Jared Diamond and the anthropologists

By Razib Khan | February 5, 2013 11:21 am

Note: An update on this post. I want to be clear that I think Jared Diamond is wrong on a lot of details, and many cultural anthropologists are rightly calling him out on that. But, they do a disservice to their message by politicizing their critique, and ascribing malevolence to all those who disagree with their normative presuppositions. Scholarship is hard enough without personalized politicization, and I stand by Jared Diamond’s right to be sincerely wrong without having his character assassinated. As the vehemence of my post suggests the only solution I can see to this ingrained tick among many cultural anthropologists is to drop the pretense of genteel discourse, and blast back at them with all the means at our disposal. Telling them to stick to facts nicely won’t do any good, these are trenchant critics of Social Darwinism who engage in the most bare-knuckle war of all-against-all when given any quarter. Coexistence in the academy is simply not possible with this particular culture, extirpation is the only long term ESS for the rest of us.

It’s happening again, another issue of Jared Diamond vs. the anthropologists. Part of this is surely personal. Diamond has been trading in glib and gloss for years, and profitably so, in both financial and fame terms. There is also a deep scholarly divide. Diamond’s way of viewing historical development is reminiscent of, if not equivalent to, materialism. That is, external material forces (geography) and broad macro-historical dynamics (the transition across modes of production) loom large in his thinking. In contrast, many cultural anthropologists disagree with this paradigm, and see it as outmoded, old fashioned, and false. Not that I can decrypt what they believe, because clarity is not something that seems to be valued by cultural anthropologists in most domains.

I say most, because there is one area where many of them are quite clear: they are the beacons of toleration and justice. And they get to define what toleration and justice is. For all cultural anthropology’s epistemological muddle, its political priors are crisp and dinstict, and strangely insulated from the critique and deconstruction so valued by the discipline in all matters. From The Guardian piece above:

“It’s a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us,” said Survival’s Jonathan Mazower. “It simply isn’t true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people’s rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative.”

In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that “tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace”. He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as “primitive brutish barbarians” or as “noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes”.

But Survival remains adamant. “The clear thrust of his argument is that there is a natural evolutionary path along which human society progresses and we are simply further along it,” said Mazower. “That’s extremely dangerous, because it is the notion that they’re backward and need to be ‘developed’. That thinking – and not that their way of living might be just as modern as any other way of living – is the same thinking that underpins governments that persecute tribal people.”

Diamond’s reasoning, he said, was “pernicious” and “leads to the kind of remark the former president of Botswana made about the Kalahari bushmen: ‘How can you have a hunter-gatherer living in the age of computers? If the bushman wants to survive he must change, otherwise, like the dodo, he will perish’.”

But that is unlikely to satisfy Survival, which believes tribal societies are societies like any other with their own sets of faults and virtues and which need to be able to make their own choices without interference or encroachment on their land.

“If Diamond’s book had been published in the 18th or 19th century, they would have been called ‘primitive savages’,” said Mazower. “He’s just dressed that up with a lot of pseudo-scientific language and some unexceptional stuff about what we can learn from them.”

Many cultural anthropologists  believe that they have deep normative disagreements with Jared Diamond. In reality I think the chasm isn’t quite that large. But the repeated blows ups with Diamond gets to the reality that cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover. It has embraced deconstruction, critique, complexity (or more accurately anti-reductionism) and relativism to such a great extent that whereas in many disciplines social dynamics and political power struggles are an unfortunate consequence of academic life, in cultural anthropology the fixation with power dynamics and structures has resulted in its own self-cannibalization, and overwhelming preoccupation with such issues. Everyone is vulnerable to the cannon blast of critique, and the only value left sacred are particular particular ends (social justice, defined by cultural anthropologists) and axioms (white males are oppressive patriarchs, though white male cultural anthropologists may have engaged in enough self interrogation to take upon themselves the mantle of fighting for the rights of the powerless [i.e., not white males]) which all can agree upon.

