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Why Does Jared Diamond Make Anthropologists So Mad?

Diamond argues that there are things we can learn from small-scale societies like those found in Papua New Guinea.
Torsten Blackwood
AFP/Getty Images
Diamond argues that there are things we can learn from small-scale societies like those found in Papua New Guinea.

Jared Diamond is once again inflaming my tribe.

In his new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies, Diamond questions the practice of psychologists who base their claims about human nature entirely on people from WEIRD — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic — societies. In fact, Diamond writes, people in small-scale societies, people who gather and hunt, herd animals or farm, may have figured out better ways than WEIRD ways to treat people, solve social problems and stay healthy.

So far, this sounds pretty much like an embrace of the cross-cultural diversity that we anthropologists work to understand, even to celebrate. So what's the backlash all about?

In a beautifully written piece for The Guardian, Wade Davis says that Diamond's "shallowness" is what "drives anthropologists to distraction." For Davis, geographer Diamond doesn't grasp that "cultures reside in the realm of ideas, and are not simply or exclusively the consequences of climatic and environmental imperatives."

Rex Golub at Savage Minds slams the book for "a profound lack of thought about what it would mean to study human diversity and how to make sense of cultural phenomena." In a fit of vexed humor, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for anthropological research tweeted Golub's post along with this comment: "@savageminds once again does the yeoman's work of exploring Jared Diamond's new book so the rest of us don't have to."

This biting response isn't new; see Jason Antrosio's post from last year in which he calls Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel a "one-note riff," even "academic porn" that should not be taught in introductory anthropology courses.

Now, in no way do I want to be the anthropologist who defends Diamond because she just doesn't "get" what worries all the cool-kid anthropologists about his work. I've learned from their concerns; I'm not dismissing them.

In point of fact, I was startled at this passage on the jacket of The World Until Yesterday: "While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgably wide, we can glimpse most of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies that still exist or were recently in existence." This statement turns small-scale societies into living fossils, the human equivalent of ancient insects hardened in amber. That's nonsense, of course.

Lest we think to blame a publicist (rather than the author) for that lapse, consider the text itself. Near the start, Diamond offers a chronology: until about 11,000 years ago, all people lived off the land, without farming or domesticated animals. Only around 5,400 years ago did the first state emerge, with its dense population, labor specialization and power hierarchy. Then Diamond fatally overlays that past onto the present: "Traditional societies retain features of how all of our ancestors lived for tens of thousands of years, until virtually yesterday." Ugh.

Another problem, one I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere, bothers me just as much. When Diamond urges his WEIRD readers to learn from the lifeways of people in small-scale societies, he concludes: "We ourselves are the only ones who created our new lifestyles, so it's completely in our power to change them." Can he really be so unaware of the privilege that allows him to assert — or think — such a thing? Too many people living lives of poverty within industrialized nations do not have it "completely in their power" to change their lives, to say the least.

And yet.

Readers eager to learn about practices considerably different from their own will come away from the book with significant rewards. For one thing, Diamond does not succumb to a Noble Savage fallacy of romanticizing small-scale societies.

"There are," he notes dryly, "many aspects of traditional life that we emphatically don't want to emulate, such as cycles of violence, frequent risk of starvation, and short lifespans resulting from infectious disease."

For another, he writes engagingly of the linguistic skills (see my post from last week) and the intricate social rules of people in the "traditional" Papua New Guinea societies he knows best.

In chapter 2, there's a fascinating extended tale about the accidental killing of a young boy named Billy. Jared relates how Billy's killers and his family come together peaceably through ritualized New Guinean conflict-resolution methods. In the United States, Diamond notes ruefully, the wronged party would seek immediate litigation.

Diamond's message resonates most powerfully when he describes the importance afforded to social relationships in small-scale societies. Even the very old are typically surrounded by at least some of their adult children and their life-long friends. In Western societies, Diamond says, "We acquire and shed relationships throughout our lives much more" readily than do people elsewhere.

This material has the potential to help all of us think hard about our lives, and the lives of other people too often made to seem exotic and strange.

So, I'm left with questions.

Regarding Davis's worry: Doesn't Diamond in fact explain cultures as very largely about ideas — ideas regarding how to act toward and be with others?

Even if Diamond makes mistakes — and he does — might his taking on big questions for large numbers of readers do more good than harm? Science writer John Horgan blogged on Monday, for instance, that "Diamond challenges the kneejerk sense of superiority of those of us in WEIRD societies." That's no small thing.

And finally: Where, at least since 1982 and Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History, are the "big books" in which we anthropologists do a better job than Diamond?

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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