"Overall, I think that Diamond is like Mao: 70% right and 30% wrong."
November 19, 2013 7:03 PM   Subscribe

Anthropologists weigh in on Jared Diamond's latest: lack of citations, ethnographic carelessness, and the smoothing of complex narratives into quotable fables. The World Until Yesterday has prompted a flurry of commentary from anthropologists unenthusiastic about the physiologist turned evolutionary biologist turned geographer. In a recent London Review of Books, leading political anthropologist James C. Scott doesn't buy Diamond's description of the modern nation-state arising to curtail primitive tribal violence "[i]n a passage that recapitulates the fable of the social contract" given how "slaving was at the very centre of state-making." Anthropologist Alex Golub, who shares Papua New Guinea as a major research site, wrote "Still, it is telling that we live in an age when a member of America’s National Academy of Sciences and one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals has less concern for citations and footnotes than do the contributors to Wikipedia." David Correia pulls no punches in his opinion piece "F*ck Jared Diamond" calling Diamond's resurrection of environmental determinism as racist apologia and his latest book as essentializing primitivism in order to define Western industrialized exceptionalism.

Perhaps the transmutation of academic concepts into accessible pop-(social)-science bestsellers as performed by public intellectuals like Jared Diamond and Malcolm Gladwell through "cultural and historical bricolage" is an alchemical myth.
posted by spamandkimchi (268 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ow. Wow.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:09 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's very easy to get seduced by a good writer and adopt their conclusions uncritically, but this can be a useful warning:
I found that I agreed with Diamond in inverse relation to my pre-existing knowledge about whatever subject he was addressing. When Diamond was writing about topics that I know in depth, I felt as though he was leaving out important information; when I didn’t know what he was writing about, I was thoroughly convinced.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:15 PM on November 19, 2013 [77 favorites]


I feel like mythologizing was pushed on him, after Guns Germs and Steel. I'm sure Gladwell has the same pressure of expectations applied to him.

The section on Australian technology is not like his later books, from what I hear of them.

I have to say that I'm a fan of myths. I want to spend my 10,000 hours of training on my craft. It's a decent myth (even though Gladwell thought nothing of that one).

Like the time when I was a kid and they told me the Green Berets left no one behind.

This seems like a strange post for Metafilter.
posted by saber_taylor at 7:16 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I saw him speak when he came to my town recently. I've never read any Diamond, but I know my sociocultural and environmental anthropologist buddies hate him, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Mostly what we got was an elderly gentleman with a lecturing style as dry as old paper, a great deal of repetition, and no coherent structure or compelling points whatsoever. But the hall was packed. I was puzzled by the enthusiasm, since he mostly didn't seem to say anything that didn't seem like a vast oversimplification that could be summed up by, "If you've ever bothered to think about this for more than two minutes you will realize it's both a blessing and a curse..." but was packaged in a, "Traditional societies see X totally differently than we modern Westerners! Let's mine their ancient wisdom!"

He finished it up with an aside about how cell phones are going to kill our brains and semi-ruin young people, which, uh, seemed a weird direction for an evolutionary biologist to go.

Someone told me later I should have turned it into a drinking game. If I had taken a shot every time he said "traditional societies" (what does that even mean?) I would have been under the table unconscious in the first two minutes.
posted by WidgetAlley at 7:18 PM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I like reading Diamond's work, but yeah as a former student of history and social ... evolution (for want of a better descriptor) I've always been just a little bit leery of relying on it as accurate. Reads a lot like a pre-established idea with selective anecdota molded to reinforce the author's world view. There can be lots of useful stuff to glean from Diamond, but you have to use a fine shifter.
posted by edgeways at 7:18 PM on November 19, 2013


Actually, it's F**k Jared Diamond which I think refers to his github projects.
posted by zippy at 7:20 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


environmental determinism as racist apologia

Er, that's the opposite of what racist means isn't it?
posted by Artw at 7:21 PM on November 19, 2013 [14 favorites]


Artw: "environmental determinism as racist apologia

Er, that's the opposite of what racist means isn't it?
"

Artw, I remember reading something recently anti-Diamond that came out and called him racist, in particular for this particular deterministic stance. I can't quite remember the spin on it, but it actually had a few points on why that claim actually is racist, but I can't quite recall where I read it. Maybe it was an excerpt of that article someone posted on a blog or something.
posted by symbioid at 7:24 PM on November 19, 2013


I could see environmental determinism totally being used as a justification for racist beliefs.

"X environment always produce people who are Y. They can't help it, IT'S THE ENVIRONMENT"
posted by edgeways at 7:24 PM on November 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'll disclose I'm a Diamond fan, but I'm sure there is a lot of legitimate points that could be taken with his works. "Racist apologia" absolutely is not. Anyone who lobbs that claim is looking for a lazy slam, not understanding and not interested in understanding Diamond's work. The driving force behind Germs, Guns and Steel is a sincere and deeply-held anti-racism, and to try to twist that into it's opposite because it's currently popular to hate on him on the internet is rank dishonesty.

I'll be reading most of these critics of Diamond with great interest, but I'll skip Correia and his inanely titled hackery.
posted by spaltavian at 7:29 PM on November 19, 2013 [52 favorites]


What Diamond says in Gun Germs and Steel is that people from New Guinea, for example, do not have a lot of stuff like Westerners because of a long process involving geography, availability of domesticatable livestock, competition, resulting development of social hierarchy, etc. He specifically says that the New Guinean's lack of stuff is not because they are lazy or dumb or x compared to Westerners.
posted by goethean at 7:31 PM on November 19, 2013 [20 favorites]


I found that I agreed with Diamond in inverse relation to my pre-existing knowledge about whatever subject he was addressing.

Along those lines, I kind of lump him in with Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman, and others (kind of related are discovered frauds such as Jonah Lehrer). I think that one thing that drives some people nuts is that these writers are famous, popular, making money of selling pablum, and also apparently semi-self aware of this. But they're kind of like the people who get hired at work and everybody goes "What ...?" but who then proceed to be regularly promoted while apparently spouting utter bullshit all the time.

This is particularly annoying for anthropologists, who often spend a lot of time trying to figure cultural things out in detail, and for whom the endless tracts of undifferentiated generalizations in Diamond appear like intellectual snake oil for the masses.

I disagree that Jared is a public intellectual though (heaven forbid); more like a 'best selling author.'
posted by carter at 7:32 PM on November 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


edgeways, that is not the argument Diamond makes and even if it had been, that would be a long way from using it as justification for racist beliefs.

Saying "people without good options for domesticating draft animals didn't" is not saying the environment produced people who couldn't domesticate draft animals, and it sure as hell isn't saying that those people deserve something bad because of it.
posted by spaltavian at 7:33 PM on November 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


The best thing about this post is that it gives people an opportunity to read the great James C. Scott.
posted by escabeche at 7:36 PM on November 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Oh - I didn't notice, there actually is a link to the full text for free, here:
In Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond argued that we should ignore histories of colonialism if we really want to understand “the Fates of Societies,” (his subtitle for the book). We must focus on physical geography and on climate if we want to understand why the world is divided into rich and poor. Europe's ability to subjugate and colonize Africa was merely an accident owing to “geography and biogeography—in particular to the continent's different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. This is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate” (401).
Diamond's glib reduction of the history of violent colonialism to mere “real estate” is meant to draw the reader's attention away from history and toward nature, but to the critical reader the reference does the opposite. Real estate is an object of value only because it exists as a private property. And private property is a social relation enforced by the capitalist state, a state organized to reinforce unequal social relations, forever enforcing the unequal distribution of resources, in order to preserve class division.
So it's racism not saying "oogahboogah" towards "the Other" but rather ignoring the racist colonialist histories that have brought us to the current particular situation of resource distribution.

That said, there's plenty of lazy thinking/writing in this attack, not on Diamond, but on Environmental Determinism (they just use Diamond as the focus because name-grabbing attention?):
esearchers from West Virginia University described the results of a recent tree ring data from Asia in which, they argued, a particularly wet period in the 13th century corresponded to the rise of Ghengis Khan and the spread of the Mongols. According to researchers, wet conditions would have been particularly advantageous to nomadic Mongol herders.
Well, maybe, but like for most of Diamond's assertions, there are any number of explanations. It is more than likely that the rise of the Mongols had something to do with the enormous size of Khan's army.
Isn't that sort of the point? He had this enormous army because the conditions were ripe for a large population growth which with one could use to go forth and conquer? It seems like the author is trying to force their perspective on anything that could be seen as "Environmental Determinism", and try to frame such a concept as "racist" by ignoring historical contingencies that led us to the current situation, but not actually dealing with the claims in and of themselves.

1) Racism is bad.
2) Environmental determinism is a sleight of hand
3) Sleighting colonialist history
4) Colonialism is entwined with Racism
5) ERGO any form of environmental determinsim MUST be bad, because it acts like colonialism didn't exist, and overlooks the colonizers role in aggression and "pacification".

It might be a critique, but it sure isn't any particularly sort of scientific critique, and it most assuredly is more an attempt at a moral demagoguery than any fundamental honest argument would be (that is to say, it's pretty much a strawman argument from the get go). It places its presupposition before any facts, mashes historical contingencies together and then reassembles them in order to create their own narrative. Sounds like a great sort of post-structuralist methodology. But a horrible scientific one.

I shudder to think what they'd have to say about how we go about increasing agricultural output *cough*Lysenko*cough*

(Note: I say this as a Marxist, as well)
posted by symbioid at 7:39 PM on November 19, 2013 [25 favorites]


Yeah, Diamond is not unassailable but I'm pretty sure this David Corriea thing is utter drivel from start to finish.
posted by Artw at 7:39 PM on November 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


Okay, I am not from a scientific background by any stretch of the imagination. And, I understood the argument he was trying to make with Guns, Germs, and Steel - in the sense that I comprehended the theory he was attempting to assemble. But what bugged me is - it seems like he just skipped over some stuff in an effort to advance that theory, and his justification for doing so just didn't hold water with me.

As I understand it - the whole premise of his theory was that certain societies developed faster than others because of a greater availability of domesticateable animals. But then his whole definition for "domesticateable" seems to be based on whether an animal was big enough for early man to consider trying to eat. If it was smaller than a chicken, say, he seemed to be saying that early man wouldn't have bothered trying - so he was going to ignore those smaller animals as well.

And that's when I thought "wait a minute, how can you be so sure about that?" Seriously, if I were a hungry early human, wouldn't I consider eating, well, anything? I'll grant you that yeah, having bigger animals around would make things easier, but he's claiming that early man would have overlooked certain potential food sources because of size, and I just plain don't buy that.

And if I couldn't buy that, it put the rest of the book into question for me, and that was that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:44 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Surprised to see no mention of the lawsuit related to an article he wrote for the New Yorker.
posted by PMdixon at 7:45 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


The best thing about this post is that it gives people an opportunity to read the great James C. Scott.

I just wanted to reiterate that.
posted by clockzero at 7:46 PM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Europe's ability to subjugate and colonize Africa was merely an accident owing to “geography and biogeography—in particular to the continent's different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. This is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate” (401).

Isn't Diamond's argument basically that the Europeans were just lucky to be in a position where they could dominate the rest of the world, and had the continents been shuffled differently, the Africans might have been on top? It's an argument against European superiority, not for it. Is this guy claiming that the colonized peoples were just too nice and that the Europeans were big meanies?
posted by empath at 7:47 PM on November 19, 2013 [15 favorites]


Here's a nice summary of controversy over Guns, Germs, and Steel from Inside Higher Ed from a few years back.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:47 PM on November 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Fuck Shermer and all the "Skeptical" types who think that cultural anthropology is a bunch of politically correct handwaving and it takes a man with a Ph.D. in the membranes of the gallbladder to swoop in and show them all how it's done.

It's done, apparently, by resurrecting the most dubious and tendentious old anthropological accounts, pretending they have never been debunked, and presenting them as the cold unvarnished facts nobody wants you to know.

And what nobody wants you to know is: the White Men's Burden to keep these warlike savages from killing each other, by making them into happy trade partners. It's Rudyard Kipling meets Frances Fukuyama.
posted by edheil at 7:55 PM on November 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


i see him as someone who popularized a few basic ideas in a field most people didn't pay attention to, and now his publishers are trying to squeeze as much money out as possible.
posted by cupcake1337 at 7:55 PM on November 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Without getting into the merits of Diamond's ideas, I do think that an awfully large number of those within the academy display seething resentment for their peers who "crossover" into broader public consciousness.
posted by modernnomad at 7:56 PM on November 19, 2013 [15 favorites]


"Horizontal good, vertical bad" and "supply chains matter" can take you a long way.
posted by Artw at 7:57 PM on November 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: As I understand it - the whole premise of his theory was that certain societies developed faster than others because of a greater availability of domesticateable animals.

If you literally mean "whole premise", then you don't understand his argument. Domestication of animals is one part, significant, but one part of his argument.

But then his whole definition for "domesticateable" seems to be based on whether an animal was big enough for early man to consider trying to eat.

Whole definition? Did you actually read the book, or are you going off a description? This isn't even close to his whole definition, and he actually brings up some interesting and diverse reasons why certain seemingly slam-dunk domestications never happened.

Seriously, if I were a hungry early human, wouldn't I consider eating, well, anything?

Yes. And this really doesn't have the direct relationship to domesticating animals you imply, nor is it anything like Diamond's argument at all. He speculates, for example, that the earliest settlers of the Western Hemisphere might have hunted American horses to extinction, and therefore were not able to domesticate them one reaching the Neolithic/Bronze Age. This argument has its problems- we're not sure what killed the American horses- but see how it's pretty much the opposite of how you color his work?

but he's claiming that early man would have overlooked certain potential food sources because of size,

He didn't say anyone overlooked food. The most important animal for domestication was the horse, which generally wasn't for food. Small animals are great for domestication, which is why the llama was domesticated (as Diamond specifically points out), but they are not so great for labor.

Not having horses was a huge restriction to the technological development of Native American societies. They weren't blind to advantages when they saw them; the tribes of the American West got on horses the second they saw them, as Diamond points out. They just didn't have that options, because they only had smaller animals.
posted by spaltavian at 7:58 PM on November 19, 2013 [16 favorites]


This seems like a strange post for Metafilter.

Huh? The first link alone - a detailed, annotated collection of a variety of anthropologists' responses to Diamond - makes this a fantastic post, not least for this take, which includes a quote about how Diamond's use of the term "traditional societies" doesn't make any sense (the article it quotes is stupidly behind the TLS paywall). Seems like a perfect Metafilter post to me: provocative and interesting links about a current academic controversy that has already sparked interesting discussion and criticism here. Thanks, spamandkimchi, for putting this together.
posted by mediareport at 8:02 PM on November 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


Whole definition? Did you actually read the book, or are you going off a description?

Yes, I did read the book.

This isn't even close to his whole definition, and he actually brings up some interesting and diverse reasons why certain seemingly slam-dunk domestications never happened.

Okay, then I misspoke when I said it was his "whole" definition. But it was a part of it that seemed to be a glaring assumption, and that - as I've stated - made me question everything else he said. So whatever these interesting and diverse reasons were, either he did a piss-poor job of explaining them, or he so lost me with that one assumption that he'd shot himself in the foot before I could buy it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:02 PM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


mediareport, I think it is a good post. Maybe I was just stirring the pot.
posted by saber_taylor at 8:04 PM on November 19, 2013


So I'm still reading all TFAs linked from the Anthropology Report compendium of reviews. I think the anthropologists are most mad that Diamond bases his arguments on research like Napoleon Chagnon's thoroughly discredited study of the Yanomami or cherrypicks from E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s classic ethnography on the Nuer to highlight their “prevalence of formalized violence.”
I should not need to say that a period of widespread resistance to colonial rule, answered with brutal massacres by the colonial state, may not exactly be the most reliable time to objectively tally instances of violence in a “non-state society.”
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:04 PM on November 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: Okay, then I misspoke when I said it was his "whole" definition. But it was a part of it that seemed to be a glaring assumption, and that - as I've stated - made me question everything else he said. So whatever these interesting and diverse reasons were, either he did a piss-poor job of explaining them

Nope. He explained it with the Anna Karenina principle, and used some quite memorable examples, such as asking why Bantu farmers didn't bring down the Roman Empire on war rhinos*, using that to explain the multitude of reasons why rhinos are not good candidates for domestication. He explains it saying how most animals actually aren't good for domestication, even if they are good for eating (same thing with plants).

or he so lost me with that one assumption

Like I said above, he didn't make the assumption you are ascribing to him, since he spends that entire chapter arguing from nearly the opposite perspective. Most of his focus was on animals as tools of labor and weapons of war, not food. Just any animal that is edible will be eaten, but domestication does not necessarily follow. This is a claim you have invented trying to pin on Diamond.

*It may have been hippos.
posted by spaltavian at 8:11 PM on November 19, 2013 [15 favorites]


mediareport, I think it is a good post. Maybe I was just stirring the pot.

Um, maybe we should not criticize other users' posts just to stir the pot. But glad to hear you agree it's a good post, saber_taylor. The first link has a wide range of opinion about anthropology and Diamond, including this defense of Diamond, which is noteworthy both for the correction it has to make halfway through and for its argument that "most anthropologists have a straw man view of Diamond and his work."

It's worth noting that many of the critiques claim that Diamond himself uses almost unbelievably outmoded anthropological concepts in very simplistic ways the field left behind decades ago. There's more than one "straw man view" going on here.
posted by mediareport at 8:13 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is a claim you have invented trying to pin on Diamond.

I assure you that I did not invent it whole cloth. But I suspect that you are very entrenched in your position and I'm not going to be able to budge you, so I'll just bow out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:14 PM on November 19, 2013


I am extremely entrenched on what was actually written in the book, yes. You are claiming that he is arguing "that early man would have overlooked certain potential food sources because of size". They may have overlooked domestication for animals where it was not practical to do so, but he never said overlooking potential food sources. You did invent this.
posted by spaltavian at 8:15 PM on November 19, 2013 [15 favorites]


Without getting into the merits of Diamond's ideas, I do think that an awfully large number of those within the academy display seething resentment for their peers who "crossover" into broader public consciousness.

I think a lot of it is that 'real' scientists are trained to be very cautious about presenting theories and conclusions, which makes for terrible popular science writing. So you get someone like Sean Carroll philosophizing about time and Boltzmann brains or Jared Diamond presenting grand theories about history and getting rich and famous from it while they're toiling away filling in corners and edge cases in well established theory for peanuts, which I am sure is frustrating.
posted by empath at 8:15 PM on November 19, 2013 [22 favorites]


Diamond's geographical theory is best understood as a theory of constraints, that societies progress up a ladder of fairly obvious development until the absence of a key component becomes a missing rung preventing further climbing. It starts with seeds that are domesticable, and moves onto animals until industrialization takes over from livestock--which has its own constraints in the form of coal and iron.

There's lots to criticize here, but it's neither determinist nor racist, especially in light of Choices, his followup book directly addressing the "geographic determinist" criticisms by describing various societies that make collective decisions to either live within the environment's constraints or not, and how their fates follow those choices.
posted by fatbird at 8:27 PM on November 19, 2013 [12 favorites]


ignoring the racist colonialist histories that have brought us to the current particular situation of resource distribution

I'm neither an anthropologist nor a historian, but I don't think Diamond is simply ignoring those histories - he is explaining why one society was in a position to be racist and colonialist and oppressive rather than another.
posted by me & my monkey at 8:32 PM on November 19, 2013 [22 favorites]


I'll admit to being fuzzy on the details of the book, I read it six years ago or more, but are you sure you're remembering that part of the book right, Empress? It struck me as peculiar when I read your comment and not consistent with my understanding of the book.

Regardless, I really enjoyed Guns Germs & Steel, but have found his other books repetitive and stretching. Like with all popular science books, the conclusions make me nervous, but I think GG&S was so well received not for its conclusion, but for its interesting presentation of historical (domestication of early crops, development of disease, importance of latitude in limiting the spread of crops). The conclusions seemed to my untrained mind plausible, but even I wasn't convinced to the degree Diamond seemed to be.
posted by skewed at 8:33 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


You are claiming that he is arguing "that early man would have overlooked certain potential food sources because of size". They may have overlooked domestication for animals where it was not practical to do so, but he never said overlooking potential food sources. You did invent this.

Based on hazy memories of the book from reading it, I'm sure, not from an intent to malign Mr. Diamond. You're being really defensive for very little reason.

I thought the domesticated animal bit was as much about comunicable disease as it was about food or labor sources, and that living with pigs and cows played as much a part in Europeans' domination of the Americas as anything else. Living with domesticated animals breeds immunity to more diseases that eventually jump the species gap between animals and humans, like smallpox. A population that's immune to and carries smallpox will rapidly destroy a population that hasn't built the same immunity.

Also, domestic animals weren't the only food source he went into - he had a bunch of tables with different types of grain or pulse crops available in different regions and how much protein they produced. Societies with high-protein crops available to them generally did fairly well compared to less lucky areas.

