Sunday, February 24, 2013


A few final notes on Jared Diamond, and related topics . Here's an article in Slate questioning the intellectual rigor of Diamond's approach:
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.
Can You Trust Jared Diamond? One thing he could learn from traditional societies: Show your work. (Slate)

I also discovered this excellent blog - Living Anthropologically, which has several excellent pieces on Diamond and other topics:
It is important to first underscore that we cannot read anthropology’s ethnographic record for evidence of whether or not violence is inherent to human nature, as some have attempted. Fortunately, on this point Jared Diamond is clear and correct: “It is equally fruitless to debate whether humans are intrinsically violent or else intrinsically cooperative. All human societies practise both violence and cooperation; which trait appears to predominate depends on the circumstances.”  
It is also important to underscore that human groups have had varying levels of violence, both historically and across both state and non-state societies. Diamond also realizes this point. What I object to is that following these two acknowledgements, Diamond then portrays non-state societies as generally more violent than state societies, and believes that “the long-term effect of European, Tswana, or other outside contact with states or chiefdoms has almost always been to suppress tribal warfare. The short-term effect has variously been either an immediate suppression as well or else an initial flare-up and then suppression.” (Of course, the duration of this “initial flare-up” could be for centuries as Diamond writes a few sentences earlier, that in some cases “warfare had been endemic long before European arrival, but the effects of Europeans caused an exacerbation of warfare for a few decades (New Zealand, Fiji, Solomon Islands) or a few centuries (Great Plains, Central Africa) before it died out.”) I hope to have shown above that the empirical evidence for those claims is not reliable.
The Yanomami Ax Fight: Science, Violence, Empirical Data, and the Facts
This chapter challenges the repeated refrain of “absence of evidence is not evidence
 of absence.” War does leave behind recoverable evidence. True, in some cases, war could be present but for some reason not leave traces. However, comparison of many, many cases, from all different regions, shows some clear patterns. In the earliest remains, other than occasional cannibalism, there is no evidence of war, and barely any of interpersonal violence. In Europe’s Mesolithic, war is scattered and episodic, and in the comparable Epipaleolithic of the Near East, it is absent. Neolithic records vary, but all except one begin with at least a half a millennium of peace, then war appears in some places, and over time war becomes the norm. War does not extend forever backwards. It has identifiable beginnings.

 My suggestion is that as archaeologists search for signs of war, they also consider the possibility that humans are capable of systematically dealing with conflict in peaceful ways. . . . Across all of Europe and the Near East, war has been known from 3000 BC, or millennia earlier, present during all of written history. No wonder we think of it as “natural.” But the prevalent notion that war is “just human nature” is empirically unsupportable. The same types of evidence that document the antiquity of war refute the idea of war forever backwards. War sprang out of a warless world. Humankind has suffered infinite misery because systems of war conquered our social existence. Better understanding of what makes war, and what makes peace, is an important step toward bringing peace back.
War, Peace, & Human Nature: Convergence of Evolution & Culture
Beyond the brilliant headlines, Corry and Survival International may pull off a rare feat: to facilitate the entry of others into the discussion, challenging the structure of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot called the Savage slot: “In the rhetoric of the Savage slot, the Savage is never an interlocutor, but evidence in an argument between two Western interlocutors about the possible futures of humankind” (Global Transformations 2003:133).
Angry Papuan leaders demand Jared Diamond apologizes – Survival Intl
Myths of the Spanish conquest prove surprisingly durable, and Matthew Restall’s aptly titled Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is one of the best places to begin debunking. By highlighting the importance of indigenous allies both during and throughout colonization, Restall points the way to a different kind of history, of contingent outcome rather than inevitability.
Myths of the Spanish Conquest – Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire

Here's another anthropolgy blog with some stuff about Diamond: Savage Minds. They even have a whole category dedicated to him.
I’m puzzled at Diamond’s claim that the purpose of law is to make peace — that it is the type of thing that would be improved by including mediators and restorative justice. It doesn’t take a lot of insight (or experience with the court system) to realize that law is a way of making war, not making peace. Diamond, thinking like Hobbes, seems to think this is the case with criminal law, where the state makes war with its citizens. But it’s equally true of civil law. Suing someone is what you do when the talking is done. This is something that Papua New Guineans have often remarked to me in the course of litigating against mining companies: when you have gavman (government) you fight with money, not arrows.
Law, Justice, and War in World Until Yesterday

Here are a couple posts from a blog called Easily Distracted:
In an earlier comment, I mentioned at least a few areas where there seems to me to be a genuine debate with a range of legitimate positions that require respect, if not agreement, in terms of Diamond’s latest (as well as Pinker’s latest book, which has some overlap):

1. Maybe New Guinea isn’t representative of all modern “traditional societies”, let alone hunter-gatherers in all of human history. Maybe there is considerably more variety in terms of violence and many other attributes than Diamond lets on. Maybe he’s not even paying attention to the full range of anthropological or historical writing about New Guinea. Maybe Diamond isn’t even living up to his own stated interest in the variations between such societies.