I grant that some anthropologists are responding to Jared Diamond in more measured tones, and occasionally even clear sentences. But by and large the reason that the discipline is properly thought of as an obscure, if vociferous, form of politics rather than a politicized form of analysis is that professional character assassins are thick on the ground in cultural anthropology. Jared Diamond may be wrong on facts, but he has the right enemies. Once he’s taken down, the kommissars may come for us all! (well, punctuated by the appropriate bursts of internal purges)


Comments (39)

  1. Stephan Guyenet

    Glad to see this. Even though there may be some isolated valid points to the critique, the response to his book has been nothing short of hysterical. We aren’t allowed to critically analyze other cultures using methods accepted in scientific disciplines, only bask in their warm glow. If we recognize that cultures TEND to become more technologically complex if they’re able, depending in part on local resources, we are “persecuting tribal people”.

    I think the central problem here is conflating scientific arguments and moral arguments. Critically analyzing other cultures does not mean we have to de-value other people. Acknowledging that affluent societies are more technologically complex than hunter-gatherers doesn’t imply that people in one group are superior to, or more valuable than, people in another.

  2. deowll

    A well thought out article that makes valid points. Real science deals with real events and comes up with real data the exact meaning of which can be debated by reasonable people. These people on the other hand seem to have a political agenda and a jargon meant more to obfuscate than to inform. There is little to no tolerance for diversity of views or even the scientific method. In theory they should be in laying the foundations we need to produce a happier, more productive society. In practice I’d much rather trust my local tribal shaman.

  3. TheBrett

    I remember the professor in a Biological Anthropology class I took talking about this. It sounds like the Cultural Anthropologists have largely lost the ability to separate advocacy from examination of the populations they’re studying, and now see themselves as “protectors” who have to protect indigenous people from negative views that might lead outsiders to hurt or change them.

    Which is ironically rather condescending, but I digress.

    • razibkhan

      analogy: the revolutionary vanguard and the ‘proletariat’ whom they liberated (never mind the few eggs broken to make the omelette).

  4. once they decided to omit the word “science” from their creed i think the writing was pretty much on the wall: Anthropology is now largely an advocacy group. If you watch the excellent documentary “Brain Washed” you realize that it is literally part of a conspiracy put on by lefty scientists – they refuse to acknowledge any inborn differences. however, there are still good ones like Harpending who are still honest and informative. It’s interesting that I and others are critical of Diamond for being somewhat of a Blank Slater yet he is demonized by the left in this instance. I’m always amazed that groups like this “Survival” will live right up to their stereotype – it’s good for laughs but it still causes damage as people who don’t know better end up believing what they’re spewing. Anyway, what a weird OpEd piece Diamond did recently – a focus on safety? What’s the point? Is he tired of battling?

  5. DiscoveryNerd

    But they aren’t anthropologists nor do they claim to be…More from Survival International’s director in the daily beast piece – a good read: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/30/savaging-primitives-why-jared-diamond-s-the-world-until-yesterday-is-completely-wrong.html

  6. I come to Diamond as a historical linguist who sometimes uses patterns of geographical variation to test historical inferences. The “express train to Polynesia” showed Diamond as having a poor grasp of this methodology.

  7. Jonathan Mazower

    I’m not entirely clear why you think I’m a cultural anthropologist, as I’ve never claimed to be one, and have never studied anthropology. Survival International’s objection to Jared Diamond’s new book is very simple – it is that he makes a political argument, but dresses it up as science.

    He thinks that tribal peoples are from ‘yesterday’. He says that most of them live in a state of constant warfare, and selects and manipulates data in his support. Survival believes that all peoples everywhere, in both industrialized and tribal societies, sometimes behave violently, and that ideas like his which generalize about ‘most’ tribal peoples are nonsense and dangerous.

    Diamond says tribal people welcome states imposing control over them to bring a halt to their constant warfare. This is a breathtaking denial of the catastrophic effects of European invasion and theft of tribal lands over the last 500 years. History shows that thinking people are violent, actually breeds violence against them. Diamond’s ideas are the same as those used to underpin European domination and colonialism, dressed up in a pseudo-scientific wrapper.

    • I think it’s weird that Survival’s observations of reality just happen to exactly agree with liberal ideology. Isn’t that a little suspicious to you? Seems pretty convenient to have your version of “science” perfectly back your already existing ideology.