He specifically says that the New Guinean's lack of stuff is not because they are lazy or dumb or x compared to Westerners.

As I understood it, it was the entire point of him writing the book.
posted by LionIndex at 8:36 PM on November 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


To follow up on empath's point, I think the academics aren't just haters drinking haterade when they criticize Diamond or Gladwell. I think they get excited because these big concepts are entering popular conversation and then get frustrated because the good writing and punchy narratives makes oversimplifications go down so smooth that you won't even notice them. True, they're not the target audience (see Gladwell's comment that if you think he's oversimplifying things, then his books aren't for you) but simplification/essentializing can lead to bad policy decisions. I've quoted Paul Walker here before I think, but his frustration with how certain social science narratives remain stubbornly persistent is applicable to why some anthropologists are very troubled by Diamond's simplifications.
Consider the most influential social science narratives in modern history. The population ‘explosion’. The ‘tragedy of the commons’. The ‘invisible hand’ of the free market. Each is simple, clear, compelling – and powerful. None was created by critical social scientists. In contrast, like other fields of social theory, political ecology is not famous for producing concise and compelling narratives. Political ecology is better known for complexity and often dense theoretical prose – for example, Blaikie’s (1985) almost humorously Rube Goldberg-esque box-and-arrow diagrams, or Watts’ (1983) dense, arcane, and frustrating (but valuable) language of ‘high Marx’ (as Robbins, 2004: 68, has described it).

To be sure, this complexity and theoretical richness is the very backbone of political ecology’s enormous analytical strengths; but with respect to influencing the world of policy outside the academy, this thickness can also be an obstacle. In his book Narrative policy analysis (1994), Emery Roe demonstrates convincingly that it is rarely sufficient merely to provide accurate analytical critiques of policies. It may matter little that a critique is brilliantly insightful and true; critique alone rarely produces significant policy changes. Indeed, critique by itself can have the opposite effect of creating uncertainty and reinforcing the status quo. What is needed, according to Roe, are compelling counter- narratives.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:37 PM on November 19, 2013 [16 favorites]


True, they're not the target audience (see Gladwell's comment that if you think he's oversimplifying things, then his books aren't for you)

Surely the most recondite and respectful-sounding possible rewording of the old grifter slogan: "If you don't know who the mark is, you're the mark."
posted by RogerB at 8:42 PM on November 19, 2013 [17 favorites]


Comparing Diamond to Gladwell is insane. Gladwell has no scientific background and writes 150-page pamphlets with no citations. Diamond has a long history in the field and writes 1000-page tomes with hundreds of citations. You may disagree with him, but at least there's something meaty there to disagree with.
posted by miyabo at 8:50 PM on November 19, 2013 [31 favorites]


I found that I agreed with Diamond in inverse relation to my pre-existing knowledge about whatever subject he was addressing.

I've only read his Guns Germs Steel book, plus some of his articles (including the New Yorker piece that a link above says was the basis for a lawsuit), and this was absolutely my impression. I'm no anthropologist, but here and there there were snippets where he was talking about a place I had lived, and all of a sudden things weren't so convincing. But for the 99 percent of it where he is talking about places where I have never been and probably will never go, it's a rattling good read and quite convincing.

see Gladwell's comment that if you think he's oversimplifying things, then his books aren't for you

If that's an accurate quote, that's kind of sad, honestly. Good writing and smart ideas hold up to both casual and close readings; if you are counting on people being ignorant, you are doing it wrong.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:51 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


From PMdixon's link:

Diamond had no research list that justified his libelous factual accusations. His defence? He had one source he relied on, Daniel Wemp (his driver with a then, two-year high school education), who Diamond said, he believed at the time. He provided zero evidence of any independent verification of facts or research method or steps to test his allegations where he names real people and tribes of committing murder and mayhem in an unpublished war.

Wow. If that's true (and that's Diamond's own defense, so I don't know why it wouldn't be?), that's definitely a Big Fucking Deal.

I don't know how much of this Diamond is guilty of, but I do definitely see a tendency for hard scientists to think it's easy to jump the gap into social science. There is a strong attitude of dismissal towards anthropologists, sociologists, etc., from a lot of hard scientists, as though what we do is easy just because it's not all quantitative and often involves best-judgment and interpretation. But there's a reason anthropologists and other social scientists take methods courses: we have ways to be rigorous even if we don't absolutely know we're right. And believing what one key informant (especially one that is immediately willing to talk to an outsider) tells you without doing a lot more investigation is definitely not good practice.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:56 PM on November 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also, I am in love with this FPP because one sentence the Scott article mentioned that sweet potatoes came to New Guinea from South America, which led me down a fascinating path of searching and reading about the different theories for how and when the tubers actually made it there, the various culinary paths that can be traced from new world to old and back again, and all of the various edible parts of the plants.

Of what import about grand theories of civilization when you have spuds?
posted by Dip Flash at 8:57 PM on November 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


There is a strong attitude of dismissal towards anthropologists, sociologists, etc., from a lot of hard scientists, as though what we do is easy just because it's not all quantitative and often involves best-judgment and interpretation. But there's a reason anthropologists and other social scientists take methods courses: we have ways to be rigorous even if we don't absolutely know we're right.

I am not an anthropologist, but I did study in a related field (which often overlaps with hard science) and this is in line with a lot of discussions that I've heard. I think there's also been a trend of recent research focusing on environmental factors-- probably for a lot of really solid reasons, like better and more precise techniques, new data from old sites, extreme relevancy to contemporary politics-- but the way it's usually presented is SCIENCE PROVES DOWNFALL OF X CIVILIZATION, not "new data is helping to contextualize the complex Y system of X civilization!" where half the study is bringing in other kinds of evidence. Having environmental data is wonderful and I do think it's really changed a lot of timelines and research, but it isn't a history lesson in of itself. And I think Diamond often comes off more like the DOWNFALL folks than not.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:12 PM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of the problems I have with most of the more virulent Diamond critics is that they inevitably start by completely misstating his central arguments, and proceed from there.

As noted by many here already, Guns Germs & Steel presented the opposite of environmental determination and racist apologia. I tried to read through some of F**k Jared Diamond, but it felt like the ravings of an angry fan-boy who wasn't even trying to understand what the other was saying.

I feel that most of what I read here is outrage by academics that someone from another field would dare hold theories that crossed boundaries. I read more ad-hominem attacks than reasoned rebuttals.

I understand some of the criticism, of course. It's the hate that is strange, and seems all out of proportion.
posted by kanewai at 9:14 PM on November 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


*It may have been hippos.

No, no...you were right.
Rhino-mounted Bantu shock troops could have overthrown the Roman Empire. It never happened.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 9:17 PM on November 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


I do not know why these people exist. There is the tradition of the amatuer author especially in the US. They are not experts, they are writers. And they usually feel really comfortable writing about things they don't know about. And its getting complicated out there and it isn't working because now everyone has a lot more access to expert opinion on the web.

American journalism is in deep, deep trouble.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:21 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I really wish "Fuck Jared Diamond " wasn't included here. It's angry sensationalistic nonsense that almost certainly intentionally misrepresents the topic at hand.
posted by graphnerd at 9:29 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


One of the problems I have with most of the more virulent Diamond critics is that they inevitably start by completely misstating his central arguments, and proceed from there.

This. I won't comment on his other books, but GGS made no arguments that didn't seem blindingly obvious after reading it. Yes, different parts of the world were differently endowed with biological resources - and these differences largely drove the divergence in the cultural and technological evolution of human societies around the globe. Arguing that this is false seems as absurd to me as arguing that the sun revolves around the Earth.

GGS is the most comprehensive possible demolition of racist explanations for cultural and technological differences in historical cultures, which makes the argument that it is a 'racist' book completely idiotic, and evidence that whoever made the claim either didn't read the book or failed abjectly to understand its fundamental points.
posted by moorooka at 9:36 PM on November 19, 2013 [25 favorites]


Dibs on the band name Rhino-mounted Bantu shock troops.
posted by dabitch at 9:38 PM on November 19, 2013


Reading around in the things linked at the anthropologyreport site, I found this one most useful, but still I find it very difficult to understand exactly what is being contested here.

It seems one issue is that extant hunter-gatherer societies aren't relevantly like ancestral hunter-gatherer societies such that we can look to the former to learn about the latter (and reflect on where we've come from and where we're going, or whatever is going on there). But surely there are some similarities--at least, both have hunted and gathered--so what is the generalizable feature of hunter-gatherer societies that Diamond says we can discover (and use for self-reflective purposes) that we can't?

Second, what does the accusation of "environmental determinism" actually come to? I take it Diamond's explanations are sort of vacuuming out a desirable quantity of agency or something like that, but do anthropologists have a general theory about this? I am totally out of my depth with this stuff, but I get the impression that this line of attack wants to be the kind of argument people have made against the evo-psych people, and I have to wonder, when you've subtracted genetic determinism, and you've subtracted environmental determinism, what the hell do you have left? Obviously the objection is that Diamond's "environment" is narrower than it should be, but what terminology could even identify an opposing camp here? Ectoplasmic determinism? Indeterminism?
posted by batfish at 9:41 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Diamond's glib reduction of the history of violent colonialism to mere “real estate” is meant to draw the reader's attention away from history and toward nature, but to the critical reader the reference does the opposite. Real estate is an object of value only because it exists as a private property...
Ridiculous. In this context "real estate" simply means regional biogeographical differences, not the private ownership of land, as anyone arguing in good faith would understand. Seriously, did this person read the book or not? Or did they somehow think that giving a convincing explanation as to why European civilisation had the ability to subjugate the rest of the world amounts to an apology for what happened?
posted by moorooka at 9:52 PM on November 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


I tried to read through some of F**k Jared Diamond, but it felt like the ravings of an angry fan-boy who wasn't even trying to understand what the other was saying.

Correia generated a lot of heat, but disappointingly little light. If he had reason to think Diamond's thesis was fundamentally racist, ok, fair enough. But as someone with no real knowledge in this field, I was hoping that somewhere in all that sneering, Correia would deign to drop some of his own science. How was the West was able to get to the point of being capable of conquering and subjugating nearly the rest of the world? What gave Europe the leg up? What is the Correia-approved non-racist response to this question?
posted by xigxag at 9:53 PM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have to wonder, when you've subtracted genetic determinism, and you've subtracted environmental determinism, what the hell do you have left?
Um, let me guess. "Agency"?
posted by moorooka at 9:54 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Um, let me guess. "Agency"?

Is this a joke, or are you suggesting extra-environmental "agency" is a licit explanatory category? In that case, I'd also like to order the pluck-ian and stiff-upper-lip-ist theories of cultural evolution ;)
posted by batfish at 10:06 PM on November 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think some of the criticisms of Diamond's environmental determinism (latitude, longitude, animals, etc) stem from the fact that he underplays or doesn't mention political factors, especially in his 2005 book Collapse:
Incredibly, in a chapter dedicated to the different historical trajectories of the two economies, Diamond completely omits France’s relentless immiseration of its former colony, which emancipated itself in history’s only successful slave rebellion... Diamond also scrubs longstanding U.S. support for Haiti’s corrupt Duvalier dictatorships from his narrative... Although Diamond’s Collapse does contain some valuable information, like the varying ecological strains that affect Haiti and the Dominican Republic, his repeated exclusion of foreign intervention makes even his final conclusions laughable. ("On Haiti, Jared Diamond Hasn't Done His Homework")
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:17 PM on November 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


xigxag, Didn't the Chinese have the capability to subjugate the world with their ships, but not the desire?
posted by saber_taylor at 10:18 PM on November 19, 2013


xigxag, Didn't the Chinese have the capability to subjugate the world with their ships, but not the desire?
The differences between China and Europe are discussed toward the end of GGS, but basically, yes, and he frames the main question as "Why did the Eurasian cultures become dominant?"
posted by moorooka at 10:22 PM on November 19, 2013


spamandkimchi, "Diamond's environmental determinism (latitude, longitude, animals, etc)" are the subjects of Guns, Germs and Steel, not Collapse, which is concerned with quite different questions. So while the point about France and Haiti may be a fair criticism of that book, it is not relevant to any of the central arguments presented in GGS.
posted by moorooka at 10:28 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, I am reading Kissinger's On China (going to have to switch to audiobook, it's going slow), and he says that people thought the converted Christians in China had telepathy.

"Led by a charismatic Chinese mystic claiming to be Jesus's younger brother and an associate asserting telepathic powers, the Taiping Rebellion..."

I'm pretty sure that we can rule out telepathy from the realm of sound science. Thank goodness.
posted by saber_taylor at 10:29 PM on November 19, 2013


xigxag, Didn't the Chinese have the capability to subjugate the world with their ships, but not the desire?

They were a bit busy doin' their subjugating on land, within the constraints provided by competing Russian and Islamic empires. The Ming and Qing empires tended to focus on continental ambitions. Whereas in the West, there wasn't really any way for east and south European powers to make much headway against the powerful Ottoman and Mongol-legacy states that controlled the Middle East and East Asia. For the far-West Atlantic states of England, Portugal, and the Netherlands especially, possibilities for European conquests were limited (England got Ireland, Spain fought a series of financially exhausting wars to try to dominate Europe). This then led to frantic attempts to find a way "around" the unconquerable Central Asian powers, among which was Columbus' voyage.

Then, of course, a whole new couple of continents open up for European ambitions, and since the connections with these new territories were naval, you see an arms race in naval technology. In China, there were more opportunities on land, and less reason to go to sea (where are you going to go? Polynesia? Japan? Indonesia? The Americas may have been discovered, but the Pacific is almost twice as large as the Atlantic). I think that probably had more to do with it than any lack of will or interest by the Chinese or Manchu dynasts in military conquest. They were quite willing to spend ridiculous amounts of time and energy conquering Tibet, Taiwan, and Vietnam, after all, as well as wrassling with Russian newcomers in Mongolia.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:34 PM on November 19, 2013 [13 favorites]


Also I get why some folks don't like the comparison of Gladwell (journalist) and Diamond (physical scientist turned social scientist) but I do think they both see their books as part of a project to make scholarly research accessible.
"You're of necessity simplifying," says Gladwell. "If you're in the business of translating ideas in the academic realm to a general audience, you have to simplify … If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn't read them: you're not the audience!"
The World Until Yesterday is getting criticism for skipping citations to make the book shorter and more accessible and the truncated list of "further reading" is not placating the anthropologists one bit.

All that to say is I truly am wondering if there's a way to transmute social science research into something approachable for mainstream readers without oversimplifications that distort the original research. As Golub put it
Some commentators argue that Diamond contributes to an intangible but potent discourse that harms indigenous people—a claim which is true, but will only convince those who have already bought in to the idea of potent discourses, and is unlikely to convince anyone else. Others criticize Diamond for how the press and public interpret his work, rather than for what he actually said, which is not fair. Like Mead, Diamond sometimes draws flack from those who disagree in principle with the compromises that are part of any broad, popular work. But this is an argument against accessibility itself, not Diamond the man.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:37 PM on November 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Racist apologia" absolutely is not. Anyone who lobbs that claim is looking for a lazy slam

Which seems to be the fashion these days. Sadly, to the extent that whenever I see the charge of racism levelled against an argument or person not obviously racist, I just dismiss the person levelling the charge. Incontinently flinging accusations or insinuations of racism around is the liberal's new black. And you can bet that one of the asses is out there right now thinking that some way, somehow, that's probably a racist thing ro say,
posted by Decani at 10:56 PM on November 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


Maybe a better comparison would be between Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker?
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:57 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sadly, to the extent that whenever I see the charge of racism levelled against an argument or person not obviously racist, I just dismiss the person levelling the charge.

Sometimes people can be racist in non-obvious ways, and it's worthwhile pointing it out. I don't think Jared Diamond is one of those cases, though.
posted by empath at 11:15 PM on November 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


The problem with Jared Diamond isn't racism or anything like that. It's the fact that social "science" is anything but - and that a physical scientist who wants to treat political philosophy as something that can be interrogated with the scientific method is likely to fail spectacularly in a way that is very convincing, particularly to people who have a strong sense of the definitive nature of science.
posted by koeselitz at 11:24 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


koeselitz, would you like to elaborate on what "spectacular" failures you are referring to specifically?

or are you simply asserting that any application of the scientific method to the study of human history is a failure automatically?

From memory, the epilogue of GGS is entitled "The Future of History as a Science", and acknowledges and explores the problems of applying the scientific method to understanding human history at considerable length. You might like to try reading it - and the rest of the book as well!
posted by moorooka at 11:46 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


As noted by many here already, Guns Germs & Steel presented the opposite of environmental determination and racist apologia.

Well, it claims to be anti-racist, but still offers up a comforting story of how Europeans just happened to be living in just the right continent to end up dominating the world (and why this was nobody's fault, least of all the Europeans); I can see why critics think he doth protest too much.

In general GG&S is a very teleological sort of history, examing the past to explain the present, seeing the rise of European supremacy as inevitable because of the geographical advantages Diamond identified to explain that supremacy. Being teleological, he of course also writes as if the current world situation is the end game: America (more politely, the west/European civilisation) won forever, when in reality that overwhelming domination is at best a couple of centuries old and there's no guarantee that it will continue.

Meanwhile his grasp on the particulars, whenever he gets away from the broad sweep of his argument, is weak, often relying on outdated historical models or debunked anthropology, while he also palms the occasional card: comparing the rugged outline of Europe with the baby smooth coast line of China in maps frex.

Finally, his main point is not as new or revolutionary as he makes it out to be either: William H. McNeill's Plagues and Peoples anticipated quite a lot of it, two decades earlier.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:57 PM on November 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


Well, it claims to be anti-racist, but still offers up a comforting story of how Europeans just happened to be living in just the right continent to end up dominating the world (and why this was nobody's fault, least of all the Europeans); I can see why critics think he doth protest too much.

I don't understand this line of argument. Why do you think the Europeans ended up dominating the world? There were war-mongering empires in the Americas, Africa, east Asia and India. Both the Mongols and the Turks attempted to conquer europe. Do you believe that there is some particular inherent spirit of domination and bloodthirst that enabled europeans to dominate other cultures? If you're not arguing for some kind of inherent cultural or genetic difference here, geography is one of your few other options.
posted by empath at 12:13 AM on November 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


Well, it claims to be anti-racist, but still offers up a comforting story of how Europeans just happened to be living in just the right continent to end up dominating the world (and why this was nobody's fault, least of all the Europeans); I can see why critics think he doth protest too much.
Did you actually read the book? I'm guessing not, because that's a woeful misinterpretation of what it's about. The aim is to explain how it came to be Europe was in a position to subjugate the rest of the world. It is not to excuse what happened or absolve the perpetrators of colonial atrocities from guilt. Why is this so difficult to understand? His hypothesis is that Europe (or Eurasia, really) had biogeographic advantages that Africa, the Americas, Australia and the Pacific lacked. What are the alternative explanations? The traditional explanation was that Europeans were simply inherently superior. That's obviously racist, as well as false. But it seems like some critics regard as "racist" any explanation that does not begin and end with European civilization being inherently wicked.
In general GG&S is a very teleological sort of history, examing the past to explain the present, seeing the rise of European supremacy as inevitable because of the geographical advantages Diamond identified to explain that supremacy. Being teleological, he of course also writes as if the current world situation is the end game: America (more politely, the west/European civilisation) won forever, when in reality that overwhelming domination is at best a couple of centuries old and there's no guarantee that it will continue.
And here you confirm that you have indeed not read the book, or you've read it without paying attention, because these very points are addressed specifically.
posted by moorooka at 12:18 AM on November 20, 2013 [22 favorites]


(It's a peculiar to criticise "examining the past to explain the present" as teleology, when it is in fact what history is. How else would you try to explain the present anyway? Teleology is more like using the present (or the predicted future) to explain the past.)
posted by moorooka at 12:38 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I just want to pile on. I read GG&S only a couple years ago and found it a fun read if I didn't take it seriously; but the holes in his logic were often so massive that at times it was all I could do to keep from throwing the book across the room. Which I eventually did. I've been preaching against the book ever since.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:49 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think Adam Gopnik's 2012 New Yorker review of two other historical geography books touches on what is unsatisfying about the geographical (re)turn in history. "If you compress and expand the time scale just as you like, you can make any event look inevitable" while also acknowledging its usefulness in "[forcing] upon historians, the amateurs we all are as well as the pros we read, a little more humility. American prosperity looks like a function of virtue and energy, but the geographic turn tells us that it’s mostly a function of white people with guns owning a giant chunk of well-irrigated, very well-harbored real estate."

More Gopnik: "Important as geography might be, the idea of geography’s importance seems still more important. Though geography is offered as a sobering up after the intoxications of end-of-history ideology, it soon reveals itself as another brandy bottle, with intoxications of its own."

So take everything with a grain of salt and a water back, I suppose?
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:50 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've been preaching against the book ever since.

