continent X lagged behind Eurasia in material culture is that no animals were available for them to domesticate. The absence of any such animals is shown by their failure to domesticate any.”

Now you’re the racist, Herr Doktor! Just kidding. But Diamond’s argument is not so circular as that. He does actually go the extra mile to show that none of the available species was suitable for domestication.

21

lemuel pitkin 05.20.09 at 4:44 am

Isn’t the difficult of giving up vengeance for law Sophocles’ central concern, as well?

22

John Emerson 05.20.09 at 5:05 am

Black-Michaud’s “Cohesive Force” is a cross-cultural study of feud, vendetta, and vengeance as organizing principles of societies without a strong state. His examples are mostly not from primitive peoples. Revenge killing in certain circumstances was accepted (actually demanded) by Confucius and is taken for granted in the Bible, Icelandic sagas, etc. Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance” (New York Times Magazine, December 26, 1999) describes the system, which is formalized in a way rather similar to the way it was formalized in the Iceland of the sagas. The famous American example is the Hatfields v. the McCoys in frontier Appalachia (the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons in Huckleberry Finn). Pretty much everywhere, getting rid of revenge killing is the first step toward making a civil state possible, and a lot of Greek tragedy centers on the tension between public order and the demands of revenge. (See my URL).

In short, the story told about New Guinea shouldn’t be regarded as an improbable slander on the people of New Guinea. It merely means that they still live under a old regime which was pervasive in world history and prehistory and which still is in effect today in many parts of the world.

23

Neil 05.20.09 at 5:18 am

Since when is it racist to think that other cultures have different mores, including mores that license acts which we (I think rightly) regard as wrong? I think (gasp) that I’m agreeing with John Emerson here (perhaps he’ll set me straight, to mutual relief).

24

John Emerson 05.20.09 at 5:21 am

CORRECTION: Scott Anderson’s “The Curse of Blood and Vengeance” (New York Times Magazine, December 26, 1999) describes a contemporary case in Albaniawhich is formalized in a way rather similar to the way it was formalized in the Iceland of the sagas.

25

John Emerson 05.20.09 at 5:24 am

Apparently one of Diamond’s critics is Rhonda R. Shearer, S J Gould’s widow.

26

John Emerson 05.20.09 at 5:29 am

Shearer is also involved in Marcel Duchamp studies.

27

John Emerson 05.20.09 at 5:47 am

Here in Wobegon we do not conduct feuds, though neighbors of mine did manufacture sarin toxin in order to kill the county sheriff and his deputies. The terrorism experts concluded that

Living in an isolated economic backwater probably contributed to their chronic frustration. Given this lifestyle, coupled with the influence of living in a state with a strong history of grassroots political activism that sometimes included violence, it should come as no surprise that they began to seek people and institutions to blame for their problems.

28

John Emerson 05.20.09 at 5:51 am

Note that Mothers Against Drunk Drivers was what brought Wheeler into terrorism.

29

andthenyoufall 05.20.09 at 6:47 am

Anywhere in the U.S. where the population density gets low enough, you can have murders over hunting. I would certainly believe the story if it were set in Minnesota because something extremely similar happened in Wisconsin (I think…) – a Hmong hunter went gunning for a group of white hunters who were threatening him, and, sometime later, some racist went and killed a Hmong hunter with a similar name in revenge, or something like that.

America, land of the free, and home of the ethnic conflicts over shootin’ and fishin’.

30

Zamfir 05.20.09 at 7:08 am

I can only hope someone is going to apply this level of scrutiny on Thomas Friedman anecdotes.

31

Rhonda R Shearer 05.20.09 at 7:42 am

Jake, Your scenario about how things happened (Mako John Kuwimb contacting Wemp, and creating a cover-up) is, with all due respect, silly. Our team has spoken to dozens of witnesses regarding the only fight between the two tribes that lasted approx. three months in 1993 and resulted in 4 dead (two on each side).

Our informants include police, government officials, members from Handa and Ombals and other tribes. We also have Henep Isum’s medical records that prove he never had a spinal injury (nor was he paralyzed from an arrow in the spine in a wheelchair as Diamond claimed). Missionaries who live in the area now and during 1992-1995, the time Diamond claimed between “four and six thousand” were involved fighting, say Diamond’s story is wrong and these tribes are peaceful. One, a known author and former scientist, wrote: “But may I make a simple statement that Diamond’s article is ‘pure’ unadulterated garbage. I lived there in those days and recall that there was a fight, but 47 lives is preposterous. Could have been 2 or 3.” His memory was good, of course. There were 4 dead as I mentioned above. Go to our and other scholars reports on http://www.StinkyJournalism.org to learn more.

32

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.20.09 at 8:04 am

That’s nothing compare to the stories I heard from a taxi driver in New York once. Not to mention my granduncle’s tales.

Sorry, I don’t have any deep wisdom about human nature to share, other than that professional drivers and old men often enjoy telling dramatic stories to naive listeners. I imagine they get to practice a lot and eventually achieve perfection.

33

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.20.09 at 8:14 am

BTW, I too read GGS and found it meticulously anti-racist. But I don’t see (re: 13) why it would be annoying. He is looking for a rational explanation and he offers one.

34

Jake 05.20.09 at 8:18 am

Shearer does not deny that Diamond accurately reported what Wemb told him, just that Wemb may not have expected it to end up in the national press. That can’t be good for the defamation lawsuit.

35

Rhonda R Shearer 05.20.09 at 8:44 am

Jake, you are wrong. I do deny that Diamond accurately reported what Wemp told him.
See http://www.stinkyjournalism.org/latest-journalism-news-updates-149.php
Our report states:
“Wemp says, in one of dozens of phone interviews with StinkyJournalism since July 2008, “The facts are totally wrong in The New Yorker story. I have given all those stories to Diamond and those stories are very true and those names are not fake.” In other words, Wemp says he told the true stories to Diamond with real names but Diamond retold them wrongly by jumbling up information… Let’s examine just one example of the seriousness of Diamond’s errors and how he jumbled facts: Wemp told Diamond he lives in Nipa/Kutubu district (his mother was Nipa, his father a sub-clan of Handa). Diamond’s untested assumption was that Ombals and the Handa tribes live in Nipa, since Wemp does. In fact, they live in a completely different district, Komo-Margarima. The more serious error occurs when Diamond extrapolates his false premise that ‘Ombals and Handas are Nipa and live in Nipa’ to devastating effect when also assuming that the Ombals and Handa tribes also raped and killed Huli along with their fellow Nipa [sic] tribesmen on a highway in 1997.”

36

Kerim Friedman 05.20.09 at 9:13 am

For anyone interested in keeping up with the uninteresting boundary-maintenance we engage in over at Savage Minds, here is a link to our recent posts on the topic, including reposts of some of the Stinky Journalism stuff with some boring boundary-maintenance commentary.

37

Ginger Yellow 05.20.09 at 10:53 am

“Well, such tales also resonate deeply with long and deeply held stereotypes about how savage are all those savages off in the savage lands. Can you imagine Diamond hearing that story in, say, Minnesota, and accepting it without question? “

It’s not like Diamond is some random tourist marvelling at these strange people. He worked for decades in PNG as an ornithologist and then an anthropologist. And I’ve really no patience for the people who claim that GG&S is somehow racist. That’s about as spectacular a misreading as you can make.

From what I remember of GGS, much of the argumentation follows the general form:
“One reason why cultures in continent X lagged behind Eurasia in material culture is that no animals were available for them to domesticate. The absence of any such animals is shown by their failure to domesticate any.”

That’s not even remotely true. There are plenty of arguments in the book which have too little (properly footnoted) support, but this isn’t one of them. He does an extensive survey of the wild animals and potential crops on various continents, and explains in detail why some were suitable for domestication and others not. There’s a fascinating chart, for instance, of seed sizes in the wild antecedents of modern crops.

38

Ginger Yellow 05.20.09 at 10:55 am

Whoops. Didn’t mean to post yet.

All that said, the New Yorker episode casts a very bad light on Diamond from what I’ve read. At best, he’s been incredibly sloppy, and at worst he’s been pretty dishonest. It’s certainly made me appreciate the fact that Collapse has much better citations for its arguments than GG&S, whose specific arguments I’m now much more circumspect about.

39

Timothy Burke 05.20.09 at 11:08 am

Diamond frequently starts with an argument that’s some kind of sociobiology or Marvin-Harris-style material determinism and then goes delving for some kind of anecdote that he thinks illustrates it. Sometimes he gets it from his own travel–and as a lot of folks observed in that previous discussion, he is often at the very least inclined to re-cut whatever he’s told to fit whatever he wants to have been told–or he grabs something from published work that fits the bill, usually ignoring what the bulk of publication says. If this was just to spice up something, it would be annoying enough, but he often seems to think he’s actually proven something with this kind of embroidery. In a way, that’s less Diamond’s unique flaw: it’s how a substantial amount of sociobiological/evo-psych argument proceeds when it wants to compile a claim that a particular practice or behavior is universal, by a careless grabbing at whatever confirms a hypothesis out of work which has a great deal else to say, as if all the contest and complexity of cultural or social anthropological research is irrelevant as long as there are two or three round-peg sentences that can be pounded into the square hole of a hypothesis.

40

ajay 05.20.09 at 11:49 am

Diamond frequently starts with an argument that’s some kind of sociobiology or Marvin-Harris-style material determinism and then goes delving for some kind of anecdote that he thinks illustrates it.

As opposed to the virtuous Burke, who starts with an argument that Diamond is an intellectually dishonest cherrypicker who is either ignorant of the state of the art or deliberately misrepresents it, and then doesn’t offer any sort of illustration at all.

41

david 05.20.09 at 12:51 pm

Except that Burke is correct.

GGS’ preface, where he marvels at the natives’ intelligence, is deeply creepy. The determinism is silly, but that first part, yikes. Sounds like the TV series amped up the creep, but I didn’t see it.

42

Marc 05.20.09 at 1:11 pm

The central idea in GGS is that people everywhere are capable, but that some people got an edge because of the availability of animals and plants suitable for domestication. There is nothing “Marxist” or “sociobiological” about this.

It sounds to me as if he got taken in by a tall tale. We have two people discussing a conversation – with no empiricial evidence – and they disagree on what they said. She apparently wants us to believe that someone suing for 10 million dollars is absolutely correct on everything they say, while the person that they’re suing is lying about everything. I think he got snookered, which is a different mistake, and that he heard what he wanted to hear.

There is a strong stench, frankly, of political motive in the articles which I read on her site. They basically accuse Diamond of racism, and there is a clear element of boundary protection at work – e.g. “real anthropologists would never do things this way”. I used to read the Anthropology group site and it was a flashback to the late 1980s – hardcore PC frozen in amber. Something which anyone in academe at the time would recognize – the quickness at finding bad motives and thought crimes in others. The attempts to justify tit-for-tat tribal killings as arising from the equivalent of a complex legal system are just painful to read. Because, of course, anything implying that the social structure of hunter-gatherer societies is inferior in any way to complex modern legal systems is…of course…racist.

43

Ben Alpers 05.20.09 at 1:19 pm

From what I’d previously heard about this case (I thought it was on NPR’s On the Media, but I can’t find the report on their site, so I could be mistaken), a lot of the finger pointing has been aimed at The New Yorker itself, whose famous fact-checking department apparently didn’t think to check the facts of this story. My guess is that a similar story that took place in Mississippi or Minnesota would have been fact-checked, regardless of the cultural/class identity of the protagonist.

44

John Protevi 05.20.09 at 1:35 pm

It would be ev-psych if Diamond postulates a now universal vengeance module that evolved as an adaptation but is now possibly out of synch with contemporary culture. I’m not saying he says this or not, but that’s the usual criterion for identifying an ev-psych argument.

45

Anderson 05.20.09 at 1:39 pm

My guess is that a similar story that took place in Mississippi or Minnesota would have been fact-checked

*My* guess is that it would’ve been a helluva lot easier for a fact-checker in Manhattan to follow up on MS or MN than to find some guy in New Guinea.

Really, whatever the merits of Diamond’s work — comments like those above have kept me from reading GGS — this controversy seems ridiculously overblown. And Ms. Shearer seems like somebody with a good bit of free time on her hands that could be put to better use.

46

Walt 05.20.09 at 1:43 pm

I don’t see what Diamond did that was so obviously wrong here. Maybe Diamond deliberately set out to smear this guy, but there’s no evidence that he’s guilty of any more than credulousness.

47

Ben Alpers 05.20.09 at 1:50 pm

My guess is that it would’ve been a helluva lot easier for a fact-checker in Manhattan to follow up on MS or MN than to find some guy in New Guinea.

Unquestionably. But doesn’t The New Yorker claim to fact check every nonfiction piece it publishes? They don’t have a policy of waiving the fact-checking process due to difficulty.

48

Righteous Bubba 05.20.09 at 1:51 pm

Really, whatever the merits of Diamond’s work—comments like those above have kept me from reading GGS —this controversy seems ridiculously overblown.

Getting the details of some rapes and murders wrong in an article seems like a big deal to me, particularly when the supposed rapists and murderers are walking around free.

49

Gandalf The Pious 05.20.09 at 2:02 pm

@ 21: Aeschylus’ Oresteia

50

Jake 05.20.09 at 3:00 pm

Jake, you are wrong. I do deny that Diamond accurately reported what Wemp told him.

I read your comments on this blog post. The only conclusion a reasonable person can draw from the post itself and your response to it is that Daniel told Jared Diamond what Diamond said he heard.

Notably, the author of the post says, and you don’t contradict: “With great passion in her voice, she explained the “story telling” tradition among Mr. Wemp’s people — that telling remarkable tall tales is part of their culture — and that Mr. Diamond should not have taken Wemp’s accounts of his life at face value. She said that Mr. Diamond should have understood that about Mr. Wemp’s culture.”

When further confronted, you say: “You (marcorandazza) wrote “You don’t deny that Daniel told the stories ” But, in fact I do. Daniel told stories of what he heard from others, read in newspapers etc. swapping stories in the car, and he used real times and stories about warfare in his and other areas of PNG–this was no interview by a journalist or a scientist interviewing an informant. That’s all fine when it is private.”

Nowhere do you say “Daniel Wemb didn’t tell Diamond that he was responsible for the attack on Henep Isum. Diamond made that up.”

51

Timothy Burke 05.20.09 at 3:02 pm

Ajay:

Try the two links above to much longer posts of mine commenting on Diamond (and the earlier Savage Minds discussions of Diamond). And chill out a little.

52

Andrew Sluyter 05.20.09 at 3:03 pm

Is not whether JD is racist or not really a two-part question?

Is he one at a personal level? Who can say?

But that GG&S deploys the same sort of categorical arguments that racists make is something I demonstrate in a 2003 piece that you can Google up with “neo-environmental determinism”; a link to it appears on the first results page.

I have related piece coming out in _Progress in Human Geography_ this October that addresses the question of why environmental determinist arguments should at this particular historical moment be supplanting racial determinist arguments, albeit with the same heinous effects.

53

Timothy Burke 05.20.09 at 3:05 pm

Marc:

Diamond’s sociobiological interests are more marked in The Third Chimpanzee. GGS and Collapse are more a kind of non-Marxist material determinism.

54

Marc 05.20.09 at 3:14 pm

Thanks Timothy. I’ve read GGS and Collapse but not the Third Chimpanzee, and your description of the former does seem fair.

55

Anderson 05.20.09 at 3:15 pm

Shorter Shearer: “You can’t take these silly wogs’ stories seriously. Every white man should know that”?

56

Paula Casal 05.20.09 at 3:15 pm

Ok, so Diamond is not always cautious. He is daring. This is part of what makes him so fascinating. He often admits to be especulating on the basis of what he has seen as a scientist and as human being. But he always explains lots of important facts we should all know much more about. And in this case, ok, so he is not a sophisticated moral philosopher, he is not a philosopher at all. But even then he is so often onto something, maybe we need to think more about whether humans can really love, their kids, for example, and have no (defeasible) desire to attack whoever attacks them…

57

jlw 05.20.09 at 3:22 pm

That Diamond was sloppy with his facts doesn’t surprise me. I had to fact-check a couple of his articles back in the 1990s and would uncover the odd unsubstantiated claim. More disturbing was his attitude toward what I found, which was, well he knew that to be true, so let’s let it stand.

But that said, I think it’s clear that whether or not Papua New Guinea is a hotbed of vengence, it is indisputable that academia is. That’s what’s really driving the controversy.

58

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.20.09 at 3:32 pm

Explaining something with the concept of cause and effect – that’s what you call ‘determinism’, right? Is there an alternative, materialist alternative?

59

aaron 05.20.09 at 3:36 pm

Racism seems like a total red-herring in all of this; GGS is explicitly anti racist — even if the terms of it are sort of sketchy (“isn’t it weird that tribal people are actually human beings?”). What’s pernicious is the narrative it tells about environmental determinism, where the fact of where we come from is the only determinant of where different groups of people end up, and things like the imperial subjugation of half the world are taken to have no relevance for understanding why Africa, say, is so darned poor. This was the substance of Tim Burke’s critique way back when, if I recall correctly, but the point is that “racism” is simply not the terms in which his sloppiness has to be addressed: he is, in fact, using the issue of racism himself as a way of making it seem like he’s doing something more interesting than he is, as if he isn’t simply peddling a new version of a very old story, to people who want to believe it for reasons having nothing to do with an actual desire to understand historical processes. In that sense, it’s interesting to note how often Diamond’s defenders defend him against a charge of racism that the savage minds folks, for example, have been pretty sparing with; Diamond has been quacking like a duck for a long time, but most of his critics have — I thought — been really fair in simply noting that his actions are questionable (like taking at face value claims that he would no doubt investigate if they didn’t confirm pejorative preconceptions about what “tribal people” do). Hiding behind the screen of “Diamond’s no racist” sure seems to me like a way of avoiding thinking about the ways his sloppiness makes him complicit in self-aggrandizing narratives of the West’s blamelessness, and of avoiding actually thinking about the real substance of the critique. But then, this is America, where being racist is a misdemeanor, but *calling* someone racist is a felony.

60

John Emerson 05.20.09 at 3:39 pm

Shorter Anderson: “I didn’t bother to read what Shearer wrote”.

61

green apron monkey 05.20.09 at 4:06 pm

what does the first paragraph have to do with the rest of this post?

62

Marc 05.20.09 at 4:14 pm

#57: this subject has a history and there are serious grudges against Diamond by anthopologists. That’s the point of the introductory paragraph.

63

Dan Kamen 05.20.09 at 4:21 pm

There is something seriously wrong with Diamond’s article. While anthropologists may take offense with the vulgar materialism, Rousseauian generalizations and geographical deterministic excuses for the brutalities of colonialism of Diamond’s work, these problems are not legal problems. However, this time Diamond has crossed the line. If he claims to be an anthropologist, then he should at the very least be familiar with the accepted ethics of the discipline. I don’t care if he’s a PhD in evolutionary biology, he can still do anthropology as far as I’m concerned, but he has a duty to follow basic ethical requirements of the field. Principally, Diamond failed to inform Wemp that he would be the subject of an article. He published Wemp’s name and accused him of having confessed to a murder conspiracy in an internationally read magazine. THEN, his agent attempted to sell lectures about the article for 20,000 dollars a pop. I realize I might be confusing anthropological ethical standard with legal definitions of libel and defamation, but I think Wemp and Isum’s case against Diamond has a real foundation.

Besides, I haven’t read many posts on here that attempt to sympathize with Wemp and Isum. Basic empathy is missing from this discussion.

64

Chris 05.20.09 at 4:25 pm

If this were the first time Diamond’s work had turned out on closer examination to be one part data, nine parts facile generalities and ninety parts bullshit, people might be more inclined to let it slide. But since that apparently describes his entire corpus to date…

As for the substantive point about revenge (if there is one), the burning emotional certainty of the person who believes he has been wronged is not matched by an equal amount of accuracy in identifying that that person *has* been wronged and by whom. That’s precisely why modern societies refer that determination to impartial authorities. Vigilantes (let alone posses or lynch mobs) rarely acquit the innocent; courts are supposed to. Building and maintaining a system of laws is expensive and some cultures can’t afford it, but for those that can, I think the evidence is pretty clear that the benefits outweigh the costs.

65

lemuel pitkin 05.20.09 at 4:26 pm

Shearer does not deny that Diamond accurately reported what Wemb told him, just that Wemb may not have expected it to end up in the national press. That can’t be good for the defamation lawsuit.

There are two questions here. One is the outcome of the lawsuit, the other is about Diamond’s trustworthiness.

The first question is of no interest to anyone except Wemp, Diamond, and their immediate circles, which as far as I know doesn’t include anyone here, except maybe Rhonda Shearer. The second is of interest to anyone who reads Diamond’s stuff, or who has conversations with others who do. That includes almost all of us.

If it’s true that Diamond wrote a New Yorker piece describing rape, murder, and a violent conflict involving thousands of people purely on the basis of a story he was told by a cabdriver, then he’s a crappy journalist, and we have to substantially raise our estimate that he’s a crappy scholar too. Whether he’s legally liable has nothing to do with it.

66

David 05.20.09 at 4:35 pm

@16: But, Crowley, would you kill for that data?

On a more serious and disturbing note, @35, Rhonda R Shearer: I call bullshit. Based on this example I am certainly not impressed with stinkyjournalism other than as an example of the pot calling the kettle black. In no way does the example she offers indicate a lie on the part of Diamond. Sloppiness and amateurishness, yes, but no proof of intention to mislead. The fact that Ms. Shearer offers this example as proof says at least as much about her integrity as it does about
Diamond’s.

67

JM 05.20.09 at 5:35 pm

To give a single example, in Third Chimpanzee he makes a dramatic claim about false paternity rates… that turns out to be completely unsupportable and almost certainly bogus. To be specific, Diamond cites a false paternity rate that’s likely in double digits (“5 to 30 percent”) based on two cases—an unpublished 1940s study of blood groups in babies

Weren’t the studies supposed to have been done in or near Edinburgh?

68

John Emerson 05.20.09 at 5:44 pm

I really liked GG&S, but I also had problems with a lot of his snap judgments and seat-of-the-pants observations. Diamond also has the odd habit of organizing his books around rather conventional pieties — “primitive people aren’t really stupid” and “greed has destructive effects” (or whatever — I didn’t read his next book). There seems to be a sort of boys-gone-wild effect, which I see elsewhere, epecially psychology — someone from a difficult, technical, rather abstract field decides to write a popular book and finds that the disciplines he knows don’t help him, so he writes an interesting but journalistic book.

I still think that Diamond’s stuff is worth reading, critically. There’s a grab-bag of mixed stuff. Think of it as a fish that needs to be beheaded, gutted and scaled.

69

Timothy Burke 05.20.09 at 5:51 pm

Look, the main thrust of Diamond’s argument in that article is sufficiently flawed (that premodern societies were wracked by vengeance-seeking violence, or that stateless societies are) that beating on his credulous passing-on of a story told to him is missing the point. And this is what I was getting at regarding Diamond in my earlier comment: he is a provisioner of careless overgeneralizations that he sells with tremendous gusto. The materialist argument of GGS is arguably a usefully provocative popularization of much more carefully developed work in environmental history, agricultural history and so on. The argument of this piece on vengeance, violence and political organization is much more demonstrably counter to huge body of scholarly literature on law, violence and political organization in human history, where there are all sorts of variations that complicate or actively refute the generalization of Diamond’s article–stateless societies with apparently low levels of endogamous violence, centralized states with strong legal systems where sanctioned and unsanctioned forms of vengeance-seeking were common, you name it.

70

Katherine 05.20.09 at 5:57 pm

I am really surprised to find GGS criticised by anyone as racist. It’s the very definition of the opposite – i.e. ascribing (with good argument and evidence) essential developments to environment and luck of plant biology, rather than any differences between “races”.

