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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

“The World until Yesterday” and the Great Anthropology Divide: Wade Davis’s and James C. Scott’s Bizarre and Dishonest Reviews of Jared Diamond’s Work

            Cultural anthropology has for some time been divided into two groups. The first attempts to understand cultural variation empirically by incorporating it into theories of human evolution and ecological adaptation. The second merely celebrates cultural diversity, and its members are quick to attack any findings or arguments by those in the first group that can in any way be construed as unflattering to the cultures being studied. (This dichotomy is intended to serve as a useful, and only slight, oversimplification.) Jared Diamond’s scholarship in anthropology places him squarely in the first group. Yet he manages to thwart many of the assumptions held by those in the second group because he studiously avoids the sins of racism and biological determinism they insist every last member of the first group is guilty of. Rather than seeing his work as an exemplar or as evidence that the field is amenable to scientific investigation, however, members of the second group invent crimes and victims so they can continue insisting there’s something immoral about scientific anthropology (though the second group, oddly enough, claims that designation as well).

Jared Diamond in New Guinea
            Diamond is not an anthropologist by training, but his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he sets out to explain why some societies became technologically advanced conquerors over the past 10,000 years while others maintained their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, became a classic in the field almost as soon as it was published in 1997. His interest in cultural variation arose in large part out of his experiences traveling through New Guinea, the most culturally diverse region of the planet, to conduct ornithological research. By the time he published his first book about human evolution, The Third Chimpanzee, at age 54, he’d spent more time among people from a more diverse set of cultures than many anthropologists do over their entire careers. In his latest book, The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, Diamond compares the lifestyles of people living in modern industrialized societies with those of people who rely on hunting and gathering or horticultural subsistence strategies. His first aim is simply to highlight the differences, since the way most us live today is, evolutionarily speaking, a very recent development; his second is to show that certain traditional practices may actually lead to greater well-being, and may thus be advantageous if adopted by those of us living in advanced civilizations.

            Obviously, Diamond’s approach has certain limitations, chief among them that it affords him little space for in-depth explorations of individual cultures. Instead, he attempts to identify general patterns that apply to traditional societies all over the world. What this means in the context of the great divide in anthropology is that no sooner had Diamond set pen to paper than he’d fallen afoul of the most passionately held convictions of the second group, who bristle at any discussion of universal trends in human societies. The anthropologist Wade Davis’s review of The World until Yesterday in The Guardian is extremely helpful for anyone hoping to appreciate the differences between the two camps because it exemplifies nearly all of the features of this type of historical particularism, with one exception: it’s clearly, even gracefully, written. But this isn’t to say Davis is at all straightforward about his own positions, which you have to read between the lines to glean. Situating the commitment to avoid general theories and focus instead on celebrating the details in a historical context, Davis writes,

This ethnographic orientation, distilled in the concept of cultural relativism, was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the field of physics. It became the central revelation of modern anthropology. Cultures do not exist in some absolute sense; each is but a model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of intellectual and spiritual choices made, however successfully, many generations before. The goal of the anthropologist is not just to decipher the exotic other, but also to embrace the wonder of distinct and novel cultural possibilities, that we might enrich our understanding of human nature and just possibly liberate ourselves from cultural myopia, the parochial tyranny that has haunted humanity since the birth of memory.

This stance with regard to other cultures sounds viable enough—it even seems admirable. But Davis is saying something more radical than you may think at first glance. He’s claiming that cultural differences can have no explanations because they arise out of “intellectual and spiritual choices.” It must be pointed out as well that he’s profoundly confused about how relativity in physics relates to—or doesn’t relate to—cultural relativity in anthropology. Einstein discovered that time is relative with regard to velocity compared to a constant speed of light, so the faster one travels the more slowly time advances. Since this rule applies the same everywhere in the universe, the theory actually works much better as an analogy for the types of generalization Diamond tries to discover than it does for the idea that no such generalizations can be discovered. Cultural relativism is not a “revelation” about whether or not cultures can be said to exist or not; it’s a principle that enjoins us to try to understand other cultures on their own terms, not as deviations from our own. Diamond appreciates this principle—he just doesn’t take it to as great an extreme as Davis and the other anthropologists in his camp.