When you preach against the book, do you say what you think the logical holes are? Or do you just say that you threw it across the room and leave it at that?
posted by moorooka at 1:12 AM on November 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


I found that I agreed with Diamond in inverse relation to my pre-existing knowledge about whatever subject he was addressing. When Diamond was writing about topics that I know in depth, I felt as though he was leaving out important information; when I didn’t know what he was writing about, I was thoroughly convinced.

That's how I feel when I read the NYTimes.
posted by el io at 1:14 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


el io: "I found that I agreed with Diamond in inverse relation to my pre-existing knowledge about whatever subject he was addressing. When Diamond was writing about topics that I know in depth, I felt as though he was leaving out important information; when I didn’t know what he was writing about, I was thoroughly convinced.

That's how I feel when I read the NYTimes.
"

I came here to say exactly this.
posted by chavenet at 1:18 AM on November 20, 2013


A nitpick is that Diamond defines the common error as starting with the birth of Christ whereas it is "ano domini" during the life of Christ. (stated in Guns Germs and Steel ,I can't give the citation). I found it jarring that he didn't know this rule.
To concur his falsifying of sources is bad journalism and history.
Otherwise I have found his books enjoyable to read.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 1:43 AM on November 20, 2013


I'd have more sympathy for the anthropologists debating Diamond if they weren't so anxious to rehabilitate Margaret Mead. I know Polynesian society—as it actually exists and has existed—isn't as important to Americans as the fictional Arcadia she claimed to have found there, but the failure of the discipline as a whole to address the use of the "primitive societies" as zones of narcissistic wish fulfilment, where (privileged, White, North American) anthropologists can extract some great moral lesson to journey back to the metropolis with—one that just happens to confirm their own pre-existing assumptions about culture—(the model Mead prototyped), they're going to have trouble with Jared Diamond figures. He is, after all, only doing what generations of past anthropologists have claimed to have done, only the moral lessons he's extracting aren't ones the profession wants to hear because they don't hew to the primitive "Arcadia" model. Critique Diamond's methods—his falsification of data; the way he lets his ideological beliefs shape his evidence—and you're effectively critiquing anthropology itself.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:46 AM on November 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't understand this line of argument. Why do you think the Europeans ended up dominating the world?

Because of the Industrial Revolution, and the fact that the Ottoman Empire was rotting internally. And the Ottoman Empire rose to power on the ruins of the Byzantines, who were a successor empire to the Romans, who beat the Greeks, who beat the Persians, who beat the Babylonians, who beat the various smaller states of the Middle East. And you have to stick the Mongols somewhere in there, although it messes up the neat line of descent, and China was always China, and there were empires in Africa that were probably as good as the Egyptians, but we don't know much about them.

Basically, it was the rise of industrialisation at one particular moment in time that made it European civilisation rather than, say, Mediterranean or even African. I think it has a lot to do with Protestantism changing established social structures and printing leading to literacy, creating space for societies of secular artisans and scientists.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:50 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Er, that should read:

"I know Polynesian society—as it actually exists and has existed—isn't as important to Americans as the fictional Arcadia she claimed to have found there, but the failure of until the discipline as a whole to addresses the use of the "primitive societies" as zones of narcissistic wish fulfilment, where (privileged, White, North American) anthropologists can extract some great moral lesson to journey back to the metropolis with—one that just happens to confirm their own pre-existing assumptions about culture—(the model Mead prototyped), they're going to have trouble with Jared Diamond figures."

I think I may actually have been asleep when I wrote that sentence.

posted by Sonny Jim at 2:14 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Because of the Industrial Revolution

Right, and GG&S is a not-entirely-rigorous exploration of the various factors (i.e. access to certain grains for farming, animals for domesticating, metal availability, climactic stability...) that enabled Europe to reach the Industrial Revolution first.

Which is the point most of the people in the thread who have actually read it are making: the book is first and foremost an attempt to excise any lingering subtext of racial superiority from our shared historical narrative, and it is a very, very effective one. If the failure of, say, the Australian Aboriginese to industrialize is not an intrinsic defect (which I would hope we all agree on?), then the fault must lie with their environment and access to resources. GG&S illuminates the unique challenges encountered by various non-European groups, in a manner which draws a much larger audience than a more academically rigorous effort could possibly sustain.

What makes it a great book is that it strikes far, far closer to the truth than any audience of that breadth actually deserves.
posted by Ryvar at 2:17 AM on November 20, 2013 [9 favorites]


Why do you think the Europeans ended up dominating the world?

the problem with this construct is that if you are chairman of the board of the east india tea company or dying of tuberculosis in some london tenement, both of you get to dominate the world! or rather, more to the point, even the lowliest english policeman in the Raj gets to dominate the world.
posted by ennui.bz at 2:18 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


His hypothesis is that Europe (or Eurasia, really) had biogeographic advantages that Africa, the Americas, Australia and the Pacific lacked. What are the alternative explanations?

I haven't read the book, but when I took environmental and ecological anthropology in the late 80s, ecological stress models (Carneiro, Harner, etc.) were offered up as the ordinary, probable explanations for social development, defined technically as an increasing number of social roles, the intensification of food production, increased exploitation of micro-environments, and so on. A key point of the argument was that there wasn't anything geographically or historically special about that sort of development: it seemed obvious at the time (post-60s/70s ethnographic studies making the point) that hunting and gathering were relatively easy and rich ways to get food, particularly in the distant past, so the development of new subsistence strategies and occupational roles were just things societies got pushed into doing as their 'originally affluent' environmental circumstances became harder and harder to take advantage of. If you'd asked someone at the time why Europe/Asia were more technologically advanced in 1492, the answer would have been simply that the Old World got crappier sooner--so much so that folks had to do harder and uglier things over time just to get by--and the New World was on basically the same path except folks there had enjoyed a couple thousand extra years of less ecological stress.

So I'm afraid I haven't read GG&S in part because it seemed like really old news, except for the terrible framing that leads to someone glibly and misleadingly describing Old World ecological stress and deprivation and the resulting intense labor, power concentration, warfare, unsanitary living conditions, and general social upheavals as 'advantageous.' Another reason I haven't read it is because I was already well sick of ecological just-so stories from anthropologists like, say, Marvin Harris. But probably the biggest reason was that Diamond's stuff (at least, as summarized by others) just seemed laughably out of date, tendentious, incomplete, and self-aggrandizing. I mean, I could be wrong. But to pick a random example, consider "A Dual-Processual Theory for the Evolution of Mesoamerican Civilization," an article published almost exactly one year before Jared Diamond's book. That's the work of Mesoamericanists who'd gone over and over and over the arguments from environmental / neoevolutionary approaches to social development (see especially the work of Kent Flannery, another Mesoamericanist), and look where they wound up: making arguments that are almost unreadably technical, dry, boring, and specific, because that's what you have to do to make solid points after 30 years of debate. But what should be really interesting about it, I think, is that they also wound up focusing on specific problems of history and political economy in the New World to explain changes in social organization, because environmental/ecological explanations were flawed and insufficient.

Bear in mind none of this was anything near my specialty, and I'm sure I'm not the best person here to talk about it. This is all just the point of view of (at the time) an anthropology student taking a smattering of basic classes on non-essential topics, explaining why I haven't read something, which is certainly not something I'm proud of. But it's a point of view from which even the questions Jared Diamond asks seem like artifacts from the past. My teachers were always careful to point out how much ecological anthropology of the 80s owed to cultural/human geography of the 60s and 70s, so it's slightly painful to see someone appear on the public stage giving people the impression that the intervening three decades of research and debate in anthropology pointing in other directions had never happened. But I'm grateful for this post making clear how many different folks feel similarly and in most cases with better reasons (I'm afraid I wouldn't count the David Correia piece there).
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:50 AM on November 20, 2013 [15 favorites]


Because of the Industrial Revolution, and the fact that the Ottoman Empire was rotting internally.

This is begging the question.
posted by empath at 3:14 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Monsieur Caution: "I haven't read the book."

Just an idea, but...
posted by moorooka at 3:20 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Actually, not having read the book is something that many of its critics seem to have in common.
posted by moorooka at 3:21 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Actually, not having read the book is something that many of its critics seem to have in common."

So? Do you read creationist books before you criticize them?

Diamond's defenders are interesting. The comparison to Gladwell is appropriate because of how the work of both authors function in popular culture and with regard to expertise. That someone has credentials in some other scientific field means very little; many creationists are, for example, physicists. The argument that the "insiders" are just jealously protecting their territory is a classic crank defense.

The claim that Diamond's geographical determinism isn't racist because Diamond isn't racist, and because his argument was partly intended to undermine genetic racism, fails for the same reasons as all such defenses fail — intent doesn't matter. It's not a defense. How something functions is all that matters. Does an argument — a weak and oversimplified argument — function, in practice, as a defense of racist claims and institutions? If "yes", it's a racist argument.

G,G & S is a beloved book because it's glib and people who've read it think they've seen behind the curtain of history and now have deep understanding. Its scientific merit and credibility is low, it's just another example of pop-science by someone exceeding his competence.

Don't read books popularizing science that are written by people who aren't credentialed and with a research history in the field that is the subject of the book. It's a simple rule.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:42 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I keep asking why people think that it's racist, and no one has explained in this thread. Please post a nicely bullet-pointed argument for me, so I can understand what you guys are seeing, that I don't see.
posted by empath at 3:56 AM on November 20, 2013


As far as I can tell empath, the syllogism goes: "This argument explains why something was feasible. That something was racist. Therefore the argument is racist."

Quite how you get from explaining feasibility to espousing justification is unclear, but apparently it's obvious to some.
posted by pharm at 4:04 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think you and others opponents of Diamond are conflating two arguments here, Ivan Fyodorovich:

* 1 Europeans were able to conquer the world because of the advantages of their environment. (Diamond's argument)
* 2 It's morally okay that Europeans conquered the world because their environment made them do it. (Dodgy argument supporting racist outcomes)

For example:
* 1 Europeans had lots more diseases that they could survive. When they hit the Americas, most of the indigenous population died very quickly, giving the Europeans a huge advantage. (Diamond)
* 2 Disease having so depopulated the Americas, it was perfectly reasonable that this prime virgin land should be settled by Europeans. So we don't have to worry about the American Indian and his current travails. He was doomed by destiny. (Racist Guy)

Polite people detest 2, so they object to 1, simply because 1 is used to provide an argument for 2. I don't like Racist Guy's conclusions! He's drawing support from Diamond! Diamond must be a Racist Guy! Diamond must be wrong!

You could draw parallels with global warming:
* 1 The earth is warming because of human activity. (Scientists)
* 2 Therefore we should abandon capitalism. (Anti-capitalists)

Right-wingers: no! We like capitalism! The scientists must be anti-capitalists! Global warming must be a lie!

That is, the discussion has become entangled in politics, and identity politics at that.
posted by alasdair at 4:06 AM on November 20, 2013 [32 favorites]


Empath, I don't know what you mean by "begging the question". Europe's big competitor at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution was the Ottoman Empire; why did that empire not industrialise? Why did England and the UK industrialise so rapidly? I suspect it comes down to geography (yes) and social structure, The Ottoman Empire was at the crossroads of Europe/Asia/Africa trade; wealth came from taxing trade, not manufacturing. Spain had a similar problem with their mines in the Americas, but England was at the terminus of most trade routes: entrepreneurs had to find other ways to make their wealth. They were aided by the fact that England had lost most vestiges of feudal law, which meant that entrepreneurs were generally not dependent on the grace and favor of nobility. The Ottomans, in contrast, had a literally Byzantine structure of appointed officials and hereditary nobility, all resting on a production base of slaves. There was very little room for entrepreneurs to exist, or to produce innovations without having them taken away.

When England was hit by the Reformation it created hordes of Dissenters who liked talking and arguing and reading; which created a market for books; which created a market for printing. This helped create a class of educated tradespeople, who had a need and desire to innovate. And once industrialisation took off, it turned out that it scaled very well. Slavery doesn't scale, but it's cheaper and better than industrialisation at small scales. The Ottomans were, again, right in the centre of slave trading: slaves were cheap, which meant that there was less benefit in finding alternatives.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:27 AM on November 20, 2013


Regarding the Industrial Revolution:
Spelling the end to the Atlantic slave system brings us back to another eighteenth-century chapter in the history of capitalism, the one that took place back in England when technological wizards transformed the world of work. There used to be a joke that only the best graduate students were told that there had been no Industrial Revolution. The problem with the concept is lodged in the word “revolution.” It implies both dramatic change and suddenness. Only the dramatic change part of the phrase fits what actually happened in nineteenth-century Great Britain, for the industrial innovations covered under the rubric of revolution took more than a century to be conceived, designed, tested, and adjusted, as had been the case with the earlier Agricultural Revolution. Then even more time elapsed before the new machines were applied to spinning, weaving, making dishware, firing bricks, working up iron, and transporting cargoes and people on rail and water.

“Industrial Evolution” would be a much better term for the genesis of the machines designed to do the heavy lifting for men and women. The phrases that we use in talking about human evolution—“the unvarying operation of natural laws,” “replications,” “random variations,” “waste,” and “survival of the fittest”—fit better here. All these came into play in the perfecting of the steam engine. Like evolution, the sequence of steps leading to the completion of any particular machine was not optimal, but with enough time, satisfactory models emerged. Since I doubt very much that my “Industrial Evolution” will catch on, I shall use the term, “Industrial Revolution,” hoping that my readers will remember that the pace of transforming the world of work was measured.
Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:37 AM on November 20, 2013


Alright, I have only read Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse. I really liked GGS. But all of this "traditional societies" stuff of Diamond's... I don't know. I haven't read any of it outside of what was in Collapse, and I agree that it sounds really questionable. At face value at least.

But honestly, I am really surprised that people could see GGS as racist - since for me, it read very clearly as explicitly and passionately anti-racist. I read it as a refutation of the claim that the military and technological successes of European societies are a result of their culture or their inherent/essential superiority. That these successes or "advancements" are really due mostly to a fluke of geography, and that people everywhere are essentially the same.

But turning it around, and saying that that fluke of geography legitimizes colonialism... or that the fluke of geography explains an imagined essential superiority of the West or inferiority of other societies... I never expected that reading. But now I can see that reading. And I wonder if it maybe explains the cover on the French version of Guns Germs and Steel: De l'inégalité parmi les sociétés: Essai sur l'homme et l'environnement dans l'histoire.

Weird.
posted by molecicco at 4:39 AM on November 20, 2013


You could draw parallels with global warming:

The closer analogy seems to be evolution and eugenics.
posted by empath at 4:44 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Basically, it was the rise of industrialisation at one particular moment in time that made it European civilisation rather than, say, Mediterranean or even African

This point is made in John Darwin's After Tamerlane. Despite European dominance of the Americas, it wasn't actually that advantageous. The Spanish used the New World to extract silver in order to pay for luxury goods from Asia, which in the end didn't amount to that much trade, anyway. The Carribean colonies were notorious death traps for both European settlers and their African slaves. The French colonization of Quebec never amounted to that many people.

Meanwhile, Asian and African colonies held by European powers weren't much more than heavily fortified coastal outposts. The inland areas were especially inaccessible and resistant to foreign dominance. So if "Guns, Germs, and Steel" were such an advantage, why wasn't dominance easy? The answer is that it wasn't until the advent of the industrial revolution, which made Europe desperate for new markets to sell their surplus of manufactured goods and the ability to build railroads which allowed them greater mobility to move troops and dominate inland areas which were inaccessible to them before. Why did the industrial revolution occur in England as opposed to China? Darwin argues it was the proximity of coal supplies to manufacturing centers. Maybe this is too much of a "just so" story as well, but before the industrial revolution, Europe seems to the outside world not as a "global dominance machine powered by Guns Germs and Steel" but as a "peninsula of peninsulas" made up of warring mini-states.
posted by deanc at 4:48 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


But honestly, I am really surprised that people could see GGS as racist - since for me, it read very clearly as explicitly and passionately anti-racist. I read it as a refutation of the claim that the military and technological successes of European societies are a result of their culture or their inherent/essential superiority. That these successes or "advancements" are really due mostly to a fluke of geography, and that people everywhere are essentially the same.

I think that a problem with GGS and his geographical explanation is that European success is a "natural" or "inevitable" outcome, rather than being understood more as a cultural or political outcome. (And let me emphasize here that while I've read the book twice, it's been years since I last picked it up and I am not an expert in the field.)

I mean, just look at the wildly different outcomes and patterns of European colonial powers -- England treated its colonial states very differently than did Belgium, say, and both of those are different from France, and Spain is different yet again. Those are political choices, not geographic, but with huge import for what are now billions of people on multiple continents, and there were also political choices and factors internal to Europe's rise as a power that get elided with a geographic focus.

I'll defer to those that have read it more recently, or who are more invested in these debates, but that's the source of my discomfort with his arguments from a racial point of view. I don't in any way think he is personally racist, but I do think that his arguments are casual in ways they shouldn't be that open him to that accusation.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:51 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Diamond's defenders are interesting.

We've read his books, for one.

I think some of the criticisms of Diamond's environmental determinism (latitude, longitude, animals, etc) stem from the fact that he underplays or doesn't mention political factors, especially in his 2005 book Collapse

Case in point. The book spends lots and lots and lots and lots of time on political factors - everytime he talks about Montana, it's usually covering the interaction of politics and the other factors. He's painting a large picture in small parts. The point isn't to explain why Easter Island or Montana or what have you ran into trouble. The point is to highlight how various factors operate together to cause the larger outcome, using example factors from each culture that best illustrate the point, not the freakin' totality.

A lot of this criticism seems like the sneering of physicists who insist it's useless to talk about physics in any way without understanding the advanced mathematical principles it's built on - exclusionary elitists who demand their field of work be locked away from undeserving minds.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:52 AM on November 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


My trouble with Diamond began with his casual dismissal of William Aren's Man-Eating Myth, which poses a really simple question: If cannibalism is as endemic as a regular cultural practice as anthropologists assume, why has no one ever really witnessed it? Why is cannibalism always lurking in the recent past of the societies anthropologists describe, while other notable behaviors linger on? Diamond simply waves this away, saying essentially, "I have plenty of friends who tell me they know of cannibals, so cannibalism exists." The whole issue could have been cleared up with, say, a single interview with a living, practicing group of cannibals, but it was not, and for me it called into question all of Diamond's other observations. I enjoy his books a lot, but I certainly can't say I trust them.
posted by mittens at 4:54 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Another thing about Diamond was that as compelling as Collapse is, reading more about Greenland made me more skeptical of the book in general. Diamond posits an apocalyptic collapse of the Greenland colony due to starvation. From what I have read elsewhere, scholars assert it is more likely that the small colony simply over time faded away as people moved to nearby Iceland, possibly with just a few holdouts. It made me wonder why Diamond didn't incorporate these historians' ideas into his narratives of the fate of the Greenland colony. And then made me wonder what else he was glossing over in his other sections.
posted by deanc at 4:56 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


moorooka: "From memory, the epilogue of GGS is entitled 'The Future of History as a Science', and acknowledges and explores the problems of applying the scientific method to understanding human history at considerable length. You might like to try reading it - and the rest of the book as well!"

Yes, you might like it if you tried reading it, too. Gosh, what a great rhetorical technique - accuse anyone who disagrees with you of not reading the book. One might have thought that the fact that the thing I was complaining about was (as you yourself note here) actually explicitly in the book might have slowed you down from claiming I didn't read it, but no! You plow on right ahead.
posted by koeselitz at 4:58 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


(As an aside, I think Diamond's ideas if correct would tend to result in the Earth being dominated by some civilisation along the East-West axis from Europe/North Africa through to China - but not necessarily a specifically European one. For example, Chinese colonists might have made the Americas and carried all of diseases, crops and animals from everywhere in Eurasia including horses, and advanced technologies, just as the Europeans did. That would be in keeping with GGD.)
posted by alasdair at 4:58 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ivan Fyodorovich: "Diamond's defenders are interesting."

Slap*Happy: "We've read his books, for one."

This is getting pretty tedious. They're not exactly painfully difficult to read; the accusation that anyone who disagrees with you simply hasn't read him isn't likely to serve you in very good stead. I'm a political science graduate student. I wish I could say I hadn't read them. But every time I turn around at a party some idiot is telling I simply must read this marvelous new book they've heard about by Jared Diamond. It's like a hazard of the profession. And professors, god bless them, in their never ending quest to get undergraduates engaged, have been using GGS to hook them for years. It's fun, I guess, and it gets them started. But as pretty much everyone has detailed exhaustively, it's determinist and doesn't leave much room for politics. That's okay; it's a basic mistake, but it's not racism or evil hateful deathmongering or whatever. These are not scholarly books on history or political philosophy. They're not required to be incredibly accurate. And maybe there are indeed some insights in them that their readers were unfamiliar with before.
posted by koeselitz at 5:06 AM on November 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


The f*ck him piece was remarkably unconvincing -- basically saying any explanation for colonialism that does start with white racism in order more efficiently to end at reparations is defective. The major excerpt of criticism made above that "real estate has value only because of capitalism" suggests an even weaker hand. Real estate has value becuase you can live and grow crops on it. Capitalism is merely a popular means of allocating that value.
posted by MattD at 5:07 AM on November 20, 2013


MattD: "The f*ck him piece was remarkably unconvincing..."