My criticism of GGS is that it’s not really about Guns, Germs and Steel – it’s about Agriculture (And A Bit Of Germs).

71

David 05.20.09 at 6:06 pm

@ Lemuel Pitkin: “…If it’s true that Diamond wrote a New Yorker piece describing rape, murder, and a violent conflict involving thousands of people purely on the basis of a story he was told by a cabdriver, then he’s a crappy journalist,…” Gosh, that describes Thomas Friedman’s entire career as a serious pundit and enabler of wars of vengeance.

72

herr doktor bimler 05.20.09 at 8:54 pm

the burning emotional certainty of the person who believes he has been wronged is not matched by an equal amount of accuracy in identifying that that person has been wronged and by whom. […] Vigilantes (let alone posses or lynch mobs) rarely acquit the innocent; courts are supposed to.

That part fascinates me. Here in New Zealand we have had our fair share of cases where
(1) Heinous crime occurs.
(2) Police, under pressure from media for a quick arrest, find some vaguely guilty-looking party and fill the gaps in the evidence (as it were) to ensure a conviction.
(3) At the trial, or on appeal, forensic evidence emerges that proves conclusively that the alleged perpetrator was in fact evidence.

So far, no surprises, but then we get
(4) Relatives of the original victim assert that the re-trial or appeal should not happen since it is re-victimising them, in effect — sending them back to square 1 when they were just about to Achieve Closure and Move On in their lives. Apparently their need for vengeance requires, and would be satisfied by, the continuing imprisonment of an innocent man. Moreover, their complaints are reported uncritically in the news media rather than exposed to the ridicule they deserve.

73

notsneaky 05.20.09 at 10:07 pm

Re:41
Actually I thought the posts (and lots of the comments) over at savage minds were way creepier than anything Diamond wrote. It was treating the PGNers as some kind of (sympathetic) exotic objects of study, which of course act like some caricatures out of a caricatured politically correct textbook. At least Diamond ascribed motives, passions, feelings and thoughts when he wrote about them.

74

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.20.09 at 10:27 pm

Hey notsneaky, where did you get that idea that most of the Cheka was made up of former Ochranka personnel?

75

roger 05.20.09 at 11:16 pm

I find the shearer’s post to be devastating. The conversation is told as though it was occured in@ 2000- 2002, but it actually is a redaction of some phone interview in 2006; it makes small, collateral mistakes – who Wemp works for, the composition of the area where he lives – that, no matter how Paul Bunyanesque Wemp may have been, simply would not have been spoken by the informant. It names an attack on an individual that did not happen, and includes Wemp’s meditation on that attack, which is a two-fer piece of fiction. And finally, the one individual whose name was changed in the editorial process for the article happens to be white.

Now, those who defend Diamond might want to explain – if it is no big deal to falsely accuse a man of paralyzing another man and gloating over it – why, then, Dan Rather got into trouble for the compariatively trivial offense of thinking he could prove a Texas frat boy went awol instead of reporting to his national guard unit in the seventies? Somehow, so great was that offense – which happend in the context of the continuing silence of said Texas fratboy re his national guard activities – that it shook up a whole network.

Of course, racism – institutional racism – was at work here, if the term has any meaning at all. Personally, I think Diamond is more often aiming, in his work, to make anti-racist points. That is good! But even people who consider themselves anti-racist can adapt attitudes, or practices, that are consistent with racism. Unconsciously or not. I do it, and I would guess almost anybody who isn’t a hermit in the Western world does it. This strikes me, however, as an egregious case that plays not only with stereotypes of the savage, but has that exoticism that undermines the point the point Diamond is trying to make. Plus, of course, slandering two people in ways that nobody on this thread would tolerate, if it happened to him or her.

76

Zora 05.20.09 at 11:30 pm

@69, Timothy Burke writes: … he is a provisioner of careless overgeneralizations that he sells with tremendous gusto.

And $ells and $ells. Jealousy? I suspect that he has filled an intellectual-ecological niche that anthropology once filled and has since shunned: large-scale generalizations re human development/history/cultures. It takes a certain kind of daring to engage in such projects, because you’re always at risk from academic snipers: the folks who specialize in “XX among the YY from 1950 to 1965″ and are more than happy to point out that the footnote on page 247 is blatantly wrong and that of course proves that the generalizer’s whole enterprise is bogus. I suspect that Diamond may have overdone the daring.

Currently reading David Christian’s Maps of Time, which makes some interesting generalizations, with perhaps more caution than Diamond displays.

77

Mark 05.20.09 at 11:42 pm

I’m not quite sure why so many people are surprised at–or contemptuous of–the “boundary maintenance” that anthropologists and other academics whose work Diamond has stepped on (including archaeologists) are engaging in. The man wrote a really rather short book that purported to explain pretty much all of today’s global social, political and economic configuration in terms of a fairly narrow set of geographic and environmental factors. Of course he gets it wrong! Of course the specialists are going to complain!

His work is provocative and it’s rather fun to read, but we shouldn’t expect the people who spend their whole careers studying the periods, places, and concepts that he breezes by in a few scant chapters not to want to put their objections on record. As Timothy Burke says, Diamond ignores large bodies of literature on the subjects he purports to explain. It shouldn’t be surprising that anthropologists and others who work in those literatures get upset about this.

(Whether the folks at SM were right to do this in terms of “racism” is debatable. I think Burke probably has the right of it, here. I do think there is something to claims that Diamond’s environmental determinism tends to obscure the culpability of colonial powers. Calling this “racism” is probably a bit much–aaron may well be right about this.)

As for his behavior in the Wemp case, I think Dan Kamen has it right. Diamond’s actions were at the very least sloppy, and look like highly unethical, too. With luck he’ll go back to writing about birds, where he can safely ignore little things like informed consent.

78

Mark 05.20.09 at 11:51 pm

Zora: I think the point is that all those little snipes at Diamond’s rich tapestry do add up to a rather ragged picture when all is said and done. And besides, if he’s so daring, he really ought to be prepared to take his lumps.

Jealousy may be a part of it (and the anthropologists I’ve talked to who are most critical of Diamond are pretty self-aware on this point), but anthropologists are for the most part no longer willing to make sweeping, daring generalizations (although they did flirt with World Systems Theory in the 70s) because they realized that most of it was wrong. And they realized that most of their predecessors who dabbled in it tend to come up with some fairly racist arguments. (That were, incidentally, provocative and popular and made perfect sense to most of their readers. And were totally wrong.)

I don’t think it’s because they wouldn’t appreciate the money that comes with writing a very popular book.

I think there’ s a case to be made for specialists putting aside some of their qualms and writing something a little more accessible and a little more exciting. But as you say, Diamond rather overdoes it.

79

Jake 05.21.09 at 12:02 am

Now, those who defend Diamond might want to explain – if it is no big deal to falsely accuse a man of paralyzing another man and gloating over it – why, then, Dan Rather got into trouble for the compariatively trivial offense of thinking he could prove a Texas frat boy went awol instead of reporting to his national guard unit in the seventies?

Diamond “accused” Wemp of attacking and paralyzing another man based on Wemp telling him he did it. No one is denying this, just trying to muddle the issue with claims about Diamond confusing tribes, getting dates wrong, massaging quotes, etc.

If Dan Rather had found letters from a texas frat boy bragging about how he blew off his air force training to go drink beer, and then the frat boy tried to explain that he made it all up so his frat brothers would think he was a rebellious badass instead of a brown-nosing suckup, things would have gone differently.

80

roger 05.21.09 at 12:15 am

Jake, when you say this – “Wemp of attacking and paralyzing another man based on Wemp telling him he did it.” – you are ignoring this: “The several long and complex (and erudite) quotations attributed to Wemp—that Wemp vehemently denies saying…”

So how do we know if Wemp or Diamond is teling the truth? I don’t think your defense of Diamond can be, Wemp told him, period. Did Wemp tell him, as he was driving him around for the WWW, that he was working for Chevron?

Maybe Wemp’s denial is not credible to you, but don’t overlook that it has been made. To me, it does seem credible. Just as it seems credible that Wemp’s stories, which involved other people in a relation too confusing to simplify for a popular audience, was simplified by attributing the violence to him.

81

grackle 05.21.09 at 12:23 am

This is an interesting conversation. I’d agree that the posts at savage minds and, particularly, Shearer’s posts at her “journalism” site are, if not creepy, at the least, problematic, that is if one were reading them to find out the truth about the issue. I see no denial there that Diamond may have been told the tall tales he in turn passed on, only that it became awkward when those tales became public. Ironically, the long letter from Weng’s cousin concerning clan affiliations and inter-clan tensions seems to verify the general point about non-judicial retaliation that Diamond emphasized in his article.
Certainly he was indiscreet at best in having named his correspondent and, astoundingly, the number of persons whom he had not even met, without any attempt to verify what he purportedly had been told. That is simply amazing.

82

djw 05.21.09 at 12:23 am

It all seems to come down to credibility, and unless there are reasons to doubt Wemp’s credibility that aren’t currently public, Diamond seems to have much bigger problems on this front.

83

Jake 05.21.09 at 12:48 am

Maybe Wemp’s denial is not credible to you, but don’t overlook that it has been made. To me, it does seem credible. Just as it seems credible that Wemp’s stories, which involved other people in a relation too confusing to simplify for a popular audience, was simplified by attributing the violence to him.

Find the place where Shearer (or anyone else involved) says “Wemp did not tell Diamond that he (Wemp) was responsible for the attack on Isum.” You can’t – she always hedges and misdirects and brings up other details that Diamond got wrong.

84

bob 05.21.09 at 12:49 am

It all comes down to Diamond not realizing that all war stories are lies.

85

Timothy Burke 05.21.09 at 12:50 am

Zora, please. I’m reliving the earlier Diamond discussion, maybe, but one of the things I said then and say in general is that I’m all for academics popularizing and I accept that this takes all sorts of generalizations and rhetorical turns that wouldn’t sell in highly specialized scholarship. But I don’t think that writing for a big audience requires cherrypicking big bodies of scholarship (or outright ignoring them): that’s what a popularizing scholar does best: translate those bodies of scholarship and the debates that swirl around them, make sense of specialized knowledge. David Christian’s book is an excellent model of that, a very fine and readable example of “big history”. Diamond really strikes me as a flawed example of the same ambition. You don’t get a pass just because you’re writing for a big audience, any more than you’re required to write small, highly specialized work as a test of legitimacy. There are marvelous examples of popularizing work which is also sensitive to complexity and nuance and debate.

86

musical mountaineer 05.21.09 at 1:30 am

Sluyter: GG&S deploys the same sort of categorical arguments that racists make…

…environmental determinist arguments [and] racial determinist arguments [have] the same heinous effects.

You mean heinous, as providing philosophical cover for slavery, or the Holocaust? I assume not. But I’m curious: what’s so bad about environmental determinist arguments? Seems to me, besides undercutting race-based explanations, they make sense.

87

notsneaky 05.21.09 at 1:52 am

Re:74
I wrote my undergrad comps paper on the early history (pre-World War) of the Soviet security services. That was some time ago so I don’t remember the source exactly but several authors noted it and it just jumped out at me in the “now that I think about it seems obvious” kind of way. If time didn’t move so fast on the internets I could maybe dig it out. Also I probably shouldn’t’ve said “Most” – but a lot of them were.

88

David 05.21.09 at 1:53 am

Zora, I would suggest that academic sniping, with all due respect to the convening hosts and assembled posters, is quickly approaching, in most fields, the necessity of specializing to the degree that xx did yy in June of 195o. Or, how many angels can dance on a molecule of methane.

89

notsneaky 05.21.09 at 1:58 am

I’m also a bit wondering about that lawyer that Shearer has hired. Don’t lawyers usually tell you to STFU and don’t talk about the case in situations like these? Or you’re gonna risk the million bucks by saying something stupid? Bad lawyer or bad impression of law from TV on my part?

90

roger 05.21.09 at 2:00 am

Jake, your theory is that Wemp has to go through the litany of denying every piece of the story?

Well, I must say, the balance of scenarios seems to me clearly against Diamond. Here we have a driver for an NGO. An NGO that probably vets drivers – you know, filters out those who are murderers. And we are supposed to believe that this driver, feeling confident with Diamond, confided a story that could get him imprisoned to Diamond. And, to top it off, since he was such a joker, the story was untrue.

Now, I would find that scenario very unlikely. The scenario I do find likely is that a driver would tell of an event, a feud, to an interested hearer. This driver might even inflate the scale of the feud. He might even have mentioned some names, and told a tale of revenge, and reflected on what the actors in that tale thought. And later, remembering the event and doubting that his driver is an avid reader of the New Yorker, Diamond simplified things by using his driver as the protagonist.

If it goes to court, the notes of the phone conversation should be very interesting.

91

roac 05.21.09 at 2:07 am

With respect to the “primal instinct for revenge”: One of Tony Hillerman’s detective novels (The Dark Wind) hammers hard on the thesis that the Navajo lack it. Hillerman of course was a journalism professor, but it is my impression that the Navajo, by and large, regarded him as an accurate and sympathetic observer of their culture.

(I myself would like to believe that the revenge instinct is not universal. It is clear however that not having it can get you in trouble, as witness Michael Dukakis.)

92

Marc 05.21.09 at 2:50 am

Roger – I think you’re projecting a first world environment onto PNG. I doubt very seriously that the driver was “at risk for arrest”. You appear to have a deep animus for Diamond. I don’t think he comes off well, but then I don’t carry a grudge against him. Reasons to doubt his credibility? He’s been told that he can make a fortune? He didn’t realize that his tall tales would end up getting spread so widely? Was that hard to do?

I will bet that the lawsuit fails and the fellow gets nothing. Which will, of course, prove absolutely nothing to his detractors.

93

Jake 05.21.09 at 2:58 am

Jake, your theory is that Wemp has to go through the litany of denying every piece of the story?

No, but it’s reasonable to deny the part that everyone cares about. Without the wrongful accusation of rape and murder claim and subsequent ten million dollar lawsuit, no one outside of a few other anthropologists would care.

Shearer is saying “Diamond says Wemb told him that he organized an attack that paralyzed Isum. But Isum isn’t paralyzed. Diamond is wrong.” Doesn’t it strike you as a little weird that she didn’t add in “Wemb says he told Diamond no such thing?”

I’m also a bit wondering about that lawyer that Shearer has hired.

Are you sure Shearer has a lawyer?

94

David 05.21.09 at 3:11 am

I will repeat (well, re-phrase): In one of Shearer’s two posts to this thread she offered as evidence of Diamond’s dishonesty an example that NO reasonable person with even a high school grasp of the language could read as validating her claim. As for her website it has the immediate appearance and feel of a tabloid journal eating its own. Ugh.

95

Jake 05.21.09 at 3:12 am

To be clear – it’s a shitty thing to take someone’s tall tale that may get them in trouble and reprint it in the New Yorker without changing names to protect the maybe-innocent, or warning them that it might be published and giving them a chance to reconsider. In this case, Diamond appears to be acting like an insensitive asshole.

Of course, it’s also shitty to claim that a writer defamed a person by accusing them of serious crimes that they didn’t commit without mentioning that said person told said writer that they commited said crimes, and only changed their mind when it started getting them negative publicity. Maybe shittier.

96

roger 05.21.09 at 3:22 am

Actually, I like Diamond’s books. But I know how interviews work, having done a few myself, and this smells like story re-arrangement all the way. I also know incentives. If you think NGOS just go out and get the first native around to drive a high profile guest around a third world country, I think you are dead wrong. Probabilities, after all depend on incentives. What’s the possibility this backhills driver is gonna contradict Diamond – and anybody will pay attention? What possible incentive is there for Wemp to make up this story? You think he was setting Diamond up for a court case? And of course I am going easy, since Diamond’s defenders are tacitly conceding that he fed his readers hogwash about an incident that didn’t happen. Funny how others could find the supposed victim, don’t you think? While Diamond apparently didn’t even try? The argument that Diamond is such an easy gull that any driver can tell him any story and he will print it up casts a big shadow on his work, no? You think this is a defense? I’m not sure I’d want to be defended in this way by the non-rancourous – he’s not a liar, he’s a fool. Sounds like a great book blurb!

I would guess that there will be an out of court settlement, and Diamond isn’t going to be writing for the new yorker again. And yes, as I sometimes make money from the NYer, I’m not happy to see it made a fool of by this man, regardless of his books.

97

notsneaky 05.21.09 at 3:29 am

Re: 91
Over at http://randazza.wordpress.com/2009/04/27/well-in-our-culture-we-take-a-man-at-his-word-new-guinea-tribesman-lies-to-jared-diamond-and-now-wants-10000000/ in the comments she says “I also did not feel qualified to represent myself during this period and hired counsel to protect myself. “

98

Jake 05.21.09 at 4:20 am

What possible incentive is there for Wemp to make up this story? You think he was setting Diamond up for a court case?

No, I think Wemb was hoping to entertain his passenger, maybe get a bigger tip, maybe get respect as a force to be reckoned with. I don’t think he realized that his stories were going to be read by millions, including people from his home region. I think Diamond should have made that clear to him. I also suspect Diamond may have classified Wemb’s tales as “too good to check” given how well they supported his thesis about vengeance.

I think Shearer is looking for attention, and Kuwimb is looking to defend the honor of his people. I’m not sure whose idea the defamation lawsuit was, but it was a bad one.

I predict that the lawsuit gets dropped by the plaintiffs when they are told by the court that if Diamond merely repeated what Wemb told him, Wemb is going to lose his defamation suit. If they don’t drop it, it’ll get dismissed on summary judgement.

99

Jake 05.21.09 at 4:24 am

Also, I don’t think Shearer is a party in the defamation lawsuit against the New Yorker. They might be being represented by Mako Kuwimb, the Ph.D. student whose paper got negative refereeing for not mentioning Diamond’s article.

100

notsneaky 05.21.09 at 4:47 am

Henri, here’s what a quick search from google books turned up:
http://books.google.com/books?id=zQL8POkFGIQC&pg=RA1-PA186&dq=Okhrana+Cheka

quote: “Dzerzhinsky was interested in the records of former Okhrana officers, agents and informers, some of whom he hoped to recruit into the Cheka. His recruiting technique was highly effective: threat of exposure and execution unless they joined”

a bit more looking around would turn up more topic specific sources.

101

Righteous Bubba 05.21.09 at 5:23 am

Of course, it’s also shitty to claim that a writer defamed a person by accusing them of serious crimes that they didn’t commit without mentioning that said person told said writer that they commited said crimes

What did Isum say to Diamond?

102

Jake 05.21.09 at 5:56 am

What did Isum say to Diamond?

Nothing, apparently. What crimes did Diamond accuse Isum of?

The target of Daniel’s revenge was not Soll’s killer but another Ombal man, Henep Isum, who had organized the fight for the Ombals. By accepting the official role known as “owner of the fight”, Isum took responsibility for the killing.

Hmm. This is interesting. What are the things that Shearer claims were false about Diamond’s portrayal of the fight?

- Soll was not killed during the fight, but was wounded and died later.
– Wemp was a close not a relative of Soll.
– Wemp was not a seasoned warrior, only picking up a bow and arrow once in his life.
– Wemp was too young to be the owner of a fight.
– Isum is not a warrior, he’s a “village peace officer.”

Notably not among the things that Shearer claims Diamond got wrong: “Isum was the owner of the fight that caused the death of Soll.” Anyone care to place a bet on whether or not Isum actually was the owner of the fight?

103

Just a lawyer 05.21.09 at 6:07 am

For those of us who are lawyers, and are therefore always asking tedious questions about procedural posture, the filing by Wemp and Isum Mandingo can be found here: http://www.stinkyjournalism.org/misc/Mandingo_and_Wemp_vs_Advance_Publications_and_Jared_Diamond.pdf

It’s a Summons and Notice, not a Complaint, and thus entirely lacking in detail, so it is hard to tell how they plan to actually win, other than via media exposure and shaming Diamond and the New Yorker. It strikes me as a quite weak case for defamation, based on what I’ve read here and at Ms. Shearer’s site, but maybe there’s more to come.

(The legal merits are obviously largely independent of the moral merits, of course, and it is hard to see how this isn’t a huge blow to the reputation and credibility of Diamond and the New Yorker, regardless of how the case comes out.)

104

garymar 05.21.09 at 7:18 am

(3) At the trial, or on appeal, forensic evidence emerges that proves conclusively that the alleged perpetrator was in fact evidence

What a piece of work is man! Or rather, the language-puzzle solving module of the human brain. I was going to ask what herr doctor bimler @ 72 was trying to say. I was perfectly stumped by the error for about 30 seconds. I thought the sentence got cut off at the end. And then everything clicked.

(3) At the trial, or on appeal, forensic evidence emerges that proves conclusively that the alleged perpetrator was in fact innocent

All from context!

I read Diamond’s GG&S, but the best thing about it for me was that, a couple of years ago on CT people were talking about it, and I was moved to pick up and read a copy of Road Belong Cargo. And I left a comment somewhere here about all the things I learned about Yali, a truly fascinating character in his own right. His life story would make one hell of a movie, and could provide fodder for about 2 dozen PhD theses. Talk about “agency”! This guy had it in spades.

105

herr doktor bimler 05.21.09 at 8:15 am

If you think NGOS just go out and get the first native around to drive a high profile guest around a third world country, I think you are dead wrong.

Roger @94 is missing the context here — Diamond, back in 2002 is not “a high profile guest”, he is a regular visitor doing follow-up work to his earlier research on PNG birds. PNG is not “a third world country” to him; it is practically a second home, though he still needs someone familiar with the state of local roads to drive him around.
This comment is not intended to agree or disagree with the general trend of discussion, but to suggest that Roger’s speculations are not founded in fact.

What a piece of work is man! Or rather, the language-puzzle solving module of the human brain.
And what a piece of mind is the error-making and word-substitution module of the human brain!

106

Jake 05.21.09 at 8:18 am

Anyone care to place a bet on whether or not Isum actually was the owner of the fight?

Whups. According to the long rebuttal by Kuwimb, linked here, Isum was involved in the fight, and was wounded in it, but was not the official leader of the fight.

So there was a fight, Daniel Wemb retold the story to Diamond but changed it to make himself look like a hero, including the claiming to be responsible for the paralysis of a leader of another tribe. The other tribe is likely to be upset that Wemb has been talking smack about them, and may seek revenge. Kuwimb may have convinced them to drop their dispute and ally against Wemb. Which would be pretty slick diplomacy on his part, and very fortunate for Wemb.

107

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.21.09 at 9:36 am

@98, there’s must be some confusion here. He didn’t need to blackmail anyone to join the Cheka, just like the head of the DEA or FBI doesn’t need to blackmail anyone to join his agency; people want to join, they compete to join.

Those who you have to blackmail are your potential secret informers, not your staff members.

108

notsneaky 05.21.09 at 1:46 pm

Assuming above is in ref to 100
In 1918 and 1919 Dzherzinsky would very likely have to black mail people to join, particularly since there was a good chance they might want to join the other side. You had Denikin in the Ukraine, Cossacks in the Don and the Kouban, Yudenich in the North and the Czech Legion was making its way back across Siberia. At that point it still looked up for grabs and I’m sure many an opportunist was carefully weighting his choices carefully.

109

Righteous Bubba 05.21.09 at 2:01 pm

Nothing, apparently. What crimes did Diamond accuse Isum of?

Being leader of a gang of rapists and murderers.

110

Jake 05.21.09 at 3:55 pm

Being leader of a gang of rapists and murderers.

Well, he’s a leader of a tribe that engages in protracted battles with other tribes over pigs, women, or small amounts of money, and people get killed in these battles. If that’s what you mean by “being leader of a gang of rapists and murderers”, then Diamond is right.

111

Hermenauta 05.21.09 at 4:10 pm

I agree with Jon that it´s really difficult to understand the purpose of Diamond´s article. But I really can´t understand the framing of him as a racist.