Wade Davis
            The idea that cultures don’t exist in any absolute sense implies that comparing one culture to another won’t result in any meaningful or valid insights. But this isn’t a finding or a discovery, as Davis suggests; it’s an a priori conviction. For anthropologists in Davis’s camp, as soon as you start looking outside of a particular culture for an explanation of how it became what it is, you’re no longer looking to understand that culture on its own terms; you’re instead imposing outside ideas and outside values on it. So the simple act of trying to think about variation in a scientific way automatically makes you guilty of a subtle form of colonization. Davis writes,

The very premise of Guns, Germs, and Steel is that a hierarchy of progress exists in the realm of culture, with measures of success that are exclusively material and technological; the fascinating intellectual challenge is to determine just why the west ended up on top. In the posing of this question, Diamond evokes 19th-century thinking that modern anthropology fundamentally rejects. The triumph of secular materialism may be the conceit of modernity, but it does very little to unveil the essence of culture or to account for its diversity and complexity.

For Davis, comparison automatically implies assignment of relative values. But, if we agree that two things can be different without one being superior, we must conclude that Davis is simply being dishonest, because you don’t have to read beyond the Prelude to Guns, Germs, and Steel to find Diamond’s explicit disavowal of this premise that supposedly underlies the entire book:

…don’t words such as “civilization,” and phrases such as “rise of civilization,” convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has involved progress toward greater human happiness? In fact, I do not assume that industrialized states are “better” than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents “progress,” or that it has led to an increase in happiness. My own impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings of civilization are mixed. For example, compared with hunter-gatherers, citizens of modern industrialized states enjoy better medical care, lower risk of death by homicide, and a longer life span, but receive much less social support from friendships and extended families. My motive for investigating these geographic differences in human societies is not to celebrate one type of society over another but simply to understand what happened in history. (18)

            For Davis and those sharing his postmodern ideology, this type of dishonesty is acceptable because they believe the political ends of protecting indigenous peoples from exploitation justifies their deceitful means. In other words, they’re placing their political goals before their scholarly or scientific ones. Davis argues that the only viable course is to let people from various cultures speak for themselves, since facts and theories in the wrong hands will inevitably lubricate the already slippery slope to colonialism and exploitation. Even Diamond’s theories about environmental influences, in this light, can be dangerous. Davis writes,

In accounting for their simple material culture, their failure to develop writing or agriculture, he laudably rejects notions of race, noting that there is no correlation between intelligence and technological prowess. Yet in seeking ecological and climatic explanations for the development of their way of life, he is as certain of their essential primitiveness as were the early European settlers who remained unconvinced that Aborigines were human beings. The thought that the hundreds of distinct tribes of Australia might simply represent different ways of being, embodying the consequences of unique sets of intellectual and spiritual choices, does not seem to have occurred to him.

Davis is rather deviously suggesting a kinship between Diamond and the evil colonialists of yore, but the connection rests on a non sequitur, that positing environmental explanations of cultural differences necessarily implies primitiveness on the part of the “lesser” culture.

Davis doesn’t explicitly say anywhere in his review that all scientific explanations are colonialist, but once you rule out biological, cognitive, environmental, and climatic theories, well, there’s not much left. Davis’s rival explanation, such as it is, posits a series of collective choices made over the course of history, which in a sense must be true. But it merely begs the question of what precisely led the people to make those choices, and this question inevitably brings us back to all those factors Diamond weighs as potential explanations. Davis could have made the point that not every aspect of every cultural can be explained by ecological factors—but Diamond never suggests otherwise. Citing the example of Kaulong widow strangling in The World until Yesterday, Diamond writes that there’s no reason to believe the practice is in any way adaptive and admits that it can only be “an independent historical cultural trait that arose for some unknown reason in that particular area of New Britain” (21).