Which is why it's interesting that (to borrow a theme) it seems to be the only link from the post that anybody has read.
posted by koeselitz at 5:09 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


The place where professional jealousy seems clearly to distort these kinds of debates is when the critics imply that their disagreement with a given thesis means a book ought not to have been published in the first place.

It's truly remarkable how much of the "backlash" against Malcolm Gladwell, when you read it carefully, consists of people making interesting counter-arguments, providing interesting evidence that his interpretation of some phenomenon might ultimately be trounced by a different reading of the evidence… and then suggesting that it somehow follows from this that the original argument ought never to have seen the light of day.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:21 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Darwin argues it was the proximity of coal supplies to manufacturing centers.

Interestingly, as long as I'm quoting Appleby's Relentless Revolution:
More specifically, two major economic realities in England put a premium upon finding laborsaving devices: high wages and the very cheap cost of coal." She goes on to explain that the high wages, while perhaps "counterintuitive" as an explanation, could "be attributed to the leveling off of population growth during the seventeenth century and the expansion of other kinds of employment. Many of the redundant workers stayed on in the countryside and became part of the putting-out system where clothiers brought raw wool to cottagers whose families washed, fulled, carded, spun, and wove it into cloth. Master craftsmen in England also did much of the country’s ironworks in their own homes through much of the eighteenth century.
...

They were aided by the fact that England had lost most vestiges of feudal law, which meant that entrepreneurs were generally not dependent on the grace and favor of nobility.

Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order has some interesting discussion regarding the development of the Common Law in England:
In English history, the rule of law emerged well before there was anything like political accountability, and the latter was always closely tied to the defense of the law. The participatory nature of English justice, and the locally responsive nature of judicial rule-making under the Common Law, created a much greater feeling of popular ownership of the law in England than in other European societies. Public accountability meant in the first instance obedience to the law, despite the fact that neither judgemade nor statute law was produced in this period by a democratic political process.

One of the chief functions of the rule of law is the protection of property rights, and this the Common Law did much more effectively than law in other lands. This is due in part to the fact that the Common Law is, as Hayek observed, the product of decentralized decision making that is highly responsive to local conditions and knowledge. But paradoxically, it was also due to the fact that English kings were willing to support the property rights of nonelites against those of the nobility, something that depended in turn on the existence of a powerful centralized state. In England, plaintiffs early on could shift the venue of a property rights dispute to the king’s courts or, if the amounts in question were small, to the county or hundred courts. There were many complex classes of traditional property rights in the Middle Ages, such as the copyhold, by which a villein or unfree tenant could in effect transfer property that was technically that of his lord to a son or relative. The king’s courts tended to protect copyholders’ rights against their lords, such that this form of property began to evolve into something closer to freehold or true private property.

The existence of a multiplicity of courts at the county and hundred level, and the king’s willingness to act as a neutral arbiter in local property rights disputes, strongly reinforced the legitimacy of property rights in England. By the fifteenth century, the independence and perceived neutrality of the English judicial system allowed it to play an increasingly important role as a genuine “third branch” with competence to judge constitutional issues, like the right of Parliament to abrogate a royal patent. In the words of one observer, “It is hard to think of another place in medieval Europe where such issues would be settled—and indeed settled independently—by judges talking the common language of their profession rather than by the political maneuvering or coercion of the parties.”
It's interesting how this tied into both English political solidarity and into the English Civil War.

...

I've only read bits and pieces of GGS. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that it suffered from the usual problems common to pop sci, to books written by people outside their field, and so on, such as glibness, oversimplification, failure to follow professional methods, and so on.

However, arguments which specifically state that GGS is actually racist appear to rely on both misreading Diamond and appealing to consequences. If somebody has a more careful argument purely on the racism angle, then I'd like to see it.

...

The closer analogy seems to be evolution and eugenics.

But there's actually quite a bit wrong with eugenicists' understanding of evolution!

...

I think that a problem with GGS and his geographical explanation is that European success is a "natural" or "inevitable" outcome, rather than being understood more as a cultural or political outcome.

But the question remains, how did powers in those regions get into a position to make these choices in the first place?
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:22 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think people believe that because something is a natural outcome of pre-existing conditions, that that makes it right. The fact that European domination might have been an inevitable outcome of some lucky geography doesn't at all mean that they deserve it or that it should continue. In fact, one can reasonably use that to make the argument that people should discount any suggestion that it was due to the superiority of western culture or political and economic systems.

I'm not an expert on the field, and there seems to be a lot of good objections to his work based on facts and methodology, so I'm not going to say that I'm convinced that he's right. But the criticisms of him as a crypto-racist just seem like they're coming from bizarro world.
posted by empath at 5:26 AM on November 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


Which is why it's interesting that (to borrow a theme) it seems to be the only link from the post that anybody has read.

It's the only contentious part of the post. People realize and appreciate the fact that Jared Diamond does not display a professional academic's level of care with his methods and citations, or that he often offers glib oversimplifications, or whatever. There's no real argument about this. I'm more than willing to accept a professional's opinion that he falls short in this regard.

With regard to racism, however, that argument has not been presented persuasively, which is why people are getting het up about it. (Somewhat amusingly, even in the main link, the only person invoking racism is David Correia.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:30 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Haters gonna hate. And aging white male social scientists gonna generalize white male privilege as natural law.

Been happening since Rousseau and St. Simon. A relativist is a white social scientist who hasn't had his once hip theory dismissed as colonialist claptrap . . . Yet.

Diamond writes pop anthropology that reassures white upper middle class people who still read books that they deserve their privilege, or at least that they were assured of it through no fault of their own. Of course he will be popular with the NY Times/NPR crowd.

Obviously environment shapes culture. The point is not debatable. But that has no moral significance as a brute fact.

/aging white male social scientist
posted by spitbull at 5:33 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Sticherbeast: "People realize and appreciate the fact that Jared Diamond does not display a professional academic's level of care with his methods and citations, or that he often offers glib oversimplifications, or whatever. There's no real argument about this."

There seems to be an argument specifically about this here in this thread.
posted by koeselitz at 5:39 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


spitbull: But that has no moral significance as a brute fact.

It has great moral significance to people who've never thought about how enviromnent shapes culture before.

koeselitz: There seems to be an argument specifically about this here in this thread.

I see the arguing, I don't see the argument. What you said above (edit: here) is pretty much exactly what the people you're arguing with have said.
posted by tychotesla at 5:43 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's certainly possible that I've missed some comments, but the contention that I see comes from the racism angle, and not the other angles. If somebody really thinks that Jared Diamond is every bit as rigorous as a credentialed anthropologist writing for an academic audience, then they're being silly, but I don't see that as a common opinion.

On preview, what techotesla said.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:46 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


MartinWisse, thank you for your comment, because it enables us to see the exact moment when those calling Diamond racist misconstrue his work:

Well, it claims to be anti-racist, but still offers up a comforting story of how Europeans just happened to be living in just the right continent to end up dominating the world

Okay, aside from the sneering and bad faith use of "comforting" (Diamond makes it clear he doesn't find it comforting), this is fair enough...

(and why this was nobody's fault, least of all the Europeans)

... and BAM! Congratulations, you have successfully put words into Diamond's mouth that he never said! And even argued against!

What explanation would you accept for Eurasian dominance? Evil imperialism that retroactively gave them a technological advantage?

Ivan Fyodorovich: The claim that Diamond's geographical determinism isn't racist because Diamond isn't racist

Actually, the claim is that Diamond's geographical determinism isn't racist is because it isn't. He personally is also not a racist, but to be clear, his argument isn't racist.

How something functions is all that matters.

It's racist because Ivan Fydorovich says it's racist. And you're calling Germs, Guns and Steel glib.

His book does not seek to excuse, empower, defend or hide racist institutions or actions. It seeks to explain why some people got to make those institutions or actions. It's funny, because it seems like you could have learned a lot from Diamond's dsicussion about proximate vs ultimate causes. But whatever, you're right, "bad people being bad" is a much more useful explanation for imperialism.

I think it should be noted that there is almost defense of Diamond's ideas and methods in this thread. His "defenders" are mostly defending what the man actually wrote from false characterization and outright inaccuracies so the work can actually be judged on its merits.
posted by spaltavian at 5:47 AM on November 20, 2013 [12 favorites]


Sticherbeast: “It's certainly possible that I've missed some comments, but the contention that I see comes from the racism angle, and not the other angles. If somebody really thinks that Jared Diamond is every bit as rigorous as a credentialed anthropologist writing for an academic audience, then they're being silly, but I don't see that as a common opinion.”

Yeah, I'm probably letting the fact that moorooka jumped on me right out of the gate color my perceptions a little.
posted by koeselitz at 5:52 AM on November 20, 2013


Diamond writes pop anthropology that reassures white upper middle class people who still read books that they deserve their privilege, or at least that they were assured of it through no fault of their own.

I'm confused. Are you saying that, if it is true that the colonial powers were able to exert their influence due to environmental advantages, then "white upper middle class people" either deserve their privilege, or that they were assured of it through no fault of their own? Why on earth would might make right? If that is not what you are saying, then what are you actually saying?
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:53 AM on November 20, 2013


Diamond writes pop anthropology that reassures white upper middle class people who still read books that they deserve their privilege, or at least that they were assured of it through no fault of their own. Of course he will be popular with the NY Times/NPR crowd.

spitbull, not to be jumping on a tired line if argument, but have you actually read GGS? Because I just don't understand how any who has could get anywhere near that conclusion.

Diamond clearly and repeatedly says that that's precisely the opposite of his argument. It's so central to it that literally the entire structure of the book is framed around how that privilege (broadly construed) is in fact an outcome of arbitrary historical factors.

....or did you just come here to make a lazy, thoughtless jab at NPR listeners?
posted by graphnerd at 5:59 AM on November 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


graphnerd: “spitbull, not to be jumping on a tired line if argument, but...”

You couldn't resist, though, could you?
posted by koeselitz at 6:03 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


What explanation would you accept for Eurasian dominance? Evil imperialism that retroactively gave them a technological advantage?

I think part of the problem is assuming that there is exactly one force at work that explains everything. That kind of mindset can lead to cherry-picking examples that fit the favored explanation and ignoring contradictions. Geographical and resource advantages can explain a lot of why groups of people with a huge advantage in those categories (such as Europeans vs isolated island cultures) have success, but it might not explain every nuance.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:05 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


But as pretty much everyone has detailed exhaustively, it's determinist and doesn't leave much room for politics.

If you've read them, why on earth would you say this? This conclusion appears to be pretty much gathered from reading the back cover or the book reviews. Politics comes up a lot, particularly in Collapse, and the determinism thing is an irrelevant side-track to the larger point being made in GGS.

Write a better book, right? Oh, I get it, his critics can't trust the public with deep academic material, and can't break it down into accessible points an interested layman can understand. Let's call him racist!

If it were just Diamond getting the brunt of it, there might be some there in there, but Charles C. Mann gets this kind of crap, too. (Zinn as well, but from the rightwingers, who are more easily dismissed as nuts.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:06 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Not only have I read GGS, I've read a lot of Diamond's very impressive earlier work.
posted by spitbull at 6:07 AM on November 20, 2013


Haters gonna hate. And aging white male social scientists gonna generalize white male privilege as natural law.

/bangs head on desk
posted by goethean at 6:17 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think one thing that people are doing in this thread is lumping all of Europe together like it was this monolithic entity that had a big meeting and decided to go conquer the planet.

Europe at the dawn of the age of exploration and the scientific and industrial revolutions was a fractured mess of hundreds of independent and quasi independent states that with differing governing philosophies, different religions, different foreign policies, etc, etc.

The industrial and scientific revolutions put a bunch of tools in Europe which enabled people who were ruthless enough to control, dominate and enslave everyone else -- first in their own countries, and then abroad. Those that chose not to use them in that way lost out to those that did. There were plenty of Europeans who didn't abuse those tools, and a lot more who stood idly by and watched (and profited) as others did, and probably a lot more that were exploited by everyone else.

I don't think saying that the industrial revolution was the cause of that domination (and an examination of why the industrial revolution happened) does ANYTHING to excuse the behavior of people who used and abused those tools.
posted by empath at 6:22 AM on November 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


Because of the Industrial Revolution,

Which happened *after* European powers had carved up Africa and the Americas for colonies. So unless the Industrial Revolution provided retroactive advantage, this explanation doesn't work.

I find it problematic that many people reject environmental determinism as a just-so story, while cheerfully accepting Marx's much more poorly-supported colonialism and markets just-so story.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:30 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


There must have been two different editions of GG&S - the one that explains how colonialism was the deterministically inevitable result of the European environment, and uses that conclusion to justify the consequences of colonialism and demonstrate the superiority of European civilisation, and the edition I read that doesn't do any of that. That's the only way this thread makes any kind of sense.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:31 AM on November 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


There must have been two different editions of GG&S - the one that explains how colonialism was the deterministically inevitable result of the European environment, and uses that conclusion to justify the consequences of colonialism and demonstrate the superiority of European civilisation, and the edition I read that doesn't do any of that. That's the only way this thread makes any kind of sense.

Yeah. But apparently, some people take away that message. I certainly did not, and do not. But if you look at that French cover I posted above, you get the sense that in French, it somehow really did come across that way. I think if you already believe that European colonial domination was inevitable and justifiable/excusable/understandable.... then GG&S won't really disuade from continuing to think that.
posted by molecicco at 6:37 AM on November 20, 2013


Slap*Happy: “If you've read them, why on earth would you say this? This conclusion appears to be pretty much gathered from reading the back cover or the book reviews. Politics comes up a lot, particularly in Collapse, and the determinism thing is an irrelevant side-track to the larger point being made in GGS.”

What is the "larger point" being made in GGS if it isn't this? Look, I'm not claiming that he totally eliminates all political factors. But he clearly explains them away, and this is the basis of the book. It can be said to be the thesis, yes. That's why the book appeals to people; it's a physical scientist talking about how most of the conclusions of social scientists and historians have been wrong because they underestimated physical science. Even the parts where he is conciliatory do this. Quoting from the epilogue of GGS:
But mention of these environmental differences invites among historians the label "geographic determinism," which raises hackles. The label seems to have unpleasant connotations, such as that human creativity counts for nothing, or that we humans are helplessly programmed by climate, fauna, and flora. Of course these fears are misplaced. Without human inventiveness, all of us today would still be cutting our meat with stone tools and eating it raw, like our ancestors of a million years ago. All human societies contain inventive people. It's just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, than do other environments.
Do you see what he did there, in the last two sentences? He'd spent most of the paragraph anticipating the criticism that he'd been "determinist" (and implying that perhaps there isn't anything wrong with "determinism" – it's just a "label" which "seems to have unpleasant connotations") and saying "of course" it's more than just geography that determines historical outcomes. But then he goes right back to saying that it's mostly just geography! He says that all human societies contain inventive people, which, while true, is clearly a broad oversimplification. Aren't there some societies that value inventiveness more? Don't those differing valuations end up having some ultimate historical effect? No, according to Diamond; he can find and cite some empirical cause behind any historical rise or fall of any nation or people, and therefore the political impact here is minimal, because "all human societies contain inventive people." And he says all this in the context of explicitly denying that he's being geographically determinist. That denial isn't really convincing unless he can come up with an example of some human society that did not contain inventive people. If inventiveness is a necessary and unchanging part of the human character, then it certainly is a factor in how history unfolds, but it can in almost no sense be said to "determine" that history.

“Write a better book, right? Oh, I get it, his critics can't trust the public with deep academic material, and can't break it down into accessible points an interested layman can understand. Let's call him racist!”

Okay, you're going off on me now the way moorooka did. I said quite explicitly that I don't think he's racist. I didn't say the public couldn't be trusted with "deep academic material" – such academic material does exist, and as far as I can tell the public really isn't interested; they simply ignore it. That's fine. They are not interested. I am not about to get all het up about it or accuse people of being evil or whatever.

“If it were just Diamond getting the brunt of it, there might be some there in there, but Charles C. Mann gets this kind of crap, too. (Zinn as well, but from the rightwingers, who are more easily dismissed as nuts.)”

Howard Zinn has massive problems as a historian, but I guess this isn't the place to get into that. Suffice it to say that the paradigmatic approach to studying history can't all be entirely wrong, even if he'd like to say it is; and the entire history of the world doesn't revolve around the early Progressive era in America.

A Thousand Baited Hooks: “There must have been two different editions of GG&S - the one that explains how colonialism was the deterministically inevitable result of the European environment, and uses that conclusion to justify the consequences of colonialism and demonstrate the superiority of European civilisation, and the edition I read that doesn't do any of that. That's the only way this thread makes any kind of sense.”

Determinism in the study of history is an interesting creature. Diamond does indeed seem to say at least a much more nuanced version of the first part of your description – that "colonialism was the deterministically inevitable result of the European environment." Again, it's much more nuanced than that, and he isn't saying it was inevitable unless you accept that all the environmental factors (which are much more complicated than that phrase makes them seem) are "inevitable." But aside from that, yes; he says at one point that, if you interchanged Europeans with any other race, they would have ended up just as "successful."

Now: that isn't the same thing as saying that this justifies colonialism or demonstrates the "superiority of European civilisation." Some people have claimed that it is here, yes, but they are incorrect, I think. But this thesis does say something perhaps more drastic: that nothing is strictly justified or not on this level of history, because everything can be boiled down to empirical factors.

In a sense, I think Jared Diamond is overshooting. There is, as we know, a certain realm of calumnious social science that sees some cultures as intrinsically better and more worthy of survival. I hope we all agree that that realm of social science is justly discredited. But it is still true that certain aspects of societies have varying absolute moral worth. Slavery is quite inherently wrong, for example. And moreover the inner beliefs of a society can indeed change the prospects of that society. A society that believes in slavery is less likely to last, I think.

This is kind of the problem a lot of more scholarly people have with Diamond, I think. It's not that he's racist, or that he justifies racist things so much. It's more that he doesn't really justify anything, and his dialectical presentation of the way history is shaped makes it seem as though we can't really hope to have any impact whatsoever on the course of human events. Which is problematic.
posted by koeselitz at 6:44 AM on November 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


Which happened *after* European powers had carved up Africa and the Americas for colonies.

The carve up of Africa occurred after the industrial revolution, not before. The Americas were generally regarded as burdensome money-sinks for the European powers who possessed them. France and Russia were quick to sell (Alaska and Louisiana) or abandon (Quebec) when they had the chance. Spain used its South American colonies as a place to extract silver to be send over to the homeland in order to purchase Asian luxury goods.
posted by deanc at 6:47 AM on November 20, 2013


– in the passage I quoted above, Diamond seems bemused that "determinism" seems to be such a dirty word for historians. But it is and ought to be a rather important issue, I think; it's been dealt with for a long time, and everyone seems to have to grapple with it. Just last night I was reading the preface to Bernard DeVoto's The Course of Empire (which admittedly has its own problems) – he deals with it, too:

“History abhors determinism but cannot tolerate chance. Why did we become what we are and not something else?”

It's not really an avoidable difficulty, and it is sensible that people try to grapple with it.
posted by koeselitz at 6:48 AM on November 20, 2013


fun party trick: bring out the cold climates and protestantism superiority train politely and with a knowing knod of your head and see how many mild-mannered liberals climb on-board. GG&S functions as a dog-whistle for this for many of it's readers.

and again, at the root of it is this bizarre idea of "western" civilization. note how many commentators in this thread try to elide that to "european" civilization, or europeans, which makes no sense given how fractured europe is. everyone is still thinking in terms of these 19th century racist ideas practically 200 years later. given how tightly technology and culture are intertwined an argument for inherent technological superiority is an argument for cultural superiority, again made polite.

history is built on contigency, essentialist arguments are always the hallmarks of an over-arching ideology, stealth or not.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:50 AM on November 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


I distinctly remember in GG&S Diamond pointing out that zebras were not domesticated, even though they bear a superficial resemblance to horses, because their temperament makes them fairly impossible to tame, unlike horses. I do know that any "zebra" you see being ridden in a movie is probably a painted horse, for this reason. "Domesticatable" is about much more than food.

I don't doubt Diamond has failings as a scientist, but the premise of GG&S, that Western domination was the result of luck, not inherent ability, struck me as profoundly and explicitly not racist. Sort of the cultural equivalent of the privilege backpack idea. As a culture, Europeans had a very full backpack that allowed them to dominate people in other places who didn't. That doesn't let them off the hook for colonialism, but it does offer an explanation as to how it happened.

And that's why he's popular; people wanted an explanation that was not racist, and he provided one.