“Honor culture” is in fact a very common trait in many cultures. There is a beautiful brazilian movie called “Behind the sun” that depicts the same history of the book from Ismail Kadare (honor culture causing deaths in north Albania) in the context of brazilian northeast, where this kind of thing was very common, and also ritualized, until not much time ago (I´m sure we had this until the seventies):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behind_the_Sun_(film)

Of course it would be an error to generalize and assume that “honor culture” is a cultural invariant in the “developing” world, but it´s wrong to say this should be automatically qualified as racism, imho.

112

lemuel pitkin 05.21.09 at 4:20 pm

I will bet that the lawsuit fails and the fellow gets nothing. Which will, of course, prove absolutely nothing to his detractors.

Nor should it, since the merits of the lawsuit and the merits of Diamond’s work are entirely separate questions.

Jake, I’m unclear: Are you conceding the point that *even if* Wemp (is there some reason you keep misspelling his name?) behaved exactly as you say, Diamond, by repeating his false stories without making any effort to check them, has shown himself to be a bad journalist who has no business writing in The New Yorker? Or are you evading it?

113

roger 05.21.09 at 4:53 pm

And I’d bet the lawsuit never gets to court. The New Yorker is unlikely to treat Diamond like the NYT treated Judy Miller – given the facts as we know them at the moment, they are on the hook, and probably not pleased to be on the hook with Diamond. Given the Science articles interview with Diamond, they are on the hook with a guy who is doubling down, even as his story slips away from him (I particularly like how the accusation that Wemp stole 300 pigs is working out – even the New Yorker person has to say, well, that is a lot of pigs ). No notes for the first conversation, and then the four year follow up call in which, apparently, our bribed driver/joker just decided to confirm all kinds of fictions. Maybe Diamond sent him money afterwards. If Diamond has a sensible lawyer, they will all reach a settlement. If he decides to stubbornly stick by his story and go to court, he’ll look like a fool and a liar, and that is the kind of thing that kills hosting the next PBS special, or whatever. Isum simply has to stand up and take the witness chair to put the quietus on the report that he is paralyzed for life. Of course, maybe the New Yorker has been thinking that a display of legal force – compared to the comparatively feeble representation of the two New Guinea plaintiffs – will scare them off. My guess is, however, that the sudden burst of publicity kills that strategy. Retraction, damages, case withdrawn. That is how I envision the end game.

114

Righteous Bubba 05.21.09 at 4:56 pm

Well, he’s a leader of a tribe

The emphasis is somewhat different.

115

Marc 05.21.09 at 5:08 pm

lemuel – if you read through the complaint you don’t get the sense that the story is false. There really was a tribal war, people really were killed, and these sorts of events are far from uncommon. The dates are apparently in dispute; the war was not as long as claimed, nor did it take as many lives as claimed. The central role of the narrator was overblown.

That is in the category of “sloppy”, in the sense that I’d expect some confirmation from another source. I’d reserve “false” for, say, just making things up. As opposed to getting a garbled story.

Many of the denials in the claim are pro forma: “We love peace and hate fighting, as all good people do.”

I do think that Diamond made a serious mistake by naming his interlocutor, as the complaint does clearly indicate that the publication of the article put him at risk. Not from the law, as some of the posters here claim – but rather, from extrajudicial retaliation. He might well have gotten some important clarifications or retractions if Wemp realized that it was going to a broader audience.

I leave this, however, with precious little regard for Shearer – and it drops the more I read on her website. She’s playing the role of judge, jury, and executioner, and the picture on her website is less true than Diamonds. Outrageous distortions in the service of vendetta strike me as pretty serious too. My opinion of the Savage Minds crowd was already quite low after my previous encounter with them, so it is thus unchanged. I think that Diamond clearly made mistakes and I’ll take his anecdotes with a serious grain of salt in the future; the burden is on him to be more careful if he wants to be taken seriously.

116

harold 05.21.09 at 9:48 pm

It is a well-known phenomenon that people often do not like the results when their interviews are published. To protect himself, Diamond should have kept notes so that he could show that he had not changed or slanted what his driver said.

That said, the question of whether he is a trained ethnographer or has expert knowledge of social science is a different one. On the other hand if Diamond had shown the manuscript in advance to people who did have expert knowledge, it might have saved him a lot of headaches.

I have only read excerpts of his books, but have found them to be quite thought provoking.

The idea that generalizing in anthropology is taboo because it might lead to conclusions that could be interpreted as racist, sounds a bit like a case of bad conscience. All knowledge has an element of comparison in it, I would have thought. If anthropologists are not going to do it, others, such as geneticists and biologists probably will.

117

Righteous Bubba 05.21.09 at 10:09 pm

To protect himself, Diamond should have kept notes so that he could show that he had not changed or slanted what his driver said.

Indeed. His gullibility would then be unchallenged.

118

Jake 05.21.09 at 10:35 pm

The emphasis is somewhat different.

Diamond says things like “leader of a tribe in battle”, it’s Shearer who says things like “criminal”, “rapist”, and “murderer”. Obviously the emphasis will be different.

119

Righteous Bubba 05.21.09 at 10:37 pm

Fair enough.

120

Sam Hankins 05.21.09 at 11:01 pm

“His work is provocative and it’s rather fun to read, but we shouldn’t expect the people who spend their whole careers studying the periods, places, and concepts that he breezes by in a few scant chapters not to want to put their objections on record.”

Perhaps it’s time for the people who spend their careers studying this stuff to write about what they know in an accessible and “fun to read” way. The reason Diamond sells so well is because he’s an engaging writer. He writes clearly, concisely, and without jargon for a general audience. If there weren’t such a dearth of accessible writers in the social sciences perhaps challenges to Diamond’s authority would have more weight beyond the confines of academic blogs.

121

herr doktor bimler 05.21.09 at 11:12 pm

He writes clearly, concisely
GGS is nearly 500 pages long. Whatever its virtues, concision is not among them.

122

Salient 05.21.09 at 11:16 pm

Perhaps it’s time for the people who spend their careers studying this stuff to write about what they know in an accessible and “fun to read” way.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to assert that because researchers haven’t written an accessible fun book, they are disqualified from complaining about inaccuracies in another person’s accessible fun book… your point doesn’t make sense to me.

123

Danny 05.22.09 at 12:40 am

Jake, Your scenario about how things happened (Mako John Kuwimb contacting Wemp, and creating a cover-up) is, with all due respect, silly. how would you jump into conclution with as such,when you dont know what really is happening back in Niugini where Wemp comes from.
I think while Mako being a PHD candidate in James Cook University hope he is trying his very best to at least put every information said about his tribes to be real and would be best reflectted to the outside world as how his people really are. and not as those as Daimond has said about.
Their-fore, If I were you Jake I would be are good observour rather then be part and puzzle of either Daimond or Wemp.

124

Sam Hankins 05.22.09 at 1:05 am

“I don’t think it’s reasonable to assert that because researchers haven’t written an accessible fun book, they are disqualified from complaining about inaccuracies in another person’s accessible fun book… your point doesn’t make sense to me.”

There wasn’t much of a point. Just that as since Diamond’s essential forum for disseminating what is perceived by many experts in the field to be poor scholarship, perhaps one of youse guys could use a similar forum to expouse a counter argument. Diamond fills a niche. If he’s doing such a lousy job at it, why don’t the experts go out there and beat him at his own game? Maybe it’s time to expand the playing field beyond academic blogs and out into the world of the NTY best-selling list.

125

Barbar 05.22.09 at 1:24 am

Also, if you think Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh is a blowhard, why don’t you leave the ivory tower and become a multimillionaire talk show host? Put up or shut up, fool.

126

Watson Aname 05.22.09 at 1:51 am

Wouldn’t that require living the life of a millionaire blowhard ?

127

Walt 05.22.09 at 2:05 am

Is there some sort of application process by which one can become a millionaire blowhard?

128

Watson Aname 05.22.09 at 2:19 am

Yes, but I understand the process is tedious and lengthy, and the success rate small. You can become a pauper blowhard on any budget though, working only part time.

129

Rhonda R Shearer 05.22.09 at 2:21 am

[cut -ed.]

To comment 120 who wrote:
” Diamond says things like ‘leader of a tribe in battle’, it’s Shearer who says things like ‘criminal, ‘rapist’, and ‘murderer’. Obviously the emphasis will be different.”

I quote from Diamond’s April 21, 2008 article in the New Yorker because my guess is many here have not read the original article. The quotes in isolation are telling.

“Though we might wonder how Daniel’s society came to revel in killing,”

“The maiming of Isum did not end the affair for Daniel.”

“As it turned out, it took three years, twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs before Daniel succeeded in discharging this responsibility.”

“For example, Daniel’s methods might seem quite familiar to members of urban gangs in America, and also to Somalis.”

“As I eventually came to realize, Daniel’s thirst for vengeance and his hostility to rival clans are really not so far from our own habits of mind as we might like to think.”

“Isum suited Daniel’s needs perfectly, because he was tall, handsome, and marked as a future leader, just as Soll had been. By killing Isum, Daniel would exact appropriate revenge for Soll’s death.”

The pay rate for a kill—payable in Daniel’s case to the man who shot the arrow that paralyzed Isum—is eighty pigs plus fifteen thousand kina, around fifty-four hundred dollars. Highland etiquette forbade Daniel to tell me who fired the arrow, but he did say that he was a member of another clan, who lived far away and had a grievance of his own: about twenty-five years previously, some Ombal clansmen had damaged his village and killed his grandfather.”

“When he succeeded in paralyzing Isum, his [Daniel Wemp’s] desire for revenge was satisfied, and the Handa-Ombal war ceased to concern him.”

Daniel explained to me that Handas are taught from early childhood to hate their enemies and to prepare themselves for a life of fighting.”

“Daniel was proud both of the aggressiveness displayed by all the warring clans of his Nipa tribe and of their faultless recall of debts and grievances. He likened Nipa people to ‘light elephants’: ‘They remember what happened thirty years ago, and their words continue to float in the air. The way that we come to understand things in life is by telling stories, like the stories I am telling you now, and like all the stories that grandfathers tell their grandchildren about their relatives who must be avenged. We also come to understand things in life by fighting on the battlefield along with our fellow-clansmen and allies.’ ”

“Normally, a clan first tries to obtain vengeance within three weeks. During that period, the situation is tense, and people feel especially aggressive.”

“Yet hiring killers to kill Isum was permissible. By killing Isum or arranging for Isum’s killing, Daniel explained, ‘I would lose Isum as an uncle, but that would be worth it, because I would gain my revenge.’ ”

“Daniel’s clan realized that it would have to enlist supporters from other villages. The selection of allies posed tricky and dangerous problems. The New Guinea Highlands are full of aggressive men seeking revenge for their own reasons, and skilled at using treachery to achieve it. Whenever a battle takes place, men not hired by either side are likely to present themselves, hoping for the opportunity to kill an enemy of their own. ‘You have to make sure that the men that you hire as paid killers or allies are real enemies of your target, bearing grievances….

“But it continued to concern Daniel, who was now, of course, a target for Ombal revenge. He told me that Ombal men tried for several years to kill him and three other Handa clansmen who had been fight-owners, but they never succeeded. “The four of us were too tough for the Ombal people to kill,” he boasted. I asked him whether he had feared for the safety of his wife and young son, who were surely not too tough to kill. Daniel explained that he worried about his son but not his wife. She was not a Handa, and, if the Ombals had made the mistake of killing her, they would have acquired a whole new set of enemies.”

“But the Huli candidate, as Daniel put it, ‘won the game,’ and the Nipas, considering this ‘a personal problem,’ responded by blocking highways on which supplies reached the Hulis, stopping vehicles, and killing Huli men they found in the vehicles and raping Huli women.”

“Daniel seems satisfied with these developments. Once he said to me, ‘I admit that the New Guinea Highland way to solve the problem posed by a killing isn’t good. Our way disturbs our day-to-day life; we won’t be comfortable for the rest of our lives; we are always in effect living on the battlefield; and those feelings go on and on in us. The Western way, of letting the government settle disputes by means of the legal system, is a better way. But we could never have arrived at it by ourselves: we were trapped in our endless cycles of revenge killings.’ ”

“I asked Daniel why, on learning of Soll’s death, he hadn’t saved himself all the effort and expense, and just asked the police to arrest Isum. ‘If I had let the police do it, I wouldn’t have felt satisfaction,’ he replied. ‘I wanted to obtain vengeance myself, even if it were to cost me my own life. I had to ask myself, how could I live through my anger over Soll’s death for the rest of my life? The answer was that the best way to deal with my anger was to exact the vengeance myself.’ ”

“Jozef remained tormented by regret and guilt—guilt that he had not been able to protect his parents, and regret that he had failed in his responsibility to take vengeance. That was the responsibility that Daniel had satisfied, and the terrible burden that Daniel had spared himself, by personally orchestrating the shooting of Isum…Yet, even if the killer had been properly punished, Jozef would still have been deprived of the personal satisfaction that Daniel enjoyed.”

50. . “Daniel concluded his story in the same happy, satisfied, straightforward tone in which he had recounted the rest of it. ‘Now, when I visit an Ombal village to play basketball, and Isum comes to watch the game in his wheelchair, I feel sorry for him,’ he said. ‘Occasionally, I go over to Isum, shake his hand, and tell him, ‘I feel sorry for you.’ But people see Isum. They know that he will be suffering all the rest of his life for having killed Soll. People remember that Isum used to be a tall and handsome man, destined to be a future leader. But so was my uncle Soll. By getting Isum paralyzed, I gained appropriate revenge for the killing of my tall and handsome uncle, who had been very good to me, and who would have become a leader.’”

And for the record, from my careful analysis of the facts, I do not believe that Wemp ever told Diamond that he was a killer or sponsored the “maiming” of Isum, nor do I believe that Diamond ever believed that Wemp WAS a killer.

130

grackle 05.22.09 at 3:40 am

Is there some sort of application process by which one can become a millionaire blowhard?

I’ve heard its a matter of karma (incomplete).

131

Jenny 05.22.09 at 3:50 am

I think the racial issues of GGS and this article are

1) GGS seems to imply that simply due to agricultural factors as opposed to a history of colonialization, Europe came out on top (More critique here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/Blaut/diamond.htm)
2) This article and the depiction of the parties involved protrays the PNG natives as violent tribal savages

132

adamhenne 05.22.09 at 4:20 am

I apologize if this point has been made earlier in this 130 comment stream – but characterizing the earlier arguments about Guns Germs and Steel as ‘Diamond=Racist’ is a very poor reading. None of us (I’m an anthropologist and frequent savageminds commenter) claimed or cared if Diamond himself is a racist. His core argument in GGS is thoroughly Eurocentric, though, and lends ideological support to racist arguments about the current world hegemony by white people. We’ve also speculated that the massive popularity of the book may not be so much a result of its ‘accessible’ style than it’s capacity to let Euro-America off the hook for centuries of conquest and colonialism. It’s not our fault, the geography made us do it, and anyone in our position would have done the same. GGS is based on a specious argument for a dozen reasons, none of which can be reasonably boiled down to ‘Diamond=racist’.

133

adamhenne 05.22.09 at 4:35 am

I should add that in the NY article Diamond is explicitly claiming that his anecdotal accounts of the urge for vengeance in two different social settings somehow demonstrate a universal human trait – “what can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even.” The only conceivable basis for this argument is what anthropologists call the ‘comparative method': traits and behaviors found in contemporary ‘primitive’ societies must be the same as those found in the ancient ‘primitive’ societies from which our own modern society evolved. Thus we moderns continue to display them as either cultural relicts from an earlier age, or as biologically innate qualities.

The comparative method was popular in anthropology in the 1920s or so, but has long since crumbled under the weight of overwhelming archaeological and ethnographic evidence. The only people still plugging away at it are sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists or whatever they call themselves. Even if Diamond’s evidence were sound, which it patently isn’t, his actual thesis is still completely empty. And that leaves aside the anthropological critique of his loose definitions – is there any reason based on evidence to believe that the emotions and practices he lumps together under the heading “vengeance” are the same?

My point being, in connection with my comment above: no-one claims or cares that Diamond himself is racist. But he continues to make claims about history and biology that defy all expert consensus, and that support the racist ideology latent in at least American society… So whatever Diamond’s personal ideology and character, there’s racism at work in the popularity of his ideas and the general willingness to take him as seriously as we do.

134

adamhenne 05.22.09 at 4:42 am

Regarding Sam’s comment: If he’s doing such a lousy job at it, why don’t the experts go out there and beat him at his own game? Maybe it’s time to expand the playing field beyond academic blogs and out into the world of the NTY best-selling list.

This is something we beat on ourselves and each other about all the time. But like I’m saying in the rants above, there’s reasons why we see so few good anthropological writers on the best-seller list, and it’s not that none of us have tried to get there. Sometimes bad arguments go a lot further than good ones, especially when a) they’re simple and unambiguous and b) they make us feel better about ourselves.

As a counter-example, though, let me recommend Jonathan Marks’ What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee. Although not (yet?) a bestseller, it’s accessible and entertaining, while using real expert knowledge to counter racist ideology instead of reinscribe it.

135

Dr Zen 05.22.09 at 6:34 am

“One reason why cultures in continent X lagged behind Eurasia in material culture is that no animals were available for them to domesticate. The absence of any such animals is shown by their failure to domesticate any.”

I’d like to know which Australian animal you think would be domesticable.

“things like the imperial subjugation of half the world are taken to have no relevance for understanding why Africa, say, is so darned poor”

No. His thesis is precisely that they are so darned poor because we had the guns, the germs and the steel and they didn’t. Are you suggesting that something else was responsible for it?

I think #96 nailed it. And since when was it racist to believe that tribal peoples conduct revenge killings? Cultures that include revenge killings are cultures that include revenge killings. I have read in more than one place that Albanians conduct blood feuds. Am I a racist for believing that that’s true? Or only if I repeat someone’s story that they shot someone for shooting their brother without going to their village and interviewing everyone involved? An idiot maybe. A racist? Hmm.

136

Tim Quilty 05.22.09 at 9:58 am

“I’d like to know which Australian animal you think would be domesticable.”

Wombat, Wallaby, Emu, Possum. That’s just in 10 seconds off the top of my head. I had a pet kangaroo as a kid, it was pretty tame. Also an emu that lived with the chooks. If wild kangaroos weren’t so plentiful I’d get into breeding them. For that matter, given a few generations I reckon I could domesticate Zebra. Haven’t read GGS, but I don’t buy this argument.

137

herr doktor bimler 05.22.09 at 10:49 am

I’d like to know which Australian animal you think would be domesticable.
Dingos!!
Do I win a prize?

138

harold 05.22.09 at 1:55 pm

There was an article in the TLS recently about how on reflection Philip Larkin changed virtually every word (I exaggerate) of an interview he gave, one of the first, if not the first, of his career. He re-wrote the whole thing taking into consideration how every statement would affect, this friend, this parent, this colleague. Few people have such an instinct for self-presentation as he did.

139

rich 05.22.09 at 2:07 pm

giotto @ 11:30 pm

“ ‘…it may be that Diamond was overly eager to believe the tall tale . . .’.

Well, such tales also resonate deeply with long and deeply held stereotypes about how savage are all those savages off in the savage lands. Can you imagine Diamond hearing that story in, say, Minnesota, and accepting it without question?”

Yes. Easily.

Authentic stories with mythic resonance are a dime a dozen in Minnesota and Wisconsin. To help you glom onto the total lack of difference between Papua New Guinea and the US of America, civilization-wise, consider for just a moment a tale of honor and revenge with the locale shifted to Kentucky. Or New Orleans. Or, just read a few Flannery O’Connor stories. Southern writers and tale-spinners display a mythic resonance that don’t avert their gaze from the utility and need for honor, righting wrongs and revenge. They at least acknowledge those human impulses. Northern cultural traditions that ignore those psychological traits don’t erase them, nor do they make the very real news stories endemic to the Upper Midwest, that clearly display the same qualities, somehow go away.

Your position defaults to ‘believes a story’ = ‘racist’. Yet you ascribe this to the ‘savage’ setting. I’d suggest it is you who stereotypes eagerly here, first by equating the indigenous setting in Papua New Guinea with ‘savageness’ and by assigning belief in such a long-dead prejudice to Diamond, who has plenty of experience seeing past that never-sturdy construct.

140

harry b 05.22.09 at 4:20 pm

And yet, such an unfortunate portrait of himself he presented anyway.

141

lemuel pitkin 05.22.09 at 5:16 pm

GGS is based on a specious argument for a dozen reasons

I think a little more specificity is needed here. The arguments in GGS are of some value for explaining the differences between Eurasia-Africa on the one hand and Oceania and the Americas on the other. They are of very limited and dubious value for explaining the differences between Eurasia and and Africa. (Africans have been making iron implements, if not steel ones, for as long as Europeans, and certainly didn’t lack for germs.) They are of no value at all for explaining differences within Eurasia, as Diamond basically acknowledges before engaging in some silly speculation in his last chapter anyway.

(On the within-Eurasia question, I highly recommend Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, which usefully refocuses the issue from internal dynamics to external constraints.)

142

notsneaky 05.22.09 at 5:36 pm

“For that matter, given a few generations I reckon I could domesticate Zebra.”

I don’t know anything about the others you mentioned (just note there’s a difference between “tame” and “domesticate”) but this one Diamond specifically talks about at some length in GGS precisely because it seems like it could’ve been done but wasn’t. Basically even with modern breeding and training techniques, folks tried and couldn’t. So it’s not surprising that folks 10,000 years ago didn’t either. Apparantly, Zebras are mean little smuckers and it can’t be bred out of them in a few generations.

143

Marc 05.22.09 at 6:04 pm

[cut -ed.]

#134: GGS is not about colonialism – virtually the entire book, and all of the interesting part for me, is about periods of time which precede it by millenia. It is intellectually dishonest to fault a book about one topic because it isn’t about another. Certain places on the globe happened to have access to plants and animals, which allowed them a head start on agriculture. This in turn gave them advantages which explains some broad regional patterns – thus disproving the alternate idea that there were intrinsic genetic differences which were instead responsible. Claiming that this somehow, somewhere, supports racist ideologies is bizarre to those of us outside the hothouse. It’s a symptom of a lack of clear thinking and a tendency to wrap oneself in ideological pretzels. Confront the actual argument instead of saying that a completely different topic is more useful.

144

notsneaky 05.22.09 at 6:17 pm

“GGS seems to imply that simply due to agricultural factors as opposed to a history of colonialization, Europe came out on top”

So what you’re saying is that (some) Europeans acquired Guns, Germs and Steel because they were colonizers, not that (some) Europeans became colonizers because they had Guns, Germs and Steel. Right.

“His core argument in GGS is thoroughly Eurocentric, though, and lends ideological support to racist arguments about the current world hegemony by white people.”

How? The only way I can see this being true is that his argument focus on Europe vs. other parts of the world. But of course that’s because he’s asking why Europe was the colonial power, not other parts of the world (as much).

Now whether you call Diamond himself racist or just his arguments, either way it’s a serious charge. How exactly do his arguments support “current world hegemony by white people”?

“it’s capacity to let Euro-America off the hook for centuries of conquest and colonialism”

You’re apparently under the mistaken belief that to explain something is to excuse it. Geography gave Europeans the tools that were necessary to colonize. That doesn’t justify the use of these tools in that particular way, as I think Diamond makes clear.

Also, most European nations never really colonized anything (excepts their neighbors) – we’re really just talking the English, the French and the Iberians here. Russians too I guess though they incorporated what they grabbed into their territory. And everybody always forgets that the Ottomans had quite an empire, ruled in many ways similarly to the way that the British ran theirs, and which collapsed only a few years before Britain lost hers.

145

Doctor Slack 05.22.09 at 10:41 pm

The debate over “is Diamond racist?” is less interesting than “how accurate/interesting is anything Diamond says?”

