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Sunday, January 02, 2005

Jared Diamond is a "historian"

Jared Diamond has a new book out (and a NYTimes OpEd). We haven't read it, nor do we plan to. We read his "Guns, Germs, and Steel" book several years ago and had lots of problems with it. Before we go into that, let's start out with a short story:
The Foster brothers broke into the unoccupied house and set to work immediately. They first went to the bedroom and ransacked it, looking for jewelry. Then they went into an adjacent room, found a safe hidden behind a bookcase, opened it, and snatched several bundles of hundred dollar bills. They got what they had come for, and left as quickly as possible. But somebody had tipped the police and the chase was on. The brothers drove to the nearby mountains, ditched the car, and ran uphill through heavily wooded forest. They were headed for a tiny shack where they could hide until the heat was off. But the police were determined as ever, and in less than a couple of days, they discovered the hide-out.
Question: Did the police discover the hide-out? Not according to Diamond. You see, according to Diamond, if somebody is already someplace, nobody can discover it. What they do is "discover" it. From his book, GG&S:
  • ... for practical purposes the collision of advanced Old World and New World societies began abruptly in A.D. 1492, with Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of Caribbean islands densely populated by Native Americans. [pg 67]
  • ... a comparison of Eurasian and Native American societies as of A.D. 1492, the year of Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas. [pg 354]
A small point, but it irritates.

Now to more substantive problems with Diamond. He writes:
... the Americas had only one species of big domestic mammal, the lama/alpaca, confined to a small area of the Andes and the adjacent Peruvian coast. [pg 355]
That is incorrect. There was another large domestic mammal in the Americas - homo sapiens (they had slaves in the Americas - e.g. the Aztecs).

Why didn't the Americas develop a substantial agricultural economy? According to Diamond:
... domestic mammals interacted with domestic plants to increase food production by pulling plows ... [pg 88]
Hey! No large domestic animals, so there's your excuse for a failure in the Americas. But there was a domestic mammal throughout the two continents: man.

Then there's Diamond's excuse for the failure to develop the wheel in the Americas:
The wheels invented in Mesoamerica as parts of toys never met the llamas domesticated in the Andes, to generate wheeled transport for the New World. [pg 367]
See homo sapiens above.

There are more instances where we could complain, but we'll stop here.

Diamond sums up his outlook in GG&S in this passage:
... the striking difference between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environment.
What does Diamond mean by "the peoples themselves"? Nobody is seriously claiming that there are genetic differences. If that's what Diamond is attacking, then he's attacking a straw man. Our view is that geography does matter, but not nearly as much as Diamond claims. It's the culture that makes the difference. Diamond, in GG&S, is minimizing the contributions of "dead white males" and "Western Civilization", which is another way of attacking the Renaissance/Enlightenment. Count us as supporters of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Those were cultural developments that really made a difference.

In an attempt to play to the Post-modernist crowd (he even cites Levi-Strauss!) he engages in Just-So stories to make his case. For example, he says that Europe benefits from a rugged coastline, which helped spur trade, as opposed to China which suffered as a result. But what about the fact that Europe is a cold place, and it was only the development of technology (e.g. chimney, iron plow) that made it possible to progress? Throughout GG&S, one reads something that sounds plausible, but when you think about it some more, you realize it's not as convincing as you first thought. (Sort of like evolutionary psychology in that regard.)

Jared Diamond presents his readers with lots of facts, is correct in a number of instances, but cannot get himself to admit that science and technology - cultural elements found most prominently in Western Civilization - are responsible for much of the differences between societies.

In our opinion, one of the problems with the left is their affinity for the Rousseau / Margaret Mead infatuation with the Noble Savage and a concomitant devaluation of science and engineering. Diamond is treading in their footsteps.

We hate to sound like George Will here, but there you have it.


13 comments

Uh, every culture had access to slaves.

His point was *relative* advantages necessary to build successful societies, and large swaths of arable land combined with irrigation and draft animals (which could subsist on weeds essentially). Slaves are expensive to maintain as capital.

Plus I found his point about the topology of Eurasia important. Both Africa and S. America were essentially 1 dimensional with vastly different horizontal climate bands and nasty tropical forests, while Asia's broad temperate belts facilitated cultural transfer and competition, while post ice-age Europe incorporated a wonderful variety of climes, including the Mediterranean Sea, again encouraging trade and cultural advancement. Indian mathematicians invented the zero, which finally filtered through a dynamic Islamic culture to the west. The poor Mayans were essentially isolated from other cultural centers in N America and S America.

N America was dominated by the prarie, rockies, and high deserts; cultural advancement could only get a little past hunter-gatherer, in the river valleys.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/02/2005 8:25 PM  

I'm gonna have to go with Anonymous[0] here, I'm afraid. Diamond's thesis seems quite reasonable, and serves to explain -- at least in part -- why it was that these cultural differences emerged and became successful. I.e., we wouldn't have had the Rennaissance (which wasn't a total win, by the way) and the Enlightenment had it not been for the geographical and other conditions that allowed those societies to fluorish and to develop the technologies they did.