If there are alternate explanations, they're going to have to be stronger than "Europeans were just super evil, m'kay?"
posted by emjaybee at 6:56 AM on November 20, 2013 [11 favorites]


"- the one that explains how colonialism was the deterministically inevitable result of the European environment, and uses that conclusion to justify the consequences of colonialism and demonstrate the superiority of European civilisation, and the edition I read that doesn't do any of that."

What molecicco just said. People keep harping on things like how Diamond isn't racist and was denying inherent superiority. But he was arguing environmental advantage. He doesn't justify colonialism, which is why I made the important point, which is oft-mentioned here in other contexts, that intention doesn't matter. His argument is just another form of the argument that it had to happen the way that it did; that's what determinism is.

And the factors that determined these outcomes weren't, say, historically contingent choices of the powerful, a la Tolstoy, they were environmental,they were external.

Diamond thinks he's destroying one racist trope, but he's propping up another. There's a long history of various deterministic arguments built around geography that were explicitly used to justify colonialism — it's distressing to discuss this as if this weren't the case.

And if with something in, like, say, evolutionary psychology, that has been and can be and is used to justify oppression is, nevertheless, good strong, reliable science ... then, okay, we may not like it, but if we have intellectual integrity we can accept it. Pretty much nothing in EP has been good, strong, reliable science, but it's possible.

But Diamond's geographical determinism isn't good science, or good history, or good anthropology. It's not very reliable and it's a problematic argument that has been and is and will be used to, as spitbull wrote, "reassure[s] white upper middle class people who still read books that they deserve their privilege, or at least that they were assured of it through no fault of their own". Was that Diamond's intent? I don't think anyone has accused him of that. But that's the effect.

I'd tolerate this if this were strong, reputable research. But it's glib pop-science! Why in the world is it so important for people to defend Diamond's work?

I mean, seriously, when a bunch of people who are genuine, respected experts who work professionally in the subjects that he's writing about say that his work is unreliable, and given that an environmental determinist view of history is politically very problematic, one has to wonder why mefites would so strenuously defend his books.

You thought Diamond had a lot more credibility than he really has and you read the book and it was exciting and you felt you understood important things about history that you hadn't before and you become emotionally invested in his books. It happens. Now that you know that he's not reliable, let it go.

"history is built on contigency, essentialist arguments are always the hallmarks of an over-arching ideology, stealth or not."

Right.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:03 AM on November 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


emjaybee: “I don't doubt Diamond has failings as a scientist, but the premise of GG&S, that Western domination was the result of luck, not inherent ability, struck me as profoundly and explicitly not racist. Sort of the cultural equivalent of the privilege backpack idea. As a culture, Europeans had a very full backpack that allowed them to dominate people in other places who didn't. That doesn't let them off the hook for colonialism, but it does offer an explanation as to how it happened.”

"Europeans" is a sort of fraught concept that a lot of people read as implicitly racist. It's not hard to argue that it's based in racist tropes. I don't think Diamond meant it that way, but it's problematic at best to base a book on a very vague category like "European."

Also, what's being left out here is the reason why people read this as racist. They read it as racist because a very large number of these arguments are arguments used by the racist social scientists of once upon a time: "we aren't saying Europeans are inherently better; we're just saying that they got lucky and just happened to end up the most advanced civilization in the history of the world." Jared Diamond isn't one of those racist social scientists. He just falls into their arguments because he doesn't understand the battles that were fought over them a few generations ago. And because he falls into those arguments, it's not surprising that people cry racist.

It would probably be a better idea to start by questioning the notion of "European" or "Western Civilization." The cracks in those ideas start to appear pretty quickly.
posted by koeselitz at 7:06 AM on November 20, 2013


ennuui.bz fun party trick: bring out the cold climates and protestantism superiority train politely and with a knowing knod of your head and see how many mild-mannered liberals climb on-board. GG&S functions as a dog-whistle for this for many of it's readers.

Except the "cold climates and protestantism superiority" theory said that the envrioment made Europeans better. Germs, Guns and Steel says it made them luckier.

note how many commentators in this thread try to elide that to "european" civilization, or europeans, which makes no sense given how fractured europe is.


Well, that's nonsense; as many of the nations of Europe have some strong over-arching bonds, but that's entire beside the point, becasue Diamond never makes an essentialist argument about European culture. (And even talks about how politically fragmented Europe is!)

history is built on contigency

Isn't Diamonds' argument that Eurasians were built on teh contigency of access to the best draft animals and crops?

burnmp3s I think part of the problem is assuming that there is exactly one force at work that explains everything

Who has this problem? Certianly not Diamond, who has written several massive books that seeks explain multiple forces including climate, geographical orientation, disease, technology, political fragmentation, cultural adaptation, evolution and religion.

He could be wrong, but he certainly isn't glib.

but it might not explain every nuance

And it doesn't really try to. Just about every advanatage he says Europe has he also says China has, and he only speculautes (mostly as a parenthetical) that the difference in the last few hundered years is political and quite changeable. Japan is taken as an example of political structures at work, even reversing technological progress for some time.

koeselitz: "Europeans" is a sort of fraught concept that a lot of people read as implicitly racist.

But that's pretty stupid. "Europeans" are people who live in Europe. Diamond makes that pretty clear. It's your fault if you think he secretly means "surperior white people".
posted by spaltavian at 7:08 AM on November 20, 2013 [9 favorites]


Do you see what he did there, in the last two sentences? He'd spent most of the paragraph anticipating the criticism that he'd been "determinist" (and implying that perhaps there isn't anything wrong with "determinism" – it's just a "label" which "seems to have unpleasant connotations") and saying "of course" it's more than just geography that determines historical outcomes. But then he goes right back to saying that it's mostly just geography!

I'm not sure what your objection is. His thesis is that geography is the primary factor, but he also points out that it is far from the only factor. Other questions about which cultures value what and so on are also important, and yet environmental factors still loom. All cultures contain inventive people, but if your environment won't let you use wheels or domesticate animals, then you are going to be creative about other things.

Are you objecting to the fact that his views are not literally 100% pure naive single-factor determinism?

Aren't there some societies that value inventiveness more? Don't those differing valuations end up having some ultimate historical effect? No, according to Diamond; he can find and cite some empirical cause behind any historical rise or fall of any nation or people, and therefore the political impact here is minimal, because "all human societies contain inventive people."

I'm not sure where you're getting this from Diamond's writing.

Either way, a simple look at Europe would show that mere geography, while a prime factor in the overall development of Europe's technology and so on, was not the only factor when it came to which countries became what colonial powers when. That doesn't invalidate Diamond's broader point, which is that certain environmental advantages across large portions of Europe enabled those countries to make particular technological advancements, to develop certain goals, etc.

To make a comparison, let's say that, in a white, middle-class, American suburb, a majority of high school students go on to college and to have successful middle-class careers. One person says, racial and class privilege were huge factors in the fact that this suburb's children were so successful. One could easily point out that not all students performed equally well, and also that there were other significant factors in individual backgrounds and so on. That would not, however, invalidate the broader point that racial and class privilege are major factors in American socioeconomic "success". It would be a straw man argument to say that the fact that other factors also exist in the world invalidated the whole idea of privilege.

This is kind of the problem a lot of more scholarly people have with Diamond, I think. It's not that he's racist, or that he justifies racist things so much. It's more that he doesn't really justify anything, and his dialectical presentation of the way history is shaped makes it seem as though we can't really hope to have any impact whatsoever on the course of human events. Which is problematic.

Fair enough, but this sounds like objecting to a dog because it is not a horse. He is not stopping anyone from viewing human "progress" through other lenses. What he has put forth to the general population is the idea that cultures which developed in certain environments were able to acquire the sort of technology, goals, etc. to get into a position to decide what sort of colonial powers, if any, they would be.

I also take serious issue with the idea that Diamond's ideas mean that "we can't really hope to have any impact whatsoever on the course of human events." That only makes sense if a) we plan on going through the years 8000 BC to 2013 AD all over again, or b) you think that his thesis must be literally 100% pure naive single-factor determinism, which it is not.

Either way, if we're talking about the truth-value of Diamond's theories, it wouldn't matter if they were "problematic" or not. That's an Argument from Consequences.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:09 AM on November 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


Diamond thinks he's destroying one racist trope, but he's propping up another. There's a long history of various deterministic arguments built around geography that were explicitly used to justify colonialism ...
Yes, and not just colonialism, but levels of cultural hierarchy within Europe. Like, for instance, the kind of climatic determinism popularly used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to explain why Northern Europeans were so far superior to Southern Europeans. Apparently all that nice weather rendered Southern Europeans indolent, lacking in entrepreneurial drive, and vulnerable to political and religious tyranny. Or so that particular "just so" story went.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:11 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sticherbeast: Either way, a simple look at Europe would show that mere geography, while a prime factor in the overall development of Europe's technology and so on, was not the only factor when it came to which countries became what colonial powers when.

Yeah, he makes that pretty clear when he talks about how rather unsucessful European powers were; since no one power could dominate Europe, there was always going to be someone to exploit this new-fangeled crop/metal/gun.

If you were going to see some secret judgement in Diamond's work, a more logical one would be "Europeans were squabbling war-like jerks for so long they kept finding better ways of killing people".
posted by spaltavian at 7:14 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here's a pesky piece of environmental determinism......

Diamond has sold a gazillion books. It is not his musings that are academic. It is ours.

Parse it any way you want... his memes are more widely distributed than those of his critics. For the moment, anyway.

Of course, that's true for termite genes/DNA, too. Still, if termites took over, our vaunted civilization and all its elegance and beauty would just be termite poop. Who wants that? Termites, maybe, but not us.

Not sure where I am going here. (At least I didn't scream about Sarah Palin or anything.)

Off to count termites........
posted by FauxScot at 7:16 AM on November 20, 2013


What molecicco just said. People keep harping on things like how Diamond isn't racist and was denying inherent superiority. But he was arguing environmental advantage. He doesn't justify colonialism, which is why I made the important point, which is oft-mentioned here in other contexts, that intention doesn't matter. His argument is just another form of the argument that it had to happen the way that it did; that's what determinism is.

Since your arguments are making me like GGS more, does that make you pro-GGS?
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:17 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Diamond thinks he's destroying one racist trope, but he's propping up another. There's a long history of various deterministic arguments built around geography that were explicitly used to justify colonialism — it's distressing to discuss this as if this weren't the case.

"There's lots of coal in the UK" is an explanation for the industrial revolution, which is an a factor in British colonial success. If I wrote a book saying this you would claim this was a justification for British colonialism. So... you would say that there is no coal in the UK?

No, this is clearly nonsense, so it can't be what you mean. What do you mean? What racist trope is Diamond propping up? We're clearly failing to understand each other here, sorry.
posted by alasdair at 7:18 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


There's a long history of various deterministic arguments built around geography that were explicitly used to justify colonialism

EXACTLY!

I haven't read Diamond, but I have written and research lots about geographical thinking, and, if my impression of Diamond's arguments are correct, then his is the first geographical argument for the different 'outcomes' of various societies that is not racist.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:19 AM on November 20, 2013


Like, for instance, the kind of climatic determinism popularly used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to explain why Northern Europeans were so far superior to Southern Europeans. Apparently all that nice weather rendered Southern Europeans indolent, lacking in entrepreneurial drive, and vulnerable to political and religious tyranny.

Again, the opposite of what Diamond argues.
posted by goethean at 7:19 AM on November 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


Ivan Fyodorovich: Diamond thinks he's destroying one racist trope, but he's propping up another

This is hilarious. You keep calling him glib meanwhile acting has if you have made a devestating argument by point out nothing more than a superficial similiarity to an old idea.

In your reckoning:

"Bob was lucky to find a horse, and used it to catch Steve and steal his money"

is the same thing as

"Bob, guided by providence, hardiness and will, acquired a horse, whereas Steve was too slothful and stupid to do so. Bob merely followed natural laws when he took Steve's money".
posted by spaltavian at 7:22 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


me: “'Europeans' is a sort of fraught concept that a lot of people read as implicitly racist.”

spaltavian: “But that's pretty stupid. 'Europeans' are people who live in Europe. Diamond makes that pretty clear. It's your fault if you think he secretly means 'surperior white people'.”

What is "Europe"? Does it include Turkey? Does it include Russia? Does it include Islamic cultures, which have interacted all over the place for thousands of years? Does it include African cultures, which have had a similarly long interrelated impact? How are these boundaries being drawn? The answer: they're being drawn in a way that makes sense to us implicitly but which actually doesn't have much basis in historiological fact. The fate of "Europe" as a category is about the same as "Western Civilization." Both are relatively meaningless when we come down to it, historically speaking. People in Moscow have more in common with people a thousand miles to the west than people in London have in common with people two hundred miles to the east.

This doesn't mean "Jared Diamond is a filthy racist." It means "Jared Diamond is unwittingly relying on outdated and mistaken tropes and categories that are founded on an old conception of the world that centers on 'Europe' as an essential and self-evident fact."
posted by koeselitz at 7:22 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, having just done a control-F search, I can't believe that no-one's yet brought up providentialism, which was often geared around the kinds of geographic determinism that Diamond uses. Only they attributed those advantages to God's plan for the White Races or some such rather than chance. But the outcome in each is the same. I know that explaining is not the same as justifying, but there is in Diamond (as there is in a lot of contemporary American popular science and social science, notably Freakonomics) a strong (though clearly inadvertent) strain of Calvinism or even predeterminism. The result is a kind of narrative that, intentionally or not, ultimately renders people who became successful as a chosen elect.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:23 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


If nothing else, this thread has convinced me that I must read James C. Scott. Which book do you start with? ("How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed" is the best subtitle I have ever heard, and I can't stop giggling.)
posted by mittens at 7:24 AM on November 20, 2013


What is "Europe"? Does it include Turkey? Does it include Russia? Does it include Islamic cultures, which have interacted all over the place for thousands of years?

You haven't read the book, either, have you?

Broadly, everything from Western Europe to China is one big civilisation. Sub-Saharan Africa is another. Kind of the middle of the Americas is another.

Bigger civilisations at the same latitude do better: more chance of technology spread, more animals and plants to start with, and can spread farming across similar climates.

So a Eurasian civilisation was going to conquer the globe, most likely, rather than one based on the South-East Australian continent.
posted by alasdair at 7:26 AM on November 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Seeing like a State is where you should start.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:26 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


koeselitz: It means "Jared Diamond is unwittingly relying on outdated and mistaken tropes and categories that are founded on an old conception of the world that centers on 'Europe' as an essential and self-evident fact."

Since Diamond talks mostly about Eurasia, it seems like you are relying on mistaken ideas of his book says. He talks about Europe specifically when he talks about politics and some narrow forms of cultural/political/geographical similiarities (backwater Europeans can't take on the Mongols/Ottomans/whatever and so turn to the sea). Not sure how "Europe" in the sense of Columbus couldn't get funding in Genoa, so he went to Spain, is outmoded.
posted by spaltavian at 7:27 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I know that explaining is not the same as justifying, but there is in Diamond (as there is in a lot of contemporary American popular science and social science, notably Freakonomics) a strong (though clearly inadvertent) strain of Calvinism or even predeterminism. The result is a kind of narrative that, intentionally or not, ultimately renders people who became successful as a chosen elect.

Rubbish. If someone says that one group dominated another because of x, he's not really saying that it's because of y. For all the accusations that Diamond is a glib popularizer, he opponents seem even more glib, generalizing, and sloppy.
posted by goethean at 7:29 AM on November 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Since your arguments are making me like GGS more, does that make you pro-GGS?"

No, because I'm not pro-GGS. Does it make my argument pro-GGS? Probably not, because I don't think you are representative of everyone who reads what I wrote. But if your response were representative of most other people, then yes.

This conversation is as if there'd never been a racism 101 thread on MeFi before. It's not about intent, it's not about some essential character of the person. It's about the speech/behavior and how it functions in society.

If you are going to make a geographically determinist argument that is comparative with regard to European and Asian and African powers, then you damn well better be making an airtight, irrefutable argument from the highest professional credibility. Otherwise, you're part of the problem, not part of the solution. Yes, if it's true then that trumps everything else. That's why the onus is on the writer to defend the truthhood. Diamond repeatedly fails in that respect. So "truth" is not a defense. Just as it's not a defense of all the crappy EP work.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:29 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bigger civilisations at the same latitude do better: more chance of technology spread, more animals and plants to start with, and can spread farming across similar climates.
I dunno. That sounds more like a game of Civ II than it does a convincing account of world history ... Oh well, bad luck all those poor other players that spawned in regions of the map without resource squares. I guess they don't get to invent [Industrialisation] and build [Factory].
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:30 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


spaltavian: “In your reckoning: ‘Bob was lucky to find a horse, and used it to catch Steve and steal his money’ is the same thing as ‘Bob, guided by providence, hardiness and will, acquired a horse, whereas Steve was too slothful and stupid to do so. Bob merely followed natural laws when he took Steve's money’.”

The central trouble isn't that Diamond says "Bob was lucky to find a horse, and used it to catch Steve and steal his money." It's that Diamond says "Bob was lucky to find a horse, and used it to catch Steve and steal his money, which is exactly what Steve would have done if he were in Bob's place." It's possible to see how that's problematic, yes? It's not claiming that Bob or Steve is inherently better; to the contrary, it's claiming that they are both equivalent in every respect, no matter who's doing the steal or who's being stolen from – in fact, if they switched places, they'd both act the same. That is, as I said above, going much too far in the other direction.
posted by koeselitz at 7:30 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


No, because I'm not pro-GGS. Does it make my argument pro-GGS? Probably not, because I don't think you are representative of everyone who reads what I wrote. But if your response were representative of most other people, then yes.

So, if a gay pride parade were to occur in a conservative community, and a representative quorum of the community members objected to it, then you would say that the parade was homophobic?
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:31 AM on November 20, 2013


spaltavian: “Since Diamond talks mostly about Eurasia...”

Nope. You may want to actually read the book before commenting.
posted by koeselitz at 7:31 AM on November 20, 2013


It's that Diamond says "Bob was lucky to find a horse, and used it to catch Steve and steal his money, which is exactly what Steve would have done if he were in Bob's place."

So Diamond is racist because he doesn't impute some kind of essential personality trait to various cultures?
posted by goethean at 7:32 AM on November 20, 2013 [16 favorites]


which is exactly what Steve would have done if he were in Bob's place." It's possible to see how that's problematic, yes?

Yes, because the argument actually replaces your "would" with "could". If you can demonstrate that this is not true, you have a valid argument against Diamond.
posted by LionIndex at 7:32 AM on November 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


alasdair: “Broadly, everything from Western Europe to China is one big civilisation. Sub-Saharan Africa is another. Kind of the middle of the Americas is another.”

Nope. China is not included in "Eurasia," as Diamond talks about it. You may want to actually read the book before commenting.
posted by koeselitz at 7:33 AM on November 20, 2013


goethean: “So Diamond is racist because he doesn't impute some kind of essential personality trait to various cultures?”

When did I say that Diamond is racist?
posted by koeselitz at 7:34 AM on November 20, 2013


It's not about intent, it's not about some essential character of the person. It's about the speech/behavior and how it functions in society.

Your argument is that it's an arms race between people who want to distort what he wrote and people who want talk about what he actually wrote. So what determines how it 'functions" in society? Is this an emperical thing, or just whomever is loudest? Are you uniquely able to determine this?
posted by spaltavian at 7:35 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nope. China is not included in "Eurasia," as Diamond talks about it.

Actually, it is, in that crops and livestock were able to be traded between Europe/Middle Eastern areas and China since they're generally at the same latitudes, and this actually did happen.
posted by LionIndex at 7:37 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


koeselitz: Nope. China is not included in "Eurasia," as Diamond talks about it. You may want to actually read the book before commenting

Yes it is. You are completely, 100% wrong. The only time he talks about them really has separate is towards the end in largely a parenthetical, where he even opens it by saying something like "the books really doesn't expalin the differences between Europe and China, and this last bit is me speculating on that".

When talking about crops there's a memorable passage about how you could grow most the same things in a line stretching from China to France.
posted by spaltavian at 7:38 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


spaltavian: “Read the book.”

As I said, you may wish to read it yourself before telling others to read it.
posted by koeselitz at 7:40 AM on November 20, 2013


For those saying that GG&S seemed like it wasn't bringing anything new to the table besides popularized already long-debated ideas, you are correct. Diamond essentially re-wrote Crosby's Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, for a popular audience (while giving him barely a brief nod in his "Further Reading" section).
posted by Panjandrum at 7:40 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


koeselitz: It's that Diamond says "Bob was lucky to find a horse, and used it to catch Steve and steal his money, which is exactly what Steve would have done if he were in Bob's place." It's possible to see how that's problematic, yes?

Well, no, but since that's not what Diamond says, what does that matter?
posted by spaltavian at 7:41 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


How do you know what Diamond says when you haven't read any of his books?
posted by koeselitz at 7:42 AM on November 20, 2013


koeselitz: "alasdair: “Broadly, everything from Western Europe to China is one big civilisation. Sub-Saharan Africa is another. Kind of the middle of the Americas is another.”