There’s lots of stuff in GG&S that looks “striking” at first glance but turns out to be wrong or fudged or misleadingly presented. What’s supposed to be its most “striking” contribution to geographical determinism, the whole east-west axis concept, is basically bullshit, based on a pile of inaccurate claims about the extent to which crops can adapt to different climates, misleading comparisons between staple crops, straightforwardly wrong attempts to claim virtues for the Mediterranean climate based on the prehistory of the Fertile Crescent (which doesn’t have a Mediterranean climate, or rather has many other climates besides, a rather large oversight on Diamond’s part), and so on.

Once the more “striking” claims go by the wayside owing to Diamond’s sloppiness about constructing them, GG&S really has nothing to offer that other, better geographical determinist explanations hadn’t already covered much more effectively. It’s ultimately one of the least essential books of its kind. The really tantalizing mystery it leaves us with is about the Pulitzer Prize committee that selected it.

146

Shawn Crowley 05.23.09 at 12:15 am

I’m trying to imagine using kangaroos as draft animals. Funny but not very efficient.

147

notsneaky 05.23.09 at 12:57 am

Dr. Slack, can you provide some reading material which shows that Diamond’s claim about the east-west vs. north-south orientation is “bullshit”?

148

mike shupp 05.23.09 at 1:43 am

Just to strike of into left field here (or off in some perpendicular direction, anyhow)… It strikes me that New Guinea is filled with Bigman-style cultures, and that Diamond had the misfortune of running into a proto-typical would-be Bigman with Daniel Wemp, and made the not-terribly-unusual mistake of taking a native’s boast for reality. At least this seems to explain the dynamics for me.

Perhaps one of the anthropologists here with a PhD after their name could explain Bigman cultures for the educational benefit of the rest of us?

149

harold 05.23.09 at 2:05 am

150

Shawn Crowley 05.23.09 at 2:57 am

A number of posters have taken positions about whether it was reasonable for Diamond to have taken Wemp’s statements at face value.

Diamond’s reliance might well have violated anthropological research standards but is well within reason under modern legal conventions (at least in the US and, possibly, the UK). Two well-established exceptions to the hearsay rule: 1) admission by a party-opponent (a party’s own statement in either an individual or representative capacity); 2) statement against penal interest (a statement against the declarants own interest tending to subject the declarant to civil or criminal liability). Short version: people don’t say bad things about themselves unless true.

My own personal view is that false confessions are a bad idea unless excused by a proper police beating.

151

mike shupp 05.23.09 at 3:11 am

There’s a LONG history of male anthropologists taking as true statements about social reality made by male informants, while female anthropologists record rather different statements about the same social reality made by female informants. Generally the male informants (and male anthropologists) ignore what the females have to say; generally the females are ….uh…skeptical… of male informants’ claims….

Ohmigod! I LOVE anthropology!

152

theo 05.23.09 at 3:20 am

No one’s mentioned journalist Patrick Tierney and Leslie Sponsel’s “Darkness in El Dorado” jihad against Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel nearly ten years ago.

That crusade, which eventually received the imprimatur of the AAA (American Anthropological Association), just went to show the ideology wars among anthropologists (in particular social anthropologists of a strong leftist orientation) to sustain a blizzard of horrific accusations backed up by mostly bullshit.

This current conflict reads like the last gasp of the anthropological blood feuds. Just as with Tierney and Sponsel, there’s plenty of motivation for everyone (grad student, source, journalist) to distort their story.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Diamond were a sloppy reporter, though. He’s certainly a sloppy writer — especially Collapse.

153

adamhenne 05.23.09 at 4:19 am

re: 144, advantages which explains some broad regional patterns – thus disproving the alternate idea that there were intrinsic genetic differences which were instead responsible.

One of the problems here is that the “intrinsic genetic differences” explanation for the current shape of the world is a straw man. Who exactly is making this argument? Diamond doesn’t cite anyone, and I can’t off the top of my head think of anyone in academia or the public sector who makes it.

Claiming that this somehow, somewhere, supports racist ideologies is bizarre to those of us outside the hothouse.

You can find it bizarre if you like, but it’s not complicated, and I don’t think your confusion represents everyone outside the “hothouse”. Most people would agree that it’s not a good thing that certain nations dominated world history, leaving white folks significantly better off than dark folks in some dramatic ways. But how did that situation come about? Oh thank goodness, it’s not because anybody made any racist decisions, it’s not because white supremacist ideas authorized the massive slaughter of less powerful folks, it’s just that the shape of continents gave some people some stuff that others didn’t have. Any other population in the same position would have done the same. Nothing to feel guilty about after all.

It’s a symptom of a lack of clear thinking and a tendency to wrap oneself in ideological pretzels.

Like I said, the point is really quite straightforward, no pretzeling required. GGS claims to demonstrate that a bad set of outcomes is the inevitable result of unavoidable conditions rather than decisions and agency. Therefore no moral judgement can adhere to the original actors or us, their descendants. A loose analogy can be made to sexual assault: some might argue that rapists can’t help it, the biological urges to mate are innate and inevitable and in some cases irresistable. The “hothouse” term for this kind of argument is naturalizing something.

Confront the actual argument instead of saying that a completely different topic is more useful.

I think that’s what I’ve done. The point that I’m making, anyway is that GGS lends support to latent US racist ideology, and I’ve made a straightforward argument. Others can talk about the enormous factual and logical gaps in GGS itself – such as the SavageMinds essays y’all are so scared of. What’s interesting to me is why the book is so popular.

154

notsneaky 05.23.09 at 4:29 am

“One of the problems here is that the “intrinsic genetic differences” explanation for the current shape of the world is a straw man. Who exactly is making this argument? Diamond doesn’t cite anyone, and I can’t off the top of my head think of anyone in academia or the public sector who makes it.”

Maybe there isn’t anyone in academia (though some of those evo-psych folks make me wonder) but Diamond’s book isn’t written for academic. It’s written for a popular audience. And I think you’re being quite naive if you don’t think that there are plenty people out there – educated, respected, nicely dressed, people who read ‘popular science’ books who do hold those kinds of ideas.

“it’s not because anybody made any racist decisions, it’s not because white supremacist ideas authorized the massive slaughter of less powerful folks, it’s just that the shape of continents gave some people some stuff that others didn’t have. Any other population in the same position would have done the same. Nothing to feel guilty about after all.”

Hmmm… “is a straw man. Who exactly is making this argument? “

155

adamhenne 05.23.09 at 4:33 am

At the risk of becoming the anthropology police – you’re dramatically misrepresenting the Darkness in El Dorado episode, Theo. Anyone interested in what actually happened and why it’s quite a bit more interesting than an “anthropological blood feud” should check out Borofsky’s Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy, Tierney’s actual book, and Doug Hume’s archive on the subject.

156

adamhenne 05.23.09 at 4:37 am

notsneaky, I’m not sure what you’re getting at with this:
Hmmm… “is a straw man. Who exactly is making this argument? ”

But the paragraph you quoted is my capsule summary of Diamond’s argument, as read by the same general audience to which you refer. And I have had that precise conversation with dozens of students and family members. If you really want to argue that such a thing has no part in the popularity of GGS and Diamond’s international success, I think you’re the one being naive.

157

Righteous Bubba 05.23.09 at 4:52 am

Nothing to feel guilty about after all.

What’s morality without hellfire?

158

Barbar 05.23.09 at 5:00 am

Hmmm… “is a straw man. Who exactly is making this argument? ”

Zing!

Comments 133, 134, and 135 suggests that adamhenne is aware of something known as “racist ideology” that might be worth “countering,” so I’m not sure I buy his apparent ignorance about people who make “intrinsic genetic differences” arguments.

Most people would agree that it’s not a good thing that certain nations dominated world history, leaving white folks significantly better off than dark folks in some dramatic ways. But how did that situation come about? Oh thank goodness, it’s not because anybody made any racist decisions, it’s not because white supremacist ideas authorized the massive slaughter of less powerful folks, it’s just that the shape of continents gave some people some stuff that others didn’t have. Any other population in the same position would have done the same. Nothing to feel guilty about after all.

If only someone had written a bestselling book called “Spanish Supremacy, French Supremacy, British Supremacy: Why ‘We’ Should All Feel Really Guilty About What Happened.”

159

mike shupp 05.23.09 at 5:09 am

Adamhenne — Um umm ummm. I got a problem here.

Diamond set out to write a book explaining why Europeans ended up (at the current historical moment anyhow) running the world. Or as he originally phrased it, Why did Europeans show up in New Guinea with so much “cargo” while the native people of New Guinea had so little?

It is a moderately interesting question, and Diamond had moderately interesting answers to give. More than moderately interesting, actually. One can quibble. One might wonder why Western Europeans had so damned little “cargo” from say 400 to 1600 AD, and why the Chinese had so damned much from say 200 BC up to 1800 AD and did so little with it. But what the hey, no book’s perfect.

However, on about SEVENTEEN occasions now, you have stated that Diamond’s book is worse than useless, not because it contains bad answers to that interesting question, but because it justifies or provides cover for or excuses nasty people who answer that question with racist answers. How we make the transistion from Diamond’s geographism to racial supremacy pretty much escapes me, since Diamond doesn’t make it in the book and seems to be leaning backward — even by your admission — to establish that racism is NOT an answer.

But apparently, he committed the sin of discussing the topic of European supremacy and that’s enough for you to damn him to the outer reaches of hell — because of what people who won’t be troubled to read him, or never were in a position to read him, have said or thought over the last 500 years.

This is NOT reasonable. This is NOT sane. You’re basically condemning the man’s work not because you dislike his answers, but because the very question he originally asked drives you straight up the f***ing walls. As far as I can see here, there is no way Diamond or anyone else could have tried to answer “Why do Europeans have so much cargo?” that would not offend you, because you are so damned annoyed that Europeans did get that cargo.

History is a landslide, sir. It is a record of stuff that happened. The rocks bounced this way, the soil slithered along here, the child in the swimming pool was swamped by rubble here, the houses along the roadway were flattened at such and such a time…. This is reportage. Sure, looking back in retrospect we can see the disaster and regret the loss and suffering, but the account itself has no moral, no ethical demand. We are not required to be Republicans or Democrats or fervent Socialists when we read about a historical catastrophe; it is not reasonable to insist that every student of geology view a landslide and proclaim that henceforth she will be a libertarian. Some stuff just happens. Diamond wrote a book trying to explain why things happened as they did, and that doesn’t make him evil, despite your deepfelt concerns.

Pull the beam from your eye, sir. Please.

160

John Emerson 05.23.09 at 5:12 am

As for the domestication issue, the failures to domesticate the eland and the American bison were probably the result of the fact that in a modern economy both of them would been in competition with a species that had been bred to human specifications for ( millennia. Neither had any net advantage at the time that the experiments were done, and no one wanted to breed them for ten or twenty generations to see whether an advantageous package could be produced.

161

notsneaky 05.23.09 at 5:20 am

Adam, I can only repeat:

A: “But the paragraph you quoted is my capsule summary of Diamond’s argument”
B: “is a straw man”

A: “as read by the same general audience to which you refer”
B: “Who exactly is making this argument? “

“And I have had that precise conversation with dozens of students and family members. “

I really don’t want to be mean here, (though it’s sort of hard, what with this word “naive” being thrown around). So I won’t bother to explain this to you in detail. But let’s just say that your “students and family members” are probably not the target group you want to go to if you wish to have some good faith, honest, criticisms of your preconceptions that are of at least non-negative value.

162

notsneaky 05.23.09 at 5:43 am

“Neither had any net advantage at the time that the experiments were done”

I don’t think this is true. The auroch was domesticatable the zebra (or it’s ancestor) was not. So modern competition from other species doesn’t have much to do with it. From the way I understand it they tried REALLY hard to domesticate certain types of animals, which means that they pulled out all stops, and costs and benefits didn’t really have much to do with it. It was a scientific experiment, not a market driven attempt.
Basically, the auroch was made into domesticated first because it could be, only afterward it was bred to look like cows. With some other animals the process just never got off the ground cuz they couldn’t be domesticated to begin with.

163

notsneaky 05.23.09 at 5:49 am

To qualify my above statement, if an animal needs to have 10 or 20 generations to be transformed into something that can be domesticated, then if we’re talking people 12,000 years ago, that pretty much means it’s not domesticatable. On the other hand, an animal that is readily domesticatable through a generation or two (with some intermediate stages in between) – that’s gonna work a lot better.
How do you get animals that can be domesticated within a generation or two? Diversity and luck.
And that’s Diamond’s argument.

164

mike shupp 05.23.09 at 6:13 am

Domestication is kind of a mysterious process. It’s interesting to note that the South Americas managed to domesticate llamas but not the apparently similar alpacas, and that no one ever managed to domesticate deer and elk and moose, which look like being tailor made for it. History says the Egyptians domesticated gazelles about 3 to 4000 years ago; modern day gazelles don’t seem to believe it.

Rats, squirrels, and other rodents have generally been viewed down through history as undomesticatable; one could probably argue that modern day lab mice and lab rats are domesticated animals, and in fact for some time people have been making pets of hamsters and gerbils and even rats. Arguably also, minks and ermines and foxes were domesticated during the 20th century, or at least bred in captivity long enough to become accustomed to that state. Whether this is “domestication” or simply “taming” is an interesting question — once you start thinking about it, the question of whether house cats are “domestic” or just “tamed” seems to pop up, since what most pleases cat fanciers is precisely the “independence” of their pets.

As for the bison … I suspect the stumbling block was not that buffalo CANNOT be domesticated, but that it’s darned tough. Adult buffalo are big and strong. Male buffalo settle arguments by banging heads together, and buffalo tend to solve safety issues by running off mindlessly in real large herds. We could probably manage smallish buffalo herds today with our technology — in fact, we do — but it’s sort of understandable that American Indians — who didn’t have horses until the late 1500’s or later, remember — had to throw up their hands at the idea.

165

Shawn Crowley 05.23.09 at 6:29 am

In my experience some closely related species do differ markedly in disposition; some will tame, others rarely. Examples: the Burmese python tames easily, sometimes in a week or two, while a reticulated python will still bite readily after years in captivity. The Burmese is common in the pet trade while the reticulated is not a popular pet.

One species of pit viper (Wagler’s) is given free run of some Malaysian temples. This is possible due to this species’ reluctance to bite during daylight hours. Any number of con-generic species will bite you any time of the day. Why these differences exist is a puzzle but they certainly impact their human interactions.

As for American bison, they are very, very large (males as much as 2200 lbs.), stubborn and not given to taking direction. Even today, with modern materials, it is very difficult to prevent a bison from breaking through a fence. Their size also makes them very dangerous to work with. Much easier to kill one and eat it than break it to a plow.

166

Keith M Ellis 05.23.09 at 6:51 am

As someone who doesn’t have much emotional investment in any of the core positions involved in the various feuds represented here (those in NPG are the least of them!), what strikes me about this thread and the previous GG&S/SM threads on CT is just how obviously drenched in ideology these feuds are and just how little those involved in these feuds are aware of this.

When reading the CT threads on GG&S, which for the most part defended it, I was struck by how felicitous the CT commenters found Diamond’s geographically determinist argument as contrasted against how infelicitous most of the same commenters find similarly deterministic evolutionary psychology arguments. Both share the same weaknesses: they are simplistic, they are “just so” arguments, they diminish the rich complexities of human agency, they tend to act as rationalizations of the power and wealth status quo, they ignore decades of research in mature fields which carefully examine the subject, they appeal to those who accept them because the theories “feel right”.

Furthermore, how a group of people can be so exquisitely sensitive to the ways in which evolutionary psychology/sociobiology often validates racism and sexism while conveniently eliding the notion of guilt and responsibility for its existence can simultaneously find it utterly obscure and unfair to claim that geographical determinism might do the same things (with regard to the injustices associated with race) is…well, it’s astonishing and disappointing.

And then there are the defenses of charges against Diamond of racism on the basis that he denies the existence of biological determinism in GG&S and that he asserts that “primitives” are more astute and intelligent than moderns. Well, among the progressive anti-racists that I’ve known for most of my life, it’s been long understood that racism can take forms other than biological determinism and that racism can involve supposedly positive characterizations of socially disadvantaged racial groups. “But Diamond thinks that primitive people are really cool!” is about as convincing a rebuttal of his possible racism as “But I think that Black people are really cool!”.

And, frankly, Diamond’s New Yorker article could have been right at home alongside other 1940s era articles extolling how those noble savages have much they can they can teach us about the healthier way to live.

Meanwhile, Shearer and the cultural anthropologists are also clearly reflexive in their dislike of Diamond because, in fact, his geographical determinism does share features with evolutionary psychology/sociobiology. Their ideological affinity is for explanations which privilege human agency to the exclusion of all else, to deny any sort of reductionist deterministic explanations as a priori being both unscientific and obviously dangerous.

What’s so disturbing to me is that it seems that any given person’s reaction to GG&S and this most recent episode of Diamond’s can be predicted by a relatively simple description of the intersection of his/her professional affiliations and political ideologies.

Because Diamond’s GG&S seems to be superficially anti-racist, then if you’re a progressive but not an anthropologist (or otherwise sensitive to nuanced forms of racism and, more importantly, how racism functions), then you find GG&S very appealing, vividly explanatory, and a powerful anti-racist tonic.

If you’re a progressive, but also an anthropologist and aware of nuanced racism and erudite in the literature describing its history and how it socially functions, especially the history of the intersection of racism and geographical determinism, then you find GG&S to be simplistic, insidiously exculpatory and Eurocentric, factually wrong in many of its arguments, appealing to the racist impulse to exoticize the cultural “other”, and suspicious with its familiar racist trope of portraying “primitive” cultures to be apparently superior in carefully selected particulars—which Diamond continues in his New Yorker article.

And never the twain shall meet. To someone like myself without the emotional investment almost every commenter here seems to have in this debate (my own response to GG&S was ambivalent but mild; I found it interesting and provocative and insightful while, at the same time, found the extremely ardent reception it received in so many quarters to be more than a little unsettling) it seems to me that Diamond’s arguments have enough merit to be seriously considered but not wholeheartedly embraced; and that he does, indeed, alarmingly often fail a certain kind of sniff test relating to racism (though this alone doesn’t necessarily invalidate his arguments); and that this most recent incident seriously calls into question his integrity as a scholar and intellectual—though, again, this doesn’t invalidate everything the man’s ever written.

More proximately, I am very disturbed to see how deeply so many commenter’s emotional investment in Diamond, one way or the other, can disproportionately negatively affect their ability to consider and discuss the relevant issues here in the educated, fair, and reasoned manner of which they are otherwise clearly capable.

Frankly, to my mind, this is a powerful case study in the argument that popular science books simply cannot be, on balance, valuable in any way.

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mike shupp 05.23.09 at 8:01 am

Keith Ellis –

Forgive me. It’s late. I’m old and tired and unsophisticated and impolite. But it seems to me, you’re giving us the kinder and gentler version of what we’ve already had from Adam Henne: some sort of racism is deeply embedded within every word that Jared Diamond has written and really clever people can recognize it and understand the weaknesses of his arguments.

And as an old tired crude and impolite person, I gotta say: You’re Wrong.

There’s one issue that really counts in this world, and has had that position for more than sixty years: Will the US and the USSR decide to blow the planet up, and all of civilization, and all the human race, this afternoon? From the late 1940’s up to the present, that’s been the quintessential human question. Arguably, we learned the answer was “No” around 1991 or so when the Soviet Union went south, but even in these better times it must be admitted that was A Real Serious Question.

But we’ve been permitted to move on, and if I understand you and Mr Henne, the great issue of the day is Whether Or Not We Recognize The Racism In Our Views?
Not What Should We Do About Our Racism? but whether or not we recognize that our popular culture has brainwashed us into being racists. And of course, the answer is NO. Only anthropologists and particularly anthropologists “aware of nuanced racism and erudite in the literature describing its history and how it socially functions” are really aware of how deeply sunk in racism we all are. The rest of us, being contemporary liberals, just aren’t sophisticated enough to understand.

And… and…. and…. I’m old and tired and unsophisticated. Words fail me.

Come visit. I’ll find a really big rock to hit you with.

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Barbar 05.23.09 at 8:08 am

Keith, like you I am very dispassionate and objective about when I think about this.

I don’t see the perfect symmetry you seem to perceive between geographic determinism and evolutionary psychology. For example, evolutionary psychologists spend considerable energy arguing against the “blank slate.” According to their own arguments, EP is something to pay attention to because it places boundaries and constraints on human nature, something utopian political extremists blind to reality just can’t acknowledge. At the same time, good decent people with normal politics will find that EP poses no problem for their beliefs, because any educated person is aware of the naturalistic fallacy. Anyway, my point is that EP proponents therefore place the field in the context of a political debate, even as they decry the mix of science and politics, because that is what makes it matter to the general public. To the extent that the naturalistic fallacy implies that EP is irrelevant to politics, EP is, well, irrelevant to politics; and if EP is relevant to politics in some case, then it will be on the conservative side of the issue.

Diamond’s geographic determinism argument is also part of a general ideological debate: is the world’s balance of power a function of the characteristics of human races (white people are the smartest), or has it been determined by environmental factors? (False dichotomy but whatever.) Diamond’s answer falls on the liberal side of the divide. Now it is true that his argument could be used to validate racism and defend the status quo — lots of arguments can — but in fact that is not how his argument is generally used. Did the readers of GGS really finish the book and then say, “Well, there’s no longer any point in anyone participating in politics, because all major events in world history are just caused by geography, and there is no such thing as free will?” No, they just thought to themselves, “I used to worry that all those dark-skinned people across the globe are poor because they’re naturally dumb, but now I know that it was just luck and longitude. Crazy stuff.”

Of course some readers may have thought going in that “dark-skinned people across the globe are poor just because the white man was a race supremacist and massacred them, and only racists would think otherwise” and in this context Diamond’s book would be serving a racist purpose. But this debate is not the main event, so to speak.

I read GGS several years ago. I liked it but was (and am) in no position to evaluate its claims. Given that Diamond is a successful popular writer, I am certain that his arguments contain serious flaws and that his whole thesis is probably wrong (but I don’t believe anyone’s been helpful enough to shed any light on the matter in this 160+ comment thread). Also, the New Yorker incident is a disgrace.

I have also been rather unimpressed so far with the anthropologists who are supposed to be “aware of nuanced racism” and wary of the “racist impulse to exoticize the cultural other.” Perhaps I am being ungenerous but calling for guilt about historical events strikes me as somewhat incoherent (isn’t the process of identification required for this guilt to make this rather problematic from a “nuanced” point of view?)

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notsneaky 05.23.09 at 8:17 am

“Keith, like you I am very dispassionate and objective about when I think about this.”

Me Too! I agree!!!

He said “felicitous”. Heh heh. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyel7CIjWcU&feature=PlayList&p=83D15EE5F38CE2FD&index=5

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Barbar 05.23.09 at 8:19 am

End of that comment s/b

isn’t the process of identification required for this guilt to make sense rather problematic from a “nuanced” point of view?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.23.09 at 8:29 am

@ adamhenne, 154: GGS claims to demonstrate that a bad set of outcomes is the inevitable result of unavoidable conditions rather than decisions and agency. Therefore no moral judgement can adhere to the original actors or us, their descendants. A loose analogy can be made to sexual assault: some might argue that rapists can’t help it, the biological urges to mate are innate and inevitable and in some cases irresistable.

Even as a loose analogy this is a very bad analogy. There is the concept of “human agency” – rapist, acting as an individual, making decisions. OK, sure, there’s also a similar marxist concept of collective agency, having to do with socio-economic classes.

But I don’t think anyone would assign agency to a primitive society, which is what Diamond is describing in GGS. Societies, especially primitive societies, don’t make decisions, they adapt and they evolve.

You can’t think of a society comprised of thousands or millions of people as if it were a single individual. Isn’t it kinda obvious?

172

Charles S 05.23.09 at 8:45 am

Keith,

It is always so nice to have someone of perfect neutrality and rationality around. I’m sure that your grand conclusion from this thread was a great surprise to you as well.

