Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 11, 2009

Yali’s Question

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,indigenous,racism — louisproyect @ 10:44 pm

In “Guns, Germs and Steel”, Diamond tells of a PNG native who asks why people from the West have so much “cargo”, in other words consumer goods. Diamond tries to answer this question through his patented mixture of environmental determinism and sociobiology. It amounts to saying that global inequality is based on the luck of the draw.  Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz wrote “Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture, and History” as a study of PNG class relations and a refutation of Jared Diamond’s theory. This is from their introduction:

In outline, this is the answer, the history, that Diamond sets out in response to Yali’s question: Human beings evolved and eventually dispersed themselves throughout the earth. There were some who lived in geographical areas conducive to the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals, complex processes that were in no way beyond the intellectual capacities of any human group. All people everywhere were equally intelligent, and members of any group, living in appropriate areas, would have developed agriculture and domesticated animals. However, once certain people did develop agriculture and domesticate animals, they had distinct evolutionary advantages deriving from the population expansion these new forms of food production allowed: the more food available, the more people who could be supported, and the greater the number of specialists (including soldiers) who could be maintained. And significantly, the more people there were, the more necessary arable land became and the more likely people were to go to war to get it. Warfare, in turn, brought about the need for effective weaponry. Therefore, over time, those with certain mineral resources and with skilled craft specialists fashioned and employed superior weapons (eventually made of steel) to vanquish their neighbors. Moreover, those who could utilize metal and support craft specialists had other advantages as well. First, as agriculturalists with high population densities, they had developed hierarchically organized social organizations. Second, as people living around others and around animals, they had developed immunities to certain germs. Superior weapons and organizational skills (technologies and techniques), along with immunological resistances, enabled such groups, or apparently impelled them, to em-hark on ambitious programs of expansion, leading, repeatedly, to the conquest anc[ exploitation of others. Especially vulnerable were those geographically cut off from such centers of innovation. Thus, eventually and inevitably, the native peoples of the New World (and elsewhere) were easily subjugated by a combination of guns, germs, and steel.

As Diamond brings this argument back to Yali and Yali’s question, he stresses—and, of course, we agree—that Yali’s circumstances did not reflect any lack either in his intelligence or in that of other Papua New Guineans. Rather, we learn that Yali was poor and relatively powerless in his own domain because his ancestors lacked access to the mineral resources, domesticable animals, and the other advantages that allowed some to conquer others. He was born, in terms of the luck-of-the-environmental draw, on the wrong side of the great geographical divide. Yet neither Yali nor most of the other Papua New Guineans we have known over our years at RSL and elsewhere in the country would be satisfied with the inexorability of Diamond’s luck-of-the-draw answer, with the implications of his that’s-just-the-way-things-were-and-hence-must-be response. Such an answer would strike them as a perverse justification of colonial forms of inequality, part of a narrative that denied them moral worth in the past, to say nothing of the future. Indeed, as we shall soon see, the founding and development of RSL became part of a pressing narrative for reclaiming rightful worth in Papua New Guinea.

However, it is just Diamond’s sort of answer, just this sort of invocation of historical inevitability, that tends to satisfy those who are already the haves. In this regard, the ideology inherent in Diamond’s reasoning goes well beyond the particulars of the history he presents. This ideology supports the status quo, the interests of the already powerful. In fact, as we shall see in chapter 9, it is just this ideology that RSL [Ramu Sugar Limited] has to confront in dealing with the interests of such haves as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and Coca-Cola Amatil in Papua New Guinea: organizations, it so happens, that express imperatives concerning free trade and comparative advantage in language remarkably akin to Diamond’s. For all of them, in other words, the inevitable and the inexorable are handily synonymous with the interests of the haves over the have-nots.

More broadly, the ideology inherent in Diamond’s reasoning is one we confront as teachers and scholars dealing primarily with the haves. Students tell us that their parents encourage them to read Diamond’s book, finding it invigorating. The former president of Fred’s college urged his faculty to read it. In fact, he sent copies of Guns, Germs, and Steel to members of the faculty as a model of the kind of book he admired. All over the United States, we learned, deans and presidents of other pricey institutions applaud the book. At Cornell, it became assigned reading for all freshmen. Moreover, many institutions pay Diamond generously to summarize his views in person, generally in packed lecture halls.

