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Anthropology & Jared Diamond – World Until Yesterday

Anthropology on Jared Diamond - The World Until YesterdayJared Diamond blasted out 2012 with The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? As is obvious from the links below, the reviews have been flowing in ever since. I was honored to be a discussant for the November 2013 American Anthropological Association panel organized by Alex Golub, Margaret Mead and Jared Diamond: Past Publics, Current Engagements. With papers from Golub, Nancy Lutkehaus, Ira Bashkow, Maureen Molloy, Jim Roscoe, and Paul Shankman–several of whom have reviewed Jared Diamond and done scholarly work on Mead and public anthropology–this was a very stimulating panel. Please see my discussant comments: Jared Diamond and Future Public Anthropology.

Anthropology on Jared Diamond has always been curious–many people consider Diamond to be an anthropologist, but Diamond himself, trained as an ornithologist, often says strange things about anthropology and anthropologists. My first encounter with The World Until Yesterday was via an inflight airline magazine in which Diamond claims “Many anthropologists idealize people in traditional societies, and want to deny that they are warlike or suggest we shouldn’t talk about it because it might lead to the warlike tribal people being treated badly by state governments.” Pondering that quote eventually led me to write a review of how Jared Diamond uses the anthropological record and empirical evidence. My surprise at Jared Diamond’s uncritical use of Napoleon Chagnon led to an even longer overview of the empirical, methodological, and theoretical positions in Chagnon’s 2013 memoir Noble Savages.

Crops, Towns, Government. James C. Scott, London Review of Books, 21 November 2013
[See also Alex Golub in Savage Minds: Read James Scott’s review of Jared Diamond.]
There is plenty of violence in the world of hunter-gatherers, though it is hardly illuminated by resorting to statistical comparisons between the mortality rates of a tiny tribal war in Kalimantan and the Battle of the Somme or the Holocaust. This violence, however, is almost entirely a state-effect. It simply cannot be understood historically from 4000 BC forward apart from the appetite of states for trade goods, slaves and precious ores, any more than the contemporary threat to remote indigenous groups can be understood apart from the appetite of capitalism and the modern state for rare minerals, hydroelectric sites, plantation crops and timber on the lands of these peoples. Papua New Guinea is today the scene of a particularly violent race for minerals, aided by states and their militias and, as Stuart Kirsch’s Mining Capitalism shows, its indigenous politics can be understood only in this context. Contemporary hunter-gatherer life can tell us a great deal about the world of states and empires but it can tell us nothing at all about our prehistory. We have virtually no credible evidence about the world until yesterday and, until we do, the only defensible intellectual position is to shut up.

F**k Jared Diamond. David Correia, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism October 2013
Jared Diamond’s crime spree continues with 2012s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, which takes its readers on a racist tour from the primitive to the modern. Give him credit, he may be a hack but he is a clever hack. And he knows how to make himself useful. He disguises the racism of his biological and environmental determinism in a Kiplingesque narrative that seems downright thoughtful and caring. They–those primitives–have so much to teach us moderns. We have an obligation, a burden you might say, that comes to us ordained by a divine accident of geography and environment, and so we must, with humility (and sometimes bombs), cultivate that exceptionalism. And, of course, the subtext here is that our exceptionalism is not a thing, but a relation; it cannot exist without their primitivism. These are not categories but relations biological and environmental in nature.

Anthropology until Only Yesterday. Richard Wilk, American Anthropologist, September 2013
Even his reading of the ethnography of “traditional” people is warped by his devotion to the categories of “traditional” and “modern.” He can hardly be unaware of Simon Harrison’s startling work on how “traditional” rituals were commoditized and traded from group to group in New Guinea, or Leopold Pospisil’s ethnography of the Kapauku, who had an indigenous economy complete with money, interest, and a complex system of ownership. Omitting these messy examples allows Diamond to retail his Weberian ideal types and treat traditional tribes as though they were colorful and exotic bird species. Rather than rejecting the traditional–modern dichotomy, his convictions lead him to ignore cases that do not fit, belying his goal of objective scientific analysis.

