Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 26, 2014

Fuck Jared Diamond

Filed under: Jared Diamond — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

The title of this article is the unexpurgated version of one that appeared in a recent issue of “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”: “F**K Jared Diamond”. I only hope that the author of the article, who is referenced in the same Guardian article as me, is a tenured professor since even the expurgated version of the title certainly risked violating the new “civility” code spreading across academia like a metastasized tumor and might lead to his Salaitazation.

Titled “Jared Diamond: ‘150,000 years ago, humans wouldn’t figure on a list of the five most interesting species on Earth’”, it at least has the merit of confronting the UCLA celebrity professor with some of the criticisms that have been mounted against his work, including mine. The subtitle makes that clear: “The bestselling biogeographer talks to Oliver Burkeman about dealing with the critics who condemn him as a cultural imperialist.”

I and the “F**K Jared Diamond” author are both referenced in the article. First honors goes to David Correia, writing in “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”, the same journal I have had the honor to contribute to a while back:

They condemn him as a cultural imperialist, intent on excusing the horrors of colonialism while asserting the moral superiority of the west. (One 2013 article, in an ecology journal, was entitled “F**k Jared Diamond”, the asterisks failing to conceal the general tone of the debate.) Diamond strikes back with equal force, calling his critics “idiots”, unscientific timewasters and purveyors of “politically correct blabber”.

Later on my own potshot is mentioned:

As one writer put it, after the book [“Guns, Germs, and Steel”] was adapted for the US TV network PBS, his stance means that “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 Bolivians poor.”

I am pleased that at least Diamond has been confronted with the charges that many on the left have made, but unfortunately interviewer Oliver Burkeman does not go for the jugular as I am about to do now through my own obiter dictum on the article.

To start with, Burkeman is far too deferential to Diamond’s first book “The Third Chimpanzee” that is a completely idiotic exercise in sociobiology after the fashion of “The Naked Ape”. He alludes to Diamond’s observation that we share 97% of the chimp’s DNA and in Burkeman’s words: “by any commonsense classification, we are another kind of chimpanzee.” I wonder if Burkeman would go along with Diamond’s argument that since chimps have an evolutionary imperative to pass on their genes, art must be a clever stratagem by men to lure women into bed. This led Tom Wilkie to drolly observe in the May 22, 1991 Independent that this lesson must have been lost on Tchaikovsky, Andy Warhol and other homosexual artists.

Burkeman next takes up “Guns, Germs and Steel”, the blockbuster book that put him in the same company as Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukuyama and Henry Kissinger, all a-list guests on the Charlie Rose show. The famous encounter with Yali, a native of Papua New Guinea, is mentioned: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo” – meaning manufactured goods, medicines, clothing – “but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

As I might have expected, Burkeman does not take the trouble to point readers to social scientists who have a different take than Diamond’s, most particularly Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz, the authors of “Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture, and History”. Yali’s question was not so much about material goods as reflected in the awful saying, “Those who die with the most toys win” but about racial oppression. The real meaning of the question, according to the authors, was this: “Yali and many other Papua New Guineans became preoccupied with the reluctance, if not refusal, of many whites to recognize their full humanness–to make blacks and whites equal players in the same history.”

This is of fundamental importance for anybody trying to come to terms with Diamond’s legacy since an important part of it was slandering a Papuan New Guinea native as a mass murderer in the pages of the New Yorker Magazine. The whole story is laid out on Rhonda Shearer’s IMediaethics website. Without taking the trouble to fact-check his own work, let alone the magazine’s failure to follow up, Diamond exploits what was likely some braggadocio from his driver for the purposes of imposing a sociobiological narrative on the tribesmen who supposedly had violence in their genes. As such, Diamond was spinning the same tale that Napoleon Chagnon told about the Yanomami.

In my own analysis of Papuan New Guinea blood feuds and Diamond’s shoddy research, I wrote:

The problem with Diamond’s case is that it rests on bogus history. He deploys Daniel Wemp as an expert witness in describing a savage tribal war that went on for years, when in fact the only fighting that took place in recent years was a rather tame affair described by Mako J. Kuwimb, one of Rhonda Shearer’s PNG consultants and a model of restraint in his debunking of Diamond’s version.