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Keith M Ellis 05.23.09 at 9:34 am

“…but in fact that is not how his argument is generally used.”

But it is. How is they’re poor because it’s from their biology that qualitatively different from they’re poor because it’s from their geography? Racism-as-biology intends to validate the status quo power and wealth relations on the basis of biology. Racism-as-geography does the same thing on the basis of geography.

That you or anyone else can be so blinkered that you think that removing biology from the argument necessarily makes it anti-racist is astonishing to me.

Also, your argument distinguishing EP from geographical determinism is very odd. Your argument is that EP is unlike Diamond’s theory because EP is used for the explicit purpose of limiting how much unjust social structure (distribution of power and wealth) can be said to be the responsibility of human politics. Yet Diamond’s geographical determinism says nothing at all if it does not also limit how much unjust social structure (distribution of power and wealth) can be said to be the responsibility of human politics. EP proponents claim that biology is the limiting factor. Geographical determinists say that the geography is the limiting factor.

But wait! A defender of EP might say that he/she is simply attempting to describe why certain human behaviors are what they are, without making moral arguments or even politically normative claims. Yet I’ve never seen anyone who dislikes EP to accept this assertion—and considering how often EP has been used to counter, say, feminist arguments in smug, patriarchal tones, I’m not surprised.

So, given that smug-toned assertions rebutting social justice arguments have been made upon a geographically deterministic basis—and they have; more’s the pity if you’re not aware of it—then why, exactly, do you expect the anthropologists to be any more convinced by your assertions of Diamond’s innocence than you are by EP-proponents who assert theirs?

Barbar, also, I don’t know if I’m either as dispassionate or objective as you. I don’t think, in fact, that I’ve claimed to be either dispassionate or unusually objective. What I did claim, however, was that I don’t have the same emotional investments in this argument that apparently almost everyone else here does. My own passions and subjectivity may be leading me astray, just not in the same way or with regard to the exact same things as are those here who are taking these two so notably and peculiarly opposing positions.

mike shupp, the concern is that a) geographical determinism can be a sort of “safe harbor” for racists; and b) an excuse for comfortable non-racists of the developed world to believe that they have not benefited from the racism of their ancestors (or, for that matter, contemporary political policy) and therefore have no responsibility for it or the state of the developing world today…not merely the need for the vapid soul searching of your straw man.

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Keith M Ellis 05.23.09 at 9:47 am

“Diamond’s geographic determinism argument is also part of a general ideological debate: is the world’s balance of power a function of the characteristics of human races (white people are the smartest), or has it been determined by environmental factors? (False dichotomy but whatever.) Diamond’s answer falls on the liberal side of the divide.”

If you realize that this is a false dichotomy, then shouldn’t it be clear to you that by not falling on the “white people are the smartest” side of the divide, Diamond is not necessarily falling on the “liberal side of the divide”?

Indeed, isn’t the liberal side of the divide that the world’s balance of power is a result of “some people doing things to other people” and the conservative side that it’s a result of “environmental factors”?

In no political universe is saying that the Earth’s geopolitical power and wealth imbalances are the result of “environmental factors” liberal.

175

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.23.09 at 10:22 am

Um, Keith, one thing you need to realize is that for most people this is not about the ideological purity, but about the truth. If, for example, racial theories were correct, then it would’ve been silly to reject them because you’re on one “side of the divide” or the other. Similarly, with Diamond’s theories – to a rational individual it only matters whether they make sense or not. Doesn’t matter how it fits your ideology or how it can be used.

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Keith M Ellis 05.23.09 at 12:08 pm

Sorry, I don’t see a love for truth in this debate. In Diamond’s defenders, I see a lot of emotional investment in an interesting popular book driving intellectual inconsistency and a lack of self-awareness.

They just don’t seem to be aware that we no more need a geographically determinist explanation for the geopolitical inequality in the world than we need an evolutionary psychological explanation for the economic inequality between men and women. Worse, they don’t seem to be aware that their suspicions of those who enthusiastically embrace EP explanations for sexist outcomes are no more warranted than the suspicions held against themselves for enthusiastically embracing geographically determinist explanations for racist outcomes.

As for Diamond’s critics…at first I thought they were intemperate and slightly ideologically inflexible. Now, after having read these CT threads, I think that if they are, they’re excusably so.

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harold 05.23.09 at 2:24 pm

I think people here are using the word determinism in a mistaken sense. A historical explanation is not necessarily a deterministic one. Living in the Southern hemisphere does not doom everyone there to poverty in the future just because the people there were historically poor (if that was the case — that is to say “poor” by our standards, perhaps in actuality they were spiritually rich) during certain periods of history. The whole human race came from the Southern hemisphere originally (Africa) , then some of them went north as far as the Arctic and came back down to the Southern hemisphere — in the case of South America, for example. Where there was an abundance of protein in the form of fish, there was no need to domesticate animals or engage in complex farming.

It is not so much about Diamond, IMO, I don’t see why there should be an attempt to censor people from writing and/or speculating about this.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.23.09 at 3:00 pm

Well, there’s nothing wrong with determinism anyway, it’s not a swearword. They seem to be using it as a way to discredit the common concept of cause and effect. Instead, they offer their extremely silly idea that history is produced by some sort of struggle between good and evil; evil people doing their evil deeds for the reason of them being evil, and good people resisting them by reason of their goodness. This whole line of argument is something you would expect from an underdeveloped 12-year-old boy.

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Patrick 05.23.09 at 3:01 pm

“How is they’re poor because it’s from their biology that qualitatively different from they’re poor because it’s from their geography? Racism-as-biology intends to validate the status quo power and wealth relations on the basis of biology. Racism-as-geography does the same thing on the basis of geography.”
That’s maybe the dumbest thing I’ve ever read.

First of all, the fact that racism sometimes validates the status quo isn’t the only reason that its bad.

Second, saying that someone is poor because they were born into poor circumstances does not “validate” the status quo in the same way as does saying that someone is poor because they’re inherently inferior due to their race. To most people these are opposites, in fact.

These are not unobvious points.

180

roac 05.23.09 at 3:16 pm

I have read this thread, and I have read the earlier ones on the same topic linked to by Henry. As a mere distant observer of academia, I ought to keep my mouth shut; but it seems clear to me that there is an aggressive faction that is committed to the position that there is something about the European West and its descendants that is uniquely evil, and will wage war against anybody who casts doubt on that proposition, whetehr explicitly or by implication.

That accusations of racism are one of the chief weapons system employed seems a little ironic. No doubt those employing it would say that White Man’s Curse is not genetic but cultural; but the same tactic has been adopted by the traditional racists as well. As when S.P. Huntington says the US needs to seal its southern border becausue of the threat posed by “Hispanic culture.”

181

Doctor Slack 05.23.09 at 4:16 pm

notsneaky: can you provide some reading material which shows that Diamond’s claim about the east-west vs. north-south orientation is “bullshit”?

Given what are supposed to be the foundations of Diamond’s claim, this is a little like being asked to provide a cite refuting a claim that human behaviour is best explained by our hexapodia.

Take Diamond’s claims about crops, climate and the “east-west axis.” At one point in GG&S, he rather sneakily tries to imply that maize is essentially a tropical crop that Canadian farmers would be hard-pressed to cultivate (which would certainly come as a surprise to the corn farmers of Taber, Alberta)… yet corn is universally acknowledged by any source that discusses the subject as an essential part of the pre-Columbian horticultural package as far north as the Great Lakes. (Note that Diamond is careful not to actually say that corn can’t be cultivated outside its original range; he’s content to strongly imply it and then skate over the facts that would rather starkly undermine his attempt to build up the importance of the “east-west axis.”) If I had to pick a cite I’d suggest a general reference work on the archaeology of prehistoric Native America, most of which contain detailed summaries of the scholarly consensus about the diffusion of maize from Mesoamerica.

A further component of his claims about the Eurasian axis revolve around the role he supposes the Mediterranean climate to have played in the evolution of the region’s flora and fauna. Which single cite do you pick to refute this, when it’s trivially obvious from all available general reference material on the matter that the Fertile Crescent is — and has historically been — characterized by climate diversity, not by a single climate? It would probably be more interesting to make reference to other theories that address the same subject without getting their most basic facts wrong — the “Saharan pump theory” would be one of these. (And the Burroughs book cited in that WikiPedia article is quite good.)

What about misleading comparison between staple crops? GG&S spends a fair amount of time talking about the higher protein content of West Asian cereals as in some way establishing the importance of the Eurasian axis, a discussion that rather skates over, for the most part, the fact that all the crops being compared were being consumed in combination with other foods and the more meaningful comparison would be between the protein content of these various diets. Do we really need a specific cite to grant this?

Examples of that kind of sloppiness and fudging aren’t isolated in GG&S. They’re the rule. It’s just a shitty book, basically.

182

adamhenne 05.23.09 at 4:17 pm

I’ll make a couple of points here. The first, briefer and more comfortable one, is that there’s lots of literature out there on the archaeology and behavioral ecology of animal domestication. Which, in character, Diamond mostly ignores in GGS. I can dig up some citations if anyone’s interested. This is not to say I think he’s necessarily wrong in what he argues in this regard, since I’m no expert there, just that again it neglects real knowledge in favor of anecdote.

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Doctor Slack 05.23.09 at 4:22 pm

In my third paragraph above, first sentence: “the evolution of the region’s flora and fauna”

This obviously should have read “the evolution of the Ferticle Crescent region’s flora and fauna.”

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Marc 05.23.09 at 4:37 pm

#182: “too simple” isn’t the same as “full of bullshit.” When I look over, say, popular astronomy books I tend to try and avoid being hypercritical. I can recognize that a lack of precision, or eliding a subtle point, is different from being fundamentally wrong.

North-south *is* different from east-west from the point of view of climate. North and South America really are distinct places, and it would be difficult to move crops from one to another. Africa really does have a rain forest, and a desert, both of which would make it very hard to gradually move crops from point A to point B. He’s not arguing that the climate is the same at fixed latitude – that is a very poor reading. He’s arguing that you could adopt plants pretty readily if the climate was similar, and that it is very difficult to do so when you have to cross, say, the tropics or the Sahara.

Color me unimpressed with the critique. I found the book interesting, and did not expect it to be definitive scholarship any more than a popular book would be in any other field. I’m drawn into the discussion because I find the attacks on the book intellectually weak, and a fascinating variety of self-marginalization by professionals.

e.g. I usually assume that specialists know what they’re talking about, but when obvious faulty logic is used to critique something then I begin to wonder what’s going on.

185

adamhenne 05.23.09 at 4:39 pm

The second point is more important, and stickier. I’m glad that Keith Ellis has arrived and said something sensible – and I’ll admit to being in fact a little intemperate and ideologically inflexible, that’s pretty accurate.

But pretty much every other comment in response to mine has been way off – misreading my points so thoroughly that I can only assume I’m being read in bad faith. So I’ma try one more time here:

I didn’t at any point say Diamond was a racist, or even that his book was racist. I think his book is dumb, but there’s a lot of dumb books out there. I said that the reading of his book by many many folks, and the role that it plays in popular discussion, lends support to racist ideology. If the distinction between those two things still isn’t clear, I don’t think I can help you any further.

The reason GGS plays this role is emphatically not that it dares to discuss the taboo topic of European domination. There are many good books that do so, and I wish that the American public and the CT commentariat would read them. The problem is that GGS provides one explanation for that domination – ultimately, the shape of the continents – and explicitly rejects all others as ‘proximate’. This writes out actual history, politics, ideology, and actually everything that anybody ever did said or thought. By itself on the shelf, that’s just bad thinking. In circulation on the bestseller list and the popular consciousness, it plays basically the same role as the ‘genetic determinism’ y’all would like to think it debunks.

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adamhenne 05.23.09 at 4:45 pm

Patrick in 180 – in fact, that is pretty unobvious. Because to say that someone is poor because of the circumstances they were born into rather than their genetics is surely correct and quite nice. But if the circumstances to which you refer are an accident of geology and not anything to do with political or economic structures, you are making sure that no-one anywhere has to take responsibility for those circumstances, and tacitly rejecting the idea that perhaps those circumstances shouldn’t be. The argument isn’t between ‘circumstances’ and ‘genetics,’ it’s ‘what the hell do we mean by circumstances?’

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adamhenne 05.23.09 at 4:46 pm

Oops, sorry Patrick – I didn’t mean “you are making sure” as in you yourself, I meant as in “one”.

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Katherine 05.23.09 at 5:05 pm

Adamhenne, I don’t think your comments were as clear as you think they were. I’ve read this thread with much interest, without a particular axe to grind, and I thought you were indeed saying that Diamond’s book was racist. You may not have said it directly, but it read to me like you were strongly implying it. I wasn’t reading in bad faith, I don’t think.

Your comment at #185 makes your position much clearer, although you seem to be somewhat harsher on Diamond’s responsibility for how other people might (or have) read his book than I think is reasonable.

189

adamhenne 05.23.09 at 5:16 pm

Thanks Katherine, I guess that’s so. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been overconfident about my own clarity – just ask my partner…

190

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.23.09 at 5:32 pm

This writes out actual history, politics, ideology, and actually everything that anybody ever did said or thought. By itself on the shelf, that’s just bad thinking.

Seems to me it’s exactly the right thinking, for the scope of the book. All these things: politics, ideology, and actually everything that anybody ever did said or thought – all of it is just meaningless noise.

191

Barbar 05.23.09 at 5:45 pm

In no political universe is saying that the Earth’s geopolitical power and wealth imbalances are the result of “environmental factors” liberal.

Well prior to this exchange I had thought liberalism was some sort of mainstream school of thought. Now I realize that it’s basically a fringe perspective that insists that all human events must be fully explained by deliberate intentions. Also, liberals believe that when two cultures interact with each other, the less racist one is intrinsically doomed to be destroyed by war and disease. This is because real liberals aren’t racist at all, and would never exoticize the other.

“Why is there a racial test gap in the US? Some people would say that it’s because there are natural differences in intelligence between races, and others would say it’s because of environmental factors. Both these positions are illiberal and racist. A real liberal would emphasize racism as a causal factor and identify people who should feel guilty.” Right.

Look, I have no strong emotional stake in defending Diamond. I don’t think I’m familiar with a successful pop social science book that didn’t turn out to be full of shit in some important way. Laymen tend to be overly impressed by breezy “ultimate” explanations, and so it is entirely natural that people who spend their careers doing the real work of figuring out “proximate” explanations get pissed off. And then everyone else goes “Huh? Why are you so emotionally invested in defending your turf? Lighten up Francis, that pop book was fun,” which of course just adds to the frustration.

But this “I’m not saying that Diamond’s book is racist, it’s just that his arguments can be used by racists” thing is silly, especially when the guy saying that also writes:

One of the problems here is that the “intrinsic genetic differences” explanation for the current shape of the world is a straw man. Who exactly is making this argument? Diamond doesn’t cite anyone, and I can’t off the top of my head think of anyone in academia or the public sector who makes it.

I mean, come on.

192

Barbar 05.23.09 at 6:03 pm

OK, this wasn’t really well thought out, and actually works against my point rather than for it:

“Why is there a racial test gap in the US? Some people would say that it’s because there are natural differences in intelligence between races, and others would say it’s because of environmental factors. Both these positions are illiberal and racist. A real liberal would emphasize racism as a causal factor and identify people who should feel guilty.” Right.

Because racism is indeed a causal factor in this case (although whether it makes sense to find people who should feel guilty is another matter).

But let me salvage this example by using it to show that people who argue that human agency and intentionality matters above all are also playing into the hands of racists. After all, how often do you hear people say, “Well, we used to be a racist society with slavery and Jim Crow and what-not, but nowadays we are much less racist. In fact, we have affirmative action, we just elected a black President, and so on. Therefore if the test gap persists, it can’t be because of deliberate racism.” It’s a dangerous argument!

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Keith M Ellis 05.23.09 at 6:19 pm

“To most people these are opposites, in fact.”

Yes, well, more’s the pity. I guess this demonstrates that most people are idiots.

Rather than being opposites, the notion that a group of people, as a class, are poor because they are intellectually inferior is exactly the same sort of notion that a group of people, as a class, are poor because they were born into poverty. Both attribute the poverty to an external cause that is outside of that group’s agency. Both attribute the poverty to an external cause that is explicitly not the actions of other groups. (Such as discrimination against the poor and powerless by the wealthy and powerful.)

“Being born poor” is, in the context of Diamond’s argument, being a culture that happens to have an environmental handicap. The modern version of racism is the argument that a culture is “poor” because it happens to be made up of people with a genetic handicap. Environment, genetics…these are externalities beyond anyone’s control; these are explanations that are exculpatory.

An argument which is the opposite of modern racism would be that a poor and powerless group are thus because they choose to be poor and powerless—that it was not imposed upon them by anything or anyone except themselves. That this is no less an offensive and destructive argument should strongly suggest to you that it’s not the question of whether a poor and powerless group is so because they did it to themselves or it was the result of circumstance that makes it offensive and destructive…it’s something else. What is that something else? The denial that this powerlessness and poverty were done to them by someone else. That’s what’s offensive and destructive.

Genetic racism and geographical determinism are both essentialist arguments for a status quo of poverty and powerlessness. Both claim, for example, that there is something essential about being an “African” which ensures that one is poor and powerless—the former by biology and the latter by environment.

That you and, apparently, others so clearly and strongly believe that the destructiveness of racism lies in its notion that some people are biologically inferior only demonstrates how ignorant and shallow is your knowledge and awareness of racism.

“The argument isn’t between ‘circumstances’ and ‘genetics,’ it’s ‘what the hell do we mean by circumstances?’”

I wouldn’t put it this way. Genetics is a ‘circumstance’ no more and no less than poverty. The question is if a group is poor and powerless because of the actions made by others. There have historically been numerous varieties of racism. All answer that question with a “no”—they differ only in where else they place the responsibility. One might place it in biology, another in geography, and still another in God.

It is indeed a great eye-opener for me to discover that so many see the primary evil in racism—indeed, its nature—to be the claim that a group of people is biologically inferior and not its denial of human responsibility for the systematic oppression against such a group.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.23.09 at 6:43 pm

He speak of oppression too. He is trying to explain why group A gets to oppress group B and not vice versa. He thinks it could be explained by environmental factors. What’s your explanation?

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Keith M Ellis 05.23.09 at 6:45 pm

“But let me salvage this example by using it to show that people who argue that human agency and intentionality matters above all are also playing into the hands of racists.”

You’re mischaracterizing my argument to the point of absurdity.

For example, I wrote:

“In no political universe is saying that the Earth’s geopolitical power and wealth imbalances are the result of ‘environmental factors’ liberal.

To which you responded:

“Well prior to this exchange I had thought liberalism was some sort of mainstream school of thought. Now I realize that it’s basically a fringe perspective that insists that all human events must be fully explained by deliberate intentions.”

Your response would make sense only if “Earth’s geopolitical power and wealth imbalances” is equivalent to “all human events” and if not by “environmental factors” then “fully explained by deliberate intentions”.

Nowhere have I argued that “human agency and intentionality matters above all”. Rather, I have argued that when human agency and intentionality have so unambiguously been demonstrated to have explanatory power with regard to things like racial disadvantage and “the Earth’s geopolitical power and wealth imbalances” it is really fucking suspicious when someone makes an argument entirely eliding human agency and intentionality, and large numbers of people eagerly embrace said argument. Furthermore, when someone points this out they are told they are stupid, uninterested in the truth, and motivated by jealousy of their academic turf.

This is even more remarkable because it is the typical pattern of behavior of the defenders of books like The Bell Curve and sexist evolutionary psychology, not CT progressives. But, apparently, because CT writers and commenters haven’t been sensitized against this particular variety of smelly thinking and, indeed, found it quite appealing…they behave similarly and rabidly as those defenders of racism from whom they have been heretofore (and onward, sadly) certain they are Completely Different and Undoubtedly Superior.

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adamhenne 05.23.09 at 6:51 pm

I wouldn’t put it this way. Genetics is a ‘circumstance’ no more and no less than poverty. The question is if a group is poor and powerless because of the actions made by others.

Thanks, Keith, I think that’s what I meant. Genetics, poverty, racism, capitalism, etc are all circumstances. But some just happen, some can’t be changed, and some are ongoing acts that can and should be changed.

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Keith M Ellis 05.23.09 at 6:52 pm

“He is trying to explain why group A gets to oppress group B and not vice versa. He thinks it could be explained by environmental factors.”

If I could imagine a more illiberal, immoral project than this, I don’t know what it might be. Keep posting, Henri, you’re making my argument better than I ever could.

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Katherine 05.23.09 at 6:55 pm

Rather than being opposites, the notion that a group of people, as a class, are poor because they are intellectually inferior is exactly the same sort of notion that a group of people, as a class, are poor because they were born into poverty. Both attribute the poverty to an external cause that is outside of that group’s agency. Both attribute the poverty to an external cause that is explicitly not the actions of other groups. (Such as discrimination against the poor and powerless by the wealthy and powerful.)

I don’t follow this, and I think people may be talking at cross purposes here. For example, when I say that people are poor because they were born into poverty, I am most certainly not letting the wealthy and powerful off the hook.

A person could, I suppose, say the former and say that therefore there is no responsibility for this to be had by anyone, but one assertion does not necessarily lead to the other.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.23.09 at 7:12 pm

If I could imagine a more illiberal, immoral project than this, I don’t know what it might be. Keep posting, Henri, you’re making my argument better than I ever could.

Sure, happy to help; so what is your explanation? Why did the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs and not vice versa? Surely you must have some sort of explanation, some idea, no?

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Barbar 05.23.09 at 7:17 pm

Keith, your emotions seem to be getting the better of you, so let me offer some more dispassionate analysis to calm you down.

Any account of history is going to abstract away from certain factors (take them for granted) and focus on explaining other factors. When you say that you just want to emphasize human agency, not exclude all other causal factors, but you insist that Diamond focuses on geography while deeming everything else in the universe irrelevant, we get a recipe for misunderstanding and bickering. I thought someone as level-headed as yourself would understand that.

People are attracted to “big-picture” stories of human history because they like Big Ideas. While there are many racists in the world (we might all be a bit racist), it is not at all “suspicious” that people are attracted to a parsimonious theory that seems to explain everything. Most people find the “white people dominate the world just because they are the biggest racist assholes” theory of history rather unsatisfying, and so it is not sinister that they see some appeal in a theory that actually seems to explain military dominance and mortality rates. Once again, I’m surprised that a disinterested observer would fail to understand this. Insisting that it all boils down to racism is an obvious formula for misunderstanding and bickering.

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Barbar 05.23.09 at 7:38 pm

And can someone clue me in on examples of people using Diamond’s argument to make politically objectionable claims? It’s interesting that we have 200 comments, many from people with no emotional stake in whatever is being debated, and yet there are no examples. Is this debate really raging because most people here are apologists for colonialism? Is whether or not “we” should feel guilty about colonialism a pressing political issue nowadays? (Collective guilt about colonialism… surely a sign of nuanced thought about racist assumptions, with no questionable assumptions about “our” racial identity.)

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mark f 05.23.09 at 9:18 pm

Well, this is disappointing. I’ve read through 202 comments and come to nothing. I would like to see some sort of explanation from Keith Ellis as to why it is “illiberal” and “immoral” to explore why Group A can assert its prerogatives over Group B, and for him to answer Henri V’s latest question.

Because it seems to me that Group A (Europeans) unquestionably dominated Group B (Native Americans) as well as Group C (Africans) pretty thoroughly. And maybe it’s just my inherent, violent European nature speaking here, but I think that Group B and Group C weren’t willingly dominated. In other words, Group A only prevailed because it had some advantages. If it is an illiberal and immoral (and therefore illegitimate?) project to ask what those advantages were and how they developed, then what is the point of all the academic fields that study human societies?