The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond. Erin B. Taylor, PopAnth, 19 June 2013
Modern life has brought many benefits to humanity as a result of discoveries in medicine and technology. These benefits would not have been possible in smaller societies, who could not afford the labour power to invest in experimentation. But do we do everything better than our ancestors who lived in tiny groups? Jared Diamond thinks not. While few of us would actually go back in time to become hunters and gatherers or early agriculturalists, there are many things we can learn from traditional societies around the world. Child-rearing techniques, treatment of the elderly, risk assessment, encouraging bilingualism, and justice mediation are just some of the topics that Diamond suggests we could improve upon. He sifts through anthropological evidence from around the globe to distill possible ways to build a better world.

Anthropology, Footnoted: Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday. Alex Golub, The Appendix, April 2013
It would be easy for anthropologists to dismiss Diamond because he didn’t write the book we wanted to read. But sadly, The World Until Yesterday has a more serious problem: the book fails to complete the project Diamond has set for himself. The World Until Yesterday is clearly written, well-conceptualized, and unresponsive to the human condition. The great tragedy of this book is not that Diamond has become the Margaret Mead of the twenty-first century, or that his work will be widely read, while the work of anthropologists and Papua New Guineans will be relegated to history’s appendix. The great tragedy of this book is that the profundity of Diamond’s personal entanglement with Papua New Guinea is lost because he can only describe–and imagine–the Papua New Guineans he has encountered in the language he uses to describe birds.

Relative returns; Jared Diamond’s view of traditional societies can be infectious and winning, but do his ideas about the past reproduce Victorian misconceptions? Ira Bashkow, Times Literary Supplement, April 2013
[See also Alex Golub's discussion of Ira Bashkow reviews Jared Diamond in the TLS]
Clearly these Dani people, like the others who fill The World Until Yesterday, contend with contemporary challenges and problems, and one of these is in fact the notion that they belong to the past and so can be pushed aside, even dispossessed, in order to make way for progress. The truth is that they, like all of us, live in the present. To persist in portraying them as the living relics of our ancestors’ time is to return to an arrogant anthropology of yesterday that is empirically unjustified, morally untenable, and for most anthropologists, thankfully, left behind.

Hunter-Blatherer: On Jared Diamond. Stephen Wertheim, The Nation, 22 April 2013
An unreliable anthropologist of traditional societies is a no less dubious diagnostician of the contemporary world.

Can You Trust Jared Diamond? Bryn Williams, Slate Book Review, 18 February 2013
Diamond has a gift for storytelling. He presents his examples in a seductively readable voice with unflinching confidence, which makes his conclusions about the similarities and differences between traditional and modern society seem like common sense. But as I read the text, 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. Diamond is a generalist and will always paint with a brush that a specialist finds too broad. The danger lies not in simplifying source material by leaving out extraneous details, but in selectively highlighting only the facts that support one’s argument and casting contravening cases aside.

The Yanomami Ax Fight: Science, Violence, Empirical Data, and the Facts. Jason Antrosio, Living Anthropologically, 6 February 2013
Famous scenes from The Ax Fight reveal the Yanomami already used steel axes long before anthropologists arrived. Violence tallies must consider steel axes. This is a long review of the ethnographic record Jared Diamond uses for The World Until Yesterday, including a discussion of Napoleon Chagnon and Brian Ferguson on the Yanomami; Evans-Pritchard and the Nuer; the Siriono; Richard Lee and Robert Gordon on the !Kung; the Aché of Paraguay; and Papua New Guinea, with Ongka’s Big Moka, Andrew Strathern, Aaron Podolefsky.

Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ Is Completely Wrong. Stephen Corry, The Daily Beast, 30 January 2013
Diamond adds his voice to a very influential sector of American academia which is, naively or not, striving to bring back out-of-date caricatures of tribal peoples. These erudite and polymath academics claim scientific proof for their damaging theories and political views (as did respected eugenicists once). In my own, humbler, opinion, and experience, this is both completely wrong–both factually and morally–and extremely dangerous. The principal cause of the destruction of tribal peoples is the imposition of nation states. This does not save them; it kills them.