The “war” in question did not take three years and cost 29 lives, as Diamond asserts. It was instead a fight between two youths over a couple of dollars that went missing during a card game that got out of hand after one had his jaw broken. Fighting lasted for three months and only four men died. Daniel Wemp, who Diamond described as a warlord seeking revenge for his tribe, was not involved in this affair at all. Apparently, Diamond wove together some actual incidents and others that were cooked up, all the while exaggerating the severity of the conflict so as to turn the PNG highlands into something on a par with contemporary Congo. Meanwhile, Daniel Wemp and the other participants are described as having almost as much fun killing each other as if it were a sport.

Burkeman next takes up “Collapse”, a book on ecology that has none of the redeeming features of “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, at least in the eyes of its leftist admirers who were persuaded by its lame attempt to debunk a cruder form of racism. He at least has to acknowledge what many critics had to say, referring to the NY Times, which has generally been deferential to Diamond. The paper of record summarized his critics’ take: “The haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise.” In other words, the same “accidents can happen” explanation of world history found in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

I wrote a series of posts on “Collapse” here that can be read alongside those on the TV series drawn from “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. The book is rotten from beginning to end, especially the section that deals with “progressive” corporations like Chevron—no I am not joking. I quote from my final installment in the series:

Although Shell has the well-earned reputation of being the dirtiest oil company operating in Nigeria, Chevron is no slouch. Notwithstanding Diamond’s assurances that Chevron CEO Kenneth Derr has “been personally concerned about environmental issues” and that Chevron employees receive monthly emails from him about the state of the planet, some ingrates from the more radical wing of the environmental movement threw cream pies in his face back in 1999. They were angry over Chevron’s involvement with human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, where 90 percent of Nigeria’s crude oil is produced.

According to the June 1999 Earth Times:

“Members of the Ijaw tribe, native to the Delta, say they have lost as much as 70 percent of their ancestral lands to Nigeria’s oil operations. Ijaws who protest the environmental degradation of their lands and ask for greater economic returns for their communities have been killed by government troops, their women and children raped and run off, say human rights groups.”

Chevron, it seems, made its helicopters available to Nigerian troops who were summoned to deal with angry protestors. In 1998, after 200 demonstrators took over a Chevron oil platform for three days, the manager called in Nigerian troops, who, Chevron representatives admit, were transported to the platform in the company’s helicopters by company pilots. Two demonstrators were killed. In the second incident, which occurred two months later, four people were killed and 67 left missing when Nigerian forces attacked two small villages, reportedly once again using Chevron helicopters and boats.

Chevron blandly denied any wrongdoing. It said that any equipment, including helicopters, that is leased to its joint venture company in Nigeria is free to be used by its majority partner. That joint venture company just happens to be the blood-soaked Nigerian government.

Perhaps the Ijaws should have picked up and moved to Papua New Guinea where they would have been looked over properly by the good Chevron twin. As it turns out, things were not all they were cracked up to be over there.

I haven’t taken the trouble to read and refute Diamond’s latest book, titled “The World Until Yesterday”, one that shares Steven Pinker and Napoleon Chagnon’s sociobiological beliefs that state-based systems are effective barriers to the wanton violence that prevailed in hunting-and-gathering societies.

Since I am a glutton for punishment and even more so for dishing it out, I probably will get around to reading this stinking pile of horseshit and writing about it. This much I can glean from the reviews. Diamond seeks to portray hunter-gathering practices as more humane in some ways, for example carrying babies around long after what is acceptable in “civilized” society.

But he taketh away with one hand that he giveth with the other, far more so in fact. He regards primitive man as driven by a bloodlust that would have made Hitler blanch. As I referred to above, he found the tales of the Papuan New Guinea blood feuds useful even if they were not true.

I would refer you to Steven Corry’s article in the Daily Beast, a publication that is generally more wrong than right. In this instance it was right. Corry is the Executive Director of Survival International, an indigenous peoples rights group that is on the lookout for genocide mounted in the name of development. He writes:

Diamond claims that tribes are considerably more prone to killing than are societies ruled by state governments. He goes much further. Despite acknowledging, rather sotto voce, that there are no reports of any war at all in some societies, he does not let this cloud his principal emphasis: most tribal peoples live in a state of constant war.

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?

If you think I am exaggerating the problem—after all, Diamond does not say “primitive savage” himself—then consider how professional readers of his book see it: his reviewers from the prestigious Sunday Times (U.K.) and The Wall Street Journal (U.S.) both call tribes “primitive,” and Germany’s popular Stern magazine splashed “Wilde” (“savages”) in large letters across its pages when describing the book.

