An academic justification for the multi-cultural society?
November 14, 2002 5:22 AM   Subscribe

HOW TO GET RICH, by Jared Diamond.
[via Boing-Boing] An academic justification for the pluralist society? Clay Shirley (guest blogger @ B-B) makes the point: "In a finding that everyone worried about having a single global IP regime should read, Diamond concludes that innovation requires having several different legal, cultural and technological regimes at the same time, in competition with one another. Columbus had to go to several countries before he got funding for the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Had there been a pan-European agreement on naval expeditions, he would never have left port." [More inside]
*Warning*: 12, easily read pages in link. I hope this thread is a grower...
posted by dash_slot- (30 comments total)
"Chinese inventions include canal lock gates, cast iron, compasses, deep drilling, gun powder, kites, paper, porcelain, printing, stern-post rudders, and wheelbarrows : all of those innovations are Chinese innovations. So the real question is, why did Renaissance China lose its enormous technological lead to late-starter Europe? ... it was never the case that there was one idiot in command of all Europe who could abolish a whole technology. Inventors had lots of chances, there was always competition between different states, and when one state tried something out that proved valuable, the other states saw the opportunity and adopted it... [therefore]..there is an optimal intermediate degree of fragmentation, that a too-unified society is a disadvantage, and a too-fragmented society is also a disadvantage..."

I think that Diamond is making observations with wide appeal, and with profound implications. It seems that he wants to stretch the fields that his tenets apply to, and I think the overt connection to Government systems, businesses and technology could be much more widely applied. Indeed, I think that there is a hidden warning here: a flourishing social ecology [if that's an invented term, I'll gladly take credit...] is necessary for prosperity, for progress and ultimately - for survival.

This guy is not your usual batty academic: he clearly associates with, and admires wealth creators. Does his ever-so-slightly anti-intuitive analysis makes sense to you?
posted by dash_slot- at 5:23 AM on November 14, 2002

Sorry, dash_slot

Guns, Germs and Steel is a great read and I look forward to the above.

From my reading of his other stuff,I'm not sure that he necessarily admires or associates with "wealth creators" though. Rather a socio-historically centered term don't you think?

this review made me smile though:

"Guns, Germs and Steel lays a foundation for understanding human history, which makes it fascinating in its own right. Because it brilliantly describes how chance advantages can lead to early success in a highly competitive environment, it also offers useful lessons for the business world and for people interested in why technologies succeed."—Bill Gates

Pure contingency, hey Bill?
posted by lerrup at 5:51 AM on November 14, 2002

Somehow his analysis strikes me as a very naive example of technological positivism.. First of all, his idea of success - he measures it in terms of who colonized whom, and gives the example of the Japanese "losing" guns over time. In other words, if tomorrow nations were to abandon the production of A-bombs it would be considered a failure. In other words, it denies that the "production" of success is far more than a production of "better" technologies.
His ideas of progress are inherently Western; the idea that a person (or a nation) betters itself through competition with others and within.
He follows with yet again repeating the tired argument that the US industries are better than German or Japanese because they..... produce more. He doesn't find anything better than compare American vs. German beer and conclude that Americans produce more and therefore are implicitly better. This guys truly sounds like he just discovered Henry Ford and thinks mass-production is the answer to all the world ills. He completely ignores the ideas of niche markets, cultural and social infrastructures as being elements of what defines success for a particular group, etc, etc. I don't have any problem with his desire to get rich; good for him. I do however find his assumption that this is what progress is all about to be silly and tired.
(And... his writing style leaves much to be desired... especially for an academic.)
posted by bokononito at 6:01 AM on November 14, 2002

I've read it now and wonder whether success has gone to his head a bit. I thought he was a pinko-leftie!

I do agree with bokononito - the American brewing system cannot be judged a success when it produces so much fizzy urine when compared to the wonders of real beer! There is a lot more to it then volume.

However from a survival perspective, capitilism only cares about might.

A meme that needs dealing with, I'd say.
posted by lerrup at 6:08 AM on November 14, 2002

I think it's clear that Diamond sees that there is a lot more to beer production than volume: "And it's not that the Germans make bad beer; the Germans make wonderful beer".
Read carefully & you'll also see this: " ...there are other considerations in a marriage than optimizing productivity... No! In a family, and in some other human groups, productivity is not the appropriate consideration for judging the best organization of the group..."

