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#1
Old 11-13-2013, 09:18 AM
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Is Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs & Steel) Racist? Science Dopers - what's the POV?

http://io9.com/is-jared-diamond-racist-1463088988

See link above - basically, as near as I can tell, many academics/scientists are taking shots at Diamond. Seeing how the scholarly article quoted in the link above is entitled "F#@k Jared Diamond," the feelings are strong.

It seems that Guns, Germs and Steel was considered successful in its attempt to confront some aspects of racism in anthropological thinking. Rather than support assertions that some ethnic groups have been successful because of superior genetics, Diamond methodically points out environmental forces that led to some groups attaining Guns, Germs and Steel sooner vs. others.

But now, with his more recent books, Collapse, and The World Until Yesterday, folks seems to be arguing the opposite - that Diamond is asserting that there is more to be learned from less-developed groups, which academics are writing off as its own form of "noble savage racism."

I have not read those later books. But it feels like there are two things going on:
1) backlash against Diamond simply because he wrote books that have had crossover success - seems like it would be easy for other academics to take shots; and
2) competing theories about how some groups rise up while others don't - academics seems to feel that Diamond reduces the explanation to environmental forces too much, and misses all of the social, political, and other forces at work. His "pendulum has swung too far" away from earlier racism, but missing other key factors - which, they appear to be asserting, is its own form of racism. So Diamond confronted one type, only to be accused of another type of racism.

So - all Dopers, but especially those whose expertise touches on these areas of investigation - what say you? Can you help us civilians out by summarizing the state of anthropological thinking today, and where Diamond sits relative to other main schools of thought?

I know - that could take a book - but at it's simplest, has Diamond evolved from a popular writer who challenged existing thinking to being more on the fringes?

Thanks in advance.
#2
Old 11-13-2013, 09:35 AM
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Firstly, I think it's ridiculous that anyone would write a "scholarly" article titled "F**k Jared Diamond". Scholarly articles should be scholarly, rather than loading up on profanity in an attempt to be hip.

As for Diamond, he always bends over backwards to make sure that no one can interpret his work as racist. Guns, Germs, and Steel tries to deal seriously with the question of why European society was able to spread around the globe while other civilizations, particularly the Meso-American ones, folded up. Diamond's explanation is geographic determinism, the idea that a civilizations destiny is determined by environmental factors such as which crops can be planted and the spread of germs. While such factors certainly have had an effect on history, he overstates his case by implying that it's the entire driving force of history.

It reminds me, in some ways, of Marx, who was attached to the idea of class struggles as the driving force of history. While they certainly played a role that hadn't been appreciated before his time, he overstated his case in declaring them to be the only thing in history.

I haven't read Diamond's more recent books.
#3
Old 11-13-2013, 09:41 AM
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I've only read Collapse, not TWUY, and if anyone is saying Diamond is asserting in that book that "there is more to be learned from less-developed groups" in any positive sense, they read a completely different book. The whole book is a litany of the environmental fuck-ups of previous peoples. There's no admiration in there for these people, no "noble savage" build-up - he makes it quite clear that e.g. the Greenlanders or Easter Islanders own their own demise.

There's a few success stories later on, but most of the book is an illustration of just how stupid people can be, and he makes it quite clear that it doesn't matter if you're a modern Montanan or a prehistoric Anasazi, environmental stupidity will bite your ass.

Now, I'm not a complete convert to Diamond's environmental determinism, but I think calling him a racist is a bit of a stretch - hell, GG&S was written specifically to counter manifest-destiny-styley racism.


ETA - on the other hand, David Correia writes like a crazy person.

Last edited by MrDibble; 11-13-2013 at 09:45 AM.
#4
Old 11-13-2013, 09:41 AM
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I read GG&S when I was young enough that I didn't analyze it very critically. I liked it at the time, but I don't know what I would think of it now that I've been through grad school. I did read his earlier book, The Third Chimpanzee, and was quite unimpressed. Much of it was made up of evolutionary just-so stories that really don't hold up to scrutiny. Essentially, his thesis was that huge chunks of odd human behavior can be explained evolutionarily by looking at "similar" behaviors in chimpanzees. I had a strong negative reaction to that book, even knowing a lot less about science and evolution than I do now.