      • Jonathan Mazower

        Our point is that this argument has nothing to do with science – it’s a political and social question. Diamond (and Pinker) feign scientific objectivity, but in fact make highly political arguments – in Diamond’s case, that state pacification of the natives is a good thing, as it stops their constant warfare. That is exactly what the British (and other) colonial powers said in the 19th Century.

        • So you’re asserting that, not only are Stephen Pinker AND Jared Diamond wrong regarding the data, they should kinda switch their ideology to fit a Noble Savage type deal? Dude, I’m really not trying to be a dick, and I do understand what you’re getting at, but you’re gonna have to step up your game a little if you want to be taken seriously by these guys. I think you probably already know that.

        • Tom Bosworth

          >> highly political arguments…that state pacification of the natives is a good thing, as it stops their constant warfare. That is exactly what the…colonial powers said in the 19th Century.<< Yes, and there is something positive to be said for that point of view. Yes, it was patronizing, and yes, it did ignore European and American internal violence, but missionaries persuading people that God takes a dim view of cutting off a joint of little girls' fingers every time a relative died (as in one tribe in PNG) is a good thing, no matter what anthropologists may think. At least it is a good thing if you think that little girls entering adulthood without fingers is a decision which should best be made by the girl.

          Every culture has strengths as well as it's sub-optimal aspects, but it is just silly to think that all cultures are equal unless one wants to praise the favorite debate terminator, Nazi culture, as just as good as Hmong. Or that Taliban culture is every bit as good as the culture of Hollywood. And please, don't ask the power elites of the Taliban –male– how good their culture is. Ask the 14 year old girl sold to a 50 year old husband who has exercised his absolute right to beat her to death for dishonoring him. Ask the girl whose nose was cut off. Ask the victims, not the victors.

          • c.f., Lord William Bentinck’s famous reply when high-caste Hindus complained about his abolition of suttee by saying that burning widows was
            the custom of their country, and that they desired that he would not
            interfere with their customs. Bentinck replied that in his country it
            was customary to hang anyone who burned a widow. He said that he would
            not interfere with Indian customs as long as the Hindus did not
            interfere with his.

        • halfcanadian

          When the British quelled the practice of Sutu, that made up for a lot of abuses.

          Frankly, seeing the mess Africa is after the colonialists left, I can’t help thinking that the dark continent could use a little more of it.

    • Show me statistical analysis or robust evidence which demonstrates anything *other* than significantly higher rates of violence among those in tribal societies as compared with state societies. Anecdotes of individual tribes with low rates of violence doesn’t cut it. It seems to me that the non-scientific argument here is not coming from Diamond.

      But rates of violence is only one aspect out of many by which tribal societies can be compared to state societies, and Diamond does just that in his book, arguing that some (conflict resolution, restoration of relationships, treatment of the old, etc.) are better in some tribal societies than most state societies. You do a disservice to Diamond by failing to mention that the large portion of his book is devoted to putting tribal societies in a warm light.

      Diamond says tribal societies are “from yesterday”? That’s a very charged reading. What he actually says is that all human societies were tribal in nature for the vast majority of the existence of the human species. In other words, “modern” societies are quite W.E.I.R.D., and it’s useful to examine aspects of our society from the lens of the incredible variations in non-state societies.

      • John Y

        “Show me evidence which demonstrates anything *other* than significantly higher rates of violence among those in tribal societies as compared with state societies”.

        How about 41,000,000 people killed during the 20th century as a result of wars between or within states? (see: http://www.cissm.umd.edu/papers/files/deathswarsconflictsjune52006.pdf)

        • mrmandias

          What does ‘rates’ mean to you?

        • Ramon Lopez

          41e6 dead over 100 years out of (average) 2e9 people is 0.0205% killed/yr. For a tribal society of 50 people to have that rate they would have to suffer only 1 killing in a hundred years. But the violent death rate is higher than that. Even among the chimps of Gombe, our nearest relatives.

    • And my problem with your response to him is that you make a political statement related to your agenda and pretend that invalidates his position.

      Whether or not his position helps or harms your agenda on tribal rights really has nothing to do with whether or not his position is actually correct. Simply claiming that someone’s research is unacceptable to your political agenda isn’t a very convincing refutation of the research.