2. Maybe modern hunter-gathering societies are not actually pristine, unchanging survivals of an earlier era of human history, but instead the dynamic consequence of large and small-scale migrations of agriculturalists and even more recently, industrial workers. At least in some cases, that might be why hunter-gatherers inhabit remote or marginal environments, not because of preference, but as a response to the sometimes-violent movement of other human societies into territories that they used to inhabit. Meaning taking whatever it is that they have been doing in the 20th Century (violence or otherwise) as evidence of what they’ve always done is a mistake.

3. Maybe defining violence or war in a rigorous, consistent, measurable and fully comparative way is much harder than Diamond or Pinker think it is.

4. Maybe between what Diamond calls a “traditional society” and modern “WEIRD” societies (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) there are lots of other models. Maybe “between” is the wrong term altogether since it implies that there’s a straight developmental line between “traditional society” and modernity, an old teleological chestnut that most anthropologists and historians would desperately like to get away from. I haven’t read very far yet into the book, but Diamond doesn’t seem to have any idea, for example, that there have been numerous societies in human history where there have been many connected communities sharing culture and language at high levels of population density and complexity of economic structure that have nevertheless not had a “state” in the usual sense. What are those? Also: maybe Diamond frequently confuses “traditional” and “premodern”. Much of the time when he says, “Well, we modern WEIRD people do X, ‘traditional societies’ do Y”, the “Y” in question would apply equally to large premodern states and empires.

Or to summarize: maybe Diamond is pushing way, way too hard for a clean distinction between two broadly drawn “types”: “traditional society” and “modern society”, and is distorting, misquoting, truncating or overlooking much of what he read (hard to tell what he read, since there’s no footnotes) to make the distinction come out right.
On Diamond (Not Again!) (Easily Distracted)
Anything that arranges human history as a matter of “stages” progressing neatly towards the modern is just factually wrong before we ever get to the troubled instrumental and ideological history of such schema. Yes, that includes most versions of dialectical materialism: the dogged attempts of some Marxist historians and anthropologists in the 1970s and 1980s to get everything before 1500 into some kind of clear dialectical schema long since crashed into either an assertion that there’s only been one general world-systemic polity ever in human history (the “5,000 year-old world system”) or that lots of variant premodern histories collapsed into a single capitalist world-system after 1500.

When scholars who see politics or culture or warfare or many other phenomena in granular and variable terms rise to object to strong generalizing or universalizing accounts, their first motive is an empirical one: it just isn’t like that. Human political structures didn’t ALL go from “simple tribes” to “early states” to “feudalism” to “absolutist centralization” to “nation-states” to “modern global society”. They didn’t even go that way in Western Europe, really. Certain kinds of structures or practices appeared early in human history, sure, and then recurred because they radiated out from some originating site of practice or because of parallel genesis in relationship to common material and sociobiological dimensions of human life. Other common structures and practices appeared later, sometimes because new technological or economic practices allow for new scales or forms of political life and structure. But there is a huge amount of variation that is poorly described by a linear relation. There are movements between large and small, hierarchical and flat, organized and anarchic, imperial and national, etc., which are not linear at all but cyclical or amorphous.
Particularism as a Big Idea

Here a couple of articles that might back Diamond up, depending on your point of view:
Stone Age farmers lived through routine violence, and women weren't spared from its toll, a new study finds.

The analysis discovered that up to 1 in 6 skulls exhumed in Scandinavia from the late Stone Age — between about 6,000 and 3,700 years ago — had nasty head injuries. And contrary to findings from mass gravesites of the period, women were equally likely to be victims of deadly blows, according to the study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Linda Fibiger, an archaeologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and her colleagues focused on the late Stone Age, when European hunter-gatherers had transitioned into farming or herding animals.

Some mass graves unearthed from that time contained mostly males who had died in violent conflicts. As such, researchers had thought women were spared from conflicts due to their potential childbearing value, Fibiger told LiveScience.

But looking only at the aftermath of big, bloody conflicts can obscure the day-to-day realities of Neolithic farmers.

"It would be like only looking at a war zone to assess violence," Fibiger said. "That's not going to tell you what's going on in your neighborhood."
Battered Skulls Reveal Violence Among Stone Age Women (Live Science)
A young mother was burned alive in Papua New Guinea this week after townspeople accused her of being a witch.