Nope. China is not included in "Eurasia," as Diamond talks about it. You may want to actually read the book before commenting.
"

"China, India, Japan, Tropical Southeast Asia and other Eastern Eurasian societies." - Page 1 of Guns, Germs and Steel, emphasis added.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 7:43 AM on November 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Europeans had lots more diseases that they could survive. When they hit the Americas, most of the indigenous population died very quickly, giving the Europeans a huge advantage. (Diamond)

I feel certain what you mean is that this occurred to their disadvantage and loss, because of the mind-bogglingly tragic destruction of human potential and how human history isn't a zero-sum game and how conceiving of it as a competition among civilizations actually is a common racist narrative.

Cortés found a Spaniard, just a few years after Europeans arrived in the New World, raising a family with his Mayan wife, and that guy refused to join him on the expedition into Mexico, because he saw no 'advantage.' Fray Ramón Pané came over with Columbus, lived with a local group for two years, and fought successfully to send Columbus home in chains, because there was no 'advantage' in what was going on.

So even Europeans 500 years ago had a better sense for how this stuff should be framed. I reckon that's probably obvious to most MeFites, except in the context of a thread like this, where a popular and probably well-meaning but bumbling thinker has sort of set the terms of the debate.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:44 AM on November 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


koeselitz, you are simply wrong about one the most essential pieces of the book. I have not suggested anyone in this thread read the book until you mistated a critical thing (on page 1!) while telling me I needed to read it. Your post further needling me seems bizzare in the context of you using that particular line first.
posted by spaltavian at 7:45 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I was being sarcastic after being accused, for about the dozenth time, of arguing in bad faith. It's hard to continue this conversation in the light of this repeated bullshit READ THE BOOK nonsense.

If you disagree with someone about a text, quote the damned text to them or tell them why you think they're wrong. Don't just scream YOU'RE LYING, YOU NEVER READ IT! until your face turns blue. It's ugly, and it gets us all nowhere.
posted by koeselitz at 7:47 AM on November 20, 2013


And, for what it's worth, yes, Jared Diamond takes Europe for granted as a landmass and as a civilization. He groups it with the "Eurasian landmass," yes, because he believes that these all hang together because of the food production chain and trade on them. But he speaks uncritically about "Europe" and "China" all through the text, and I can quote chapter and verse on that if you wish.
posted by koeselitz at 7:49 AM on November 20, 2013


I feel certain what you mean is that this occurred to their disadvantage and loss, because of the mind-bogglingly tragic destruction of human potential and how human history isn't a zero-sum game and how conceiving of it as a competition among civilizations actually is a common racist narrative.

That's a strong misreading. To say that Europeans' resistance to certain diseases made them able to dominate North America is not to say that the destruction of the indigenous North Americans was not a horrifying tragedy and loss.
posted by goethean at 7:50 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was being sarcastic after being accused, for about the dozenth time

Like I said, you used that line against me!

koeselitz: It means "Jared Diamond is unwittingly relying on outdated and mistaken tropes and categories that are founded on an old conception of the world that centers on 'Europe' as an essential and self-evident fact."

Spaltavian: Since Diamond talks mostly about Eurasia, it seems like you are relying on mistaken ideas of his book says.

koeselitz: Nope. You may want to actually read the book before commenting
.

I didn't say you were lying, I said you were relying on a mistaken impression. Because, you objectively are. China is included in his defintion of Eurasia.

Was saying something that is objectively wrong on page 1 a gambit to get me to say you haven't read the book?
posted by spaltavian at 7:50 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


(It's just incredibly maddening to be told over and over again that one has not read an obnoxious book that one read against one's own will in the first place. It is possible to misread things. The fact that you believe someone is wrong doesn't mean they're lying to you when they say they read the text you're talking about with them. There's no call for that kind of repeated accusation.)
posted by koeselitz at 7:50 AM on November 20, 2013


This back and forth about 'reading the book' is tiresome.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:51 AM on November 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


I'm picturing two competing "DID YOU EVEN READ!?!?" posters glaring at one another in the atrium of a library.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:52 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


spaltavian: “Like I said, you used that line against me!”

Yeah, that was ill-advised, and I'm sorry. I blew up. It was maddening, but I shouldn't have let it get to me like that.
posted by koeselitz at 7:53 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


[Seriously, guys, email.]
posted by cortex at 7:53 AM on November 20, 2013


I definitely haven't read it.
posted by colie at 7:59 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Can I ask a sincere question, as someone who hasn't read any of his books?

There's something about the very concept of explaining why Europeans happened to more inventive nonsensical, because that's only been true for the last 400 years or so. Looking historically, virtually all important inventions that make civilization possible happened elsewhere, in radically different environments.

I mean, go down the list of the greatest human achievements, like agriculture, writing, division of labor, large scale construction, city-states and generally civilization itself, they were all invented in places like Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, the Indus Valley, China and certain parts of Central America.

Fast forward a bit and you get to the Ancient Greeks, which are European but with a distinctly warm climate. Later there are the Romans, the the Byzantines, and then we get to one of the greatest and most inventive societies in the world, the Islamic empires. In terms of knowledge, science, philosophy and military power, they were light-years beyond anything going on in Dark Ages Europe at the time. And it's a culture formed in a desert.

What's Diamond's counter-argument for this? If European climates and geography are so damn conducive to making "inventive people" or whatever, why was my ancestors languishing in a primitive hunter-gatherer culture while in the Egyptian desert, the Great Pyramid of Giza was being constructed?

As I said, I haven't read the book and am genuinely curious about the answer. The whole premise just seems based on this weird assumption that there's something special about Europe, when, to my mind, there clearly isn't.
posted by gkhan at 8:06 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


because that's only been true for the last 400 years or so

If Pomerantz is right, we're looking at the last 200 years or so
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:07 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


As I said, I haven't read the book and am genuinely curious about the answer.

You are going to be much better off just getting a copy from the library than relying on any explanation from this crowd.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:18 AM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Gkhan, the most basic core idea of the book is something that every Civilization player should know, that the more civs you have in a connected group, the faster they will advance, since they are all tech trading with each other. If I remember correctly (it's been a while since I read the book), he doesn't really make any claims about which civ in this group will come out on top. He just says that in general its going to be a civ from a large landmass rather than an isolated civ on an island that ultimately wins the game.

He expands on that idea by pointing out that civs at similar latitudes are going to have an easier time tech trading, since in general they will have similar climates, viable crops, environmental concerns, etc. So his thesis is just that some civ in the band between Europe and China would likely come out on top, since they were the largest viable tech trading group.

Also, what the man of twists and turns said. :)
posted by Balna Watya at 8:19 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's something about the very concept of explaining why Europeans happened to more inventive nonsensical, because that's only been true for the last 400 years or so.

The book isn't mostly about Europe. First it's about Eurasians compared to other cultures, such as sub-Saharan Africans, Americans, Australians, etc. Deals with things like the availability of domesticable plants and animals, diet, etc. which gives rise to the civilizations that you mention: mesopotamia, Indus Valley, China, Egypt, etc, and in the case of sub-Saharan Africa, doesn't, mainly due to the plants and animals available to the Africans and Australians versus those available to the Eurasians. And this availability is attributed to the positions of land masses and the resulting climates.
posted by goethean at 8:19 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


He just says that in general its going to be a civ from a large landmass rather than an isolated civ on an island that ultimately wins the game

like britain!
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:22 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Later, there is the question of why the western Eurasians rather than the eastern Eurasians happened upon America first, and why they dominated the Americas when they did happen upon it.
posted by goethean at 8:22 AM on November 20, 2013


All right, thanks for the explanation. Carry on arguing.
posted by gkhan at 8:22 AM on November 20, 2013


Maybe its me (or maybe it's the crack I smoked this morning) but I think that this is probably the most confusing Mefi thread I have ever read.

Here is may take, I look forward to people telling me where I'm wrong or confused.

So this one dude says that, in the way-back past, certain groups of people had an advantage over other groups because they could grow food more easily. The difference between these groups is that the former lived on the biggest landmass on earth which, coincidentally, is oriented east-to-west. The other group of people live on smaller landmasses or landmasses oriented north-to-south.

The cool thing about this east-west thing is that because our planet spins east-to-west, the people on one of the farthest extremes of the landmass had a good chance of growing food on the other. In this way, foodstuffs that were successful in feeding lots of people were more easily communicated within the landmass.

The result of this is that you get higher populations on that landmass (with all that goes with that, specifically more economic development/cargo).

The same dude says that, because of politics, the part of that giant landmass that may have had the best shot of continuing to lead the world in population growth and economic development through communication with the outside world chose not to (the eastside, yo).

So, surprisingly the people on the leftside of the continent, who were more fractured politically, were able to advance beyond every other group of people.

I don't think anyone can claim that Diamond thinks that politics didn't play a role in the rise of Western Europe. I think that role that politics played, though was a destructive one (at least in regards to China). It is the very homogeniety of the West that insulated it from the damage that politics could cause. Furthermore, you're probably going to get more "inventive" people where there are more people. I'm not saying that politics or culture are not meaningful. I'm saing that having lots of people is its own advantage...a really big advantage.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 8:24 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I mean, go down the list of the greatest human achievements, like agriculture, writing, division of labor, large scale construction, city-states and generally civilization itself, they were all invented in places like Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, the Indus Valley, China and certain parts of Central America.

Well, as far as Diamond is concerned, Europe, Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, Indus Valley and China all benefit from the same resource pool because their crops and livestock can generally live interchangeably within all those areas. This means that you have that much more area and species to draw on for crops and livestock available for your use. Meanwhile, since Mesoamerica and South America are oriented on a north-south axis, different civilization-founding cultures aren't as easily able to trade food resources.

The argument isn't that Europeans are necessarily more inventive - that's actually what people defending Diamond in this thread are trying to demonstrate because saying that he argues for some kind of European cultural exceptionalism is a common criticism of the book, but isn't really what the book's arguing, which is how we get into all these "read the book" arguments.
posted by LionIndex at 8:27 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The result of this is that you get higher populations on that landmass (with all that goes with that, specifically more economic development/cargo).

It's not actually higher populations, it's better diet -> more free time -> building large things and creating alphabets.
posted by goethean at 8:42 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I found that I agreed with Diamond in inverse relation to my pre-existing knowledge about whatever subject he was addressing. When Diamond was writing about topics that I know in depth, I felt as though he was leaving out important information; when I didn’t know what he was writing about, I was thoroughly convinced.

"That's how I feel when I read the NYTimes."
.

yes, and also how I feel when reading metafilter.

There are so few sources of knowledge and commentary on this earth that don't fit that description. If anyone knows of some, please share.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 8:52 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


So to summarize GGS: the central question is: why did people from the Eurasian landmass come to dominate people from the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Oceania and not the other way around? And his answer is that the very broad cause is biogeographical differences favored Eurasians over others.

Do we all agree that (a) that dominance did come to pass? And (b) that's Diamond's argument?

If so, how can anyone possibly interpret that book as racist in any sense of the world? How does that possibly substitute one racist trope for another? Or in any way justify what was — and again, this is the entire point of the book — nothing more than arbitrary good fortune?
posted by graphnerd at 9:13 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: smoothing complex narratives into quotable fables since 1999.

Oh baby, do it to me one more time.
posted by Twang at 9:14 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


my environmental determinism has a fish. in its pants.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 9:17 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


man, i would really like to read Gun Germs and Steel as well as Collapse.
i really really liked Charles Mann's 1491 and it's one of the few nonfiction books i've read several times and sometimes just read parts of it.

however, stuff like this thread gives me pause.

someone upthread said that you should look for books by authors who have done research in the area in about which they are writing.

i just went to look at Diamond's bit on wikipedia and based on that, i would think he was qualified to present whatever he was presenting. i think i might have a hard time figuring out what i was supposed to ignore because it was an "old theory" that people in the field no longer believe in or what is actual new, good stuff.

i guess this would probably make a good askme question.

i haven't read any of his stuff because i've heard too much from both sides about it and don't know enough on my own to make a critical read of it. i guess i could just read it as historical fiction.
posted by sio42 at 9:40 AM on November 20, 2013


I have not read the book and this is what I gleaned from the arguments above:

One side is saying - Two children can be identical twins but if A grows up in a better environment (better food, education, wealth etc), he will be more likely to grow up to be bigger, stronger, healthier, and better educated than B.
The other side of the argument is then saying - historically A will then dominate B. The premise is evil and racist!

Color me very confused.
posted by 7life at 9:43 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


man, i would really like to read Gun Germs and Steel as well as Collapse.
i really really liked Charles Mann's 1491 and it's one of the few nonfiction books i've read several times and sometimes just read parts of it.

however, stuff like this thread gives me pause.


Which is the evil of the thing - that there are those who'd rather you remain ignorant in total rather than acknowledge an overview that isn't encyclopedic in its completeness or perfectly in line with their personal perspective. GGS is a great gateway to a larger world of knowledge, one many people would like to see slammed shut.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:17 AM on November 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


That is, the discussion has become entangled in politics, and identity politics at that.

In 21st century America, every discussion has become hopelessly and irretrievably entangled in identity politics. That's our current existential crisis in a nutshell right there.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:18 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


To add a hopeful note to this thread:

I know Polynesian society—as it actually exists and has existed—isn't as important to Americans as the fictional Arcadia she claimed to have found there, but the failure of until the discipline as a whole to addresses the use of the "primitive societies" as zones of narcissistic wish fulfilment, where (privileged, White, North American) anthropologists can extract some great moral lesson to journey back to the metropolis with—one that just happens to confirm their own pre-existing assumptions about culture—(the model Mead prototyped), they're going to have trouble with Jared Diamond figures.

Is a totally valid critique of anthropology because man, we* have done a whole hell of a lot of that and it's pretty disgraceful. But happily, I am seeing more and more awareness and pushback against this in the academy, particularly with anthropologists-in-training of an age to exposed to a lot of writing on intersectionality and episteimology. It's very encouraging.

Not to sidestep responsibility in any way, but I also wonder how much oversimplification is driven by markets and funding. Foundations and institutions don't want to fund long, detailed, extremely rigorous and probably quite accurate anthropological studies or historical studies. They want, consciously or unconsciously, just-so stories that can be turned around and harvested for fruits that will benefit the privileged (and sometimes, to their credit, the unprivileged), because those are the proposals that they understand and see a use for. I'm pretty agnostic on Diamond except that he was not a good public speaker, but I do wonder if he would have even gotten published if he'd incorporated a greater depth of analysis or nuance.

Our society is not particularly well set-up for people who really want to do right by something, whether that's thoroughly exploring a scholarly topic or making a complex work of art or whatever. There's a lot of pressure to make it quick and dirty and get it out there.

*Not technically an anthropologist but in a related discipline.
posted by WidgetAlley at 10:20 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I do wonder if he would have even gotten published if he'd incorporated a greater depth of analysis or nuance.

Maybe by an academic publisher, but not as a mass-market book. I'm sure the book glosses over lots of stuff, but any book trying to distill large portions of an entire academic discipline into 500+ pages will do that. The thing is, the book is mostly intended for people who will only ever read one book on anthropology, or are looking for an introductory text before getting deeper in. If someone could deal with subjects covered in GGS more accurately and completely in 600 pages while still being accessible to laypeople, I'd love to see it. The fact that more people aren't going to go more than one book in on a complex subject isn't Diamond's fault.
posted by LionIndex at 10:30 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


. His thesis is that geography is the primary factor, but he also points out that it is far from the only factor.

That point is explicit in Collapse which is all about how civlizations with similar geographic features make choices (or have non geographic choices imposed upon them) that affect their outcome.

A lot of the objections to Diamond remind me of the shallower complaints about Gladwell-- namely that in both cases someone with a shallow or misunderstanding of their arguments could make an objectionable or misinformed (possibly event racist) argument. And sure, that's true as far as it goes. But arguing that you shouldn't enable glib misinformed people is an argument in favor of not writing books on intellectual topics for the masses.
posted by deanc at 10:33 AM on November 20, 2013


The most important animal for domestication was the horse, which generally wasn't for food.

Actually, the evidence suggests that they were originally domesticated for food and only later used as work animals. That's also why pre-domesticated horses were hunted.
posted by snottydick at 10:33 AM on November 20, 2013


I just like to say that I haven't read Diamond's book, and I appreciate spamandkimchi's post. I'll probably read it at some point, and it's good to know what anthropologists have had to say about it.
posted by nangar at 10:37 AM on November 20, 2013


They want, consciously or unconsciously, just-so stories that can be turned around and harvested for fruits that will benefit the privileged (and sometimes, to their credit, the unprivileged), because those are the proposals that they understand and see a use for. I'm pretty agnostic on Diamond except that he was not a good public speaker, but I do wonder if he would have even gotten published if he'd incorporated a greater depth of analysis or nuance.

Well, whose job is it then to provide higher-level synthesis of ideas anyway, because as little value as summaries and generalizations may have for academic specialists, ordinary non-specialists actually do need them and rely upon them to try to make some little bit of sense of the world.

Is the suggestion here that no cross-disciplinary or summary-level description of an academic topic is ever necessary or good for the world because summarizing anything necessarily omits certain qualifying details?

People need good synthesis of information, too, not just extremely accurate, isolated and disconnected data points to make sense of the world and process meaning. People need to be able to synthesize and summarize information and create narratives across specialist boundaries in order to even come close to understanding the world enough to function.

Maybe not every summary or synthesis of information is a just-so story designed to be exploited by imperialists.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:39 AM on November 20, 2013 [9 favorites]


This specific story is already one I am interested in, along with a general concern over pop-non-fiction. I mostly feel that these kind of books do not really make the reader much more knowledgeable, especially in regards the ratio of what they think they now know to what they really don't understand.

Now I wonder if this Fuck Diamond is related! Haha. GREAT album, by the way.
posted by J0 at 11:27 AM on November 20, 2013


Nope. You may want to actually read the book before commenting.

I found this so snide that I actually downloaded a PDF copy of GG&S just to see how often he mentioned Eurasia as opposed to Europe. There were 329 instances of Eurasia (including "Eurasian") and 560 instances of Europe (including "European") in 437 PDF pages, FYI.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:35 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sheesh now I feel obligated to read The World Until Yesterday after reading all the reviews, though I'm not looking forward to the self-help lessons learned.

To go big frame on this conversation, I think heated discussions about the shortcomings of Diamond's books (or really any academic-to-pop bridge text) are ultimately good, even if what we glean from the books is a bit of a Rorsharch test for our own obsessions. (As for me, I tend to worry about how academic arguments get twisted into supporting status quo policies.) I don't worry, though Slap*Happy does, that people will forgo reading specific books because their merits are debated. It's a corrective for my nerdy desire for the definitive textbook and having people loudly tell you that a book is flawed hopefully is a reminder that all texts are flawed. Pop versions of scholarly research seem to make bolder claims and use less qualifiers and thus collect more detractors, but even the beloved James C. Scott has caught flak for his sweepingly broad generalizations. Super exciting work doesn't need to be perfect. Best-selling books (will?) oversimplify arguments. So what's an acceptable trade off for interesting and accessible and complex and contextual? Because I do think Diamond using outdated anthropology or misinterpreting anthropological research to make his claims about societies as they were "yesterday" is a big no-no.
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:29 PM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


When you preach against the book, do you say what you think the logical holes are?.

Yes. I've been looking for my copy and can't find it - to quote chap. and verse - so I'm going to have to go with the very (unfortunately) general: Inconsistency. He makes statements to the effect that specific things happened for very specific reasons. Then in a later example, where the 'very specific things' that applied in the first instance should also apply here, he'll omit them entirely." OK, it's not a genuinely hard-nosed examination of why his group did that and that group did this, but he sets up the expectation hat it will be and frankly, I just couldn't get over that.

I did, though, enjoy his narration of Cortes' first encounter with the Aztec - that was pretty great however 'true' it was or not.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:34 PM on November 20, 2013


That sounds more like a game of Civ II than it does a convincing account of world history ... Oh well, bad luck all those poor other players that spawned in regions of the map without resource squares. I guess they don't get to invent [Industrialisation] and build [Factory].

Quite seriously: I am beginning to suspect that Civ has had a direct influence on Diamond's Internet popularity. Of course, it's hard to disentangle that from a couple of other obvious broad cultural factors, since engineer's syndrome and the clash of civilizations are both major influences on Internet social discourse in general as well as on the game. That is, on the one hand, Internet arguments very often display a strong preference for simple-sounding technical explanations and theories that privilege environmental/physical factors over cultural, social, political, and/or economic ones; and on the other hand, envisioning world history as a geopolitical resource war is popular outside of gaming circles as well as inside them. But beyond that, it does start to seem like the specific way the rules of the game impose a kind of anticulturalist, antipolitical resource-competition view of conflict, and the game's teleological model of growth and development and conquest as victory conditions, have really taken root and become naturalized as the conceptual backdrop against which people are testing Diamond and Diamond-like explanations.
posted by RogerB at 12:37 PM on November 20, 2013 [12 favorites]


Hey koeselitz, I think it was me that provoked your anger by suggesting once that you hadn't read the book, and my apologies for that, but I was responding to a dismissal that you made of the book's approach which I thought was pretty well answered in the book itself. In fact the book does directly anticipate and address most of the criticisms given in this thread, which is why it's easy to assume that the critics either haven't read it, or glossed over the bits that addressed precisely what they're complaining about (e.g. 'determinism', application of the scientific method to history, moral culpability in colonialism, Europe vs Eurasia etc).

