Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Questions for Jared Diamond

Could Yali, the man who's question Diamond claims promulgated the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, simply have been asking Diamond why he and other "white people" travel with so much junk?

What is modernity?  For example, was Classical Greece modern or a subsistence-farming society?  Were the British Isles prior to 1500, modern or a subsistence-farming society?

Does the human proclivity for war really have anything to do with modernity or not?  For example, how does Diamond account for the Peloponnesian War or the wars between the Gaels and Picts and the wars between Scotland and the English?

Did farming have anything to do with the development of cultural or intellectual modernity?  What about other kinds of resource aggregation such as fishing or hunting that would also have allowed people leisure time and time for cultural development?  There are many examples of societies that did not engage in farming as their primary activity yet had highly developed political and social structures, as well as technology and art.  How does Diamond account for this?

Why doesn't Diamond discuss the impact of megafauna extinctions on human culture?  It's possible that farming was primarily a response to population increase, climate fluctuations and megafauna extinctions.  It is not clear that Neolithic farmers were better off than Palaeolithic Hunters in terms of their overall quality of life.  The paintings of the Chauvet Cave indicate a highly developed Palaeolithic culture, yet Jared Diamond followers never discuss this.  Why not?

What about the long term impact of industrialization?  Can it really be argued that industrialized societies that have leaned heavily on fossil fuels to develop are more advanced that pre-industrial cultures that developed without fossil fuels?  In the long term, in terms of survival and in the face of climate change, who really is more "modern"?

Regarding Diamond's recent comments on the treatment of the elderly in pre-industrial societies, can it be said that industrial societies treat their elderly better than the indigenous societies he describes?

It is becoming depressingly common to hear quotes of Diamond as an authoritative expert on all things Palaeolithic, Neolithic, native, anthropological, archaeological, pre-industrial and "modern".  While I agree with Diamond on some issues, such as the influence of geography in human development, he is outside his area of expertise on many of the topics he covers.  He more often than not does not reference experts in the areas of many of the topics he discusses.  Yet, it is still common to hear issues of human prehistory or wealth and development disparity discussed with glib references to Diamond, as if these issues are foregone conclusions requiring no further investigation and no action.


  1. Has anyone actually read the book? The first of his books I read was the one with Ernst Mayr on the birds of Melanesia. A particularly interesting and useful book that explained the expansion and evolution of birds in the region. Bird expansion has followed much the same route as human expansion. "The World Until Yesterday" (which I assume is the subject of this post) actually has quite a good review in the local paper. The reviewer mentions Jared's 'experience of living with traditional tribes, particularly those of Papua New Guinea' ..."

    And (which may actually be the source of much of the dissent) 'Especially fascinating is his logical analysis of religions and how they develop in different societies, each one claiming to be the only "real" one.'

  2. No, I haven't read this book and I won't read it until I can get it from the library without paying for it.

    I have heard him interviewed on NPR about this book. From this interview, my observation is that he is overgeneralizing from a very limitied set of observations.

    His Guns, Germs and Steel book has a number of damaging and untrue generalizations about Africans and indigenous North Americans. I have read that book.

    His book Collapse has been heavily critiqued in Nature for being worthless as a working general paradigm for understanding the Collapse of civilizations. I haven't read it.

    His books on Birds have generally been well received. I haven't read these.

    The problem for Diamond is that he should stick to the stuff he has actually observed or the area where he actually does research. For instance, he might have been able to write several good books on his experiences and observations in West Papua. (Had he not affronted the West Papuans.) His genearlizations to all time (with the exception of "today") and all people, outside his area of research, is what seems to be really "off" about many of his books.

  3. Here's the interview I listened to of Jared Diamond on NPR:

    It's all very well to talk about the need for better benefits and work opportunities for the elderly, more even distribution of resources, and healthcare. However, it is ridiculous for Diamond to be making some of the statements here makes here.

    For example, many traditional societies were very stratified and did not share resources, so this statement is silly: "Instead of promoting individual wealth, Diamond thinks that we should emulate traditional societies, where people are accustomed to sharing success with the community." Many if not most traditional societies exploited slaves including the Asante, the Ancient Greeks, most Europeans until the Renaissance, the Iroquois, the Nuu-chah-nulth and many others. Yes, there are a lot of reasons that we should more fairly distribute resources. However, the rational to do this does not lie with how traditional societies functioned.

    This interview is pure Diamond. He's simply telling audience, in this case a liberally minded NPR audience, what they want to hear.

    His other platitudes, such as his nonsense about traditional societies being more violent and in need of the softening influences of modernity, are obviously not discussed in this interview. Those are reserved for supporters in the business community. For that, you can see the Survivor International rebuttal to Diamond that was posted on February 14th.


Comments have temporarily been turned off. Because I currently have a heavy workload, I do not feel that I can do an acceptable job as moderator. Thanks for your understanding.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.