Jared Diamond Doesn’t Make Me Mad…. Alex Golub, Savage Minds, 22 January 2013
I do think the tone gets a bit strident at times. . . . As I’ve said, my concern is that he’s diluting my brand by doing two things: first, framing the study of humanity in a way that is not satisfying to me (and should not, I’d claim, be satisfying to others) and second, relying (at times) on faulty reasoning and inaccurate facts. He does not understand that culture is a sui generis force, his focus on the big picture gives him a few blind spots, and he still relies too much on biology for his philosophy of science.

Note: Rex also recommends some books. In addition to Graeber’s “Debt” mentioned below:

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond – Review. Wade Davis, The Guardian – Book of the Week, 9 January 2013
Note: See follow-up Wade Davis, The Wayfinders for more on this kind of anthropology.
The voices of traditional societies ultimately matter because they can still remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual and ecological space. This is not to suggest naively that we abandon everything and attempt to mimic the ways of non-industrial societies, or that any culture be asked to forfeit its right to benefit from the genius of technology. It is rather to draw inspiration and comfort from the fact that the path we have taken is not the only one available, that our destiny therefore is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say that we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet. This is a sentiment that Jared Diamond, a deeply humane and committed conservationist, would surely endorse.

Anthropology: Power of the Past. Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Nature, 24 January 2013
Many anthropologists will undoubtedly object to this us-versus-them framing, although for a popular readership it is clearly thought-provoking. Human diversity in social organization cannot be dichotomized as traditional versus modern. Diamond recognizes this in his preface, but thereafter chooses to ignore it. Instead, he compares foraging and hoe-cultivating societies in Africa, South America and New Guinea with communities typical of modern industrial states, primarily the United States. However, he does not address the intriguing question of how power, status and resources are distributed among individuals across the diverse kinds of societies that have existed in human history, or the implications of these distributions for human welfare. . . . Diamond has previously described his writings on the cultures of New Guinea as journalism. Perhaps this is how we should read The World Until Yesterday, as a highly personal reflection on the virtues and vices of modern industrial civilization.

Does Jared Diamond do Ethnography? James Mullooly,, 21 January 2013
This week in Ethnography, I realized that “DIY anthropologist” Jared Diamond is now moving into the area of anthropology I hold most dear–ethnography. In earlier publications and movies, Diamond has dabbled in other areas of anthropology (e.g., archeology and physical) but his latest work cuts too close for my comfort.

“All it takes is a Passport.” Alex Golub, Savage Minds, January 2013
Note: See also Alex Golub’s earlier How can we explain human variation? and his Notes on the World Until Yesterday.
I should begin by saying that there is a lot that is right in Diamond’s book–all the stuff that he got from anthropologists! So much of The World Until Yesterday is a standard ‘they do it different, and possibly better, over there’ anthropological line that it is hard to criticize the broad thrust of the book. My feeling about The World Until Yesterday overall is similar to my feeling about Guns, Germs, and Steel: the stuff that Diamond borrows and popularizes is good, useful, and deserves a wider audience. It’s the things which Diamond adds to this that are so problematic. Overall, I think that Diamond is like Mao: 70% right and 30% wrong. Or, as they say in tok pisin, em i gutpela tasol em i no gutpela tumas.

Why Does Jared Diamond Make Anthropologists So Mad? Barbara J. King, NPR 13.7 Cosmos and Culture, 17 January 2013
Jared Diamond is once again inflaming my tribe. In his new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies, Diamond questions the practice of psychologists who base their claims about human nature entirely on people from WEIRD–Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic–societies. In fact, Diamond writes, people in small-scale societies, people who gather and hunt, herd animals or farm, may have figured out better ways than WEIRD ways to treat people, solve social problems and stay healthy. So far, this sounds pretty much like an embrace of the cross-cultural diversity that we anthropologists work to understand, even to celebrate. So what’s the backlash all about?

At the end of her NPR review, Barbara J. King asks: “Where, at least since 1982 and Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History, are the “big books” in which we anthropologists do a better job than Diamond?” Katie MacKinnon tweeted that “Anthropologists *are* writing some very good books meant for a wider audience these days” and pointed to my review of Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You. Charlotte Noble tweeted a call for more examples. So far here is what rolled in for recent accessible, big question anthropology books:

In a follow-up comment, Barbara J. King clarifies that she means specifically broad sweep books about culture, power, and history aimed at the general public.