I suspect that "his desire to get rich" [bokononito] is no greater than most westerners, if this is an accurate description of his feelings about wealth - "I hope that some of you will be able to apply these lessons to acquiring the wealth that has so far eluded me" - he seems to have chosen middle class academe over private wealth accumalation.
posted by dash_slot- at 6:24 AM on November 14, 2002

fine, but why go on about efficency? Volume of production is not the only measure of efficency. Cheapness may be.
posted by lerrup at 6:29 AM on November 14, 2002

My anthropology teacher (and all the GTAs) insist that Jared Diamond is a shithead. He's got no training in anthropology, but thinks he has the authority to write about it.

He (from what I understand) claims that our entire cultural history could have been predicted from the times of hunters and gatherers, but at a recent Q&A at the University of Kansas, when asked if he could predict 50 years into our future, he said he really had no idea what would happen. Hmm. So 13,000 years are totally obvious to him, but 50 years are a complete mystery? That seems a little shady to me.
posted by katieinshoes at 7:00 AM on November 14, 2002

Any counter arguements/justification for the anthropologists' views apart from no training?

I would be interested in their recommended links.
posted by lerrup at 7:18 AM on November 14, 2002

So 13,000 years are totally obvious to him, but 50 years are a complete mystery? That seems a little shady to me.

Makes perfect sense to me. Statistical fluctuations tend to average out over sufficiently long time periods. It's impossible to predict what the electrons in the wire between my computer and the wall will do in the next five microseconds, but in the next few minutes a substantial number of them will keep the microprocessor running.

Have either you or your anthropology teacher actually read his book?
posted by kewms at 7:18 AM on November 14, 2002

I have not, so I really have no right to rant. However, my professor has. He spent half a class talking about it after Diamond came through for a lecture and a Q&A session. You've got a point that you can't predict exact details of a short span, but he refused to even make generalizations. As I recall the original question was whether or not he would make any speculations about the next 500 years, and he said something along the lines of "I couldn't even predict anything for the next 50." (Even a vague and generic "population will continue to increase," "the gap between rich and poor will increase," or "we'll colonize the moon" would have been something.) Like I said, this is second-hand information to me, but from what I've heard from my prof and his GTAs, Diamond is not well respected *at all* by the majority of anthropologists. They take issue with a lot of his evidence and claim that he ignores anything that would contradict his theories. Basically, he's trying to act scientific but uses bad science.

You know, just a disclaimer before anyone concludes that he's a godly genius or anything. :)
posted by katieinshoes at 7:47 AM on November 14, 2002

It's an interesting argument. I wish he'd put the qualifiers on page 12 on page 1 so that readers might assess the argument's merits before attempting to divine Diamond's political viewpoint.

Similar arguments are made (more successfully) with the debate over monoculture and GM foods: If a crop is too homogenous, there is a much greater danger of vulnerability to a single bug. Likewise, the argument suggests, societies left to their own devices may fall prey to their own errant memes.

It's hard to know what will end up being "successful" in the future, and really what this idea means. It's entirely plausible that Japan's eccentricity regarding to fresh foods might make them more resistant to a health problem that affects more productively efficient food industries.
posted by condour75 at 7:56 AM on November 14, 2002

As a graduate student in anthropology, I would take exception to katieinshoes assertion that Diamond is not well respected among anthropologists. It is true that he does not have anthropological training, but he works quite hard at talking to the people in the field and in my opinion has a good grasp of the literature related to the subjects in which his interests and mine overlap (those being the only subjects I feel competent in judging him).

As background, I have read Guns, Germs, and Steel, I have listened to a public Q&A he held at my university about a year or two ago, and I have talked to professors that Jared Diamond has asked questions of.

I find Diamond’s work in Guns, Germs, and Steel to be a real lightning rod. Because it deals with such a broad swath of history, and deals with really important events such as the beginnings of colonialism that are either the best of times or the worst of times depending on your personal perspective, I have observed that people often read into his work things that he does not say.

For example, I don’t know of any part of his book where he claims to be able to “predict” events. But his book, and his comments at the Q&A I attended, show that he takes an explicitly evolutionary approach to history. Evolutionary approaches only work in the long-term, and he understands that.

