Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Guardian Reviews Diamond

This review of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday in The Guardian by Wade Davis is excellent. It begins with a little history of modern anthropology:
Far ahead of his time, [Franz] Boas believed that every distinct social community, every cluster of people distinguished by language or adaptive inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy and its promise. He became the first scholar to explore in a truly open and neutral manner how human social perceptions are formed, and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. Boas insisted that his students conduct research in the language of place, and participate fully in the daily lives of the people they studied. Every effort should be made to understand the perspective of the other, to learn the way they perceive the world, the very nature of their thoughts. Such an approach demanded, by definition, a willingness to step back from the constraints of one's own prejudices and preconceptions.

This ethnographic orientation, distilled in the concept of cultural relativism, was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein's theory of relativity in the field of physics. It became the central revelation of modern anthropology. Cultures do not exist in some absolute sense; each is but a model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of intellectual and spiritual choices made, however successfully, many generations before. The goal of the anthropologist is not just to decipher the exotic other, but also to embrace the wonder of distinct and novel cultural possibilities, that we might enrich our understanding of human nature and just possibly liberate ourselves from cultural myopia, the parochial tyranny that has haunted humanity since the birth of memory.
There are two major criticisms of Diamond's work in the review, one I think is valid and the other invalid. In GG&S, Diamond never claims that Western societies were in any way superior to those they displaced. The fact that such societies were displaced is simply historical fact, and he is attempting to explain why certain societies did the displacing while others did not, in a straightforward, scientific manner. His conclusion was, of course, that there were key differences in the environments of early peoples, not in their genetic makeup. There is no more a moral condemnation than there is in studying why Asian carp, zebra mussels or kudzu vines displace native species. No one would claim that these species are in any way “superior.”

The other criticism I think is valid. Diamond picks and chooses nine aspects of traditional societies to study, as if these things can just be plucked out and studied in isolation. These practices are grounded in an overall social/economic/technological/spiritual world view, one that Diamond does not seem to be as interested in describing. It should be self-evident that our treatment of the elderly and children, our legal system, our diets and the like are all natural outgrowths of a technologically-based productivist expansionist command-and-control hierarchical society where human relationships are only valued in terms of market exchanges. Seeing everything and everybody as resources to be exploited in the service of self-aggrandizement is fundamental to a lot of the problems Diamond discusses - e.g. nature provides “ecosystem services,” people provide “human resources,” etc. These cannot be changed unless the society itself changes on a more fundamental level, and it is this that Diamond stubbornly refuses to discuss. How can you describe the society of New Guinea or anywhere else without confronting the adjectives I used in the above sentence? I think Diamond is trying to be “cuddly” for a wide audience, but his blinkered middlebrow approach drives a lot of people crazy. Not asking the hard questions and selling to the masses is the very definition of a tame intellectual.

Other commentators do a far better job of examining the entire culture from an outsider perspective, from John Zerzan at the primitivist end to people like Lewis Mumford and Ivan Ilich. Diamond should know better. As the review states, “…the lessons he draws from his sweeping examination of culture are for the most part uninspired and self-evident. One could be forgiven for concluding that traditional societies have little more to teach us save that we should embrace healthier diets, include grandparents in child rearing, learn a second language, seek reconciliation not retribution in divorce proceedings, and eat less salt.” These seem chosen specifically because Diamond believes we can cram these into our chaotic societies and get some benefit without any kind of deeper, fundamental change.

We all know our lifestyles are unhealthy, yet we cannot simply secede individually from society at large. Our society is sick at a fundamental level, and adapting a few common-sense changes inspired by hunter-gatherers at the individual level will not save it, and more than eating whole grains will save a terminal cancer patient. As holistic health practitioners say, what we need is a “lifestyle change,” not cosmetic improvements.

As the review concludes, to say “human nature” condemns us to our behavior is to ignore the role that culture has played in the human experience, and to assume ours is the only way humans can behave:
Traditional societies do not exist to help us tweak our lives as we emulate a few of their cultural practices. They remind us that our way is not the only way. A child raised in the Andes to believe that a mountain is a protective deity will have a relationship with the natural world profoundly different from that of a youth brought up in America to believe a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined. The mythology of the Barasana and Makuna people is in every way a land management plan revealing how human beings once thrived in the Amazon rain forest in their millions. Take all the genius that enabled us to put a man on the moon and apply it to an understanding of the ocean, and what you get is Polynesia. Tibetan Buddhism condenses 2,500 years of direct empirical observation as to the nature of mind. A lama once remarked that Tibetans do not believe that Americans went to the moon, but they did. Americans may not believe, he added, that Tibetans can achieve enlightenment in one lifetime, but they do.

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.

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