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herr doktor bimler 05.23.09 at 10:48 pm

What’s so disturbing to me is that it seems that any given person’s reaction to GG&S and this most recent episode of Diamond’s can be predicted by a relatively simple description of the intersection of his/her professional affiliations and political ideologies.

I object to this simplistic, reductionist, determinist attempt to account for people’s responses to simplistic, reductionist, determinist accounts.

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adamhenne 05.23.09 at 11:25 pm

Hi Mark. If we, like Diamond, refuse to discuss why Group A dominated B and C, and only want to talk about how, then there’s reason to be skeptical. And if the answer, like Diamond’s, amounts to nothing more than “Because they could,” then that’s a pretty pointless discussion. And if that pointless discussion, like Diamond’s, goes on to become outrageously popular and influential, then somebody somewhere is up to something illiberal and perhaps immoral.

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adamhenne 05.23.09 at 11:38 pm

It happens that I’ve got a snarky post on this subject up over at my place, if anyone wants to wander over there and leave poor Crooked Timber alone. And while I’m linking, let me refer interested parties to some actual content, such as Gewertz and Errington’s Yali’s Question, West’s Conservation is Our Government Now, or Foster’s Coca-Globalization, just a sampler of works about the relationship between Papua New Guinea and the developed world that don’t explicitly reject history, politics, philosophy, culture, or people.

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Marc 05.24.09 at 12:23 am

Diamond was talking about why group A got a technologically head start over group B. That’s a different subject than “why did group A oppress group B”.

I do wonder why the accusations of racism get used so casually; it is just about the least likely way to have a useful exchange. It adds “you’re a bad person” to “you’re wrong”. Kieth adopts a particularly unfortunate variant of that above – conflating people unpersuaded by him with explicitly racist books like the Bell Curve and with sexist and smelly tactics and ideas. I view it as the rhetorical equivalent of a kidney punch; an attempt to win an argument via intimidation when rhetoric alone is deemed insufficient.

I find the logical hoops seen in #196 ridiculous. Diamond says that some environments were not as favorable as others. That’s the same thing as saying the environment is poor, which is like saying the people are poor, which is like saying that they deserve to be poor, which is the same as racism. And if we don’t see it we’re ignorant and you’re suspicious that it’s actually convenient cover for our underlying bigotry.

You’re not getting a quarrel because the folks here are bigots; you’re getting a quarrel because this is incoherent and we hold ourselves to a standard of rigor in the words which we use.

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Patrick 05.24.09 at 2:08 am

adamhenne- First of all, you haven’t actually answered me. There’s still a difference between calling a race genetically inferior and saying that someone was born into impoverished circumstances. The fact that you feel (or you perceive others to feel) that poverty is only something one should ameliorate if first someone other than the impoverished person can be blamed does not actually alter this.

Second, the logic as I see you advance seems to go as follows:

1. Explaining the historical origins of poverty in terms of geography leaves us without someone to blame.

2. Without someone to blame no one will do anything about poverty.

3. Therefore poverty cannot be explained in terms of geography, OR,

4. I should unfairly castigate people who do explain poverty in terms of geography so as to better achieve my political aims.

I disagree with all four of these.

1. When your use of geography relates to explaining why certain groups successfully exploited other groups, this does not leave you without someone to blame.

2. I do not believe that an inability to effectively blame someone will mean that no one will be interested in ameliorating poverty. This is easily proven, people donate to victims of natural disasters, groups give foreign aid to victims of violence not perpetrated by the donors, etc.

3. This obviously doesn’t follow except in a fantasy land where wishing makes things so.

4. And this is dishonest. I suppose maybe I could be moved to endorse dishonesty if I thought that crackpot arguments equating geographic determinism with racism were the only ways to accomplish good in the world, but I don’t, so I don’t.

Note that none of these arguments actually require me to accept any degree of geographic determinism- the “geography = racism because it excuses inaction so we should castigate it” position is a crackpot argument no matter what your thoughts may be on Diamond’s book.

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adamhenne 05.24.09 at 2:29 am

I’m not sure what you mean by rigor, Marc. I’ve cited half-a-dozen sources, with links, I’ve defined a bunch of terms, and named the logical fallacies on which Diamond and his defenders rely. My argument is one I share with dozens of other academic types with lots of training and degrees – I’ve taught courses on this kind of subject. Whereas the defense of GGS I’ve heard here so far have been, like, “Why are you calling me a racist?” and “You’re naive” or “This doesn’t make sense outside the hothouse.” If that’s rigor, I’m not impressed.

Also, this: Diamond was talking about why group A got a technologically head start over group B. That’s a different subject than “why did group A oppress group B” is precisely the problem. Diamond claims to be answering the question “Why does group A have all the stuff and group B have nothing” – this is ‘Yali’s question’ from his introduction. The fact that he, and you, conflate the global and racial inequalities uncritically with the technological head start is the root of the whole problem.

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azazel 05.24.09 at 3:12 am

Diamond claims to be answering the question “Why does group A have all the stuff and group B have nothing”

From my reading, he seems to be answering a somewhat different question: “why, at the time Group A colonized and dominated Group B, were they in a position to do so and not vice versa?” I don’t see him offering geography as a complete explanation for poverty today or denying the contribution of political factors to modern poverty.

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adamhenne 05.24.09 at 3:28 am

Sorry, Patrick, I didn’t see any questions in either of these comments. Still don’t – maybe you can clarify? And I can’t make heads or tails of the 4 points you attribute to me or the other 4 that you appear to think are rebuttals thereof. But I think you’ve called me a crackpot, so we’re getting somewhere.

But at the risk of misreading you, let me reply to your use of the phrase “someone to blame”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems you think I’ve argued that there just should be someone to blame or else an argument isn’t useful or interesting or capable of promoting moral conduct. I’m not sure where you’d get that, but if that’s what you’re arguing against I suppose you’re right, as in the case of donating to the victims of natural disaster.

Has nothing to do with what I’ve said, though. The point is that GGS explicitly refuses to consider time-tested explanations of global inequality based in the history of colonialism, economic geopolitics, ideologies of race, etc. In effect the book says, “let’s forget about those arguments where someone’s done something wrong to someone else, and go after an explanation where there’s no one to blame.” To use your natural disaster analogy, the global inequality discussed (sort of) in GGS is a little bit like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We all had plenty of reason to believe people and institutions had done some terrible things that led to death and destruction, but some folks said “Natural disaster! Nobody’s fault! Heckuva job, Brownie!”

It’s not that I think we must have someone to blame, but when someone to a great degree is to blame, insistently focusing attention elsewhere makes one complicit.

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notsneaky 05.24.09 at 3:29 am

I’ve given up on this discussion.

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notsneaky 05.24.09 at 3:33 am

Before I leave I want to thank Dr. Slack for his answer and for at least making a cogent argument.

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lemuel pitkin 05.24.09 at 3:46 am

Why did the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs

Again, it would help if we could acknowledge that the answer to this question might be *different* from the answer to the question of why, let’s say, the British ended up ruling India and not vice versa. Notsneaky thinks the idea that technological differences are explained by imperialism, rather than vice versa, is so obviously wrong that a a sarcastic “right” is enough to refute it. But you only have to know a smidgen of history to realize that Europe’s technological advantages over China, India, the Islamic world, etc. came *after* it’s military dominance of those regions, not before.

But while I’m basically on the side of Adam Henne, Keith Ellis, etc., there is one thing Adam keeps saying that I don’t get: He criticizes Diamond for “let[ting] Euro-America off the hook for centuries of conquest and colonialism” and for implying that “anyone in our position would have done the same.” This seems orthogonal to the main line of debate, and it’s not clear why Adam’s other (very convincing) criticisms of GGS should point this way. Do you really think military conquest is a unique, or even distinct, European proclivity?

And what does who is on the hook have to do with anything? We’re not St. Peter here. Our goal to build a world where all individuals and cultures can develop all their capacities, not to assign blame for the nightmare from which we’re still trying to wake up. And even if we didn’t want to do the latter, what does it even mean to hold “Europe” morally accountable?

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lemuel pitkin 05.24.09 at 3:50 am

the rhetorical equivalent of a kidney punch

People who get really worked up about *accusations* of racism, but never visibly by racism itself, kind of creep me out.

Dude: racism is real. Some arguments are racist. Other arguments are not themselves racist, but consistently end up supporting racist positions, or getting support from them. There’s nothing wrong with pointing this out. You think Keith or Adam are wrong, fine, say so. But don’t go calling for the smelling salts, or pretend someone has beaten you up, just because they used the ‘r’ word.

215

lemuel pitkin 05.24.09 at 4:58 am

Also, Adam (I argue with people in proportion as I feel on common ground with them), you’re simplifying the picture of colonialism to the point of distortion. It’s well known that the common formula of empire was “indirect rule where possible, direct rule where necessary.” The most characteristic, and ideal from the imperialists’ point of view, form of imperial rule has always through local elites — just look at the American empire today. Direct conquest, as a rule, is an inferior choice that’s only taken to exclude other imperial powers.

And why is that? Well, one big reason is that anti-colonial struggles tended to become social revolutions. Indirect rule ensures that resistance to empire remains safely ‘external’. To challenge the colonizing power is in the scheme of things no big deal; to challenge the colonized population’s role in the larger division of labor is much more serious.

So what from follows from this? That imperialism is in general a collaboration between the elites of the colony and the metropolis, not just a project of the latter.

And second, that framing the imperial relationship as being between states/nations, as opposed to classes, is part of what makes imperialism successful. Just look at the history of neoliberalism. All over the third world, local elites were anxious to reduce wages, reduce taxes, privatize (i.e. steal) public assets, etc. Largely because of the legacy of anti-colonial struggles, however, there were strong popular movements in most of these countries that blocked moves in that direction. But now suddenly, bang, the external constraint starts to bite and here’s the IMF and the 1st-world creditors demanding exactly local elites’ wishlists. The truth is, the costs of default on external debt would probably have been modest, but it was in the interests of the elites to exaggerate their own powerlessness — to claim they had no choice. And I hate to say it, but 1st world activists who wanted the moral clarity of blaming their own governments were in a small way complicit in that process.

Let’s try not to replace Diamond’s just-so stories with fables of our own…

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dr ngo 05.24.09 at 5:30 am

But you only have to know a smidgen of history to realize that Europe’s technological advantages over China, India, the Islamic world, etc. came after it’s military dominance of those regions, not before.

Maybe it’s because I know more than a “smidgen” of history, but in more than thirty years of research and teaching on and around this topic, I find this view not just unconvincing, but wrong, at least for Asia from India eastward. (The Islamic world is beyond my area of expertise.)

For a couple of centuries after Vasco da Gama, Europeans came into Asia with the intention of obtaining its wealth, which they would – given the thinking of the time – just as soon have done by military domination. Various of them dreamed up schemes to conquer or at least control what is now India, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, and Japan.

They failed, by and large, except for smaller polities and isolated outposts: Goa, Macau, Timor, Malacca, Java, the Philippines, the Spice Islands, Taiwan (“Formosa”), etc. Cambodia they had for a generation, no more. Such technological/military advantage as they had (Carlo Cipolla is good on this in Guns and Sails) was generally insufficient to overcome the “home field” advantage of the Asians. The Europeans contended in local wars, but lost as many as they won.

Then over a period of about a century – say mid-18th to mid-19th centuries – Europe developed considerable technological advantages (e.g., the Industrial Revolution), along with superior (for these purposes) organizational skills, and used them to impose military supremacy on the region, conquering virtually all the societies except a few – Siam, China, Japan, etc. – they were better able to dominate without actual conquest. This domination lasted into the 20th century, at which point Asian societies were able, in some cases, to redress the balance to some extent.

I’m not about to (or qualified to) address the very large topic of what created, in the 18th-19th centuries, a European technological advantage over most of Asia, but it is nonsense to pretend that it did not exist, or that it post-dated (and derived from??) European “military dominance” in the region. One can still believe that Europe exploited Asia as much as it could, and used whatever political-military edge it had to enhance its own technology and suppress Asian development (e.g., the Opium Wars, the collapse of Indian textiles) without subscribing to counterfactual claims like this.

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adamhenne 05.24.09 at 7:34 am

Sure, I’m with you, lemuel. Imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, all exceedingly complex without a lot of good guys. My point just being, none of those complex dynamics to which you refer have much to do with the shape of continents. And were we to take GGS at its word, we wouldn’t need to talk about any of those complexities – which I believe would be a mistake. It’s worthwhile to talk in simple terms of “Europe” and “not-Europe” only in so far as Diamond does so – Yali’s question that frames GGS is “Why is it that you white folks developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, while we black folks had so little?”

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.24.09 at 8:20 am

How is it even possible for technological advantages to come after military domination; how do you achieve military domination?

And the Islamic world – they seemed to have performed OK, on par with the Christians; at least until modern times, the 20th century. And the modern period is still in progress, too early to tell. It seems though that at least a part of the Islamic world (Pakistan) is now immune from military domination; that’s a huge development, if you think about it.

219

Keith M Ellis 05.24.09 at 1:23 pm

“How is it even possible for technological advantages to come after military domination; how do you achieve military domination?”

So, you’re implying that military domination is only possible via technological superiority? Really?

Wait…do you work for a US defense contractor? That would explain much.

220

Danny Yee 05.24.09 at 1:53 pm

It’s a long time since I read Guns, Germs and Steel (the link is to my review), but I hardly think that warrants calling Diamond racist. Not everyone wielding broad theories that oversimplify aspects of human life is racist, sexist, or reactionary!

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.24.09 at 2:06 pm

Keith, it doesn’t matter who I work for. We are talking here about interrelationships between civilizations over a span of hundreds of years. For one to assume dominance over another, it certainly requires some sort of advantage; technological advantage seems like the most obvious and most important.

In the battle of Cajamarca, for example, a few dozen Spaniards defeated an army of tens of thousands of Incas. Without their swords, cannons, horses, and armor Pizarro and his men would’ve been killed in two minutes, or, rather, they would’ve never even tried to attack. And that’s just one incident out of thousands; it took decades.

In fact, they needed technological advantage just to get there ahead of the Incas building their ships and sailing to Europe to impose their dominance.

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magistra 05.24.09 at 2:27 pm

How is it even possible for technological advantages to come after military domination; how do you achieve military domination?

You can achieve military domination without technological advantages by any one or more of a) having better tactics, b) a better trained army or c) a bigger army. If you want examples, consider the successes of Frederick the Great, the Romans against the Greeks, Napoleon etc. If you read military history, technological advantages on their own are rarely key.

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belle le triste 05.24.09 at 2:32 pm

intruding on henri’s and keith’s tiff is unlikely to end well for me — like trying to referee a quarrel between lovers late on at a party — but isn’t the seemingly unbridgeable difference here simply that “superiority” for keith entails “moral superiority”; hence “technological superiority” can’t be considered a reason for military or political domination (because domination is immoral, hence the technology can’t be termed “superior”)

whereas henri thinks it’s unproblematic to describe something as “technologically superior” when measured by some merely material or practical or technical metric* — a V2 is “technologically superior” to a V1, a gun to a spear, and so on…

*(or possibly geopolitical: “that which allows them to dominate politically and militarily” as a *definition* of technological superiority?)

224

Keith M Ellis 05.24.09 at 2:43 pm

No, actually, I just think there’s about a bazillion reasons why a nation could be militarily dominant without having technological superiority, the hopes and dreams of defense contractors notwithstanding.

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Mr. Anon 05.24.09 at 3:01 pm

I am astounded that someone here argues that assuming people are basically the same is racist and assuming they are genetically different is also racist. Also saying anything positive at all about non-Europeans is tantamount to idealizing them (which is racist, albeit unconscious) and is just as bad as saying negative things about them. This is setting the bar rather high.

I don’t know much about New Guinea but my impression was that in their case their poverty (lack of stuff) was caused by isolation, not conquest by evil Europeans. A historical and geographical explanation (therefore racist), according to some people here.

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Doctor Slack 05.24.09 at 3:59 pm

Danny, in re: “calling Diamond a racist,” you may want to peruse the thread a bit more carefully.

I clicked through and read your review in GG&S, which was very restrained about its flaws — IMHO much too restrained — but which importantly touches on one of the reasons it still gets into trouble and generates a level of controversy undeserved by the book’s actual quality.

As you mention, Diamond does indeed move confidently among a wide variety of disciplines. The problem is this confidence is in many cases unearned and gets him into trouble. In re: Eurocentrism, as no doubt you know, there have been lengthy conversations and evaluations of various theories in disciplines like geography, history and anthropology trying to disentangle theories with actual explanatory power in light of the evidence from a large legacy of theories which amount to just-so stories told from a European viewpoint. The latter are the “Eurocentric” theories, disfavored because they often turn out to be based on long chains of erroneous assumptions (some of which were, yes, originally racist assumptions)… but being able to recognize these theories and have an idea of what’s wrong with them requires familiarizing oneself a bit with the disciplines involved and the conversations around them.

[It can be difficult to sum up those problems in a blog comments thread. Hence the frustrations of conversations like this one, where people unfamiliar with the disciplines will often try to dismiss these concerns as byproducts of dogmatic “hothouse” infighting, and the people familiar with them will be thoroughly unimpressed by the attempted dismissals, and the parties spend most of their time talking past each other. That pretty much sums up Keith and Adam’s experiences here as far as I can see. Are there any popularizing works covering the debate about Eurocentrism? If not, why not? We need them.]

Diamond makes the mistake common to the erudite but incautious amateur: he sails grandly into the midst of these debates proclaiming a macro-theory of history that uncritically recapitulates many earlier mistakes — his nonsense about the Fertile Crescent and its “Mediterranean climate” looks tellingly like a direct byproduct of Eurocentric geography (at least as Blaut postulated it) — introduces a whole bunch of new mistakes of his own, and contributes nothing that many people in said disciplines weren’t already doing better and more cogently. But he sells it with verve, creating an overrated book that appeals to a general readership but that seriously pisses off the people who’ve been working in those disciplines and now find themselves having to cope with Diamond-philes who falsely imagine him to have been some kind of turning-point in the conversation about race, geography and history.

Had his synthesis been as proficient as it was confident, he actually might have become such a turning point. But it wasn’t, and it isn’t, and GG&S became a blind alley instead. As threads like this one repeatedly demonstrate.

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Pamthropologist 05.24.09 at 4:23 pm

Perhaps, it is true that we need a more populist voice for Anthropology because there is much very basic anthropology getting lost in this thread and, I might add, the exchanges at Savage Minds.

When I conducted my fieldwork in the 1980’s and 1990’s (before IRB’s), I was told many a story in a pick-up truck. Those stories were the jumping off point for my research. I would have followed that story up with formal interviews, with the notebook out, quotes recorded as carefully as possible, and having obtained informed consent as to what would be recorded and what published. It would have taken a long time to contextualize the meaning of that story. (Read that last sentence, carefully, because it speaks volumes about what Jared Diamond failed to do.)

The ethics dilema: As an anthropologist, I am compelled to “do no harm”. The determination of harm can only come from a detailed participant observation experience in which we struggle (with much weakness and some arrogance) to determine the consequences of our research. I, myself, have a pile of fieldnotes with names, dates, and detailed stories. In graduate school at Northwestern, where there is a large African studies program, we young students–anthropologists, historians, and political scientists, alike–drank many a beer while pondering the fate of our yet uncollected notes: should we keep them ourselves, place them on deposit in the library to be viewed upon request, seal them up with a 30 year rule. But, most importantly, how will we know what is “harm” when we doing that recording? At no time would we have concluded that a story in a pick up truck from one individual admitting to acts deemed illegal in a modern nation-state be appropriate for publication. This would clearly be harm. This is clearly unethical.

(I often point out to my students that a film like China Blue, which was made inside the PRC with hidden cameras, could not have been made by an anthropologist. We are simply not permitted those liberties according to our ethical codes.)

But back to our main point. Diamond’s ethical lapse reveals the reasons why we cannot place any stock in his anaylsis. Diamond, apparently, had no rapport with what we anthropolgists might call a research population. He did not have the kind of on-going, “boots on the ground” (if you will permit the tortured metaphor), hard-fought, give and take relationship with the individuals he purports to discuss. Had he that relationship, we would not be having this debate. Nor would we be speculating on his possible alternate motives. It would not be about him, if you will; rather, we would be discussing the data that he brings to the table, the multiplicity of stories and discussions that he should be citing to support his argument. But that would have been just another boring ethnography and, after all, who wants to read that?

I venture to say that the story seemed “sellable” because it tapped into that great white hunter/intrepid explorer meme. Driving with savages is way more cool than watching birds or sweating over fieldnotes. Sucks to be professional and ethical. (Before everyone jumps on the bitter anthropologist attack, I am laughing my ass off in this last bit.)

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.24.09 at 4:24 pm

bazillion reasons why a nation could be militarily dominant without having technological superiority

Nations and armies have nothing to do with this, and the Romans, Greeks and Prussians are all the same in the context of this Diamond’s book. Have you even read GG&S? We are talking about continents and centuries here, not about nations and their armies.

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afu 05.24.09 at 4:42 pm

I think part of the problem here is that there are different ways to read GGS. The way I read it was “Over the past 8000 years why has Euraia (plus north africa) held an overwhelming technological lead over the rest of the world?” and I think it does a decent job answering this question. Where Diamond strays from this argument are the weakest parts of the book. I thought the last chapter discussing the rise of Europe was very poorly argued. But the main parts of the book were about the very long trends which happened to make Eurasia the most prosperous continent. Comparing and contrasting the Roman Mediterranean, Han China, and Maurya India with Aztex Mexico, the Kingdom of Hawaii, and Pre Bantu expansion South African hunter gatherers is what I see the book being essentially about, and I don’t think those are racist comparisons to make.

The reading that the people who think GGS ” lends support to racist ideology,” seem to make is “Right nowWhy does the west politically dominate the world.” A good answer to this question is that the west has exploited the rest of the world over the past 400 – 200 years and has concocted racist ideologies to serve them in this purpose. So if you read GGS as trying to answer the modern question I can see how it could come off as being wrong. But I still don’t think that this is the the argument Diamond is making.

Because of these fundamental differences in interpretations of the book, people are pretty much just going to continue to talk past each other.

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Walt 05.24.09 at 4:44 pm

Adam, I don’t think you appreciate the context in which Diamond’s book had its impact. There were two, mostly unexamined, theories in the popular consciousness on how Europeans were able to successfully conquer such large swaths of the globe. One, now in abeyance (though advocates of the position are not exactly rare on the Internet) is that the Europeans were biologically superior. The other is that Europeans were culturally superior. Most accounts of Europe’s technological head start are subspecies of the second explanation. The novelty of Diamond’s book is that he offers a plausible explanation that it was sheer dumb luck. This is appealing to liberals as a counter to the other two positions. In a roundabout fashion, the book is an antidote to “The West is Awesome” books like the Wealth and Poverty of Nations and Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

I think that’s the source of the “hothouse” reaction; anthropologists are reading it in a much different context than the lay reader.

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Doctor Slack 05.24.09 at 5:00 pm

One, now in abeyance (though advocates of the position are not exactly rare on the Internet) is that the Europeans were biologically superior. The other is that Europeans were culturally superior.

A variant, intersecting with both, was that Europe herself was innately superior as an environment and thus bred superior cultures. And that’s an argument that Diamond does eventually get round to making, quite explicitly: it is in fact his argument for how Europe pulled ahead of China, which proves to be as typical an example of Eurocentric bullshit about “Oriental despotisms” as it gets. Diamond’s “novelty” is overrated.

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Keith M Ellis 05.24.09 at 5:05 pm

“I am astounded that someone here argues that assuming people are basically the same is racist and assuming they are genetically different is also racist.”

I’d be astounded, too, had anyone said that. However, no one did.

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Kaveh 05.24.09 at 5:19 pm

But you only have to know a smidgen of history to realize that Europe’s technological advantages over China, India, the Islamic world, etc. came after it’s military dominance of those regions, not before.