One example from his book is the discussion of major crops. There are only about a dozen really productive crops in the world (wheat, barley, maize, rice, potatoes, etc.) and with just a few exceptions no society has become a hierarchical society without the “fuel” from one of these crops. When one looks around the world, you see that the Old World had a much easier job in spreading their major domesticated crops, because they could spread East to West, and therefore have fewer climatic changes. In the New World, maize had to spread North-South, and it was a much slower process. Therefore, from an evolutionary perspective, there are reasons to expect that the Old World might be doing things like building ocean-going fleets before anyone in the New World. And this explanation doesn’t rest on any spurious assumptions about one population being more “intelligent” than another.

In the end, a reading of Guns, Germs, and Steel really indicates that Diamond makes few value judgments. He is very frank in discussing both the wealth and the widespread destruction that results from colonialism. But I really respect the work, because as he points out in his introduction, he is one of the only people in recent decades to ask why did the Europeans colonize the New World (and lots of other places) and not the other way around. For the most part the only other historians to have asked that question in the last 100 years did so from an overtly racist perspective.
posted by Tallguy at 8:14 AM on November 14, 2002

Thank you, Tallguy - you have succinctly summarised a major part of Diamond's best known book & widened the scope of this thread.

I was thinking along the lines that a politically homogenous society - should one arise again in the west* - would be unhealthy, uncreative and over-isolated. I believe that Diamond's analysis applies to many fields: does it apply to political ecology? Do political systems ultimately thrive better with a medium amount of disorder, competition and diversity; and, like the other guy recently said about creative communities: the more diverse, the more prosperous?

*Has one arisen?
posted by dash_slot- at 8:43 AM on November 14, 2002

Diamond touches on the question of political diversity in the article: monoblocs are bad, vulnerable to the chance idiot, but so are the very small, not sufficiently productive to survive. A happy medium of many moderate competitors seems to improve productivity fastest.

It's very interesting to consider his arguments from an artistic point of view. Consider the Renaissance in Italy and the Enlightenment in Holland and Germany. Both times of political turmoil and small independent principalities, every one trying to outdo the others in artistic display. Now consider the state of popular culture today, dominated by a very few large corporations, turning out manufactured pop. Would you rather listen to Bach or Britney?
posted by bonehead at 9:15 AM on November 14, 2002

from what I've heard from my prof and his GTAs, Diamond is not well respected *at all* by the majority of anthropologists

katieinshoes: This is simply equivalent to "my prof doesn't like Diamond." Academics (like others) are often unwilling to admit that others respect what they condemn. (And remember too that, for instance, the continental-drift theory, with its tectonic plates, was treated as absurd by all respectable specialists... until they were forced to recognize it was supported by the evidence.)
posted by languagehat at 9:32 AM on November 14, 2002

Would you rather listen to Bach or Britney?

What about Slayer?

I might join in on this thread if I can find some free-time today (I haven't ignored a Me-Fi Diamond thread yet). Until then, I'd like to point everyone to a wealth of Diamond articles on the web. It can't be linked to directly. Go here: Search

Type 'Diamond' in the field 'SEARCH BY AUTHOR'S LASTNAME:'

There's about 30 good articles.
posted by dgaicun at 9:37 AM on November 14, 2002

This is the most scathing indictment of world government I can imagine.

Well, there goes my plan for conquering the world.
posted by nyxxxx at 10:41 AM on November 14, 2002

"from what I've heard from my prof and his GTAs, Diamond is not well respected *at all* by the majority of anthropologists"

katieinshoes: This is simply equivalent to "my prof doesn't like Diamond."

I know, I know. For what it's worth, I'm not the greatest fan of my prof. But it seems like everyone's quick to praise Jared Diamond, and I figured I might as well toss in a completely unsupported vote against him. Just for sake of being contrary.
posted by katieinshoes at 10:47 AM on November 14, 2002

Thanks for the link, dash slot. Interestingly, Diamond has described our ancestors' abondonment of the hunter-gather lifestyle for agriculture as The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.
posted by homunculus at 10:49 AM on November 14, 2002

bonehead: another place to look for this concept is in the jurisprudence of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes suggested that a pluralistic judiciary is beneficial in and of itself, because it acts as a hedge against the political winds of the moment, and enforces a smaller but more universal set of principles., i.e. those that everyone can agree on in the long term. I'm by no means an expert, but it's interesting how close the argument is. You can learn more at your local library: try the book Pragmatism: A Reader, Louis Menand ed.
posted by condour75 at 11:03 AM on November 14, 2002

My prediction for fifty years from now:

nanoscale Von Neumann machines are going to REALLY screw everything up, since they make virtually infinite production a reality.