When you elaborate on your complaints, it seems to amount to an objection to the suggestion that being environmentally favored leads inevitably to violently conquering the rest of the world. Which isn't the argument; the argument is that being environmentally favored is a key factor in making violent conquest of the rest of the world possible.

It's pop-sci of course, and I read this book when I was a teenager - criticize him for writing a book that even a teenager might be inclined to read - it's not an academic tome and doesn't pretend to be. But the central arguments aren't wrong for all that.

I will always have a soft spot for this book and defend its merits, because I read it at a time when teenage me was bothered by the very questions it answers - as a white Australian I grew up in an environment where there were two possible explanations given for why Australian Aboriginal society had remained in a hunter-gatherer state so vulnerable by European contact:

-The politically correct explanation being kind of a 'noble savage' thing; they were just more 'in harmony with nature', they were just culturally 'content' with no 'need' to develop technological civilisation.

-The less politically correct (but very widely believed among white-Australians) explanation, being that they were an inferior type of human without the brains to progress beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, displaced by a smarter people in a 'survival of the fittest' manner.

While one of these explanations is more ugly than the other, they are both essentially 'just-so stories'. When I read GGS, it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me, because here was a third, and much more convincing explanation - Australian Aboriginals did not develop technological civilisation because the native Australian environment did not support the type of intensive food production that might allow it to develop. There was nothing 'different' about the Aboriginals - for better or worse - they were simply living within their environmental constraints; their continent did not support agriculture, which precluded a technological division of labour.

Your objection seems to be the implication that had the Australia been environmentally favored and Europe not, then the Aboriginals would have eventually subjugated Europe in a violent manner. This is an interesting thought experiment suggested by the book - it's not actually asserted in the book - but in any case, the suggestion itself in no way diminishes the evil of the European colonialism.
posted by moorooka at 12:46 PM on November 20, 2013 [21 favorites]


That is, on the one hand, Internet arguments very often display a strong preference for simple-sounding technical explanations and theories that privilege environmental/physical factors over cultural, social, political, and/or economic ones; and on the other hand, envisioning world history as a geopolitical resource war is popular outside of gaming circles as well as inside them.

I am interested in understanding why "place" shouldn't be privileged. What's more, I think its fair to group "environmental/physical factors" with "economic ones" because I truly believe that these are the more fundamental factors and that they influence "cultural, social, and political" factors.

Place/resources -> Culture, Society, Politics/Policy

Now that might not be true everywhere, and places that were constantly overrun by invaders may confound the direction of the arrow. But by and large, my sense is that you can really make the case for this sort one-sided influencing. I'm open to disagreement.

But beyond that, it does start to seem like the specific way the rules of the game impose a kind of anticulturalist, antipolitical resource-competition view of conflict, and the game's teleological model of growth and development and conquest as victory conditions, have really taken root...

It may be an anticulturalist and antipolitical view, but doesn't the phrase "resource-driven" make it an essentially economic one?
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 2:31 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Having seen GGS assigned in classes and read by students over the last couple decades, whatever its drawbacks, it seems to have drawn more people away from racism that towards it. True, for some of them, biological determinism (at the back of their mind, perhaps subconsciously) was perhaps replaced with environmental determinism (where the leaders and populations of countries aren't to blame for various colonialisms because anyone in their place would have done the same, and if not them, then one of their neighbors). But for most of these folks, this is still a huge step forward, since mild environmental determinism is a big improvement over mild biological determinism. In fact, it might even be an improvement over mild cultural determinism, inasmuch as it nudges people away from the equally noxious tendency to blame the immiserated on some sort of bad cultural choices of their own.

So like others, much as I hate Gladwell and am driven crazy by popular science in my own discipline, as a pop and pedagogical tool, I think GGS has been mildly positive in its effects. That said, I think a lot of people would be hungry for another, better effort at answering similar questions, and are quite willing to wade through 1000 pages if they are well written. Does such a thing exist? Can such a thing exist? If not -- if it's all just a blizzard of contingency and 1% causes -- then it's going to be hard to nudge people's views further, since it's very hard to replace a theory with a chaos of local theories. But if that's the truth of the matter, we should probably still attempt it nevertheless. But it would nice for history as a science if we could keep trying to find major causes of the terrible and wonderful things that rule our lives.
posted by chortly at 2:58 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hypnotic Chick: I think its fair to group "environmental/physical factors" with "economic ones" because I truly believe that these are the more fundamental factors and that they influence "cultural, social, and political" factors.

An economy is a cultural, social, and political response to resources, though, right? It is power saying, here is how we are going to distribute these things, because if someone isn't distributing them, if they're only lying on the ground waiting for random people to pick them up, then you'd be hard pressed to consider that an economy.
posted by mittens at 3:58 PM on November 20, 2013


Having read the book and watched the 3 hour documentary it seems pretty clear that Diamonds argument is not a racist one. I say this as a socialist. His theory, while probably wrong, is a really interesting attempt to address the question of WHY Western / Eurasian cultures have reached the perch they sit on in light of the fact that they are no better intellectually or physically than any other human culture on the face of the planet.

In fact Diamond takes pains to mention that it was this question that led him to his theory. Since all humans are born with the same mental facilities and inherent abilities, what is it that allows some groups of them to exert such control over others? 'Culture' was not a convincing enough argument for him - and thus he pondered whether it could be arbitrary access to resources that might have done it. The book explores that line of thought...and posits that it was arbitrary access to basic natural resources that allowed some groups of people to expand in such a way as to develop cultures of domination, industrialization, etc...

Or put more simply upthread:

...he is explaining why one society was in a position to be racist and colonialist and oppressive rather than another.

No one finds provocative the idea that rich people wield power because of their access to resources in the form of capital. Resources that are often inherited and arbitrary - as in they got those resources because of when and where they were born. That does NOT make it OK for rich people to exert this control at the expense of others...which is another issue entirely.

In the same vein, Diamond argues in G,G & S that certain segments of the worlds population had developmental advantages due to arbitrary access to resources that *may* help explain the unfair positions they now occupy on the global stage. This in NO WAY condones the positions they occupy and is basically a correlate to the argument that rich people aren't actually so smart because most of them simply inherited their positions.

This condemns the idea of American (or Western) Exceptionalism and is quite a separate study from whether the privileged position we occupy is deserved or not.
posted by jnnla at 4:11 PM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


There was nothing 'different' about the Aboriginals - for better or worse - they were simply living within their environmental constraints; their continent did not support agriculture, which precluded a technological division of labour.

Except, of course, that the Australian continent currently supports agriculture and a technological division of labor.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:39 PM on November 20, 2013


Except, of course, that the Australian continent currently supports agriculture and a technological division of labor.

Because of species introduced from Eurasia.
posted by moorooka at 4:43 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dip Flash - it doesn't currently support agriculture with native crops and animals, they had to be imported from Eurasia, that's Diamond's point.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 4:43 PM on November 20, 2013


Is the suggestion here that no cross-disciplinary or summary-level description of an academic topic is ever necessary or good for the world because summarizing anything necessarily omits certain qualifying details?

Oh Lord no, and I think that's a rather antagonistic reading of what I said. My great strength is cross-disciplinary synthesis, and I would much rather not be out of a job. Of course it's necessary, and summary is important. But to say, "Summary is important and we should do it" is pretty much unrelated from saying, "The only research that gets funded right now is 'applied' research that relies on summaries to make causative claims that are probably premature." Summaries are important, and I'm not arguing against them, I'm arguing against the idea that unless it's Big and Flashy and Teaches Us Something About Human Nature, it's not worthwhile.

Seriously. It's a funding wasteland out there for social scientists. Sometimes we really do need space to do in-depth long-term nuanced studies of things.. and that space is tenuous at the best of times and pretty much non-existent right now. I'm not protesting the existence of the summary description, which totally has its place (and Diamond's work might be a totally appropriate place for it, I don't know... as I said, I've never read him.) I am saying that when we substitute summaries for those long-term in-depth analysis, our knowledge suffers, but that we tend to do so because they're easier an easier sell to people who don't understand the nuances of scientific process. Man does not live by summary (nor by thick longitudinal data analysis) alone.
posted by WidgetAlley at 5:38 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dip Flash - it doesn't currently support agriculture with native crops and animals, they had to be imported from Eurasia, that's Diamond's point.

I realized my misreading about two minutes after I had closed my computer and gone out the door. Oops.

At the same time, I like the image of a shepherd trying to herd a group of kangaroos with the help of a dingo.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:58 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Late to the conversation, but: it's ludicrous to suggest that the thrust of Diamond's thesis, in GGS at least, is racist. Just plain dumb. That's me, making with my important internet opinions. It's been explained why, better than I might do, upthread. I am gratified at least that many others in this thread feel similarly.

As to whether his positions are assailable and imperfectly conceived -- well, of course they are. I find it bewildering that anyone would expect any different.

It strikes me as odd and funny that my impression of some of the arguments here -- where there are folks characterizing Diamond's writing as glib and simplistic -- is that those arguments themselves strike me as glib and simplistic.

I'm not sure how to break out of that feedback loop, so I don't think I'll try. But I will, in a glib and simplistic way, observe that as always the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

It may be argued -- has been argued -- that a little knowledge is worse than none at all. I'm not sure I can agree.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:01 PM on November 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


I am a huge fan of James Scott's work. Seeing Like A State was fantastic. However, I really don't know how much I can buy his claim at the end that the "plenty of violence" he acknowledges is common within and between tribal societies "is almost entirely a state-effect."

What's even weirder is that Scott's critique of Diamond's hunter-gatherer characterization is pretty much what Diamond himself argued back in 1987. Diamond says the agricultural revolution and subsequent emergence of complex societies was the worst mistake in the history of the human race, resulting in the kind of strife that Scott claims is glossed over or absent in the new book.

I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but did he change is mind or something?
posted by eagle-bear at 6:03 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Diamond's GGS theory isn't exactly 100% "environmental determinist". Compare two explanations of why Eurasians were able to colonize other people. First, the "germs" part of GGS:

1. Eurasians were able to domesticate a large number of animals, which exposed them to a lot of environmental pathogens.
2. Over generations they developed immunity to these diseases via natural selection as a result of this environmental pressure.
3. When they encountered indigenous peoples in other parts of the world they had an advantage of disease immunity.

Now, a racist theory of the type put forward by Phillippe Rushton in his critique of GGS:

1. Eurasians were exposed to a harsher climate, particularly in the northern winters.
2. Over generations they developed improved problem solving skills, future time orientation and other mental traits as a result of this environmental pressure.
3. When they encountered indigenous peoples in other parts of the world they had an intellectual/mental advantage.

The first theory is "environmental determinism" and not racist, but the second one is "genetic determinism" and racist. Supposedly, one attributes Eurasian advantages to pure luck and environmental fluke, and the other to "inherent and essential superiority". But how is being exposed to an environment that selects for higher intelligence any less a case of dumb luck and environmental fluke than being exposed to one that selects for disease immunity? I don't see a meaningful difference, other than that subjectively people feel that intelligence is part of "who someone is", but immunity is just "something they have".

FWIW, both of these theories are over-simplifications and "just-so stories" in their own way, I just don't accept a categorical difference between them. They are both environmental-genetic explanations.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 6:27 PM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


For one thing, "intelligence" is a much, much, much, much, much, much, much more complicated thing than disease immunity.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:43 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


So? How does being much more complicated turn it from being considered an environmental explanation into a genetic one?
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 6:55 PM on November 20, 2013


But how is being exposed to an environment that selects for higher intelligence any less a case of dumb luck and environmental fluke than being exposed to one that selects for disease immunity?

A few thoughts: Because the idea of an environment that selects for higher intelligence is already loaded with assumptions, in a nasty way that the idea of an environment crawling with pathogens is not. Because the advantage held in the second scenario is basically, "We're better than you," which excuses a great deal, while the advantage held in the first is gruesome but ultimately does not excuse colonialism. The environmental picture includes some natural selection, but its focus is on the pathogen's effect and how it sets the stage...and leaves the winner precariously perched because a bigger better bug could always come along. The genetic superiority picture relies on a sketchier version of natural selection, and its focus is more on the outcome: Smart white people taking their natural spot at the top of the heap, and they are never, ever coming down because no one will ever evolve better smarts.

If we have to pick a story, the first one is morally palatable and has the virtue of being at least a little true.
posted by mittens at 7:23 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


So? How does being much more complicated turn it from being considered an environmental explanation into a genetic one?

Why would it become a genetic explanation? Intelligence, to the extent that a single thing called intelligence exists, is heavily multifactorial. It is not merely an exercise in inheriting The Smart Gene. This is just one of many reasons why Rushton's arguments are known to be famously terrible. Rushton is not merely wrong because racism is ethically bad - he is wrong because his arguments don't hold water.

Either way, I'm not sure what point you're trying to make. Intelligence is correctly regarded as a complicated issue which ties directly into our conceptions of society and the self. It is, in fact, quite different in this respect from whether or not someone is immune to smallpox.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:28 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


That Europeans had a resistance to certain diseases that native Americans and Australians didn't, and that the exposure of the latter to these diseases played a large role in European conquest, are both incontrovertible and uncontroversial facts, not up for debate.

An explanation as to where these differences came from (i.e. animal domestication) is therefore useful in understanding the course of world history.

Since European intellectual superiority is not a "fact" at all (let alone an uncontroversial one) it doesn't require any such explanation, and no attempt at "explaining" this non-fact could possibly have any usefulness.

The comparison between the two is so utterly ridiculous that it's hard to tell whether you're being serious.
posted by moorooka at 7:31 PM on November 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Humans self select for intelligence under =every fucking circumstance=, as ungainly bipeds who die when it gets colder than 40° and hotter than 100° ain't surviving anywhere outside Southern Africa without a tech upgrade. Diamond brings this up indirectly, as shouting into his reader's face "A-Duuuuuuuh!" tends to offend. More, he explains how humans of the same intellect wind up in different circumstances on opposite ends of the gun.

The question then becomes... would the conquerors become the conquered, if the situation were reversed? Three Part Alliance... Aztecs. Look that shit up.

Fuck, even the humble and placid Swiss rampaged unchecked across half of Europe for a quick and dirty paycheck once they figured out their Pike Style was unbeatable.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:13 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


That Europeans had a resistance to certain diseases that native Americans and Australians didn't, and that the exposure of the latter to these diseases played a large role in European conquest, are both incontrovertible and uncontroversial facts, not up for debate.

I don't think anyone disputes the fact that indigenous resistance to European colonisation was hampered by illness and deaths caused by introduced diseases. My problem is that when this is asserted as the reason why European colonisation succeeded it substitutes a morally-neutral external cause for the actual reason, which is that the European colonists had so many advantages (better weaponry, communication, transport, supply lines, and resources) that they never failed to displace or subdue indigenous populations.

So yes, European settlement in the Americas, especially, was aided by the fact that the indigenous population had been ravaged by epidemics. But European colonists were quite capable to rounding everybody up and marching them off at gunpoint, so they would have displaced the natives even if the epidemics had gone the other way. Consider what happened in the Belgian Congo, where European susceptibility to African illnesses was notorious: the place became one great death camp.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:22 PM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


My problem is that when this is asserted as the reason why European colonisation succeeded it substitutes a morally-neutral external cause for the actual reason, which is that the European colonists had so many advantages (better weaponry, communication, transport, supply lines, and resources) that they never failed to displace or subdue indigenous populations.

The argument in GGS is not that diseases alone allowed for European colonization. Hell, look at the rest of the title of the book.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:26 PM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


But European colonists were quite capable to rounding everybody up and marching them off at gunpoint,

They probably weren't. The diseases matter. Even after centuries of imperialism most of Africa is still populated by Africans. Same with India and China. The Americas are mostly populated by descendants of Europeans. Subjugation is not the same as replacement.
posted by spaltavian at 8:28 PM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Either way, I'm not sure what point you're trying to make.

My point was Diamond's theories aren't "environmental determinism", so the contrast between "non-racist environmental determinism" and "racist genetic determinism" (which was a theme repeated over and over up-thread) is misleading. Both are based on genetic-environmental feedback loops, the difference being that one one is more supported by facts than the other, and is more acceptable because it involves traits that we don't identify with "superiority".
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 9:16 PM on November 20, 2013


The argument in GGS is not that diseases alone allowed for European colonization.

Oh, I acknowledge that. But disease gets more attention because it's more interesting than "Europeans had guns and the locals didn't", so it's worth pointing out that disease is a relatively small part of the answer; its effects could not have changed the outcome; and we really need to focus on the purposeful displacement of indigenous populations, rather than the fortuitous advantage which disease offered to European colonists.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:41 PM on November 20, 2013


Both are based on genetic-environmental feedback loops, the difference being that one one is more supported by facts than the other, and is more acceptable because it involves traits that we don't identify with "superiority".

No, the difference being that one is a real thing and the other is bullshit.
posted by moorooka at 9:43 PM on November 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Oh, I acknowledge that. But disease gets more attention because it's more interesting than "Europeans had guns and the locals didn't", so it's worth pointing out that disease is a relatively small part of the answer; its effects could not have changed the outcome; and we really need to focus on the purposeful displacement of indigenous populations, rather than the fortuitous advantage which disease offered to European colonists.

I frequently see estimates of Native American population killed by diseases brought by Europeans pegged somewhere around 90%. It's quite easy to subjugate a population when 9/10s of them died before you even aimed your gun. Cite from the GGS site at PBS. Wikipedia. If you accept those figures, European diseases were practically a genocide, while armed subjugation was basically a few minor skirmishes.
posted by LionIndex at 10:24 PM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


while armed subjugation was basically a few minor skirmishes.

Well, disease wiped out 90%, but the remaining 10% still was a significant amount that was then targeted for a more slow-motion genocide.
posted by empath at 10:36 PM on November 20, 2013


European colonists were quite capable to rounding everybody up and marching them off at gunpoint, so they would have displaced the natives even if the epidemics had gone the other way.

That was much much harder that it looked back in the 1500s and 1600s. Once again, consider that the European position in Africa and Asia was nothing more than a few tenuous coastal outposts before the industrial revolution. So sure, that may have happened, but not until the 1800s, and colonization would have looked a lot different.

Smallpox played a decisive role in the fall of Tenochtitlan, even despite the fact that the Aztecs were out-armed and out-gunned.

In North America, many settlers found a lot of areas had been pre-emptied of natives before they arrived because of waves of earlier epidemics from Europeans that pre-ceded them.

The difficulty of subjugation without these massive advantages, particularly by a pre-industrial society, shouldn't be underestimated. Natives in parts of the Yucatan were able to reassert independence well into the 1800s.
posted by deanc at 12:17 AM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ugh, Slap*Happy, you have exactly articulated the racist, derteministic, apologetic reading of GGS that people here are attacking. You are basically saying: environmental factors led to an evolutionary change that made Europeans smarter than everyone else, and they were right to go around the world conquering and subjugating, because if roles were reversed, those conquered nations would have done the same.

Also: Diamond makes it very clear in GGS that he sees no inherent genetic or intellectual differences between people around the world. So that idea -- that cold-climates make people select for higher intelligence -- did not come out of GGS and is right off the bat racist. And it's also obviously untrue (by your logic, there should never have been civilization in India/Mexico/Egypt/Mesopotamia and the Inuit should be ruling the world).

On the other hand, I feel like some of the anti-Diamond crowd wants to buy into an essentialism of their own. One that says that European colonialism was an expression of Europe's essential awfulness. This is also problematic, as it amounts to a debate about which essentialism is the right one - superiority or evilness?
posted by molecicco at 1:54 AM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think it's more that conditions can select for more expansionistic/exploitive governance.. and that it has nothing to do with the essential characteristics of the people/ethnicity/culture. If there exists a situation where a ruthless group can establish dominion over a weaker one, the more ruthless one will almost always emerge victorious. This happens internally AND externally. As an example, the French Revolution and mass mobilization enabled France to run unchecked across europe, but only AFTER Napolean took charge of the country. There was nothing inherent about the French people that made them conquerors, it was that there was an opportunity, and someone seized it.

Or look at the Roman Empire -- the Roman people weren't particularly expansionist or war-mongering, they had to be dragged along unwillingly in almost every war, but they had advantages of their neighbors and power isn't going to sit around unused indefinitely, if you're a leader who refuses to use it, you'll be pushed aside by someone who will.