I haven't read his later books.
#5
Old 11-13-2013, 09:43 AM
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I've only read "Guns, Germs and Steel" and "Collapse", and I didn't get anything racist out of either. If anything, GG&S' tone was distinctly NOT racist in that the entire contention was that geography and historical happenstance was the reason for some groups being successful and others not.

Collapse was more a story about societies' growth outpacing resources and wrecking the environment along the way, with an eventual collapse as a result. He uses the a variety of cultures to illustrate both the societies that collapsed and ones that avoided it, and for ones that may be facing it in the near future.

There's no contention of racism there that I noticed either- again, it's more about how societies face up to and handle these challenges, not about the inbuilt merits of the people or societies themselves.

I'm not an anthropologist, nor do I read this stuff particularly often (got his books in airport bookstores on a last-minute whim), but reading the Io9 article, I get a certain impression that he's doing two things to earn the ire of the other anthropologists- not following the accepted anthropological thinking, and very successfully writing to a commercial audience. So basically he's successful and rich writing anthropological books aimed at a mass-market consumer, that don't toe the line on the accepted anthropological wisdom.

I can see how a lot of "serious" academics might be really pissed about that, out of a combination of sour grapes and a feeling of misrepresentation.
#6
Old 11-13-2013, 09:55 AM
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The same website has a Comments page focused on discussion related to that original link I shared in the OP:

http://io9.com/[email protected]

An interesting Comment:

Quote:
Originally Posted by TheRobb on io9
I think some people disagree with the ecological facts he uses. Diamond takes a very "assume the worse" position on ecology (very much illustrated in "Collapse").

I've also heard the argument that he lets colonialists off the hook before, specifically on the issue of Easter Island... but I get the sense that the people making those arguments 1) have a colonialization hammer and see only colonialization nails, and 2) ignore most of Diamond's work as soon as they find something that angers them.

I also think a lot of people just react to any model they think sounds too deterministic, and that turns people off of "Guns, Germs, and Steel". Of course any long-term historical model is going to discount great decision moments that change history ("Collapse" covers some of those), but obviously those are going to matter more when looking at competing tribes in similar circumstances. Diamond doesn't address the wins/losses between the French and the British, which are largely shaped by cultural differences. He looks at differences between Europe and Africa, which was no contest due to resources... and the environmental reasoning Diamond gives makes more sense than any other. It wasn't exactly a superior culture or some kind of high-minded morality that allowed the Spanish to destroy most of American civilization.

But there is a strong emotional appeal to the "great men" model of history we are used to and a lot of people have an ideological draw to the idea that our fates are in no way or only a small way affected by our environments, on both the individual and tribal level. No one who sees the world that way will be overly thrilled with Diamond.
#7
Old 11-13-2013, 09:59 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by David Correia, from the article
At worst, it develops an argument about human inequality based on a determinist logic that reduces social relations such as poverty, state violence, and persistent social domination, to inexorable outcomes of geography and environment.

Arguments such as these have made him a darling of bourgeois intellectuals, who have grown tired of looking meanspirited and self-serving when they make their transparently desperate efforts to displace histories of imperialism back on its victims. They need a pseudointellectual explanation for inequality in order to sustain the bourgeois social order that guarantees their privilege. This they found in Guns, Germs and Steel.
Maybe it's true that there are swaths of intellectuals out there desperately looking for a 'Just So' story to justify their place in the world. But, that has nothing to do with the merits (or lack thereof) of Diamond's arguments.

In fact, I would argue that David Correia, the professor quoted in the blog, is so worried about the impact of one myopic interpretation of Diamond's work, that his opinion can't be taken seriously. His own one-sided perspective keeps him from seeing and judging the work on its own merits.