Seek and you shall find statistics to underscore any conceivable position on this. Diamond is no fool and doubtless knows all this—the problem is in what he chooses to present and emphasize, and what he leaves out or skates over.

I urge you to read Corry’s article in its entirety here.

16 Comments »

  1. I haven’t read Diamond, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as “primitive.” All humans from this era are flatly modern. What technology or lifestyle they choose or have imposed on them is probably an incredibly complicated topic. As Corry points out, New Guineans must have been avid adopters of crops like potatoes (grown by Native Americans as opposed to “discovered” by Europeans). And why they use “hunter-gatherer” to refer to peoples who mostly farmed cultivated crops for centuries, or maybe millenia is beyond me.
    In terms of sophistication, well there is a lot to be learned from “tribal” or indigenous society. Many say the Iroquois influenced the constitution. Supposedly, the Inca eliminated hunger and had interesting suspension technology, and communications in 0’s and 1’s. A good portion of the worlds crops, eg. maize/corn, chocolate, etc. were Native crops. And on and on it goes. I think “primitive” is often a word used by people who are unwilling to see what others have to offer. That simple.

    Comment by Mui — October 26, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

  2. As for the genocide and murder stats part, indigenous peoples whether they be from China or Americas, or any other part of the world have been run roughshod by states for centuries at least. I agree with that.

    Comment by Mui — October 26, 2014 @ 7:33 pm

  3. just as Darwinism is the opiate of the intellectuals, so Jared Diamond supplies it for the pseudo-intellectuals.

    Comment by uh...clem — October 26, 2014 @ 8:23 pm

  4. RE: “idiots”, unscientific timewasters and purveyors of “politically correct blabber”.

    Wounded. I am so wounded. Wounded I am, nay, bleeding; pulsating blood, I am, indeed wounded I am, nay DYING I am, shedding crimson blood, oh Jared Diamond hath pier-ced me in mine very own heart, I am lost, shedding blood, yea, scarlet billows start to spread….

    Comment by thom prentice — October 26, 2014 @ 10:18 pm

  5. RE: He alludes to Diamond’s observation that we share 97% of the chimp’s DNA

    Humans also share 97% of bonobo dna — which has apparently been overlooked due to unscientific timewasting by Jared Diamond and more navel gazing by Stephen Pinker. [For more about bonobos, see Dr. Frans de Waal “Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape” and “The Bonobo and the Athiest” among others.]

    Permit me to rip-and-read a quickie on the difference between chimpanzees and bonobos. “This Just In. Chimpanzees are aggressive, excessively competitive creatures who solve social problems with violence, killing and war. In contrast, Bonobos, living just across the river from their chimpanzee cousins, use sex to resolve social problems and to sooth ruffled feelings and ruffled feathers and which promotes social cohension.”

    Instead of state-based systems being effective barriers to the wanton violence that prevailed in hunting-and-gathering societies — if wanton violence did in fact prevail in gathering/hunting/fishing tribes [cough, cough] — one might inquire about sex-based systems being effective barriers to the wanton violence and ruffled feathers…

    Comment by thom prentice — October 26, 2014 @ 10:39 pm

  6. Pretty sure some people in New Guinea are actual hunter-gatherers, although of course they’re a minority. Leastwise that’s what I gleaned from the New Guinean guy I taught English to.

    Comment by godoggo — October 27, 2014 @ 8:13 am

  7. If memory serves, this guy believed they could fly, incidentally. He was about 17.

    Comment by godoggo — October 27, 2014 @ 8:15 am

  8. I am without fact to disagree with the notion that the people in New Guinea currently ARE hunter-gatherers. However, my perhaps obscure point is to suggest a more accurate nomenclature based on linear history. Would not gathering almost certainly, come before hunting? And fishing perhaps ought to be in there somewhere with a river runs through it along with farming mound-style per “the three sisters” of the Algonquins and tribes east of the Mississippi (corn, beans, pumpkins).

    That is all I am suggesting: that the original coinage of the word “hunter-gatherer” intrinsically reflects a strong white, male, European superiority bias (to comfort low male below-the-waist self-esteems lol?). To place the word “hunter” first seems to valorize, prioritize and sanctify the fine, virile, strong, manly, knightly arts over accuracy of description — that is sign and referent contiguity — at least as much as the superstrict Derrida would permit. Jared Diamond seems to wet himself over all those fine, virile, strong (white) manly knightly arts lol

    Comment by thom prentice — October 27, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

  9. Jared Diamond is definitely a liberal with many of liberalism’s faults, and so I only read his Guns, Germs, and Steel. This book, however, made an extraordinarily important point regarding the reasons for the different societies and levels of technology achieved by the different “races” and ethnic groups, while the commenters seem to delight in ignoring Diamond’s major contribution to the fight against racism as they trash him for real or exaggerated liberal errors made elsewhere.