We think educated haves like the book so well because it resonates deeply with their own concerns—in effect, because it so readily sustains them. They come away from the book or lecture feeling pretty good about themselves—both enlightened and open-minded. They come away seeing the world without racial prejudice and having learned some important new facts and connections. Furthermore, and significantly, they come away comfortably convinced that they have their cargo (unlike Yali and his people) for inevitable and impersonal geographic reasons. No one is to blame for the fact that some people are, and no doubt will continue to be, the haves and that others are, and will continue to be, the have-nots. Thus, Diamond’s history is not only the delineation of an inexorable and inevitable trajectory. It is, as well, both retrospective and prospective. His depiction of the past provides a far from disinterested model for understanding the present and for shaping the future. This is to say, he presents the world as one in which the have-nots, whether in Papua New Guinea or elsewhere, must (seemingly) forever deal with the haves under conditions of fundamental disadvantage.

But what exactly is wrong with this history? Didn’t the events Diamond relates really happen? Must a history necessarily be disqualified because it conveys the perspectives and interests of the victors, of the haves? Isn’t Diamond’s view simply informed by hardheaded realism about the way the world works?

We certainly do not deny that certain forms of power had a significant role in effecting the kinds of historical events that Diamond delineates. Diamond’s depiction of the role that guns, germs, and steel played is plausible—indeed, as we said, it is compelling and sophisticated. What we do challenge is his conflation of the necessary with the sufficient. This is to say, just because guns, germs, and steel were necessary to make certain historical outcomes possible, including those so upsetting to Yali, we do not have to assume that their possession was sufficient to explain these outcomes, lust because sources of power are available, we cannot conclude that the power will be used for certain ends, or even that it will be used at all. And simply because European colonists had the power to pursue their interests at the expense of Yali and other Papua New Guineans, we cannot automatically understand the nature and consequences of their varied encounters in terms of inevitable universal patterns.

This conflation of the necessary and the sufficient grows out of the link between Diamond’s interest in “history’s broadest pattern” and his determination to develop “human history as a science, on a par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology” (1997: 420, 408). As he says, his book “attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years” and searches for “ultimate explanations” that push back “the chain of historical causation as far as possible” (9). Crucial to this search for lawlike explanations that will generate long chains of causation back to first causes (chains of causation that even link mountain range formation to Yali’s quandary) is Diamond’s distinction between ultimate and proximate causes. Ultimate causes are those broadly applicable and pervasive forces, which led to the possession of such advantages as guns, germs, and steel. Diamond is interested in these causes because he thinks they are the ones that really drive history. These ultimate causes shape derivative and more immediate occurrences, such as particular battles, conquests, economic systems. The effects of these more immediate occurrences, in turn, become proximate causes of yet other events.

Diamond’s view of the relentless course of human history, driven by the operation of ultimate causes over its thirteen-thousand-year span, seems to rest on an implicit view of human nature as aggressive, acquisitive, and selfish. It is this nature that, in Diamond’s vision, keeps ultimate causes consequential throughout history. In short, human beings necessarily lead their lives so as to extract maximum advantage over others: give a guy—any guy—half a chance and he will conquer the world; give a guy a piece of appropriate metal and he will inevitably fashion a sword to cut you down or a chain to enslave you within the hold of a ship bound for a New World sugar plantation. In a way that we in the contemporary West appear to find self-evident—once again, in a way that does not problematize our understanding of how the world works— Diamond suggests that people everywhere and at all times, if they had sufficient power, would use it to maximize their own advantage through the domination of others. This implicit view of a transhistorical and trans-cultural human nature is consistent with Diamond’s explicit rendering of both historical context and cultural perspective as irrelevant. In fact, Diamond works hard to exclude such perspective and context from his scientific history.


  1. After Reading Jack London’s “Before Adam” at 13 I came up with a theory that maybe Europeans were such bloodthirsty aggressive predators (compared to non-white peoples) because they evolved out of cold caves where food was scarce and meat protein for energy along with animal fat for warmth needed to be hunted and butchered constantly whereas peoples in tropical climes had a relative abundance of fruits & tubors & plants & fish & birds to eat that took far less cunning to acquire. The constant butchering of big animals that stored fat & had thick warm hides wasn’t imperative for survival in the tropics resulting in a much different personality, one with a distinctly less predatory mindset.

    Although this is of course a crude form of geographic determinism it still seems plausible that perhaps the white man’s past & present imperialist viciousness in global social relations is rooted in the predatory viciousness it took for early Euro-man in the Alps to sit patiently atop of some freezing cliff in order to push a stone off onto some beast’s head. Shivering through long cold winters he must have felt thrilled warming hands & stomach with fresh warm blood as he butchered beasts in the field for hides & meat and then hauled it back to the camp.