I hope we can all agree that harming or exploiting indigenous peoples in any part of the world is wrong and that we should support the implementation of policies that protect them and their ways of life (as long as those ways don’t involve violations of anyone’s rights as a human—yes, that moral imperative supersedes cultural relativism, fears of colonialism be damned). But the idea that trying to understand cultural variation scientifically always and everywhere undermines the dignity of people living in non-Western cultures is the logical equivalent of insisting that trying to understand variations in peoples’ personalities through empirical methods is an affront to their agency and freedom to make choices as individuals. If the position of these political-activist anthropologists had any validity, it would undermine the entire field of psychology, and for that matter the social sciences in general. It’s safe to assume that the opacity that typifies these anthropologists’ writing is meant to protect their ideas from obvious objections like this one. 

As well as Davis writes, it’s nonetheless difficult to figure out what his specific problems with Diamond’s book are. At one point he complains, “Traditional societies do not exist to help us tweak our lives as we emulate a few of their cultural practices. They remind us that our way is not the only way.” Fair enough—but then he concludes with a passage that seems startlingly close to a summation of Diamond’s own thesis.

The voices of traditional societies ultimately matter because they can still remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual and ecological space… By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say that we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet. This is a sentiment that Jared Diamond, a deeply humane and committed conservationist, would surely endorse.

On the surface, it seems like Davis isn’t even disagreeing with Diamond. What he’s not saying explicitly, however, but hopes nonetheless that we understand is that sampling or experiencing other cultures is great—but explaining them is evil.

James C. Scott
            Davis’s review was published in January of 2013, and its main points have been echoed by several other anti-scientific anthropologists—but perhaps none so eminent as the Yale Professor of Anthropology and Political Science, James C. Scott, whose review, “Crops, Towns, Government,” appeared in the London Review of Books in November. After praising Diamond’s plea for the preservation of vanishing languages, Scott begins complaining about the idea that modern traditional societies offer us any evidence at all about how our ancestors lived. He writes of Diamond,

He imagines he can triangulate his way to the deep past by assuming that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are ‘our living ancestors’, that they show what we were like before we discovered crops, towns and government. This assumption rests on the indefensible premise that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are survivals, museum exhibits of the way life was lived for the entirety of human history ‘until yesterday’–preserved in amber for our examination.

Don’t be fooled by those lonely English quotation marks—Diamond never makes this mistake, nor does his argument rest on any such premise. Scott is simply being dishonest. In the first chapter of The World until Yesterday, Diamond explains why he wanted to write about the types of changes that took place in New Guinea between the first contact with Westerners in 1931 and today. “New Guinea is in some respects,” he writes, “a window onto the human world as it was until a mere yesterday, measured against a time scale of the 6,000,000 years of human evolution.” He follows this line with a parenthetical, “(I emphasize ‘in some respects’—of course the New Guinea Highlands of 1931 were not an unchanged world of yesterday)” (5-6). It’s clear he added this line because he was anticipating criticisms like Davis’s and Scott’s.

The confusion arises from Scott’s conflation of the cultures and lifestyles Diamond describes with the individuals representing them. Diamond assumes that factors like population size, social stratification, and level of technological advancement have a profound influence on culture. So, if we want to know about our ancestors, we need to look to societies living in conditions similar to the ones they must’ve lived in with regard to just these types of factors. In another bid to ward off the types of criticism he knows to expect from anthropologists like Scott and Davis, he includes a footnote in his introduction which explains precisely what he’s interested in.

By the terms “traditional” and “small-scale” societies, which I shall use throughout this book, I mean past and present societies living at low population densities in small groups ranging from a few dozen to a few thousand people, subsisting by hunting-gathering or by farming or herding, and transformed to a limited degree by contact with large, Westernized, industrial societies. In reality, all such traditional societies still existing today have been at least partly modified by contact, and could alternatively be described as “transitional” rather than “traditional” societies, but they often still retain many features and social processes of the small societies of the past. I contrast traditional small-scale societies with “Westernized” societies, by which I mean the large modern industrial societies run by state governments, familiar to readers of this book as the societies in which most of my readers now live. They are termed “Westernized” because important features of those societies (such as the Industrial Revolution and public health) arose first in Western Europe in the 1700s and 1800s, and spread from there overseas to many other countries. (6)