I’m not about to (or qualified to) address the very large topic of what created, in the 18th-19th centuries, a European technological advantage over most of Asia, but it is nonsense to pretend that it did not exist, or that it post-dated (and derived from??) European “military dominance” in the region.

No, it’s not nonsense. Not all technology has equal military value, and especially by the 1600s, military technology represented a major strategic decision and investment of resources by the state. The Ottoman and Chinese governments made a choice not to invest in more powerful navies at various points in time (I’m not just inferring that, they actually debated this). Military technology did not descend upon various Early Modern societies from the Flying Spaghetti Monster or some abstract, non-contextual “human ingenuity”.

But lemuel, you do not distinguish between India and China, which have very different histories of military interaction with Europe. The East India Company already controlled much of India by the late 18th century, while China was never conquered by European powers, and was not even subject to anything like military subjugation until the Opium Wars starting in 1839. There was a substantial British Empire in India, and more importantly, ongoing conquests, for many decades before their technological/organizational superiority and the strategic situation was such that Britain and France could actually rule over substantial parts of the Middle East and small parts of China. It would seem that, like the Ottomans had done in the 1500s, the British refined their military technologies and techniques of political domination by practicing them through conquest and the incorporation of new territories into an empire. Also, Andre Gunder Frank is not the first person to observe strong environmental similarities between societies that most quickly and effectively modernized in the 1800s (Western Europe, Russia, Japan, and I would add the Ottoman Empire, as opposed to India, China, North Africa).

As for GGS, isn’t the importance of environment and geography to macro-history, as a general principle, just way, way too obvious to require a 500-page book to demonstrate it? Especially when we’re talking about the differences between the Americas (to say nothing of Australia or Papua New Guinea) and the huge Afro-Eurasian landmass. Given the Afro-Eurasian landmass is much, much larger than the Americas, wouldn’t we expect the social formations most effective at conquest and domination (and the most virulent germs, &c.) to emerge from somewhere in there–not even taking into account technological synergy between the different social formations in the Afro-Eurasian landmass? So it’s all the more odd that Diamond should be taking 500+ pages to assert something that, at least in the very broad, rough outlines, is not surprising, and offering what are apparently a lot of really sloppy arguments as support. In other words, the structure and strategy of Diamond’s argument stand apart from the general principles and specific, detailed arguments on which it’s founded, and which is why the kind of critical reading Savage Minds has been doing is pertinent.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.24.09 at 5:19 pm

that Europe herself was innately superior as an environment and thus bred superior cultures.

A sword made from steel as a weapon is superior to a wooden stick; there is no doubt, no way around it. But what does it have to do with any cultures? How do you compare cultures?

Does Diamond say something about superiority of the European culture in his book (of course he didn’t), or is it your own conclusion?

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Doctor Slack 05.24.09 at 5:41 pm

Does Diamond say something about superiority of the European culture in his book (of course he didn’t),

The argument about geography and its role in European political fragmentation versus Chinese political consolidation is precisely such an argument, yes, and absolutely bog-standard. Diamond doesn’t make it because he consciously realizes it’s Eurocentric, of course, AFAICT he just never bothered to think about the issue.

That’s just in the Epilogue, of course, so you can try to bracket it out from the rest of what he says if you like. But after the stuff about the supposed innate properties of Mediterranean climates and Fertile Crescent selfer cereals — and a dozen other little hints besides — it didn’t surprise me. It’s not an isolated error, it’s a product of his often building on flawed theories without having investigated them. One might also note that in the book’s preamble, when he’s talking about the Battle of Cajamarca, he embarks on a rather dubious infantilization of the Incas that more than hints at cultural-superiority beliefs. (One of the Inca’s disadvantages, you’ll recall, was that the invaders had vast reserves of political and military lessons to draw upon owing to their literary tradition, and they would never have made Atahualpa’s mistake of walking the top tier of his command structure directly into the hands of the enemy.)

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lemuel pitkin 05.24.09 at 6:09 pm

Dr Ngo,

I don’t think we’re disagreeing. You say exactly what I say — that Europeans were establishing empires in Asia well before they enjoyed any substantial technological advantage. Of course European conquests accelerated after the Industrial Revolution, but European countries were successfully establishing colonies in India and Southeast Asia already in the 17th and early 18th centuries, when it would be absurd to claim any general superiority for European material culture. Of course they didn’t win every battle — that’s the whole point. The battle that Henri Vieuxtemps brings up at 222 (and, rather comically, has already forgotten by 229) is totally unrepresentative of the early stages of European colonialism in most of the world, where military outcomes were precisely not determined by overwhelming technological gaps and could go either way.

Of course the big question then is, did those early military successes contribute to the later technological gap? Pomeranz’s Great Divergence argues they did — that China and other “proto-capitalist” areas of the Old Wolrd followed a Smithian trajectory where technology diffused widely and markets remained relatively open, meaning there weren’t the large concentrations of capital in private hands that European monopolists in long-distance trade and plantation agriculture were able to acquire. More importantly, the diffusion of technical and scientific knowledge meant that these other centers weren’t able to maintain a favorable interregional division of labor; peripheral areas couldn’t be compelled to specialize as suppliers of primary products so proto-capitalism quickly ran up against constraints on land and other natural resources.

Europe, on the other hand, had the advantage of creating a favorable division of labor by conquest — the Americas especially, but also Eastern Europe and other areas under European domination — were de-urbanized and forced into a role of suppliers of primary products. That was why it was Europe that had an industrial revolution rather China or India or the Islamic world — Europe’s early *military* successes (and good fortune in being the Old World culture with the best access to the Americas — a very different geographic factor from the ones Diamond stresses) freed it from the natural-resource constraints that choked off the beginning of industrialization elsewhere.

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Doctor Slack 05.24.09 at 6:14 pm

Supplementary to what Lemuel Pitkin, says, BTW: Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism trilogy is a little old by now but still really, really good reading on the commercial mechanisms underlying European colonialism and the context in which it happened.

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lemuel pitkin 05.24.09 at 6:25 pm

Second on the Braudel books — they’re really the starting point for all this stuff. I’d also recommend Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony, Chaudhuri’s books on the Indian Ocean, Arrighi’s Long Twentieth Century, and Elvin’s Pattern of the Chinese Past.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.24.09 at 6:28 pm

Yes, I do remember his argument about the advantage having written history, lessons from history.

Yet I still don’t see how this translates into “cultural superiority.” His argument, IIRC, goes something like this: good climate, good soil, good plants and animals (plus the amount of time it takes to migrate from Africa) create conditions for evolving faster from hunting/gathering/struggling for survival to a society with a division of labor, society with food reserves, with soldiers, priests, scientists, and yes, historians. From this everything else follows.

But that’s just a question of timing; it doesn’t mean that the Incas would’ve never had libraries, only that they would’ve had libraries a bit later. Only they weren’t given a chance; Europeans got there and fucked them up.

So, what’s so controversial here, let alone racist? And what’s an alternative explanation that you find more plausible?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.24.09 at 6:39 pm

and, rather comically, has already forgotten by 229

Well, that’s not true. I said in 222: And that’s just one incident out of thousands; it took decades.

Yes, this is probably the most radical example, illustration.

Look, it takes thousands of battles to take over a continent; the aggressor has a huge disadvantage of hostile environment, unfamiliar terrain, long supply lines. It seems to me that technological superiority is how it’s overcome, for the most part. I’m sure there must be other factors too, but… What are they, anyway? OK, germs, that’s in the book; what else?

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adamhenne 05.24.09 at 6:45 pm

I’ll third the Braudel for sure – if only everyone who likes GGS would read Braudel, we’d have a very different conversation here. Of course, it’s pretty damn far from poppy and accessible, but hey… While we’re citing, let me add Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism and most anything by Richard Grove – Ecology Climate and Empire, Green Imperialism, or El Nino, History and Crisis. There’s lots of good ways to think about how societies and environments have interacted over time without reducing everything to the shapes of continents.

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adamhenne 05.24.09 at 6:52 pm

Henri, I’ve seen 8 books cited in the past couple of comments, all of which offer very complete and complex answers to the question you’re posing. Or you could read the very abbreviated versions in the comments by lemuel and dr slack to which you’re currently responding.

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Doctor Slack 05.24.09 at 6:55 pm

Yes, I do remember his argument about the advantage having written history, lessons from history.

And it sounds kinda neat until you look over some of those lessons and realize how often overconfident commanders who did have those “advantages” also walked into obvious traps. At which point it gets harder to see as a particularly decisive advantage in itself, and the whole point rather loses its force. (Literary traditions are of course a basic element of the totalities we refer to as “culture,” so if you honestly don’t see how it could tie in to “cultural superiority”… I don’t know, maybe think on it a bit before your next snark? I’m confident some possibilities may present themselves to you.)

His argument, IIRC, goes something like this: good climate, good soil, good plants and animals (plus the amount of time it takes to migrate from Africa) create conditions for evolving faster from hunting/gathering/struggling for survival to a society with a division of labor

Well, he does argue from “good climate” and “good plants” starting with the Fertile Crescent, and gets significant elements of both arguments either completely wrong or fudges elements of them enough that it’s not advisable to take his version of this narrative seriously. Because of mistakes like that, the “striking” insights that were supposed to be the book’s selling point, especially “ultimate factors” like the “east-west axis,” don’t hold up as he describes them. And where he finally does attempt an explanation of Europe’s ascendancy specifically — ultimately supposed to have been the goal of the whole exercise — he winds up recycling a bowdlerized version of discredited history about how China’s despotic governments supposedly held it back compared to Europe’s multi-centred dynamism. (In doing so, he doesn’t even trouble to avail himself of a much more convincing geographical-determinist explanation that would have bolstered his “guns and germs” theme and actually does fit the evidence, to wit that once Europe became interested in long-distance trade and exploration, it was advantageously positioned to sustainably exploit the New World in the Age of Sail, the advantage that eventually led to its commercial dominance viz. other centres of the New World.)

I don’t think there’s a particular problem with big-picture postulates about the role of climate and geography in history. But we don’t need Diamond for that. Call me crazy, I think that kind of case should be made competently without getting basic facts wrong and without recourse to outdated Eurocentric historiography that introduces plenty of noise and little signal to the overall picture. You want Big Ideas history? Hang up the “you’re calling Diamond a racist” strawmen and give me a Felipe Fernandez-Armesto book any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

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Shawn Crowley 05.24.09 at 7:03 pm

Keith @ 220: “Wait…do you work for a US defense contractor? That would explain much.”

This slur upon motive is uncalled for. It is consistent with some of the criticisms of Diamond’s work expressed in this thread and concerns expressed about same.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.24.09 at 7:19 pm

@242, Ok, if you don’t have a problem with his main concept, then we’re in agreement.
I don’t care about the details.

I still disagree with your first paragraph, though. Getting into a tactical trap is a far cry from mistaking your enemies for gods because there is no recorded description of a horseman from 50 years ago (or whatever the story). And I don’t think this has anything to do with “literary traditions” as I understand the phrase.

And again: yes, perhaps some of these things are a part of what we call “culture”, but all it means is that Incas culture was on a earlier stage than European, not that it was inferior. Anyway, it’s in my comment 238, why repeat.

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Keith M Ellis 05.24.09 at 8:01 pm

“…but all it means is that Incas culture was on a earlier stage than European, not that it was inferior.”

Hmm.

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afu 05.24.09 at 8:39 pm

Doctor Slack @ 182 “Take Diamond’s claims about crops, climate and the “east-west axis.” At one point in GG&S, he rather sneakily tries to imply that maize is essentially a tropical crop that Canadian farmers would be hard-pressed to cultivate (which would certainly come as a surprise to the corn farmers of Taber, Alberta)… yet corn is universally acknowledged by any source that discusses the subject as an essential part of the pre-Columbian horticultural package as far north as the Great Lakes. (Note that Diamond is careful not to actually say that corn can’t be cultivated outside its original range; he’s content to strongly imply it and then skate over the facts that would rather starkly undermine his attempt to build up the importance of the “east-west axis.”) If I had to pick a cite I’d suggest a general reference work on the archaeology of prehistoric Native America, most of which contain detailed summaries of the scholarly consensus about the diffusion of maize from Mesoamerica.”

It would also be nice if critics of Diamond didn’t resort to misrepresentations of his arguments like this. What Diamond actually argued was that Corn took an extremely long time to be breed successfully for planting in a northern climate. This is well supported by the historic evidence. The plant that was the corn precursor, Teosinte, was first harvested 10,000 years ago and corn based agriculture started in mesoamerica 8,000 years ago. Corn was not grown in north eastern north America until 1200 C.E. and it did not become the dominate crop of the hemisphere we know today until European colonists cross bred northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere varieties.

Now you could have argued that the relatively early dispersal of corn to South America 4,000 years ago is a strike against Diamond’s thesis, but the tropical Andean lowlands are more similarly climatically to mesoamerica than temperate north America. Anyway, if you want to criticize someone for sloppy arguments you should probably do better than creating straw men of your own.

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afu 05.24.09 at 8:41 pm

Oh, forgot the link to corn based historical goodness.

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David 05.24.09 at 9:01 pm

At risk of again being edited out, I feel some further comments are in order. @243, Crowley: indeed. By and large, the Diamond critics have been far more intemperate and willing to question the motives and intelligence of those who disagree with them, however mildly. Pitkin @215 is a case in point when he slurs Marc @207 (although I must admit, dude, that it did come as a surprise to me that racism exists. Color me naive and stupid).

Take Keith @232: “I’d be astounded, too, had anyone said that. However, no one did.” This is on a par with “Oh who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Discourses are not only something that academics elucidate and reveal to us great untutored masses. They create their own discourses and that is pretty much what’s been going on here. Notsneaky probably had the right idea, although I’m fascinated by train wrecks.

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adamhenne 05.24.09 at 9:35 pm

Hi David. While I’ll admit to being intemperate a number of times in my life, I should note that it’s been notsneaky, marc, henri, and other defenders of GGS who showered me with “you’re naive!”s and “why are you calling me a racist!?”s and other button-pushers. Oh, and called me a crackpot, which I actually kind of enjoyed.

I personally have questioned nobody’s motives nor impugned anyone’s intelligence, although both have been done to me. And although nobody here has called anyone a racist by any stretch, y’all keep saying that’s what I’m doing. That’s not me being intemperate, that’s a bunch of Diamond fans being reactionary. As in the comment you cite – Henri put some words in Keith’s mouth, Keith disavowed them, and you enter the fray with “Discourses are not only something that academics elucidate and reveal to us great untutored masses“. Now that’s intemperate – what gives with all this snottiness in place of argument?

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David 05.24.09 at 9:50 pm

Hi, Adam. First, let me correct my mistake, it was Keith @233 I quoted. My point remains. That was not snotty although I was sarcastic in response to the usually more reasonable Lemuel Pitkin. Keith claims that no one has done any such thing in so many words. No, no one has been that blunt in those exact terms but a whole string of comments and references amount to the same thing. And I rather suspect that you are familiar enough with the construction of discourses to know that very well. The other Henry didn’t say to someone “go kill the damn priest,” it was hardly necessary. However, I’m glad to learn that we’ve evolved enough to merely be reactionaries.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.24.09 at 10:02 pm

Henri put some words in Keith’s mouth

It wasn’t me, actually; I think I more or less successfully managed to avoid sarcasm and all that.

I did ask, though, for your short version of what happened in America in the 16th century and why; big-picture view. Not a book title, but your own 200-word summary.

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adamhenne 05.24.09 at 10:29 pm

Oops, I’m sorry Henri. That was one mr. anon, actually. My mistake.

And David, I understood what you were getting at, and I just think you’re wrong. The comments directed at me and Keith, anyway, have been considerably more hostile and dismissive (and with less content!) than anything I’ve written, anyway. And now you are putting words in Keith’s mouth: he never said, implied, hinted, or framed a discourse around the idea that “assuming people are basically the same is racist and assuming they are genetically different is also racist.” No one here has, and claiming that we did isn’t ferreting out our sneaky sneaky (and homicidal, apparently?) academic discourse – it’s misunderstanding the argument altogether.

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Keith M Ellis 05.24.09 at 10:37 pm

David, I’m afraid that your terrifyingly astute ability to read between the lines and suss out what others are really saying has failed you in this particular instance. You imagine that I am denying that I implied anyone was a racist; in fact, I was denying that I ever implied anyone was a racist for “assuming people are basically the same”.

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steven 05.24.09 at 10:47 pm

I’ve noticed, to my consternation, that racists sometimes employ syllogisms. Does that mean I should henceforth avoid using syllogisms, even non-racist ones, because they are a kind of structural argument that racists also use? Does using syllogisms in fact play into the hands of racists?

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Keith M Ellis 05.24.09 at 11:15 pm

Too many people apparently biological inequality is the sine qua non of racism. It’s not.

On the one hand, this is an excusable conflation of racism and the particular variety of racism which has been dominant for many years. On the other hand, such a conflation is profoundly ignorant of the history of racism, an awareness of how racism works, and basically what racism is. The consequences of such a profound ignorance is exemplified by the utterly wrong thinking that is on display in this thread when people assert that an argument predicated upon the notion that people are biologically equal therefore must necessarily be non-racist—indeed, the very opposite of racism.

Yet racism exists which asserts that two cultures are made up of people who are biologically similar (or the difference irrelevant), yet one is favored by God and the other disfavored. Or that one language is superior and the other inferior. These arguments and those similar must be, by the above spectacularly wrong reckoning, the opposite of racism merely because they assert that people are biologically the same.

This would have been evident had Diamond argued that all the peoples of the world are biologically similar, but that the apparent injustice of divergent and unequal outcomes is explained by, say, whether a culture is monotheistic or polytheistic. Such a book would have rightly been criticized as being racist; and few would have defended it on the basis that it cannot be racist because it takes as a fundamental assumption that it’s not biology which has determined these unequal outcomes.

Any argument which denies or largely makes irrelevant issues of culpability and, in its place, asserts a determinism which explains unequal cultural outcomes is either a racist argument, or very nearly a racist argument. It doesn’t matter what deterministic mechanism is at the heart of the argument.

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Keith M Ellis 05.24.09 at 11:18 pm

steven, are they syllogisms which implicitly deny culpability and explain apparent injustice as matters of historic necessity? If so, then I would avoid them.

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adamhenne 05.24.09 at 11:19 pm

And you’re right, Henri, I’ve been citing more than summarizing. A short version of what happened in America in the 16th century? If you mean North America then I’m not really equipped for that, to be honest – I’m a Latin Americanist for the most part. But either way, the answer would be “lots of stuff.” As we all remember from high school history, the European colonists didn’t exactly arrive all at once with guns a-blazin’ and wipe out the natives – it was a long and gradual process that consisted of as much trading, negotiating, labor-exploiting, and general coexisting as outright warfare.

This is less true in South America, but still hardly reducible to wargame-style maneuvers on a single battlefield. Dr. Slack alludes to Atahualpa and the battle of Cajamarca earlier, and this makes a good example. The Spanish success in defeating the Incas surely had a lot to do with their military technology, but most historians agree it had just as much to do with the moment they arrived. The enormous and powerful Inca empire was dramatically overextended on its frontiers and already nearly devastated by civil war. The Spanish didn’t count on defeating the Inca armies in head-to-head combat; they exploited existing divisions between hereditary rulers and their already squabbling and contentious administrations. Some historian (I forget who) likened it to the fall of Rome: the Goths et al weren’t capable of sacking the empire because of their technologies or the geographical superiority of their homeland – they could do it because Rome had already beat itself to a pulp.

These variables are what meant when I referred earlier to “history” – things that actually happened that Diamond dismisses as mere epiphenomena. I think that aspect of world events is actually pretty important. But you know, that’s not actually the point that I’ve been most concerned to make.

Let us, for the sake of argument, accept that the conquistadors/colonists were able to conquer the Americas because of the suite of technobiological factors Diamond glosses as “guns, germs, and steel.” If that’s the case, we’ve answered how it happened, and perhaps by looong extension how “white folks have so much cargo and black folks have so little.”

But we don’t know a thing about why. Which, perhaps, is okay. If that’s all GGS was, I’d consider it a moderately interesting, inaccurate but basically unobjectionable book. But that’s not all that the book claims to be about. Diamond is quite explicit beginning to end that “because the shape of the continents gave them guns germs and steel” is the answer to why white folks have so much cargo and black folks have so little. He assumes, explicitly and without any reflection, that all civilizations expand and conquer to the best of their ability, and since Europe at one point in time had the biggest ability, that’s what they did. No need to even ask the why question, in Diamond’s logic, because it’s already understood.

Hence my characterization of the theme earlier as “anyone else in our position would have done the same.” For Diamond, it appears we can assume some sort of universal and innate human urge to dominate that only European civilization, in the end, was able to realize. This uncritical universalism resonates with the gibberish about “revenge” in the New Yorker article. I believe, though, that it ignores a whole knotty web of interesting political and ideological factors at work behind the question, why conquer? And although the influence of the shape of the continents has happened and is over, variations on those political and ideological factors are still very much at work in contemporary dynamics of oppression. And unlike the continents, those political and ideological factors can, perhaps, be changed. But if like Diamond we pretend that they never mattered and never played a role in world events, I think that makes it less likely that we’ll seriously endeavor to change them. That’s why I say that GGS lends support to racist ideology: not because Diamond’s a racist, not because CT commenters are racist, but because it really matters which dynamics you use to account for the way things are.

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Medrawt 05.24.09 at 11:29 pm

Any argument which denies or largely makes irrelevant issues of culpability and, in its place, asserts a determinism which explains unequal cultural outcomes is either a racist argument, or very nearly a racist argument. It doesn’t matter what deterministic mechanism is at the heart of the argument.

I was typing this whole long other interloping entry into the thread, but this cuts to the core of what I was saying. I merely flipped through GGS for about 90 minutes several years ago, so I’m asking a question of those who have read it:

Does Diamond actually deny issues of culpability or does he simply not discuss them? Because, look, there are numerous reasons (some defensible, some misguided, some objectionable) why he might choose not to discuss them. Maybe it’s my poor reading comprehension, but I have trouble keeping track sometimes of when people are denouncing Diamond for the things he wrote and when they’re denouncing the way some people are going to receive the argument Diamond advances. (Happily, I think I’m pretty clear on when people are denouncing Diamond for being factually wrong about his assertions.)

As someone who thinks he has a thin grasp on the outline of the argument Diamond proposes (however factually incorrect it actually is), I don’t see what it is about that argument that essentially forecloses the question of culpability, unless Diamond specifically makes noise in that direction.

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adamhenne 05.24.09 at 11:37 pm

Boy, that’s a long comment. I gotta ride off into the sunset and let this go. But thanks to everyone who engaged this conversation in good faith, and try not to break the crooked timbers here, eh?

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Marc 05.24.09 at 11:37 pm

Once again Keith tries to define speech he doesn’t like as racist. I find his “logic” utterly without merit – once again arguing that “group X got lucky and group Y did not” with “group X is better than group Y.” No amount of wordplay will create sense from that.

Words mean things. People in this thread are agreeing with Diamond’s thesis, which Keith (once again) calls racist, and thus he is calling a bunch of us racists. This isn’t “pearl-clutching”, a la Lemuel – it is targeting hateful and hurtful speech employed *without cause* in the sake of an argument and which cannot be backed up. You want to accuse people here – in this community – of being bigots. Bring on the evidence – and don’t be surprised when the reaction against you is fierce and personal. That’s what happens when you toss around personal insults at people. This thread got to 200+ comments for a reason, and that reason is worth stepping back and thinking about.

