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Jared Diamond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"