    Diamond states the thesis of Guns, Germs, and Steel on page 25 of my paperback: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves.” Diamond then conclusively makes his point, but his detractors “disappear” this radical anti-racism thesis in their crusade to kick Diamond’s liberal ass.

    Or perhaps commenters were unable to understand Diamond’s first statement of the book’s theme. Here’s another: “I would say to Yali: the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the people themselves but to differences in their environments.”

    As for Diamond’s “sociobiology,” I always thought sociobiology rooted human behavior and societies in genes, and there is no mention of genes in Guns, Germs, and Steel. My definition may be too narrow, though.

    In any case, Marx didn’t ditch Hegel’s genius because it was idealist, and I suggest the left accept the liberal academic Diamond when he is very, very right. Such open but critical minds are required in an age where the remnants of the left are very, very lost.

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — October 27, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

  10. Of Diamond’s books, I too have only read GG&S, which nothing here claims is based on “sociobiology,” so I can’t say whether or not this post is correct to say that his other books are. Seems reasonable based on what I’ve read about them, though, including here, of course.

    Comment by godoggo — October 28, 2014 @ 12:32 am

  11. Nice link, btw.

    Comment by godoggo — October 28, 2014 @ 12:39 am

  12. Joe, I don’t think the argument is about “genes” which is very last century. I think the argument is with Diamond’s apparently faulty characterization of New Guineans, eg hunter-gatherers as opposed to avid adopter of “new world” potatoes. Also many would argue that New Guineans don’t provide a window into our prehistoric past any more than any other modern man. A self-sufficient society isn’t “primitive” or “prehistoric,” no more than an Amish or Mennonite community is really 19th c. As for the Guns, germs, steel, I’ll let someone else rip it apart. It’s sort of appealing and then probably a little wrong on environment as well.

    Comment by Mui — October 28, 2014 @ 1:03 am

  13. Although the main thrust of the Corry article is against military intervention, and the faulty characterizations of New Guineans, plus bad data.

    Comment by Mui — October 28, 2014 @ 1:18 am

  14. I can only say that Diamond is lucky that Marvin Harris is not alive today…

    Comment by Dermokrat — October 28, 2014 @ 3:49 am

  15. Mui, My beef is that an effete, conservative “left” often seems to have nothing better to do than to attack liberals for their many sins, and this is a left sin. Diamond’s apparently original take on the effects of the environment on the development of behavior, technology, and societies is right on. He notes that Africa had no large domesticable animals, and that its north-south axis inhibited the spread of new food crops. Such environmental conditions are radically influential and limiting but not specifically determinate as to the sorts of societies and cultures that emerge.

    Here’s a profoundly anti-racist statement by Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel: “From the very beginning of my work with New Guineans, they impressed me as being on the average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is.” He then notes that Western children spend much of their time being passively entertained, while “New Guinea children … spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults …. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.”

    So with our current incompetent “black” neo-liberal president ducking racial issues as best he can while the right savages him for his skin color, I believe the left should be promoting Diamond’s radically anti-racist insights.

    As for the ecosocialists and Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, they have managed to liberalize “red-green.” Yes, capitalism destroys the conditions of its production, but that is a limited economistic position. A revolutionary “red-green” would apply the organization of life to the transformative organization of society. A transformative ecosocialism would apply the new sciences of organizational relations to the organization of human relations. But, damn! The ecosocialists even abandon the Marxist materialist dialectic and for this an other conservative sins will remain stuck in their sterile academic niche.

    However, I still find Joel Kovel’s (he’s editor of CNS and informal leader of ecosocialism) Enemy of Nature (2002) to be the best popular Marxist work on today’s USA.

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — October 28, 2014 @ 2:40 pm

  16. […] by all anthropologists without an insane right-wing axe to grind (i.e. not Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Napoleon Chagnon or Lawrence Keeley) was comfortable, fun, free of war and of […]

    Pingback by The End of the World: Progressing to Collapse – Feminist Primitivism — March 21, 2017 @ 4:30 am


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