Scott goes on to take Diamond to task for suggesting that traditional societies are more violent than modern industrialized societies. This is perhaps the most incendiary point of disagreement between the factions on either side of the anthropology divide. The political activists worry that if anthropologists claim indigenous peoples are more violent outsiders will take it as justification to pacify them, which has historically meant armed invasion and displacement. Since the stakes are so high, Scott has no compunctions about misrepresenting Diamond’s arguments. “There is, contra Diamond,” he writes, “a strong case that might be made for the relative non-violence and physical well-being of contemporary hunters and gatherers when compared with the early agrarian states.” Well, no, not contra Diamond, who only compares traditional societies to modern Westernized states, like the ones his readers live in, not early agrarian ones. Scott is referring to Diamond's theories about the initial transition to states, claiming that interstate violence negates the benefits of any pacifying central authority. But it may still be better to live under the threat of infrequent state warfare than of much more frequent ambushes or retaliatory attacks by nearby tribes. Scott also suggests that records of high rates of enslavement in early states somehow undermine the case for more homicide in traditional societies, but again Diamond doesn’t discuss early states. Diamond would probably agree that slavery, in the context of his theories, is an interesting topic, but it's hardly the fatal flaw in his ideas Scott makes it out to be.

The misrepresentations extend beyond Diamond’s arguments to encompass the evidence he builds them on. Scott insists it’s all anecdotal, pseudoscientific, and extremely limited in scope. His biggest mistake here is to pull Steven Pinker into the argument, a psychologist whose name alone may tar Diamond’s book in the eyes of anthropologists who share Scott’s ideology, but for anyone else, especially if they’ve actually read Pinker’s work, that name lends further credence to Diamond’s case. (Pinker has actually done the math on whether your chances of dying a violent death are better or worse in different types of society.) Scott writes,

Having chosen some rather bellicose societies (the Dani, the Yanomamo) as illustrations, and larded his account with anecdotal evidence from informants, he reaches the same conclusion as Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: we know, on the basis of certain contemporary hunter-gatherers, that our ancestors were violent and homicidal and that they have only recently (very recently in Pinker’s account) been pacified and civilised by the state. Life without the state is nasty, brutish and short.

In reality, both Diamond and Pinker rely on evidence from a herculean variety of sources going well beyond contemporary ethnographies. To cite just one example Scott neglects to mention, an article by Samuel Bowles published in the journal Science in 2009 examines the rates of death by violence at several prehistoric sites and shows that they’re startlingly similar to those found among modern hunter-gatherers. Insofar as Scott even mentions archeological evidence, it's merely to insist on its worthlessness. Anyone who reads The World until Yesterday after reading Scott’s review will be astonished by how nuanced Diamond’s section on violence actually is. Taking up almost a hundred pages, it is far more insightful and better supported than the essay that purports to undermine it. The section also shows, contra Scott, that Diamond is well aware of all the difficulties and dangers of trying to arrive at conclusions based on any one line of evidence—which is precisely why he follows as many lines as are available to him.

However, even if we accept that traditional societies really are more violent, it could still be the case that tribal conflicts are caused, or at least intensified, through contact with large-scale societies. In order to make this argument, though, political-activist anthropologists must shift their position from claiming that no evidence of violence exists to claiming that the evidence is meaningless or misleading. Scott writes,

No matter how one defines violence and warfare in existing hunter-gatherer societies, the greater part of it by far can be shown to be an effect of the perils and opportunities represented by a world of states. A great deal of the warfare among the Yanomamo was, in this sense, initiated to monopolise key commodities on the trade routes to commercial outlets (see, for example, R. Brian Ferguson’s Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, a strong antidote to the pseudo-scientific account of Napoleon Chagnon on which Diamond relies heavily).

It’s true that Ferguson puts forth a rival theory for warfare among the Yanomamö—and the political-activist anthropologists hold him up as a hero for doing so. (At least one Yanomamö man insisted, in response to Chagnon’s badgering questions about why they fought so much, that it had nothing to do with commodities—they raided other villages for women.) But Ferguson’s work hardly settles the debate. Why, for instance, do the patterns of violence appear in traditional societies all over the world, regardless of which state societies they’re in supposed contact with? And state governments don’t just influence violence in an upward direction. As Diamond points out, “State governments routinely adopt a conscious policy of ending traditional warfare: for example, the first goal of 20th-Century Australian patrol officers in the Territory of Papua New Guinea, on entering a new area, was to stop warfare and cannibalism” (133-4).

