Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Diamond On The Hotseat

A fierce dispute has erupted between Pulitzer prize-winning author Jared Diamond and campaign group Survival International over Diamond's recently published and highly acclaimed comparison of western and tribal societies, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

The controversy threatens to expose a deep rift in modern anthropology, with each claiming the other has fallen into a delusion that threatens to undermine the chances for survival of the world's remaining tribal societies.

On a book tour of the UK last week, Diamond, 75, was drawn into a dispute with the campaign group after its director, Stephen Corry, condemned Diamond's book as "completely wrong – both factually and morally – and extremely dangerous" for portraying tribal societies as more violent than western ones.

Survival accuses Diamond of applying studies of 39 societies, of which 10 are in his realm of direct experience in New Guinea and neighbouring islands, to advance a thesis that tribal peoples across the world live in a state of near-constant warfare.

"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".

He added: "An occupational hazard facing authors like me, who try to steer a middle course between these two extremes, is the likelihood of being criticised from either direction."
Jared Diamond in row over claim tribal peoples live in 'state of constant war' (Guardian) I think "constant war" might be a bit much. We don't have a time machine to see what the world was truly like before civilization.

A lenthy rebuttal to Diamond is here: Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ Is Completely Wrong (Stephen Corry, The Daily Beast):
He supports this entirely unverifiable and dangerous nonsense (as have others, such as Steven Pinker) by taking the numbers killed in wars and homicides in industrialized states and calculating the proportions of the total populations involved. He then compares the results with figures produced by anthropologists like Chagnon for tribes like the Yanomami. He thinks that the results prove that a much higher proportion of individuals are killed in tribal conflict than in state wars; ergo tribal peoples are more violent than “we” are.  
There are of course lies, damned lies, and statistics. Let us first give Diamond the benefit of several highly debatable, not to say controversial, doubts. I will, for example, pass over the likelihood that at least some of these intertribal “wars” are likely to have been exacerbated, if not caused, by land encroachment or other hostilities from colonist societies. I will also leave aside the fact that Chagnon’s data, from his work with the Yanomami in the 1960s, has been discredited for decades: most anthropologists working with Yanomami simply do not recognize Chagnon’s violent caricature of those he calls the “fierce people.” I will also skate over Kim Hill’s role in denying the genocide of the Aché Indians at the hands of Paraguayan settlers and the Army in the 1960s and early 1970s. (Though there is an interesting pointer to this cited in Diamond’s book: as he says, over half Aché “violent deaths” were at the hands of nontribals.)  
I will also throw only a passing glance at the fact that Diamond refers only to those societies where social scientists have collected data on homicides, and ignores the hundreds where this has not been examined, perhaps because—at least in some cases—there was no such data. After all, scientists seeking to study violence and war are unlikely to spend their precious fieldwork dropping in on tribes with little noticeable tradition of killing. In saying this, I stress once again, I am not denying that people kill people—everywhere. The question is, how much?  
Awarding Diamond all the above ‘benefits of doubt’, and restricting my remarks to looking just at “our” side of the story: how many are killed in our wars, and how reasonable is it to cite those numbers as a proportion of the total population of the countries involved?  
Is it meaningful, for example, to follow Diamond in calculating deaths in the fighting for Okinawa in 1945 as a percentage of the total populations of all combatant nations—he gives the result as 0.10 percent—and then comparing this with eleven tribal Dani deaths during a conflict in 1961. Diamond reckons the latter as 0.14 percent of the Dani population—more than at Okinawa.  
Viewed like this, the Dani violence is worse that the bloodiest Pacific battle of WWII. But of course the largest nation involved in Okinawa was the U.S., which saw no fighting on its mainland at all. Would it not be more sensible to look at, say, the percentage of people killed who were actually in the areas where the war was taking place? No one knows, but estimates of the proportion of Okinawa citizens killed in the battle, for example, range from about 10 percent to 33 percent. Taking the upper figure gives a result of nearly 250 times more deaths than the proportion for the Dani violence, and does not even count any of the military killed in the battle.  
Similarly, Diamond tells us that the proportion of people killed in Hiroshima in August 1945 was a tiny 0.1 percent of the Japanese people. However, what about the much smaller “tribe” of what we might call “Hiroshimans,” whose death toll was nearly 50 percent from a single bomb? Which numbers are more meaningful; which could be seen as a contrivance to support the conceit that tribespeople are the bigger killers? By supposedly “proving” his thesis in this way, to what degree does Diamond’s characterization differ significantly from labeling tribal peoples as “primitive savages,” or at any rate as more savage than “we” are?
One thing I will say is that to say that all of the things that supposedly make the lower levels of violence possible - the prisons, the control systems, the institutionalization, the repression, the exploitation, the pyramidal social structure, the artificial scarcity, the physical and mental illness (and still we have war on top of it), to say that all of this a fair tradeoff for a higher level of interpersonal violence is just as much of a values call as anything else. I thought this comment was particularly intelligent:
The funny thing about so called 'primative' societies is that they live and lived in massively diverse ways. Their interactions with other groups are/were equally catholic. They organise/organised their politics and economies and families by all kinds of means. They accepted certain things and didn't accept others. Most importantly, they live/lived on different scales to so called 'modern' societies (plural). Statistics based on some 'primative' societies at some times are useless for giving an account of these scales and these differences.

If a 'primative' society that practices ritual redistribution was to collect statistics on inequality, what would they say about 'modern' Britain? If nomadic herders collected statistics on freedom, what would they say about sweatshop labour or immigrant labour factories where people live for years on the factory grounds? If a matrilineal culture was to collect statistics on gender inequality what would they think of pay and wealth disparities between men and women in New Zealand and Australia, or domestic abuse rates in France?

'Moderns' congratulate ourselves for, by proportion, killing fewer members of our communities during wars and in internal conflicts. This is because in large scale conflicts, like in large scale economies, societies can reach their objectives without investing every person and every resource. We are far more efficient killers and invaders and bullies than 'primatives.'

This discussion depends on a very, very limited definition of violence. It is a definition that says much more about how 'modern' people think (a kind of statistical morality) than it reflects how we act.

1 comment:

  1. Great post.
    I have to admit that I have not yet read Diamond. It's a must read for those who care about the issues related to collapse, devolution, and the ebb and flow of civilizations.

    That said, there is an obvious oversight here on Diamond's part, or at least those who claim that complex civilizations are less violent or safer for the individuals who live in them:

    Tribal societies and small scale civilizations are much less susceptible to collapse or upheaval, since they have less complexity to support.

    And the collapse phase of a civilization is liable to cause an awful lot of "excess" morbidity. The deaths and disease and unhappiness caused in the collapse phase is surely worth something in the scale of judgment.

    If the worse is almost surely to come, it would be best to not be overly biased towards complex, hierarchical civilizations.


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