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Chris Knight, Times Higher Education UK, 3 January 2013
The world has been waiting for this book. Others have attempted to persuade us that tribal people can teach us how to live. Most, however, have failed to convince, presenting us with yet another version of the Noble Savage myth. Jared Diamond is no romantic. He writes with conviction and erudition. It is probably no exaggeration to describe him as the most authoritative polymath of our age . . . In The World Until Yesterday, Diamond turns his massive erudition to an equally necessary project. The fact that Western civilisation conquered all does not necessarily make it sustainable or prove that we have superior ideas about bringing up children, keeping healthy or living well.

European Technology’s Prehistoric Roots (part 2). Al West, West’s Meditations, 15 January 2013
Most anthropologists have a straw man view of Diamond and his work, and that seems to be largely based on disciplinary prejudice than anything else. Diamond has been pretty successful at showing why it is that Eurasians, and Europeans specifically, had a clear advantage in the game of world conquest, and his approach does not amount in the least to geographical determinism. The fact that this misconception is so common among anthropologists shows that this horse still has some life left in it.

Real History versus Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jason Antrosio. Living Anthropologically, 18 January 2013
Jared Diamond has done a huge disservice to the telling of human history, distorting the role of domestication and agriculture in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
[Please note the two longer follow-ups to this overview, Myths of the Spanish Conquest – Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire, which features a much more thorough discussion of European diseases for the Conquest of the Americas, and Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires which discusses the emergence of Europe.]

Jared Diamond. Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, 15 January 2013
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author talks about his book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

Why I Want My Students to Read Jared Diamond’s Latest Blockbuster. John Horgan, Cross-Check: Critical views of science in the news, 14 January 2013
Diamond challenges the kneejerk sense of superiority of those of us in WEIRD–that is, Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic–societies. Diamond notes that traditional societies “have come up with thousands of solutions to human problems, solutions different from those adopted by our own weird modern societies.” To my mind, Diamond is a treasure, one of those rare scientists who knows how to write about big, topical issues for a popular audience while maintaining rigorous scholarly standards.

Tribal Lessons: The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond. David Brooks, New York Times – Sunday Book Review, 10 January 2013
Diamond’s knowledge and insights are still awesome, but alas, that vividness rarely comes across on the page. . . . Diamond’s writing is curiously impersonal. We rarely get to hear the people in traditional societies speak for themselves. We don’t get to meet any in depth. We don’t get to know what their stories are, what the contents of their religions are, how they conceive of individual selfhood or what they think of us. In this book, geographic and environmental features play a much more important role in shaping life than anything an individual person thinks or feels. The people Diamond describes seem immersed in the collective. We generally don’t see them exercising much individual agency. . . .
They don’t seem like us, the day before yesterday. They seem like people separated from us by large chasms–by all the events of our written history, all the ideas of our thinkers, all the teachings of our religions. This book reminds you how important geography is, but it also unwittingly reminds you how important history and culture are, and how certain core conceptions–our notions of individual agency, our assumptions about time and space, our moral intuitions about killing and individual dignity–have been shaped by our civilizations.

Note: I find it interesting, ironic, and disturbing that Brooks begins this review by citing a story from Diamond via the anthropologist Allan Holmberg. In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005), Charles Mann’s bestseller, Mann opens with a chapter on “Holmberg’s Mistake”:

The wandering people Holmberg traveled with in the forest had been hiding from their abusers. At some risk to himself, Holmberg tried to help them, but he never fully grasped that the people he saw as remnants from the Paleolithic Age were actually the persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture. It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving. (2005:10)

The Hemi Q&A: Jared Diamond. David Carr, United Hemispheres Inflight Magazine, December 2012
When you’re talking to Jared Diamond, who wrote a book called Guns, Germs and Steel, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re in the midst of something elemental and important, even if you are having a tremendous amount of fun in the process.