  8. Armand Leroi

    Razib’s post is spot-on. Diamond *is* cavalier with the facts. I recall reviewing Guns & Germ & Steel, and finding its empirical basis utterly ropey. But at least he was doing science — macro, comparative, science — of a sort that was — is? — practically extinct in cultural anthropology. He was asking the right kinds of questions. He still does. The disciplinary gulf is exemplified by Tony Water’s suggestion that 1st year Anthro undergrads be given Nigel Barley’s “Innocent Anthropologist” to read. It’s utterly charming, no doubt about it — but a course-book? The dustjacket of my Penguin edition commends it as “doing for Anthropology what Gerald Durrell does for zoology” (or words to that effect). That captures its flavour rather accurately. But here’s the thing: we don’t make “My Family And Other Animals” required reading for Biology undergrads. Perhaps that just shows that things really are different in Anthropology.

    • tonywaters


      Social Scientists tend to be required whole books in classes, not just textbooks. My classes have anywhere from 5-10 such books. I guess this is part of the disciplinary gulf too. I know that I occasionally get an Engineering or Natural Science student in my class who claim to have made it through a couple of years of college without reading a whole book–all part of the disciplinary gulf you mention, I guess.


  9. HelianUnbound

    The irony here is that, as someone has already pointed out, Diamond is “a bit of a Blank Slater” himself. Once you’re familiar with his ideological “line,” you can pretty much predict what his “scientific research” will have to say on any politically loaded topic. What goes around comes around. In any case, cultural anthropology’s drop down an “intellectual black hole” isn’t a recent phenomenon. It shared the “Blank Slate” black hole with the rest of the behavioral sciences for several decades. The recent crawling back by some of them to the reality that there actually is such a thing as human nature, always sufficiently obvious to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before that time, orthodoxy was rigidly enforced by just the sort of ad hominem attacks now being directed a Diamond.

    See, for example, that wonderful little piece of historical source material, “Man and Aggression,” a collection of Blank Slater essays published in 1968, edited by Ashley Montagu, and directed mainly at Robert Ardrey. Ardrey was, by their own admission, the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slaters. In spite of that, he had the honor of being dismissed in Pinker’s mythical “history” of the Blank Slate as “totally and utterly wrong,” because of his opinions about group selection no less. In any case, here are some of the attacks directed at him in M&A:

    “His categories and preferences are bound to give comfort and provide ammunition for the Radical Right, for the Birchers and Empire Loyalists and their analogues elsewhere.” Geoffrey Gorer

    “A line of argument like that of Ardrey’s, therefore, seems to legitimate our present morality, in regarding the threat system as dominant at all costs, by reference to our biological ancestors. If the names of both antiquity and of science can be drawn upon to legitimate our behavior, the moral uneasiness about napalm and the massacre of the innocent in Vietnam mayh be assuaged.” Kenneth Boulding

    “In short, this book is an apology and rationalization for Imperialism, Pax Americana, Laissez Faire, Social Darwinism, and that greatest of all evolutionary developments, Capitalism.” Ralph Holloway

    Jane Goodall got the same treatment when she started reporting certain politically incorrect facts about chimpanzees. For example, from a article in the Sunday Times published as recently as 1997,

    “Even before Dart’s message became entrenched as orthodoxy, Louis Leakey had in 1957 installed Jane Goodall, a 23-year-old secretary from England, to report on the common chimpanzee population at Gombe River – maybe a day’s drive to my south-west, near Lake Tanganyika. In what was considered science for the period, the former waitress had arrived at Gombe, ordered the grass cut and dumped vast quantities of trucked-in bananas, before documenting a fractious pandemonium of the apes. Soon she was writing about vicious hunting parties in which our cheery cousins trapped colubus monkeys and ripped them to bits, just for fun.”

    In a word, the attacks on Diamond aren’t a recent phenomenon. Fortunately, they are not anywhere near as effective now in enforcing ideological orthodoxy as they were in Ardrey’s day.

  10. martinhewson

    “to drop the pretense of genteel discourse, and blast back at them with all the means at our disposal”

    There’s always room for polemic, but in general it’s not the right tactic. Calm refutation is more scientific, and after all that’s what counts in the end.