"Everybody is equal I say, and only the oppressive nature of imperialist and technologically advanced peoples is to blame for the subjugation of some cultures by others. White people are bad, mkay? And if you even think about looking at some factors as to why that might be, you're a racist. Just revel in the guilt and shame of being at the top of the socio-economic food chain, and don't ask any questions."

ETA: I have read Guns, Germs, and Steel, but no other books of Diamond's.

Last edited by Eonwe; 11-13-2013 at 09:59 AM.
#8
Old 11-13-2013, 10:08 AM
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The blog post in the OP links in turn to this editorial by David Correia, an American Studies (not science) professor at the University of New Mexico.

The blog post describes the editorial as a "very scholarly article". This is factually incorrect. The editorial is not a scholarly article, nor does it pretend to be one. It is an editorial. I would further describe it as a "screed".

I would also describe it as a really bad screed, because instead of citing errors of fact or interpretation by Diamond, it resorts immediately to the lame chestnut of calling him "racist", without citing any instances in Diamond's work where he claims or even implies that one race is inferior to another.

One of Correia's complaints is that Diamond fails to account for the evils of colonialism. But one must then ask, why were Europeans able to impose colonialism on others and inflict these evils? They can't have imposed colonialism because of colonialism. Since Corriea rejects environmental factors, what is his explanation? Were Europeans just smarter, or more determined, or more evil? Those explanations sound . . . dare I say it . . . racist.

It's a really weak editorial, making a really weak point.
#9
Old 11-13-2013, 10:15 AM
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ETA; By that, I meant that Correia seems to be saying any hint of geographical/environmental influence on sociology is suspect, which is just ... bonkers. And so very, very wrong. Diamond may go too far into hammer-nail territory, but he's not completely wrong.
#10
Old 11-13-2013, 10:16 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by WordMan View Post
1) backlash against Diamond simply because he wrote books that have had crossover success....
Also jealously over all that money he made advertising for Subway.
#11
Old 11-13-2013, 10:18 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MrDibble View Post
I've only read Collapse, not TWUY, and if anyone is saying Diamond is asserting in that book that "there is more to be learned from less-developed groups" in any positive sense, they read a completely different book. The whole book is a litany of the environmental fuck-ups of previous peoples. There's no admiration in there for these people, no "noble savage" build-up - he makes it quite clear that e.g. the Greenlanders or Easter Islanders own their own demise.

There's a few success stories later on, but most of the book is an illustration of just how stupid people can be, and he makes it quite clear that it doesn't matter if you're a modern Montanan or a prehistoric Anasazi, environmental stupidity will bite your ass.

Now, I'm not a complete convert to Diamond's environmental determinism, but I think calling him a racist is a bit of a stretch - hell, GG&S was written specifically to counter manifest-destiny-styley racism.


ETA - on the other hand, David Correia writes like a crazy person.
If that's all you got from the book -- a litany of the failures of previous societies -- then you somehow missed his discussions of sustainable societies, which do not cut off the branch they are sitting on (a la Easter Island) or continually grow to use all available resources (and then some). He gives specific examples.

These are undoubtedly the societies he is said to be holding up as examples.

It's hard to see this as "racism", even "positive" racism, or idealizing "noble savages" -- Diamond is looking through the history of cultures to find workable sustainable ones. Clearly it's not going to be modern western industrial society. When he finds an example, he cites it. What else is he supposed to do?
#12
Old 11-13-2013, 10:30 AM
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I haven't read Collapse, but I have read The World Until Yesterday (and Guns, Germs, and Steel). The World Until Yesterday did not strike me as racist. Almost the opposite - he tends towards a sort of Noble Savage approach to how much more connected Third World societies are.

I tend to discount attacks like this - any academic who writes Pulitzer-Prize winning bestsellers is going to get someone who wants to garner attention by badmouthing him, and accusations of racism are almost guaranteed to attract at least a bit of validation from knee-jerks. I doubt the author of this screed is going to get much traction. Probably mostly the reaction he got here.

