Meanwhile, we smoke cigarettes for the same reason the bird of paradise hangs upside down: to attract the opposite sex
Jared Diamond as sociobiologist
As alluded to in my previous post in this series, 19th century anthropology was deeply imbued with social Darwinist conceptions that in its crudest forms explained colonialism in terms of the racial superiority of the white man. If history moved from lower stages like hunting-and-gathering to successively higher stages like feudalism and capitalism, then the persistence of lower stages could only be explained in terms of brain size, etc.
In the late 20th century this kind of crude racism is no longer tolerated, except perhaps for the Bell Curve theory that achieved much more respectability than it actually deserved, a function no doubt of the racist reaction against the Black liberation movement of the 1960s.
However, just as the need existed in the 19th century to explain European domination over Africans et al, there is still a need today to make sense of how Europe and now the Americans and Japan enjoy a much higher standard of living than the rest of the world. Since it is simply not acceptable to refer to innate racial differences, a more sophisticated analysis is required. That is where Jared Diamond fits in. He caters to the better side of liberals by insisting on the innate equality of all men and women while absolving them for any responsibility for their government killing and stealing from the Third World in order to maintain their lifestyle. A PBS donor can sit in his Connecticut estate feeling no guilt since it was, after all, only an accident of geography that made him rich and the Bolivian poor. If the Incan had the same geographical advantages as the Briton, then things would have turned out differently.
If social Darwinism in its cruder forms has disappeared, there is a case to be made that it continues in a less offensive form today in the discipline known as sociobiology, a term coined by its founder E.O. Wilson and related closely to evolutionary psychology–another field heavily dependent on a mechanical adaptation of Charles Darwin’s writings. As the wiki on sociobiology states, “The discipline seeks to explain behavior as a product of natural selection; thus behavior is seen as an effort to preserve one’s genes in the population.” In keeping with its social Darwinist predecessors, sociobiology agrees that society moves from lower to higher forms. The earlier forms of society, like hunting and gathering, are closer to animal behavior and social evolution consists of moving away from instinctual needs toward more civilized behavior, despite the tendency of civilized man to engage in barbaric behavior, such as on the battlefield.
With this in mind, one cannot but help noticing what appears to be sociobiological themes in Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article, especially the idea that hunting and gathering societies were more genocidal on average than state-based societies such as the kind that were imposed on them by outsiders like the British and the Americans. According to Diamond, the natives of Papua New Guinea were relieved when colonial “pacification” involving an “absurdly few” armed Europeans was imposed on them, since finally they would be spared the “constant fear” of being killed by fellow tribesmen. In other words, the same excuse that the British made for themselves in colonizing India—they needed to curtail barbarisms such as sati, etc.—was made by Jared Diamond. The natives had to be civilized, even at the point of a bayonet.
Is it possible that Diamond’s sociobiological sounding arguments are just a coincidence? I would argue that they are not. Although not as well known as “Guns, Germs and Steel” or “Collapse”, his earlier work “The Third Chimpanzee” put him in that camp, at least partially. While the book does not harp on “selfish genes” or the other trademark elements of the discipline, there is plenty there to demonstrate Diamond’s affinity with Dawkins, Wilson, Pinker and company.
Some of it is unintentionally funny. For example, we learn in the chapter “The Animal Origins of Art” that people make art in order to attract the opposite sex and hence pass their genes on to the next generation. Diamond starts off by a reference to the bower bird, a creature he has studied as part of his day job as a biologist. It turns out that the male bird constructs elaborate and beautiful nests, a kind of art work in their own way, in order to attract females. Guess what. We make art for about the same reason:
Art is a quick indicator of status, which—in human as in animal societies—is a key to acquiring food, land, and sex partners. Yes, bowerbirds get the credit for discovering the principle that ornaments separate from one’s body are more flexible status symbols than ornaments that one has to grow. But we still get credit for running away with that principle. Cro-Magnons decorated their bodies with bracelets, pendants, and ocher; New Guinea villagers today decorate theirs with shells, fur, and bird-of-paradise plumes… In a world where art is a coin of sex, it’s only a small further step for some artists to be able to convert art into food. There are whole societies that support themselves by making art for trade to food-producing groups. For example, the Siassi islanders, who lived on tiny islets with little room for gardens, survived by carving beautiful bowls that other tribes coveted for bride payments and paid for in food.