No, there is no noble savage, but we're a lot more at the mercy of our environment than Ayn Rand would like us to think.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/03/2005 4:22 AM  

You describe Diamond as a "historian". Perhaps this is tongue in cheek. He describes himself as a "Geographer". Accident of birth, place of birth - these make for many differences. As to the contributions of "dead white males" and "Western Civilization", these are what most of us in the Western World have been taught. But it turns out that "dead males of color" and "non-Western Civilization" have made great contributions as well. Is Uggabugga being a little too provincial? You should read his article in NYT and if you strongly disagree, then challenge it. But don't stick your head in the sand.

By the way, who did discover America, historically speaking?

By Blogger Shag from Brookline, at 1/03/2005 4:52 AM  

You offer an interesting analysis of Jared Diamond so you might be interested in his work on ethnic differences in testes size published in Nature.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/03/2005 2:05 PM  

Wow, this girl gave you the smack down!

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/04/2005 12:23 AM  

"This Girl" has an excellent take on Jared Diamond and "Guns, Germs and Steel" that I hope Quiddity has read.

The 1/2/05 Boston globe had an article by Adam Goodheart titled: "Survivors, On the remote Andaman Islands, the tsunami may have washed away the earth's last mysterious strangers" about the people known as Sentinelese. Diamond is not mentioned in the article but this is the type of situation he gets involved with. In my pre-teen years in the 1930s and early 1940s, I spent many a rainy Saturday at the Vine Street Library in Roxbury, MA reading National Geographic and wondering why the territories of tribes were being invaded by uninvited missionaries to tame the "savage" beasts by converting them to Christianity. I guess libertarians did not have much impact at the time. The history of the Sentinelese if pursued might answer some serious questions about the development of the human species, as pointed out in the article. The Sentinelese survived for many, many centuries despite the "advances" of civilization surrounding them. Now they may be gone. But they should not be forgotten. As Jared Diamond pointed out in his NYT OpEd, there are lessons to be learned from situations such as this for our own survival. I hope that Diamond (and Adam Goodheart) follow up on the Sentinelese. After all, we are all survivors in many ways.

By Blogger Shag from Brookline, at 1/04/2005 4:49 AM  

I'm sorry but your arguments seem really to be about semantics....

First, I don't understand what your complaint about "discovery" is....obviously he is trying to address the connotation of discover meaning something like - finding something that hadn't been found out before; he was trying to make the point that there was a full society already in place. I think a better analogy would be if someone from the Caribbean islands had landed in Spain. Would he have been said to discover Spain?

Second, the mammal discussion - would you have been happy if he said animal instead of mammal? Yes, he could've said mammals outside of mankind but I think domestic mammal and slave being considered synonyms is a much bigger issue.

Third, isn't cultural development DEPENDENT on the differences in geography and resources? And I don't think this is discounting science and engineering - I think it is showing what a huge difference it can make to any society.

The question seems to me to be assuming we all, at some point, were noble savages, what made one society progress so much farther and quicker than another? And, by studying simpler societies, is it easier to see the progression of more advanced societies?

If you're going to bring politics into scientific and historical studies, does that mean we are going to look at the Right's view on Creationism, the Earth being 10K years old, the recent agreement from the Church that the Earth circles the Sun, etc. I prefer to leave politics out of science.

By Blogger cestsim1, at 1/04/2005 5:03 AM  

"Diamond, in GG&S, is minimizing the contributions of "dead white males" and "Western Civilization", which is another way of attacking the Renaissance/Enlightenment."

No, he wasn't, not when I read the book. He was offering an explanation *why* those DWMs were able to come up with Western Civilization in the first place - and by extension, why Western Civilization became dominant.

And contrary to your assertion, there certainly *are* people who will argue that innate differences between "races" led to the inequalities we see today. Or didn't you hear about _The Bell Curve_?

Finally, your claim that humans can be "domestic mammal[s]" is ridiculous. Human slaves are terrible substitutes for any domestic mammal you can name - that's why we domesticated animals to begin with.

-jackd

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/04/2005 9:33 AM  

GGS made a convincing argument about why Eurasia came to dominate the world, instead of Africa or the Americas. He didn't focus on the reasons why Western Europe in particular played such a massive role.

Geography answers the first question, while cultural developments such as the Englightenment and technology explain the second. After all, as Paul Kennedy explains in his excellent book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, in 1500 it wasn't apparent that Western Europe would become so significant.

By Blogger Julian, at 1/04/2005 1:59 PM  

Um, is this post some sort of parody of Glenn Reynolds? It must be. Yes, now it all makes sense. Took me a while to get it. Yep, you almost had me.

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