    Maybe such routine carnage became almost intoxicating in its release of certain brain chemicals and perhaps a “slaughter gene” (as I coined it as a teenager) was uniquely developed in the white man that facilitated his propensity for needing to forcibly tie the world with fences economically?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 12, 2009 @ 12:14 am

  2. You just have to twist Diamond’s theory ever so slightly, make it optional rather than necessary in its latest phases, and you’ve got “the white man’s burden.”

    Comment by senecal — May 12, 2009 @ 3:20 am

  3. #1 – Does it occur to you that your logic would have to apply to all peoples living in cold climates, including the Inuit and the Lapps?

    Comment by Austin — May 12, 2009 @ 6:46 am

  4. #3 – At 13 I’d never even heard of the Lapps. As far as the Inuit, that was always a problem but I came up with a couple considerations that left the Inuit far less “desperate” than the early white man.

    For starters, the Inuit really were geographically isolated insofar as it wasn’t like a hike over some mountain range could get them to a valley full of blooming edelweiss.

    Secondly, their civilization was always maintained on the edge of a great ocean which while plenty cold was also plenty bountiful. As hard as life was (and still is) for Inuit people they had this distinct advantage: catching a baby seal is always going to be easier than catching a baby deer. Moreover, once caught, seals, being carnivours, have about 100 times more animal fat to metabolically ward off the cold with than does the vegan deer, not to mention the seals’ pelt has far superior insulation than any hoofed ungulate.

    Being stranded in the Alps is ultimately a much tougher, more “desperate” existence than living on an ocean’s coast, even if that coast is ice floe. Thus Inuit were the exception that didn’t prove anything.

    In the last analysis, however, just as Diamond’s geographic determinism ultimately becomes a justification for the “white man’s burden” so too does my crude teenage “slaughter gene” theory fail insofar as it can be used by racists who imagine genetic superiority to justify iniquitous social arrangements.

    When it comes to figuring out the origins of the grotesque disparity between haves and have nots on this writhing planet Errington and Gewertz nail it with the argument that geopgraphic determinism may be “necessary” but not “sufficient.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 12, 2009 @ 11:32 am

  5. Diamond’s idea of proximate and ultimate causes serves the same purpose as the necessary/sufficient distinction that these authors claim is missing from his analysis. If the authors had actually given attention to this idea instead of mentioning it in passing as an awkward segue into upbraiding Diamond for bio-Hobbeseanism or whatever, they would have recognized their inconsistency. Environmentally-determined factors were necessary for the “First World” to make the initial leap into dominance over the Third. Everything that came after that, Diamond just brackets into the category of “auto-catalysis”, i.e. events that came after the initial establishment of hegemony and served to solidify that position. Diamond says nothing whatsoever (at least not in GG&S) about these being direct continuations of the environmental factors, just that they were enabled by the position that the First World found itself in thanks to these factors. Thus he in no way claims that environmental factors are sufficient (again, at least not in GG&S) to explain the current state of affairs, and thus all of the stuff about the theory being ideal for complacent liberals is a particularly juvenile straw-man argument. You could easily insert a Marxist historical materialist analysis into the brackets that Diamond ignores and have a solid, working theory with very little discord.

    As for the whole “aggressive/acquisitive/selfish” thing, I guess you could chalk this up to sociobiological prejudices on Diamond’s part, but really, is there any other way to characterize capitalist and pre-capitalist economic formations in the aggregate? Hobbeseanism and its modern-day bio-equivalents may be bunkum as a “human nature” argument, but it’s hard to deny that there are modes of socioeconomic existence which will pretty much dictate that type of behavior. Diamond’s analysis here still strikes me as fundamentally correct, albeit in this case probably for the wrong reasons.

    Comment by Steve — May 16, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

  6. As for the whole “aggressive/acquisitive/selfish” thing, I guess you could chalk this up to sociobiological prejudices on Diamond’s part, but really, is there any other way to characterize capitalist and pre-capitalist economic formations in the aggregate?

    I suggest you read Engel’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”, as well as Stanley Diamond and Eleanor Leacock, for an answer to this question.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 16, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

  7. I’m hardly a fan of Diamond, but the “give a guy — any guy — a piece of metal” shit is idiotic. We’re not talking about “a guy” obviously, we’re talking about broad populations with individuals of diverse temperament etc. who have the opportunity for conquest and riches dangling in front of them; given enough generations, it’s hardly unlikely that some of these individuals will eventually seize this opportunity, that these individuals will (if they succeed) thus be more powerful and influential than those who chose not to do so, etc. etc.

    I’m not saying it’s a useful or particularly illuminating theory, but the “human nature” swipe at it is just embarrassing.

    Comment by echeneida — August 26, 2009 @ 1:15 am

  8. Comment by itooktheredpill — July 1, 2013 @ 5:11 am

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