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belle le triste 05.24.09 at 11:38 pm

so what ways are there to account for the “we must conquer” element in the cultures that end up conquering (or try but fail) that aren’t
(i) based on comparisons between the various mechanisms that shape cultures, comparisons that keith considers racist, or
(ii) arguing that some peoples are just born conquest-hungry?

basically i don’t see what ways are left to explain how (potential) culpability emerges in a culture (which presumably we need to know, in order counter it)

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David 05.25.09 at 12:09 am

Keith(et al): No sarcasm. Apparently I haven’t understood a word you’ve written. Just as apparently, you haven’t understood a word I’ve written.

How dreary.

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adamhenne 05.25.09 at 12:09 am

Hi belle – I said I was gone but your eminence brought me back. These questions are coherent and surprisingly easy:
(i) I can’t speak for Keith, but comparing the various mechanisms that shape cultures sounds okay. Assuming a priori as GGS does that only one such mechanism matters, and it just happens to be one that’s under nobody’s control – that might be a racist move.
(ii) Assuming that some individual people are just born conquest-hungry is neither here nor there. Assuming as GGS does that all people are born conquest-hungry, and given the right continental orientation they will inevitably realize that conquest? That’s no good.

Which leaves us almost every other form of explanation in history, politics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy…

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adamhenne 05.25.09 at 12:22 am

People in this thread are agreeing with Diamond’s thesis, which Keith (once again) calls racist, and thus he is calling a bunch of us racists.

So, if I have reason to believe an idea is racist, I should just keep that to myself, for fear of offending the sensibilities of those who might agree with the idea? That sounds like a recipe for a healthy intellectual exchange right there. I think pearl-clutching was right on, and furthermore lemuel was way right about how gross it is when people have seizures about the word racism.

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Keith M Ellis 05.25.09 at 12:24 am

“(i) I can’t speak for Keith, but comparing the various mechanisms that shape cultures sounds okay. Assuming a priori as GGS does that only one such mechanism matters, and it just happens to be one that’s under nobody’s control – that might be a racist move.”

Right. Right, right, right.

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Barbar 05.25.09 at 12:39 am

Right, it might be a racist move, or it might not. Devastating analysis.

I have to commend the courage of the racism-fighters in this thread. 266 comments, none of which are tagged as racist. Even Diamond is not accused of being racist. And yet people are patting themselves on the back for bravely calling a spade a spade.

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sleepy 05.25.09 at 1:25 am

Not having read the book, one comment only on the arguments I’ve read here:
It seems to be the case, given the data from Dr. Slack and others, that Diamond makes sloppy disingenuous arguments in favor of European success. So one might get the impression that his main interest is not in understanding the facts but in defending European success. Why else be so sloppy? Given the stakes, is it not possible to see the sloppiness itself as suspect?
Sloppiness in defense of an abstract principle is one thing. Sloppiness in defense of an abstract principle that if followed absolves your own kind of moral responsibility is another.

The above refers to what I think is the miscommunication here, not the book itself.

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adamhenne 05.25.09 at 1:28 am

I don’t get it, Barbar. For 150 posts I’ve been hearing “how dare you call me a racist” and “it’s such a serious thing to call an idea racist” and blah blah blah – and now you’re annoyed because I’m not calling anyone a racist? Can’t win with you people. And I don’t see anyone patting themselves on the back here – that was just more snottiness in place of an argument, right? Which appears to be the dominant theme here.

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adamhenne 05.25.09 at 1:31 am

I don’t get it, Barbar. For 150 posts I’ve been hearing “how dare you call me a racist” and “it’s such a serious thing to call an idea racist” and blah blah blah – and now you’re annoyed because I’m not calling anyone a racist? Can’t win with you people. And I don’t see anyone patting themselves on the back here – that was just more snottiness in place of an argument, right? Which appears to be the dominant theme here.

And belle asked a hypothetical question, so I provided a hypothetical response. It wasn’t meant to devastate anybody, and that’s not something I’m really interested in doing anyway. Would you like it better if this conversation was more devastating?

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adamhenne 05.25.09 at 1:32 am

Oops, a double-post. That’s a foul.

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Kaveh 05.25.09 at 1:53 am

@ 263 belle:
And I would add “history” to what adamhenne said–what were the economic circumstances and political and commercial orientations of the different groups when they encountered each other?

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lemuel pitkin 05.25.09 at 2:05 am

A word on racism.

The type of argument that I (and I suspect Adam, Keith etc., tho I can’t speak for them) are objecting to takes the form of (a) dividing the world into distinct, homogeneous peoples (whether “perople is about genes, language, religion, culture, whatever), (b) treating those peoples as having more or less immutable traits, which (c) are implicitly or explicitly placed on a scale of better or worse (more versus less advanced, rational versus mystical, individualist versus collective) and (d) regarding the actual hierarchies and power relations that pass through the lines between “peoples” as being the direct, inevitable results — the vindication or proof — of the better traits of the winners.

A lot of us would say that arguments like that just constitute racism, on an intellectual level. And there is definitely a fair amount of that kind of argument in GGS. But none of us who have criticized Diamond on this thread, I’m pretty sure, have described Diamond or anyone else as racist. Racism in this sense is a property of ideas and institutions, not of individuals.

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Keith M Ellis 05.25.09 at 2:10 am

“Right, it might be a racist move, or it might not. Devastating analysis.”

“I have to commend the courage of the racism-fighters in this thread. 266 comments, none of which are tagged as racist. Even Diamond is not accused of being racist. And yet people are patting themselves on the back for bravely calling a spade a spade.”

What a bad-faith, deliberately provocative and unproductive comment.

And it’s self-contradictory, to boot. You say that we’re asserting that such arguments suggest racism but are not self-evidently and necessarily racist. You say that we’ve not actually accused anyone, including Diamond, of being racist. Yet you say that we believe ourselves to be “calling a spade a spade”. How does that work, exactly? Is this that rarely seen version of straight talk which calls things that are suggestive of spades and might be spades, “things that are suggestive of spades and might be spades”?

However, I must admit, you’ve got me dead-to-rights on the courage and “patting themselves on the back” thing (not to mention that you’ve discovered that we’re multiple intelligences occupying a single body). Looking back on my comments—as well as on adam’s, lemuel’s, slack’s, and others—it’s hard to deny all the self-congratulatory remarks about how we’ve “struggled for years against the tide of racism which dominates CT”, “it’s risking blog banishment, academic sanction, and even political oppression, but I cannot in good conscience remain silent about the great evil perpetrated by Diamond and his CT defenders”, and “I deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for my continuing work opposing black-shirted blogging thugs”. In retrospect, those comments were all ill-advised and I regret making them.

Does Diamond actually deny issues of culpability or does he simply not discuss them? ”

Imagine what Diamond’s theory would look like if he retained the notion of culpability to the same degree as, for example, do the conventional authoritative theories of global socioeconomic inequality (such as colonialism). What would it look like?

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PTS 05.25.09 at 2:20 am

Lemuel

As far as I can tell from reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond doesn’t do from a) to d). If anything, his point is the opposite. His point is that privileged position held by certain soci0-political groups is NOT the result of some inherent superiority, but the result of chance. European “superiority” is nothing more than brute geographical luck. I am simply at a loss to think how this could be interpreted

However, it seems to me that c) and d) are equivocal and almost certainly question-begging. Saying that Europeans had more advanced weaponry and deadlier diseases than the Aztecs did does not struck me as racist. It becomes racist once someone says, “The Europeans had more effective weaponry and deadlier diseases because they were inherently better/smarter/blessed by God when compared to the Aztecs.”

You seem to want to say that claiming that “Europeans had better weaponry” MUST commit oneself to (or the idea that they had better weaponry is somehow inherently connected to the idea that) the claim that “Europeans are better.” But that just seems obviously false. It seems so obviously false that I cannot imagine someone actually thinking it in good faith.

Sleepy,

For one thing, Diamond doesn’t make an argument as to why Europeans, in particular, ended up being the colonizers. His is an account of how certain societies on the Eurasian landmass came to have the CAPABILITY to conquer other societies.

It is simply false, and a gross slander, that Diamond thinks/claims that/is committed, from anything said in GGS, to the moral absolution of Europeans.

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PTS 05.25.09 at 2:33 am

Adamhenne:

“But we don’t know a thing about why. Which, perhaps, is okay. If that’s all GGS was, I’d consider it a moderately interesting, inaccurate but basically unobjectionable book. But that’s not all that the book claims to be about. Diamond is quite explicit beginning to end that “because the shape of the continents gave them guns germs and steel” is the answer to why white folks have so much cargo and black folks have so little.”

This is not an accurate description of the book’s thesis. It is true that Yali’s question in the beginning of the book serves as a framing device that lead Diamond to think about why Eurasian societies, at 1500, had such greater military and transportational capabilities (and why they had devices that were so much more devastating) than other societies.

However, Diamond explicitly acknowledges that both the Chinese and European social groups had those capabilities, yet only one engaged in colonization. He does engage in some small speculation as to why Europeans did what they did (William McNeil, for example, suggests that the political balkanization of Europe as opposed to the unity of the Chinese polity played a significant role).

But Diamond is, I think, very clear throughout the book that he is providing a macro explanation as to why Europeans had the capabilities they did and why other indigenous societies had such difficulty resisting them.

Providing such an explanation does not, in any way I can see, mitigate the responsibility of the Europeans for the atrocities they committed. To claim that would be to straightforwardly conflate explanation and justification. Hell, even if we explain European expansionism by appeal to power politics or particularly post-Crusade Christian ideology or the particular dynamics of early stage mercantile capitalism, it STILL wouldn’t be the case that the expansion is justified. Explaining WHY someone did what they did does EXCUSE or JUSTIFY what they did, except in very special circumstances where the explanation also shows that they were incapable of exercising their choice. Nothing about Diamond’s account is an attempt to show that Europeans had no choice but to colonize. I don’t see why this is so hard.

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Doctor Slack 05.25.09 at 2:53 am

It would also be nice if critics of Diamond didn’t resort to misrepresentations of his arguments like this. What Diamond actually argued was that Corn took an extremely long time to be breed successfully for planting in a northern climate.

Oh, I had forgotten about that half-paragraph on p. 188. You’re absolutely right, he does in fact (extremely briefly) mention this.

Unfortunately it doesn’t do much for the whole “east-west axis” business except to demonstrate that the diffusion of crops between regions tends to happen in fits and starts and take a long time. Fertile Crescent crops took, what, about 6,000 years from the appearance of cultivation to make their east-west way to Iberia? A rate of about, if you break down the timespan, about 2 miles / year accounting a distance of about 3,000 miles from Mesopotamia to Iberia. Maize, which if we accept Galinat’s account would have journeyed some 4,000 miles to become established east of the Great Lakes by 1200 CE, took a smidge over 2 miles / year to do so. Of course, that rate varied significantly over the total timespan, but the point is that in the big picture — and remember, this theory is supposed to be explaining big picture data — the overall speed of diffusion from the Fertile Crescent along its “east-west axis” isn’t so much more impressive as to indicate that the barriers those crops faced in reaching Iberia were less significant than those faced by maize expanding into northern latitudes. The primary difference is that maize got a later start (which itself might be because teosinte was much harder to domesticate, as Diamond theorizes, or may simply be because the New World was settled much later than the Old World).

Multiple independent domestications as one of the disadvantages of the “north-south” axis turn up there, too. Hmmmm, I wonder what he has to say about the multiple independent domestications of rice… ISTR rice being another one of the doozies…

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Doctor Slack 05.25.09 at 3:15 am

Henri: You don’t care about the details? Well, I do. A vaguely-plausible theory that gets its details wrong isn’t worth much.

Getting into a tactical trap is a far cry from mistaking your enemies for gods because there is no recorded description of a horseman from 50 years ago (or whatever the story).

And indeed, Atahualpa did not mistake his enemies as gods according even to the accounts of the Spaniards. That’s another one of those picky little details.

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afu 05.25.09 at 3:49 am

Multiple independent domestications as one of the disadvantages of the “north-south” axis turn up there, too. Hmmmm, I wonder what he has to say about the multiple independent domestications of rice… ISTR rice being another one of the doozies…

Fair enough, I’m certainly open to arguments that the book got facts wrong, still can’t wrap my head around the racist angle, this for example…

Any argument which denies or largely makes irrelevant issues of culpability and, in its place, asserts a determinism which explains unequal cultural outcomes is either a racist argument, or very nearly a racist argument. It doesn’t matter what deterministic mechanism is at the heart of the argument.

Does this argument really apply to pre-modern cultures? If I say the New Foundland native were able to dominate the Iceland Vikings because of inherent geographic advantages is that close to a racist argument. What about Homo Sapiens vs. Neandertals?

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adamhenne 05.25.09 at 3:55 am

Hi PTS, thank you for the clarity of your comment. I must respectfully disagree, though, about our respective characterizations of GGS:

However, Diamond explicitly acknowledges that both the Chinese and European social groups had those capabilities, yet only one engaged in colonization. He does engage in some small speculation as to why Europeans did what they did (William McNeil, for example, suggests that the political balkanization of Europe as opposed to the unity of the Chinese polity played a significant role).

Sure – Diamond acknowledges that his meme could be applied to China but dismisses the question with the balkanization argument you mention. I think Dr. Slack, maybe, addressed this a hundred comments or so back there. But this is exactly what I’m talking about in terms of how little attention he pays to political explanations. We get only a couple of speculative paragraphs about a point on which his whole argument should pivot.

But Diamond is, I think, very clear throughout the book that he is providing a macro explanation as to why Europeans had the capabilities they did and why other indigenous societies had such difficulty resisting them.

Right – and he also very clearly dismisses anything but this “macro” explanation as epiphenomena or noise, without any determining power. And he’s equally clear that possessing those capabilities is not just a necessary part of explaining European conquest, but is sufficient explanation.

At least it was clear to me. This more than any of the factual or logical failings is what got my back up the first time I read the book – “where does he get off claiming his [silly] argument about continents as the master explanation for the state of the world today?” He elaborates this repeatedly in his introduction, in terms of “ultimate” and “proximate” causes; he even refers to everything involving culture and individual activity as “residue,” to be dismissed in the epilogue.

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harold 05.25.09 at 4:07 am

I think the Vietnamese, Uigers, and Koreans would deny that the Chinese were not imperialists. All of China was conquered by the Han people.

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Doctor Slack 05.25.09 at 4:17 am

You know, I’ve just been flailing away about the massive overratedness of GG&S and completely ignoring the New Yorker controversy until now, but I’ve just been looking through some of those scatterplot links, especially this one, and… man oh man. It’s possible to charitably say the Diamond of GG&S wrote an overpraised book that practises mere Eurocentrism-by-sloppiness, but it’s much harder to take such a charitable view of the Diamond at the centre of that mess.

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Kaveh 05.25.09 at 4:52 am

@274 & 276
Apart from general obtunesenss, I think part of the reason GGS’s relationship to racism is confusing is that Keith, Adam, and others are overemphasizing the issue of guilt vs determinism, when a lot of what makes this book Eurocentric is its very definition of the problem, the whole project of identifying European hegemony as the central fact of modern existence that needs to be repeatedly explained and (over-)theorized, inflating the importance of this portion of history at the expense of others. Look at how Diamond (taking his cue from a real historian, McNeil) deals with China:

@277 However, Diamond explicitly acknowledges that both the Chinese and European social groups had those capabilities, yet only one engaged in colonization. He does engage in some small speculation as to why Europeans did what they did (William McNeil, for example, suggests that the political balkanization of Europe as opposed to the unity of the Chinese polity played a significant role).

I don’t see how Diamond or McNeil can get away with arguing China was not expansionist in much the same way that Europe was. What about China’s massive 18th-century expansion into Central Asia? Look at a map of the PRC and compare that to a map of China during the Ming–China expanded massively, and most of that territory was taken during the Qing period, between 1644 and the early 1800s, and held continuously, and practically none of this new territory had been held for any length of time by previous dynasties. It’s at least comparable to Russia’s expansion into Central Asia.

So why on earth is China characterized as not effectively expansionist? Why does imperial expansion in the 1800s make European powers expansionist, but China’s expansion in the 1700s not qualify? It looks to me like Eurocentrism. As Dr Slack said @227, just-so stories told from a European perspective–Europe was expanding into Asia in the 1800s, so that’s the important period to look at when comparing imperial expansions. Not the 1500s when the Ottomans were expanding or the 1700s when China was expanding. Not the 1900s when Asian nationalist movements were expanding at the expense of European political control.

And European transport and military devices in 1500 were not more devastating than those elsewhere in Asia. The Ottomans conquered about a third of Europe in the 1500s, using military organizational techniques that were far more effective and more similar to later, modern techniques (advanced, if you will) than those of European states at that time. Why are so few people even aware of this now, much less feeling compelled to explain it? Europeans in the 1600s were certainly aware of it.

So why all this interest in only those periods when European states expanded at the expense of non-European states? Why is there such fascination with this, and a virtual denial or so-glaring-it-almost-seems-willful ignorance of periods of conquest OF Europe BY Asian states (or, more firmly in GGS territory, reverses inflicted by Native Americans)? Why are these not in need of explanation? Why is expansion into the Americas or India more representative of a state’s power to expand than expansion into Central Asia?

So what I am now seeing in GGS is less a faulty explanation or justification of European hegemony as a Eurocentric assertion of European hegemony that makes it look bigger and more unchallenged than it really was, and sneakily subsuming all of Afro-Eurasian history under the umbrella of Europe, as if Europe were commercially and technologically all but independent of the larger Asian economy by the 1500s when the conquest of the Americas was underway. GGS is part of a wider practice of rehearsing European hegemony as transcendental historical fact, a practice exacerbated by both GGS’s proponents, and the “guilt” line of reasoning.

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Kaveh 05.25.09 at 5:05 am

clarification: obtunesness not of Keith, Adam, and others, but of people who fail to see the potential for racism in GGS

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Barbar 05.25.09 at 5:06 am

What a bad-faith, deliberately provocative and unproductive comment.

Hilarious. The engine behind this whole comment thread is people complaining about how Diamond’s argument can be used in racist ways. Then when a Diamond “defender” says that the argument is not necessarily racist, the same people shake their heads and wonder why there’s so much resistance to seeing racism. This is how we can get to nearly 300 comments about racism without anyone actually putting forth a racist argument.

And then there’s the side arguments about how to weigh human agency and structural factors in assessing causal historical forces. On one side, there are apparently people who believe that human agency is completely irrelevant to history. On the other side, there are people who bravely argue that “human agency matters.” Ironically these very same people are quite quick to complain about straw man arguments.

My favorite two comments so far:
154: Oh thank goodness, it’s not because anybody made any racist decisions, it’s not because white supremacist ideas authorized the massive slaughter of less powerful folks, it’s just that the shape of continents gave some people some stuff that others didn’t have. Any other population in the same position would have done the same. Nothing to feel guilty about after all.

198: If I could imagine a more illiberal, immoral project than this, I don’t know what it might be. Keep posting, Henri, you’re making my argument better than I ever could.

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sleepy 05.25.09 at 5:23 am

“My argument, full of faulty logic and misrepresentations of the data, says that due to factors x and y the specific subgroup of the human species of which I am a member had the capacity to kick ass, and that given the inevitability of certain human behaviors (inevitability assumed or defended by aforesaid faulty logic) they proceeded to do so.”

Giving Dr Slack and others the benefit of the doubt as to whether the data they supply is correct, the question is left whether there is something not just mistaken but self-serving about the argument. Define the meaning and implication of “self-serving” in this context.

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Barbar 05.25.09 at 5:35 am

BTW, as I said above, ignorant laymen love so-called “ultimate” explanations, and educated experts who actually care about facts hate them. Enough said.

While any discussion of “European dominance” is bound to bring up racist ideas, highlighting “sensitivity to racism” as the big divider between sophisticates and non-sophisticates is really just a lot of unproductive back-patting. Do anthropologists and laypeople differ on Diamond just because anthropologists have a more nuanced understanding of racism? Please. adamhenne thinks the most important thing “we” should take away from colonial history is a feeling of guilt. How nuanced.

Meanwhile we have the endless loop:
“Diamond’s arguments can be used by racists.”
“I don’t want to hold this against him, because the argument is not necessarily racist.”
“It’s so suspicious that Diamond’s defenders refuse to see racism and are so offended by accusations of racism.”
“Listen, the argument is not necessarily racist.”
“Man, so much obtuseness. I knew Diamond’s book and its popularity was fishy. Not that I’m accusing anyone of racism.”

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Kaveh 05.25.09 at 5:42 am

@ 288
Yes, Barbar, although I never mentioned GGS’s popularity as a reason to criticize it, I do think it is possible that a book like GGS could gain much popularity because it appeals to people who are looking for something that justifies their own Eurocentrism, their ignorance of the world outside of Europe and the U.S. Do you think this is implausible?

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adamhenne 05.25.09 at 5:42 am

Still not sure what you’re getting at, Barbar. There have been nearly 300 comments about a racist argument – some of us pointing out the way GGS lends support to racist ideology, and some getting all in a tizzy that we’d dare suggest such a thing. And I’ve explained over and over what I mean, and haven’t gotten more than a couple of responses that indicate any comprehension of things I’ve said. Certainly nobody’s responded to my arguments in a way that makes me reconsider them.

And I think human agency matters – is that weird? GGS flatly denies it, and its supporters here seem untroubled by that. I’m not sure what straw man arguments you’re referring to, or why it’s ironic. In other words, what are you on about?

And finally, 154 was me, and I stand by that. I think it’s exactly the sentiment at the heart of GGS, and it sure sounds like the reason a lot of people around here are so attached to the book. Some of us have pointed that out and been roundly attacked, with a lot of heat and very little light. And you drop in occasionally to make snotty comments devoid of content, so that certainly cheers things up around here. So I’m wondering, what’s going on? Nearly three hundred comments now and I’ve read, like, maybe 10 that presented a meaningful challenge to my argument? With like 100 that are nothing more than insults. Now, clearly I’m some kind of masochist, but what’s your motivation for keeping this up?

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Kaveh 05.25.09 at 5:44 am

further clarification: by “general obtuseness” I meant that some individuals may be obtuse in a general way, not that (say) people who don’t claim to recognize racist overtones in GGS are, in general, obtuse.

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adamhenne 05.25.09 at 6:04 am

Hm, I just lost a comment – probably just as well. On re-reading 288, I am still confused – you don’t make much sense in writing, Barbar. But on the one hand, if that little parody is supposed to represent me, then you seem to feel I’m repeating myself – which I probably am. I tend to do that when I feel like no-one is listening to me, which is obviously happening here. On the other hand, you also say “ignorant laypeople”; “sophisticates” vs “non-sophisticates”; and “educated experts”. None of which seems relevant to me – I’ve come clean as an academic anthropologist, I don’t know what Barbar or anyone else here does for a living. But you know, it’s understandable – is some of this buckshot hostility a response to perceived academic posturing? Because if so, y’all could just say so and maybe this could be finished before bedtime.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.25.09 at 6:57 am

Adam: political and ideological factors at work behind the question, why conquer?

There is no “why”. You and your comrades (including, amazingly, LP) make a category mistake here, IMO. A society is not a conscious entity, you can’t ask it “why did you accept Christianity?” and get the answer “because I wanted to achieve…” It’s just as silly as asking a species: “why did you have to grow these huge fangs, when a pair of wings would suffice?”

Society evolves, adapts to the environment, culture reflects this process. And, incidentally, individuals carry no responsibility for the society as a whole, only for what they do.

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Katherine 05.25.09 at 7:15 am

Yet racism exists which asserts that two cultures are made up of people who are biologically similar (or the difference irrelevant), yet one is favored by God and the other disfavored. Or that one language is superior and the other inferior. These arguments and those similar must be, by the above spectacularly wrong reckoning, the opposite of racism merely because they assert that people are biologically the same.

As the person who used the phrase “opposite of racism” far, far above, I object most strongly to this gross misrepresentation of what I must therefore think. It is a huge and unjustified extrapolation of a one line comment.

And by the way, Adamhenne, when you say that you have not been negative about other commenters on this thread, may I remind you that earlier you accused people of having read you in bad faith?

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