In the US, this gets manifested by the military-industrial complex manipulating US media and elections to get war-mongers elected to congress and the white house. It's not that Americans necessarily love invading people, it's just that there is a lot of money to be made by doing it, and if the leadership doesn't do it, the leadership will get replaced.

In order for a nation to exploit another, it must first be exploited by its own leadership.

All of which is to say that it's a less interesting problem to explain what it is about a nation that makes it warlike or colonial, because that's something more or less inherent to nationhood, than the problem of how it gains the advantage that allows it to be successful at it.
posted by empath at 2:43 AM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am not sure how this: "environmental factors led to an evolutionary change that made Europeans smarter than everyone else" is basically saying this: "Humans self select for intelligence under =every fucking circumstance= ... he explains how humans of the same intellect wind up in different circumstances on opposite ends of the gun."

I mean, they sound like exact opposites.
posted by mittens at 4:38 AM on November 21, 2013


You are basically saying: environmental factors led to an evolutionary change that made Europeans smarter than everyone else

Oh, baloney. I'm saying there is no environment that makes one human smarter than another! All humans self-select for intelligence and all humans have roughly the same reproductive rate, so we're all going to be roughly the same intelligence. Europeans aren't smarter than South Americans, just luckier to have more access to resources and a wider trade network - Which. Is. The. Point. Of. The. Book.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:50 AM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I mean, they sound like exact opposites.

Really? Talking about "self-selection" for "intelligence" in order to survive "outside of Southern Africa" sure sounds like an implied evolutionary change.

Look, I've read the book, Slap*Happy. I liked it. I agree with most of what's in it. But I am seeing that people can walk away with very different interpretations, or use it to support very different arguments. Which is, honestly, kind of interesting to see. For example, your comments about "conquerors and conquered" rings apologist of colonialism and imperialism -- a sort of hand-wavy "everyone does that sort of thing, even the swiss!" Maybe you mean something else? But it sure comes across as "colonialism was inevitable, and anyone in the same position would have done the same thing, so you really can't blame them/us". I think that's a shitty viewpoint. I hope it's not the one you meant to express (in fact, I assume it is not what you want to convey, but it is still kind of sitting in there in what you said).

The point is, there is basically nothing in GGS that would dissuade someone for believing European colonialism was inevitable and either justifiable, necessary, or morally ambiguous. I strongly disagree with that viewpoint, but again, nothing in GGS would convince someone against it.
posted by molecicco at 5:23 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


The point is, there is basically nothing in GGS that would dissuade someone for believing European colonialism was inevitable and either justifiable, necessary, or morally ambiguous. I strongly disagree with that viewpoint, but again, nothing in GGS would convince someone against it.

That clearly isn't his viewpoint. And aside from that, what could Diamond have possibly done to answer the moral charge? He repeatedly and explicitly talks about the atrocities committed by the Conquistadors and others. He very directly states that a central motivation is in understanding how and why these awful things happened.

At times in this thread, it has sounded like the objections that people have are rooted in an inability to differentiate between theories of why things happened and a moral justification for those things.

The two aren't equivalent. And the failure to recognize that fact is what leads to dogmatism.
posted by graphnerd at 5:48 AM on November 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


But it sure comes across as "colonialism was inevitable, and anyone in the same position would have done the same thing, so you really can't blame them/us"

See? That's slanderous. I said nor implied no such thing. This is some really disordered thinking.

Let's turn this around to look at it from another angle. You are arguing specifically in favor of European exceptionalism - there's something different or special about Europeans that allowed them to conquer, a "let's be evil and racist" gene.

Which is baloney. Europeans are not blessed by Wotan with a warrior's spirit to conquer. They're people like any other.

And people have been conquering the crap out of each other for as long as we've had written history. At the time of the European conquest, Central and South America had two civilizations who were exceptionally good at conquest. Why wouldn't they conquer Europe, given the means to do so? Were they inherently nicer than Europeans? Did they have "good guy" genes which kept the old world safe from them? No, they did not. You can talk about the political and cultural situation in Europe, but there's nothing special about it. History at every corner of the globe is packed with the dates of Important Battles. They weren't fought for recreation, but to subjugate another people, or to keep from being subjugated.

Is this the natural order of things? Hell no, the archaeology doesn't support that, war itself is relatively recent, all things considered - the earliest evidence for it being around 14kybp. We can and should do better. We get better by understanding the past and the people who lived in it.

I don't see many people giving the Mongols a pass for their destructive and genocidal empire building in this day and age. Why do you insist I'm trying to give the conquistadors one?
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:21 AM on November 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


colonialism was inevitable, and anyone in the same position would have done the same thing,

Are you saying that if the Aztecs had secured guns and long-distance ships, they wouldn't have conquered as many lands as they could get to? Why not?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:55 AM on November 21, 2013


The argument in GGS is not that diseases alone allowed for European colonization. Hell, look at the rest of the title of the book.

Stitcherbeast,
Years ago when the paperback of GGS came out, I spotted a capsule review in the UK Sunday Times review section (basically little more than a listing of the week's latest paperback editions, with a one-line description of the work) that some idiot sub editor had decided needed correcting.

The title of Diamond's book became: "Guns, Germans and Steel".

It's one of my favorite really bad corrections.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:37 AM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


there's something different or special about Europeans that allowed them to conquer, a "let's be evil and racist" gene.

If you look at my previous posts, that's exactly what I don't believe, and it's what I find problematic about some of the anti-Diamond positions. What I do believe, is that (1) "the let's be evil and racist gene" [or rather the capacity and tendency towards evil and racism] is in everybody, and (2) that it's always bad. And what I'm saying to you is beware. Beware that by acknowledging (1) you aren't necessarily also saying (2). Acknowledging (1) sometimes leads people to the opposite of conclusion (2). That the wrongness of it, the injustice of it, is somehow lessened or made acceptable, because of its universality.

And honestly, this whole diatribe here:

And people have been conquering the crap out of each other for as long as we've had written history. At the time of the European conquest, Central and South America had two civilizations who were exceptionally good at conquest. Why wouldn't they conquer Europe, given the means to do so? Were they inherently nicer than Europeans? Did they have "good guy" genes which kept the old world safe from them? No, they did not. You can talk about the political and cultural situation in Europe, but there's nothing special about it. History at every corner of the globe is packed with the dates of Important Battles. They weren't fought for recreation, but to subjugate another people, or to keep from being subjugated.

....

I don't see many people giving the Mongols a pass for their destructive and genocidal empire building in this day and age. Why do you insist I'm trying to give the conquistadors one?


Right... except that when you shout "but they did it too!" (Mongols/Inca/Aztec, take your pick) and "they would have conquered Europe if they could" it sounds like you are indeed asking for a pass for the conquistadores. I'm not debating whether your points are right or wrong (in fact I think each one taken alone is mostly right). I am saying that your framing suggests that you find it an injustice that conquistadores or Europeans are being singled out and judged. I find that a problematic position to take. Look, I'm not in your head. I'm not in your soul. I do not know what you really believe and I am not against you. I am giving you feedback about what your arguments sound like on the outside. Take it as you will, but please do not accuse me of slander or "disordered thinking".

I agree with you that we should strive to be better. 100% on your side on that one. I also 100% do not buy European exceptionalism. I think we actually agree on a whole lot here and I'm sorry it's so heated.

Also, one more time, for clarity: I'm not criticizing Diamond or accusing him of anything. There is a huge difference between saying "I think Diamond thinks this thing" (not me) and saying "people who think this thing walk away from reading GGS without a change in opinion" (me). So every discussion of what Diamond believes and what he intended is absolutely moot. Because what I am noticing, and what I find interesting in all this, is how people can have conflicting and even opposite take-away messages from what he wrote. Or rather that his arguments can be used to support and defend contradictory points of view. That's interesting, no?
posted by molecicco at 8:06 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wasn't the entire enterprise of cultural anthropology made possible by colonialism in the first place? I think they are very well aware of this and there is a lot of spilled ink on the topic. That, and also the ongoing reaction or aversion to the positivist social science of the past, perhaps make the field very sensitive to any kind of European-superior implications.
posted by thelonius at 8:12 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Right... except that when you shout "but they did it too!" (Mongols/Inca/Aztec, take your pick) and "they would have conquered Europe if they could" it sounds like you are indeed asking for a pass for the conquistadores.

1) I didn't phrase it in a way that gives anyone a pass for anything. Stop putting words into my mouth.

2) You're engaging in the logical fallacy of Non Sequitur. Does Not Follow.

What I "sound like" to you is your own issue, unless you think I'm lying to you when I say I'm not asking for a pass for anyone.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:38 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


"people who think this thing walk away from reading GGS without a change in opinion" (me).

That's not Diamond's problem. I do not think it is an acceptable argument to complain that Diamond did not write his book as an explicit anti-colonial polemic even though he took pains to explain what the point of his book was. Yes, people who had wrong headed beliefs will probably ignore Diamond's points to the contrary in order to maintain their beliefs. That's not an objection to Diamond. It's an objection that anti-colonial polemics haven't found as wide an audience as a book on popular geography.
posted by deanc at 9:17 AM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Are you saying that if the Aztecs had secured guns and long-distance ships, they wouldn't have conquered as many lands as they could get to? Why not?

I don't know enough about the Aztecs to answer this question, but I find it disturbing and I'll use a historical example I'm more familiar with to explain why. I'm reading Eric Foner's book on Reconstruction and he describes a community of recently emancipated slaves in the Sea Islands off South Carolina. Upon achieving freedom they have the tools of their former masters at their disposal. Do they enslave them? Of course not. They don't even continue growing cotton. Instead, they become subsistence farmers - until northerners arrive to tell them that, in fact, growing cotton for the market is what they ought to be doing.

The point is, it's impossible to know what exploited people would do in the shoes of their oppressors. RogerB made a good point about viewing history through this mechanical, Civ II view. Oh, you have guns and Rank 3 Warships, of course you're gonna develop racial theories to dehumanize and enslave a civilization! For those who argue all civilizations have slavery and war, I recommend watching the excellent BBC series Racism: A History to understand what made the colonial era unprecedented.
posted by gorbweaver at 10:37 AM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Do they enslave them? Of course not.

No, but they did go to war against them (see 1st South Carolina Volunteers). Of course, that's not quite the same thing.
posted by mittens at 10:58 AM on November 21, 2013


molecicco: Right... except that when you shout "but they did it too!" (Mongols/Inca/Aztec, take your pick) and "they would have conquered Europe if they could" it sounds like you are indeed asking for a pass for the conquistadores

It doesn't sound like that at all. They are different statements, and one does not follow from the other. You're attacking the words you are putting in his mouth.

What, exactly, would a "pass" for the conquistadores even look like? I'm pretty sure their actions are always spoken of in the context of them destorying other cultures. I mean, look at their name.

Or rather that his arguments can be used to support and defend contradictory points of view.

Only if you're willing to attribute arguments to him that are misrepresentations, distortions and outright lies. There is plenty to argue over regarding whether Diamond is correct, but there is no reasonable debate over what his argument is.

The point is, there is basically nothing in GGS that would dissuade someone for believing European colonialism was inevitable and either justifiable, necessary, or morally ambiguous.


This matter-of-factly wrong, as Diamond has never shied away from asides about atrocities (spoiler: he's against them). Also, you're still not getting the difference between "Eurasians had an advantage" and "anyone living in Eurasia had an advantage". Diamond specifically entertains a thought experiment about what would happen if you had swapped everyone's "homeland" before the advent of agriculture. There could be no greater statement against the arbitrariness of the eventual outcome.
posted by spaltavian at 12:25 PM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


The point is, it's impossible to know what exploited people would do in the shoes of their oppressors.

But you know what the Aztecs did when they had a technological/environmental advantage over their neighbors.
posted by empath at 12:38 PM on November 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


The Aztecs, in fact, violently subjugated and oppressed all of their neighboring societies. Their empire encompassed much of what is now Mexico.

It's possible to believe that the Aztecs were a violent and expansionist tyranny while also holding that Cortez's conquest, which he undertook with the support of rebellious Aztec fiefdoms, was a heinous act with tragic consequences for the people subject to it. Justice isn't only for the innocent.
posted by chrchr at 1:13 PM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I do not think it is an acceptable argument to complain that Diamond did not write his book as an explicit anti-colonial polemic even though he took pains to explain what the point of his book was.

What's more, polemics are typically ineffective at changing people's minds.

As is clear in this thread and from humanity in general, it seems that many people will misunderstand and misinterpret a lot of things a lot of the time. What's interesting about GGS is that, for some people, it seems to attract a very specific breed of straw man.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:07 PM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I first read GGS, I almost didn't get past the introduction. By the 10th time he emphasized that he was not arguing for racial or cultural superiority, only for lucky breaks, I was thinking, "Jesus, man, I get it. No one is going to think this is an argument in favor of racism, or Providentialism, you've made that really clear, now can we get on with it?" This thread is making clear that I overestimated the readers.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:16 PM on November 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


But you know what the Aztecs did when they had a technological/environmental advantage over their neighbors.

I'm not arguing the Aztecs were pacifists. I'm referring to the specific claim that they would do the same to us, given the right technology. It's completely erases the form of colonial violence, the theories of race and methods of resource accumulation, that are historically unique and do not allow us presume anything about what other civilizations would do with machine guns, even if they were nasty to their neighbors.

It reminds me of when Americans bring up African slavery - the subtext is, "it was either us or them," even if acknowledging the horrors of American slavery, because it erases their unique historical conditions.

I don't think anyone here is justifying the conquistadors, lord knows that's been made clear enough times in this thread. But in 2013 we are still dealing with their legacies and the histories are still being contested. Acknowledging it was a Bad Thing is not sufficient if it leads one to believe colonialism and pre-Colombian empires are analogous conquests, with the former simply having better technology.
posted by gorbweaver at 3:43 PM on November 21, 2013


Again. We know what the Three Part Alliance did to those within their grasp with just the resources they had at hand. It's a different sort of horror than European Colonialism, but not a lesser one. This insistence on European exceptionalism is far more problematic to my mind... white people aren't special or different.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:14 PM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not preaching European exceptionalism, that's an awfully disingenuous reading. I'm addressing a very specific argument - that the Aztecs would have done what Europeans did, if only they had the technology.

It's not because Europeans are special, it's because of unique historical circumstances that the Aztecs did not create the racial theories or systems of appropriation the Europeans had. Not because Europeans are inherently barbarous, but because the conditions of colonialism and the import of African slaves created conditions that did not exist in more ancient slave systems.

Each civilization was unique, not because of intrinsic qualities of their people or culture, but because of historical contingencies that can never be repeated. I don't know if I can be any clearer than that.
posted by gorbweaver at 7:16 PM on November 21, 2013


I think it's a bit bizarre to think that the racial theories which developed AFTER colonization in order to justify it where actually the CAUSE of colonization.
posted by empath at 7:54 PM on November 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


Each civilization was unique, not because of intrinsic qualities of their people or culture, but because of historical contingencies that can never be repeated.

This is very clear, but then, what's it saying? That there are no lessons to be drawn from history about humankind because every example is contingently disconnected from every other?
posted by fatbird at 8:02 PM on November 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Joe in Australia: But disease gets more attention because it's more interesting than "Europeans had guns and the locals didn't", so it's worth pointing out that disease is a relatively small part of the answer

But it isn't; it's almost certainly the biggest single factor. Look at the Aztecs, which had not been ravaged by Eurasian diseases yet. It seems like the Spainards defeated them handily, but if you look, it wasn't really because of their guns. Firstly, not every Spainard had a gun.

More importantly, look at all the allies Cortes lines up before marching to Tenochtitlan. Had the various peoples lined up against Cortes, his party could have easily been destroyed, and they certainly wouldn't have taken Mexico so quickly.

Tenochtitlan wasn't even taken in a battle, but in a seige. According to Wikipedia, here as the relative strength of both sides:

Spain
16 guns[1]
13 brigantines
80,000–200,000 native allies
90–100 cavalry
900–1,300 infantry[1]

Aztecs
300,000 warriors[2](including war acallis)

Can you imagine that scenario without the native allies? Around 2,000 conquistadores versus 300,000 Aztecs fighting for their homeland. Muskets aren't going to cut it. Cortes won because he explointed the politics of Mexico's central valley, moved quickly before the Aztecs could adapt and through sheer brazenness. Spain's technological edge assured eventual victory, but it was other factors that made it so quick. Factors that were not likely to be constant in further exploits had there not been disease.

Picture a world where the smallpox never came. Two continents worth of people, where each battle was a mixture of force and politics. Where every victory leaves you with thousands of resentful captives. Where not every commander is Cortes. Where not every society is trying to figure out if you might be gods, or what a horse is.

The European powers would have eventually defeated the Native American socities, and imperialism would have continued, but you would not have had the virtual emptying of the continent we saw in reality. Even in our real timeline, the British and French used Indian allies, and the Indians played off the British colonists against the imperial leaders in London. Imagine sophisticated Indian societies, smartly using politics, adopting technology, with ten times the numbers they did in reality.

It's easy to imagine a secnario where the Incans can repel Pizarro, perhaps eventually buying off Charles V. That gold and silver would have been well spent in his actual priority, Italy and the counter-Reformation. The Incans would eventually feel the full weight of their vassal status, but some resemblance of their society could have remained.

This is sort of similar to Asia, where Europe was able to dominate for centuries, but Asian societies continued to exist, and eventually reasserted themselves. Now, it would still remain a unique situation, because Europeans did enjoy a greater technological edge over Native Americans than Asian or African societies. I doubt Europeans would ever be ejected, and unlike much of Africa, European crops flourished in much of the New World.

Who knows? There might still be independent Native American state somewhere. Maybe Europeans would have only heavily populated the costs. Maybe the Native Americans would have still been dominated, but remaining in large numbers, causing a quasi-cast system to develop. It's hard to tell, but it seems unlikely the trajectory of New World colonization would have remained the same without smallpox.
posted by spaltavian at 6:52 AM on November 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


There might still be independent Native American state somewhere

Some Latin American countries are more or less Native American states. Guatemala, Bolivia and Peru come to mind. People think that all the Native Americans cultures are gone or pushed into reservations, but if you get out into the country side in some of those countries, you'd barely know that colonization happened.
posted by empath at 7:00 AM on November 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


empath, I considered that as I was writing. I'm not an expert on Latin America, but it seems like in most areas, either descendants of Iberian colonists or mestizos still retain power over traditional socities. There are rural pockets, but I think Iberian language and Catholicism are in the majority and enjoy privileged status in every Latin American country.

But your point is well-taken; and that's with a probable 90% depopulation in the early Columbian-era. Quechua might be an "official language" in Boliva and Peru, but in this imagined timeline, it's easily the language of the political and economic leaders for whatever Andean countries that exist.
posted by spaltavian at 7:10 AM on November 22, 2013


I kind of wish I could flag the original post, because "David Correia pulls no punches in his opinion piece "F*ck Jared Diamond" calling Diamond's resurrection of environmental determinism as racist apologia and his latest book as essentializing primitivism in order to define Western industrialized exceptionalism."

Is the kind of crappy journalism, which just uncritically presents any opposing side without evaluating it for, y'know, accuracy or truth.
"Meanwhile, flat earthers pull no punches in accusing international airlines of lying to people, and projecting scenery on plane windows to trick people into believing in a spherical world."
Accusing Jared Diamond of racist apologia is bullshit, and very damn confused on the writers part.

For all his flaws, he wrote the books because he didn't believe there were essential differences between different 'races', and certainly no advantages on the part of Europeans (other than herd immunity to diseases, which he explains as a result of resource advantage). Without resorting to racism, he attempts to explain a large part of the current social and economic disadvantages in terms of resource advantages, and how they tended to multiply upon each other.

For example, more cultivatable food crops leads to larger population, that and domesticatable animals leads to crowded conditions and animal/human disease transmission, over time additionally giving a disease advantage (doesn't sound like an advantage, but your population builds up immunity, while for example, pre-euro contact populations could expect to be wiped out by disease far more than warfare).

Also, for all that he plays a bit loose with his references, he usually has dozens of examples supporting each of his theories, like legs on a stool. Even when a bunch of his examples turn out to be sloppy, most of the theories still largely hold up despite having a few legs chopped off.

I just wish there was a better errata for his works, because I don't want to be absorbing sloppy information.
posted by Elysum at 12:59 PM on November 25, 2013


There are rural pockets, but I think Iberian language and Catholicism are in the majority and enjoy privileged status in every Latin American country.

It's kinda changing, at least partially because they are beginning to realize that native culture is bringing in tourist dollars, and partially because the natives refused to be subjugated in many places and still learn and teach in the local language and gained official recognition. I would not at all be surprised to see a huge resurgence in Guatemala and see Spanish become a second language. There is a lot of anti-native racism still in Spanish-descended areas, I think, though. I saw a lot of it in Antigua from the locals.
posted by empath at 1:16 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


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