    For instance, we could do with reasonable discussion of the question what the costs and benefits of getting a state have been – more peace, but also more oppression, which I tried to discuss re Diamond vs Survival Int’l here http://www.breviosity.wordpress.com

  11. What stuck me most in Mazower’s “argument” (and I use the term very loosely) is his statement that if allowed to go unchallenged, Diamond’s viewpoint would damage “the movement for tribal people’s rights”.

    This may be true, but it’s irrelevant when considering whether’s Diamond’s position is logically sustainable or historically accurate. Claiming that something is factually wrong because it hurts your agenda isn’t good science, and it isn’t even good anthropology.

    If he wants to be taken seriously, he should consider offering up actual evidence of where Diamond’s work is flawed.

    • rickelst

      If you read the linked piece, he did make the points. The sentence you highlight is his rationale for *why it matters*.

  12. 1JEP

    This post truly misrepresents anthropology, and has encouraged the kind of ill-considered comments that it is receiving. There is a reason that many anthropologists are frustrated with Diamond’s work – it’s pretty bad stuff, it’s widely read, and it has important impacts on the ways the general public thinks about culture.

    The selection of the director of Survival International as a representative of “cultural anthropology” is poorly considered. He’s a professional advocate, the director of an advocacy group, and is not a researcher in cultural anthropology. Would it be valid to hold up Newt Gingrich as a representative of what is wrong with history as an academic discipline?

    Finally, comments along the lines of “anthropologists are not very clear” do not advance reasoned discussion. Polemical statements simply undermine the author’s authority – who wants to take up the other points in the piece, if this is the form of argumentation he employs?

  13. iconoclast

    Well put. Cultural Anthropology, like Sociology, has become a political movement rather than any sort of academic endeavor.

  14. Fat_Man

    I really don’t care for Jared Diamond. I think he is just wrong on a lot of facts. His assertions about the Holocaust were wrong. Benny Peiser demolished the theory about Easter Island before Diamond took up the subject. And, Diamond’s theory about Greenland (the Norsemen would not eat the local wild marine provender) was just plain wrong. Seal meat was the mainstay of their diet in the late phases of their Greenland sojourn.


    By the same token, Cultural anthropology is a discipline that hates itself so much on ideological grounds that it has had a complete nervous breakdown. Extirpating it would be a great mercy.

    Not, mind you, that it ever had a prayer of being a “social science”. Mostly, it should be viewed as a collection of travel stories, amusing, perhaps even informative, but not anything resembling a science. if you want to read an amusing book which barbeques anthropology, I recommend: “Fieldwork: A Novel” by Mischa Berlinski


  15. Melissa

    This whole discussion is pretty hilarious to me since it was eight years ago that I was first seduced by the ideas in Jared Diamond’s essay “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” which romanticizes foraging peoples. I learned a lot from the experience of unlearning those ideas. Looks like his tune has changed a little, though not a lot, he’s still treating modern foraging peoples, most of whom are not even hunter-gatherers but horticulturalists, with proxies for our paleolithic past.

  16. No.,Diamond states in Guns Germs and Steel that an agricultural people took over an island in the Pacific from some hunter/gatherers, and were forced by the conditions to become hunter gatherers. Further, in New Ginea, on the same island, some are hunter gatherers, others are agriculturists. It is not part of his thesis that there is a natural pace or order to advancement. That the complaining anthropologist has to drag in the Pres. of Botswana in order to have something to critisize should tell you that Diamond has said no such thing..

  17. Stephen Corry

    On February 4 2013 Jared Diamond was interviewed on BBC TV about his new book ‘The World Until Yesterday’. He would not agree to a Survival International representative being there to debate his points.

    During the interview, he addressed my critique, claiming that Survival’s policies rest on ‘falsehoods’, and that the universal finding is that violence almost always decreases when there’s European contact of ‘traditional’ societies.

    Please visit http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/8980 to see more of Mr Diamond’s claims, and Survival’s response to them.

    For the original article ‘Why Jared Diamond is Wrong’ see: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/30/savaging-primitives-why-jared-diamond-s-the-world-until-yesterday-is-completely-wrong.html


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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