What is the proper moral stance anthropologists should take with regard to people living in traditional societies? Should they make it their priority to report the findings of their inquiries honestly? Or should they prioritize their role as advocates for indigenous people’s rights? These are fair questions—and they take on a great deal of added gravity when you consider the history, not to mention the ongoing examples, of how indigenous peoples have suffered at the hands of peoples from Western societies. The answers hinge on how much influence anthropologists currently have on policies that impact traditional societies and on whether science, or Western culture in general, is by its very nature somehow harmful to indigenous peoples. Scott’s and Davis’s positions on both of these issues are clear. Scott writes,

Contemporary hunter-gatherer life can tell us a great deal about the world of states and empires but it can tell us nothing at all about our prehistory. We have virtually no credible evidence about the world until yesterday and, until we do, the only defensible intellectual position is to shut up.

Scott’s argument begs two further questions: when and from where can we count on the “credible evidence” to start rolling in? His “only defensible intellectual position” isn’t that we should reserve judgment or hold off trying to arrive at explanations; it’s that we shouldn’t bother trying to judge the merits of the evidence and that any attempts at explanation are hopeless. This isn’t an intellectual position at all—it’s an obvious endorsement of anti-intellectualism. What Scott really means is that he believes making questions about our hunter-gatherer ancestors off-limits is the only morally defensible position.

            It’s easy to conjure up mental images of the horrors inflicted on native peoples by western explorers and colonial institutions. But framing the history of encounters between peoples with varying levels of technological advancement as one long Manichean tragedy of evil imperialists having their rapacious and murderous way with perfectly innocent noble savages risks trivializing important elements of both types of culture. Traditional societies aren’t peaceful utopias. Western societies and Western governments aren’t mere engines of oppression. Most importantly, while it may be true that science can be—and sometimes is—coopted to serve oppressive or exploitative ends, there’s nothing inherently harmful or immoral about science, which can just as well be used to counter arguments for the mistreatment of one group of people by another. To anthropologists like Davis and Scott, human behavior is something to stand in spiritual awe of, indigenous societies something to experience religious guilt about, in any case not anything to profane with dirty, mechanistic explanations. But, for all their declamations about the evils of thinking that any particular culture can in any sense be said to be inferior to another, they have a pretty dim view of our own.

            It may be simple pride that makes it hard for Scott to accept that gold miners in Brazil weren’t sitting around waiting for some prominent anthropologist at the University of Michigan, or UCLA, or Yale, to publish an article in Science about Yanomamö violence to give them proper justification to use their superior weapons to displace the people living on prime locations. The sad fact is, if the motivation to exploit indigenous peoples is strong enough, and if the moral and political opposition isn’t sufficient, justifications will be found regardless of which anthropologist decides to publish on which topics. But the crucial point Scott misses is that our moral and political opposition cannot be founded on dishonest representations or willful blindness regarding the behaviors, good or bad, of the people we would protect. To understand why this is so, and because Scott embarrassed himself with his childishness, embarrassed The London Review which failed to properly fact-check his article, and did a disservice to the discipline of anthropology by attempting to shout down an honest and humane scholar he disagrees with, it's only fitting that we turn to a passage in The World until Yesterday Scott should have paid more attention to. “I sympathize with scholars outraged by the mistreatment of indigenous peoples,” Diamond writes,

But denying the reality of traditional warfare because of political misuse of its reality is a bad strategy, for the same reason that denying any other reality for any other laudable political goal is a bad strategy. The reason not to mistreat indigenous people is not that they are falsely accused of being warlike, but that it’s unjust to mistreat them. The facts about traditional warfare, just like the facts about any other controversial phenomenon that can be observed and studied, are likely eventually to come out. When they do come out, if scholars have been denying traditional warfare’s reality for laudable political reasons, the discovery of the facts will undermine the laudable political goals. The rights of indigenous people should be asserted on moral grounds, not by making untrue claims susceptible to refutation. (153-4)