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  • Posted January 21, 2013 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    Jason, great post, extremely helpful to have links aggregated along with your commentary. I want to clarify that I never meant in my NPR post to suggest that we anthropologists don’t write “big books” or don’t reach a wider public with our posts. I don’t think that at all! What I intended was to ask what anthropology books, since Wolf’s, take on for a broad public sweeping questions about cross-cultural diversity, colonialism and historical power inequities, etc. –questions which for Diamond, but for quite few anthropologists I’m pretty sure, fall into a “traditional societies vs industrialized societies” framework. We can get into category judgments here, about which anthropological books go to the heart of which topics, but anyway my question was meant in that focused and narrow sense.

    • Posted January 21, 2013 at 2:14 am | Permalink

      Hi Barbara, thank you, I now understand better what you are saying! I’m re-reading my post on Jared Diamond won’t beat Mitt Romney and realizing I wrote that the closest thing to a popular-level follow-up to Eric Wolf has been the Charles Mann mentioned above, and that’s obviously not from anthropology. After Wolf it seems there were a lot of ethnographies detailing more of the interconnection and local co-production. Sidney Mintz on Sweetness and Power was close, but that was 1985, and in some ways a companion to Wolf. For me the follow-up was Trouillot’s Global Transformations, but that’s been incomprehensible outside the anthropological guild (and within it!).

      So–and I wish I were wrong about this, please let me know!–I’m not seeing the follow-up from anthropology. It’s a project I am pondering…

  • Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:04 am | Permalink

    What about Geertz? Though he does not touch much on biology. Or the cultural materialists? I have a cultural anth. and ethnography background, so I think of them.

    I read Guns, Germs, and Steele, and think it is interesting what Diamond is doing. But I see him as a popular author in these books. Which does not give him the credit to make claims within the academic communities that he touches, other than in biology, which I believe is his background. More of a summary, like journalists do. Though Diamond does use some sort of citation in these works I believe. But uses his expertise in biology and evolution make claims about culture.

    So, I don’t mind it. Just some thoughts. Nice article. I did my MA on Dominican Baseball-

    • Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:15 am | Permalink

      HI RK, thank you for the thoughts. Geertz is as complicated a figure as ever in anthropology. My own take, speaking for myself, is that Geertz helped resuscitate a tradition of “whole cultures” that others in anthropology–Eric Wolf, Sidney Mintz, for starters–were challenging. See my Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture for an overview and comparison.

  • Mlucid
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 4:24 am | Permalink

    It occurs to me that specializing in Indonesian populations may have biased Diamond into mistaking the exacerbating constraints of island geography for the human norm. I find particularly disturbing his blunt comparison of death percentages in so contextually disparate events as the ’61 Dani conflicts and WWII. To me, it might be more useful to look at the effects of hierarchies in general to the incidence of violence rather than traditional societies vs the State.

  • Helga Vierich
    Posted November 19, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    We need some seriously good public popular books from real anthropologists to counter all this flimflam.

  • William
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Jared Diamond, and other popular authors whom have embraced him, like to sort things into broad categories, take statistics at face value, and use these to produce general explanations. They suppose that human behavior is not deterministic in individual cases, but that by averaging things out across time and space, determinism arises much as predictable long-term climate arises from random short-term weather. With determinism established as a paradigm, they can, or so they would like to believe, realize final answers to questions otherwise not answerable.

    The general public likes them because they produce satisfying plausible answers to questions broad enough to not be an acquired taste.

    The legitimate trouble with this is that often the best measurable evidence salient to these questions isn’t very good. Per instance, we don’t have access to untouched hunter gatherer societies. We know for a fact that in some cases such societies have been greatly changed by “contamination” from state societies.

    Those like Diamond and Pinker would likely accept some anecdotal examples of contamination, but reject the more speculative case that contamination dominates. They might be generally right, they might be generally wrong, they certainly get some details wrong.

    Of course, it is difficult to take anyone seriously who tries to attack them by rambling on about pejorative blame rather than mechanistic explanation because the two questions are distinct. Likewise, the idea that in a given area for thousands of years, thousands of individual societies, could somehow make a consistent choice to not advance new technologies and social structures that provided the wealth and power to displace more “primitive” societies seems absurd to me. There is natural selection in the cultural and political world. And for individual societies, choices are important.

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