According to multiple reports, Kepari Leniata, 20, was tortured and killed in front of a mob of hundreds in the town of Mount Hagen. The woman, stripped naked and covered in gasoline, was burned alive on a pile of trash by relatives of a young boy who had died earlier in the week. The relatives had accused Leniata of killing him with sorcery.
Accused 'Witch' Kepari Leniata Burned Alive By Mob In Papua New Guinea (Huffington Post)

And not related to Diamond, but to one of the few more famous and more controversial anthropolgists, is this excellent stroy in the New York Times Magazine about Napoleon Chagnon.:

How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist (New York Times)

Much of the controversy surrounding Chagnon and Darkness in El Dorado is explored in the documentary film "Secrets of the Tribe." I was able to watch it on Vimeo, but it has since been made private. Here is a review:
To interview the Yanomami, Padilha did what those before him had done: He paid them. "Everything is trade with the Yanomami," he explains. How did he get Chagnon to willingly revisit the allegations that forced the embattled anthropologist into early retirement? "I say I am making a film about science," Padilha explains. "Everyone thinks they are the good scientists and everyone else is doing bad science.

"The methodology of anthropology is flawed," Padilha continues. "Each anthropologist finds exactly the evidence to fit his paradigm. To destroy the data you have to destroy the person. Who cares how you feel about Einstein? Take his data to the lab and see if what he says holds up. No one ever said that about Einstein, but you get my point...Chagnon doesn't agree with Ken Good, so he says, ‘Oh, he married a teenager.'"

The cavalcade of bickering eggheads that Padilha created in the editing room is riveting, sometimes even funny. The interviews with the Yanomami, who describe entire villages of people dying, sexual abuse and the havoc wrought by anthropologists who traded information for steel axes and machetes, create a cumulative effect that can only be described as heartbreak. Watching archival footage of Yanomami: A Multidisciplinary Study (1968) and The Feast (1970), both shot by Asch during the joint Neel-Chagnon study on a measles vaccine, we learn that most of the people on film died shortly thereafter.

Anthropologists behaving badly is nothing new. Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, asked Arctic explorer Robert Peary to bring him back "a middle-aged Eskimo, preferably from Greenland," for the American Museum of Natural History's live dioramas. Within eight months, four of the six Inuits Peary delivered had died of tuberculosis. Congolese pygmy Ota Benga lived at the museum and later at New York's Bronx Zoo before killing himself. Ishi, the last of the California Yahi Indians, lived at the University of California's Museum of Anthropology, and some of his remains were shipped off to the Smithsonian. Robert Flaherty--whose Nanook of the North unleashed a controversy in ethnographic filmmaking that continues today--fathered an Inuit son he later refused to acknowledge, or help. Even the ethically meticulous Margaret Mead admitted to having considered a sexual affair with one of the Samoans she was studying.

Today, anthropology is going through another round of soul-searching. Barbara Rose Johnston, who saw Secrets when it premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, invited Padilha and his film to the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting, held in November in New Orleans. "I think it is a trap," Padilha joked back in April. "Maybe they will try to kill me." The film, minus its director, became part of a panel exploring the ethics of the discipline and, in a move that cannot be coincidental, the AAA decided to drop the word "science" from its statement on long-range plans. "The thing is, I think that biology has a lot to do with behavior," Padilha says." But the science is clumsy. Chagnon is an embarrassment to sociobiology. This film will help that."
Anthropologists Behaving Badly: Jose Padilha's 'Secrets of the Tribe' Does Some Digging of Its Own ( Incidentally, there is also a good brief debunking of Pinker, Chagnon, and other portrayals of the impoverished, warlike pre-agricultural past in Sex at Dawn. - Chapeters 11-14. Indeed, as one of the articles cited above points out:
Before wading into this issue around Diamond’s book, I had not realized how much the idea of a warlike human nature had become a near religious dictum. And I must again note the irony that in his 1987 breakout article Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, Jared Diamond pinned warfare not on non-state societies, but on agriculture: “Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.”

1 comment:

  1. Wow, does this post ever bring back memories!

    When I was a teaching assistant and lecturer at the University of Michigan, I ran discussion sections for Richard Alexander's "Evolution and Human Behavior" class. Every semester, we showed the students Napoleon Chagnon's "Yanomami Axe Fight" and had them analyze it in terms of intragroup conflict in a tribal society. What I got out of it was how much the participants were stealthily trying to de-escalate the impact of the conflict, including turning the axe head around, while not being seen as stopping it. Also, what stood out to me was how much the women were egging on the fight from the sideline. Other than that, it was the most confusing of the ethnographic films we watched. "Dead Birds," which was about New Guinea Highlanders, was much more informative.


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