That is why fifty years from now is unfair. We are on the cusp of something that redefines both humanity and nature and could destroy either as we know it in the course of a day if some idiot gets his hand on the technology. What computers and especially the internet did to information (at least pre-Palladium) this will more than do for the material realm.

And I can make this prediction without any qualifications in anthropology.

As for the above article, I've always felt this way about IP more because I've liked watching people throw their chips on the piles that are BSD and Linux - something that a worldwide IP enforcement body seriously hampers and threatens to destroy.
posted by Ryvar at 11:04 AM on November 14, 2002

I haven't read the Diamond article yet, but it appears to cover much the same ground as Robert Wright, who makes many of the same points regarding the large number of polities in Renaissance Europe as contributing to technological, economic, and political innovation. Like Diamond, his suggested narrative makes few judgements of a people's worthiness as a contributor to their success or lack thereof.
posted by dhartung at 11:48 AM on November 14, 2002

katieinshoes: That's all right then. I'm all in favor of being contrary.
posted by languagehat at 12:53 PM on November 14, 2002

kateinshoes: That's very in-the-spirit of the article! If we all agreed blindly with Jared Diamond, and then he turned out to be wrong, we'd be proving his point... uh... i think that might be a paradox... ***HEAD EXPLODES***
posted by condour75 at 1:37 PM on November 14, 2002

The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.
posted by homunculus at 10:49 AM PST on November 14

That is one persuasive essay, H. The irony being that, without the luxury of food surpluses for the elite, he could not have researched it.
posted by dash_slot- at 1:44 PM on November 14, 2002

Ryvar: I have to admit the ip stuff eludes me, but that article is a brilliantly plausible piece of speculation!

Of course, built in to the theory is... what happens if a lone dictator "Just says NO!"...?
posted by dash_slot- at 2:06 PM on November 14, 2002

Homunculus: really interesting for the link...thanks!

I of course am glad that I'm not a hunter gatherer....a five day solo on Outward Bound taught me that!
posted by pjgulliver at 2:06 PM on November 14, 2002

Actually, we should all thank y2karl, who first posted that link. I think. Search is timing out so I can't be sure. If I'm wrong, we should thank y2karl anyway because he posts so many fine links. Thanks y2karl!
posted by homunculus at 8:27 PM on November 14, 2002

kate in shoes, “I figured I might as well toss in a completely unsupported vote against him. Just for sake of being contrary.”

languagehat, “That's all right then. I'm all in favor of being contrary.”

condour75, “Holmes suggested that a pluralistic judiciary is beneficial in and of itself”

dash_slot-, “what happens if a lone dictator "Just says NO!"...?”

Long live the dialectic!
— Brecht

(Which, having read only descripitions of hte linked articles in this thread, sounds like their collective thesis.)
posted by raaka at 11:15 PM on November 14, 2002

Better late than never...

Not that I would ever want to be labeled an environmental or technological determinist (ack!), but an interesting question that Jared Diamond skirts around in this article and that no one has raised so far is this: How much choice does an organization or industry have over its organizational size?

The central idea that Diamond puts forward, that there is a happy middle ground between monopoly and hopeless fragmentation seems intuitive and uncontroversial. And as the other comments indicate, this is not a particularly new idea.

But as Diamond points out in his paper, the China of the Yuan and Ming dynasties was centralized because of a particular convergence of technology and geography, not because someone wanted it that way. Likewise, Renaissance Europe was decentralized because of the convergence of technology and geography, not because someone preferred it that way. As technology has changed, and high speed trains, automobiles, telephones, and the Internet break down these geographic barriers, Europe has moved towards less fragmentation.

In his business section, Diamond talks about the fragmented Japanese food-processing industry and German beer-making industry, and then shows that they are fragmented because of a patchwork of local preferences. It would seem that if (or when) these preferences become homogenized, there will be increased centralization. Likewise, it is not clear that the U.S. Steel industry or the U.S. software industry has “chosen” to be either highly fragmented or highly centralized. It would seem to me as a non-business person that both industries are far more influenced by the age and the rules (or lack thereof) of these sectors.

So do policy makers or business executives really have the power to influence the degree of fragmentation present in their group or industry, or is this just a fact of life they must learn to deal with?
posted by Tallguy at 11:39 AM on November 15, 2002

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