The same principles hold even more strongly in the modern world. Where we once signaled our status with bird feathers on our bodies and giant clam shells in our huts, we now do it with diamonds on our bodies and Picassos on our walls. Where Siassi islanders sold a carved bowl for the equivalent of twenty dollars, Richard Strauss built himself a villa with the proceeds from his opera Salome and earned a fortune from Der Rosenkavalier. Nowadays we read increasingly often of art sold at auction for tens of millions of dollars, and of art theft. In short, precisely because it serves as a signal of good genes and ample resources, art can be cashed in for still more genes and resources.
With this kind of utilitarian vulgarity, it is of course no surprise that Diamond is a favorite over at PBS with its chronic fund appeals based on cheesy opera recitals and doo-wop.
In a chapter on smoking, drinking and drugs, Diamond once again draws on his experience as a bird naturalist, likening such dangerous behavior to male birds of paradise that grow long plumes out of their eyebrows and hang upside down during mating rituals. Despite their need to attract females, the males also risk attracting the attention of hawks. This risky behavior, according to Diamond, makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint because the suitors will have demonstrated to their female targets that they “have balls”. So what does this “theory” have to do with tobacco, drugs and booze? Diamond explains:
Especially in adolescence and early adulthood, the age when drug abuse is most likely to begin, we are devoting much energy to asserting our status. I suggest that we share the same unconscious instinct that leads birds to indulge in dangerous displays. Ten thousand years ago, we “displayed” by challenging a lion or a tribal enemy. Today, we do it in other ways, such as by fast driving or by consuming dangerous drugs.
Missing entirely from Diamond’s analysis is the social and economic importance of a substance like tobacco in the early stages of the capitalist system, nor its value today to investors like Warren Buffett who once observed: “I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s fantastic brand loyalty.”
Turning to the far more serious matter of genocide, Diamond tries to explain what the Nazis did in terms of Chimpanzee behavior, referring to attacks by one band on another witnessed by the famed naturalist Jane Goodall in the 1970s. He concludes: “In short, of all our human hallmarks—art, spoken language, drugs, and the others—the one that has been derived most straightforwardly from animal precursors is genocide.”
With that in mind, it is now easy to understand why Jared Diamond was so intent on finding patterns of mass killings in Papua New Guinea where none existed. He was so determined to make the case that he even fabricated words and events to suit his conclusion. One supposes that 8 years of George W. Bush will have its consequences on academia unfortunately.
Against this sociobiological nonsense, we can turn to the voices of reason in the sciences that recognized it for what it was after E.O. Wilson made his initial appearance. An open letter to the New York Review of Books titled “Against Sociobiology” appeared in the August 7, 1975 issue. Co-signed by Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould and other university faculty and scientists, high school teachers, doctors, and students who worked in the Boston area, it rejected the “primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior”. It concluded:
What we are left with then is a particular theory about human nature, which has no scientific support, and which upholds the concept of a world with social arrangements remarkably similar to the world which E. O. Wilson inhabits. We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange. What Wilson’s book illustrates to us is the enormous difficulty in separating out not only the effects of environment (e.g., cultural transmission) but also the personal and social class prejudice of the researcher. Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.
From what we have seen of the social and political impact of such theories in the past, we feel strongly that we should speak out against them. We must take “Sociobiology” seriously, then, not because we feel that it provides a scientific basis for its discussion of human behavior, but because it appears to signal a new wave of biological determinist theories.
Judging from the gushing reception that Jared Diamond’s implicitly sociobiological works such as “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse” have received, it is clear that biological determinist theories must be struggled against on all fronts including where their roots are relatively hidden. That is why Rhonda Shearer’s exposé of Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article is so important. It tears away the fig leaf and reveals that the ideological emperor is not wearing clothes.