Regards,
Shodan
#13
Old 11-13-2013, 10:37 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by The Orginal Editorial
This new “scientific” version of climate determinism took center stage at the 2012 American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. There, researchers 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.
Strawmanning at a breathless pace he links a 2012 paper from the West Virginia University directly to Diamond and then demonstrates he's an idiot.
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Old 11-13-2013, 10:38 AM
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Also, OP, while I've read a lot of criticism of Diamond's thesis, I'd say "many academics/scientists are taking shots at Diamond" needs citation, bearing in mind Correia is just one (academic, that is, he definitely isn't a scientist)
#15
Old 11-13-2013, 10:40 AM
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I've read all three books and I don't see even a single thing that could be interpreted as even the slightest bit racist. As stated above, each book bends over backwards to emphasize that the different cultures have been successful or unsuccessful based on their situations and decisions, NOT any inherent racial attributes. I'm not sure how anyone could arrive at such an interpretation. One could say that the entire thesis of all three books is an argument against racism.

In particular, "Collapse" struck me as very fair-minded. He argues for numerous examples of times when people with a shared ancestry or ethnicity arrived at opposite outcomes because of decisions they made and environmental factors rather than an inherent racial tendency. It is hard to call him racist when he provides examples of a single group of people in both successful and unsuccessful circumstances.
#16
Old 11-13-2013, 10:41 AM
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Originally Posted by CalMeacham View Post
If that's all you got from the book -- a litany of the failures of previous societies
If that's all you got from my post, then you somehow missed this : "There's a few success stories later on" And they were a few, compared to the failures.

Last edited by MrDibble; 11-13-2013 at 10:41 AM.
#17
Old 11-13-2013, 10:55 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MrDibble View Post
Also, OP, while I've read a lot of criticism of Diamond's thesis, I'd say "many academics/scientists are taking shots at Diamond" needs citation, bearing in mind Correia is just one (academic, that is, he definitely isn't a scientist)
To be clear - I have no cite; I was thinking to various things I have read over the years - including some threads on the SDMB - where it seemed that Diamond, and his conclusions, were pooh-poohed a lot in academic circles. I am *very* open to hearing that I have it wrong, and that Diamond is, generally, well-regarded in academia, even if others are championing other POV's.

Freddy the Pig - yeah, it really doen't seem like Correia's write-up should be referred to as anything other than a take-down piece.
#18
Old 11-13-2013, 11:25 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MrDibble View Post
If that's all you got from my post, then you somehow missed this : "There's a few success stories later on" And they were a few, compared to the failures.
...AFTER you said "the whole book is a litany of the environmental fuck-ups..."
Your excusing statement is pretty weak after that. It's also wrong -- Diamond starts out with a recounting of an environmental success right after the failure of the Greenlanders. his point was that the situation was NOT hopeless, the opposite of the impression your post gives.
#19
Old 11-14-2013, 02:10 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CalMeacham View Post
...AFTER you said "the whole book is a litany of the environmental fuck-ups..."
rhetoric.
Quote:
Your excusing statement is pretty weak after that. It's also wrong -- Diamond starts out with a recounting of an environmental success right after the failure of the Greenlanders. his point was that the situation was NOT hopeless, the opposite of the impression your post gives.
I agree this is, in fact, his overall point of the book, that it is possible to do something. But in relative coverage, he gives way more pages to the fuckups than he does to the successes.
#20
Old 11-14-2013, 03:46 AM
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Well, why not? As Froderich Fronkensteen tells us, we can learn as much from our failures as from our successes.
#21
Old 11-14-2013, 05:34 AM
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Originally Posted by kaylasdad99 View Post
Well, why not? As Froderich Fronkensteen tells us, we can learn as much from our failures as from our successes.
Oh, I'm not saying he's wrong to do this. I quite like Collapse.

I think my initial point is getting lost here: Diamond can't be successfully accused of presenting a "Noble Savage" argument (in Collapse, at any rate) precisely because he spends a lot of ink telling us how ignoble and downright stupid some of those "savages" have been in their actions towards their own sustaining environments.
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