Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 3, 2008

Jared Diamond on tribal warfare in New Guinea

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

Jared Diamond

Recently somebody who shares my distaste for Jared Diamond alerted me to an article that appeared in the April 21, 2008 “New Yorker”. Titled “Vengeance is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?”, it is focused on his account of so-called tribal wars in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where Diamond has conducted many field trips studying the flora and fauna, as well as the bestial tribesmen apparently.

Papuan native: key to unlocking wars and ethnic cleansing?

Using interviews with an ostensibly self-confessed killer, who is a member of the Handa clan, the innocent reader is led to believe that the highlands of Papua are a kind of a Rosetta stone for understanding wars and ethnic cleansing. The feuding in the highlands, which usually involve slights such as a pig belonging to one clan ruining the garden of another clan, leads to a steady escalation of Hatfield-McCoy type confrontations that remind Diamond of the worst crimes of the 20th century:

Indeed, his Papuan “confessor’s” bloodlust triggers memories of Diamond’s late father-in-law Jozef Nabel (a Jew) who refused at the list minute to wreak vengeance on Polish villagers who had killed his wife, sister and niece in pursuit of loot. Nabel, who served in a Polish division attached to the Red Army, eventually caught up with the perpetrators but decided at the last minute not to wreak vengeance since the new Polish government would be expected to carry out justice. But by relinquishing control to a higher body, a kind of primitive, almost animal-like satisfaction is lost as Diamond puts it:

My conversations … made me understand what we have given up by leaving justice to the state. In order to induce us to do so, state societies and their associated religions and moral codes teach us that seeking revenge is bad. But, while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discouraged, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged. To a close relative or friend of someone who has been killed or seriously wronged, and to the victims of harm themselves, those feelings are natural and powerful. Many state governments do attempt to grant the relatives of crime victims some personal satisfaction, by allowing them to be present at the trial of the accused, and, in some cases, to address the judge or jury, or even to watch the execution of their loved one’s murderer.

The first thing that leapt out at me when reading Diamond’s article is how devoid of social or economic context it is. You feel that you are reading something out of the Old Testament-but without the deity instructing the Israelis to punish the Egyptians, etc. Diamond makes it clear that such considerations do not interest him. He writes:

Anthropologists debate whether the wars really arise from some deeper underlying ultimate cause, such as land or population pressure, but the participants, when they are asked to name a cause, usually point to a woman or a pig.

Unfortunately, I find Diamond’s reliance on the testimony of his subjects somewhat unreliable given what appears his tendency to put words in the Papuan’s mouth. Now I might be wrong, but somehow I find it far-fetched that a Papuan would have expressed himself to Jared Diamond in the words attributed to him in the New Yorker article:

I admit that the New Guinea Highland way to solve the problem posed by a killing isn’t good. Our way disturbs our day-to-day life; we won’t be comfortable for the rest of our lives; we are always in effect living on the battlefield; and those feelings go on and on in us. The Western way, of letting the government settle disputes by means of the legal system, is a better way. But we could never have arrived at it by ourselves: we were trapped in our endless cycles of revenge killings.

Just try to imagine a Papuan self-confessed killer using these formulations. I can’t. Frankly, it smacks of Jared Diamond using this unfortunate individual as a sock-puppet for his own sociobiological predispositions. Lurking beneath the surface of his article are certain assumptions about a “killer instinct” that fit neatly into the “naked ape” nonsense that flourished once upon a time in the pages of Time Magazine and elsewhere. Despite Diamond’s reputation as a scrupulous biologist, his career involves making exactly the same types of speculations as a Robert Ardrey as I pointed out in one of the installments in my dissection of “Collapse”:

Diamond showed his sympathy for this trend with the publication of “The Third Chimpanzee” in 1993. This exercise in sociobiology (an updated version of the 19th century social Darwinism) includes a chapter titled “The Golden Age That Never Was”… Diamond has many other interesting things to say about any number of subjects. He argues that since animals 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. Diamond also believes that sexual jealousy is an important cause of war: ”It was the seduction (abduction, rape) by Paris of Menelaus’s wife Helen that provoked the Trojan War”. In light of the fact that the Iliad also claims that gods and goddesses took part in the fighting, Wilkie wonders how reliable a guide to history it is.

Unrepentant Marxist that I am, it is incumbent on me to bring up those oh-so-boring issues of land or population pressure. In an article titled “Ol I Skulim Mipela: Contemporary Warfare in the Papua New Guinea Eastern Highlands” that appeared in the Oct. 1984 issue of “Anthropological Quarterly”, George D. Westermark pointed to the introduction of capitalist farming in the region as a prime aggravator of tensions between native peoples forced to compete for fewer and fewer resources. Coffee plantations and cattle ranching promoted by Australians led to less land available for subsistence farming. In other words, the same kinds of pressures that made Rwanda a living hell have also increased in-fighting in the highlands of Papua.

Furthermore, if Jared Diamond was truly interested in reducing the level of violence in New Guinea, he should start with the imperialist companies that have put these kinds of pressures on the indigenous peoples. As somebody with the kinds of connections he has with Chevron, which has seen its profits fattened through drilling in New Guinea, Diamond might persuade the owners of Freeport Copper to take their operations elsewhere given the impact they have had had on the lives of Papuans.

In the 1960s, the Indonesian government sent its troops in to destroy resistance to the Freeport mining that led to the death of at least 45,000 people. Villages were bombed and burned in an effort to break the back of the movement. Any tribal fighting is dwarfed by this kind of wholesale bloodshed.

Another copper company based in Bougainville was just as vicious. Indigenous peoples armed with nothing but bows and arrows went into battle against the multinational that once again relied on the Indonesian government for protection. Forests were cleared in order to establish the copper mine in 1969, leaving hundreds of native peoples landless. Further “economic development” left others without fishing rights. Altogether two hundred and twenty (220) hectares of local forests were poisoned, felled and burnt, and then bulldozed into nearby river, along with tons of rich organic topsoil.

All in all, the people of Papua New Guinea have been subjected to the same kinds of quasi-genocidal onslaughts from Indonesia that the people of East Timor have suffered. Amnesty International and most other human rights organizations agree that at least 100,000 Papuans (one sixth of the total population) have been killed during the occupation. In an effort to exploit the region’s riches, native peoples have been slaughtered and driven into submission. This is the real story, not the Hatfield-McCoy scenario that Jared Diamond titillated his New Yorker audience with.


  1. […] Jared Diamond on tribal warfare in New Guinea […]

    Pingback by Darwiniana » Jared Diamond and stealth sociobiology — November 3, 2008 @ 10:29 pm

  2. You can’t blame the Indonesians for things that happen in Papua New Guinea, which is an independent country. Only West New Guinea, formerly Dutch-controlled, is under the Indonesian thumb.

    The evidence is pretty overwhelming that hunter-gatherers, subsistence agriculturalists, and pastoralists, all without the state, engaged in low-level warfare and feuds, seemingly desultory but with a very high death rate. Violence and oppression didn’t begin with capitalism.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — November 3, 2008 @ 11:41 pm

  3. Grumpy, my problem is not with Indonesia per se. It is with the imperialist system. You are right that violence and oppression did not begin with capitalism, but in the concrete example of Papua the violence carried out by Freeport et al dwarfs anything done in the course of “tribal warfare”. The numbers alleged by Jared Diamond are indeed far fewer than those alleged by the generally reliable Amnesty International.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 4, 2008 @ 12:33 am

  4. “Another copper company based in Bougainville was just as vicious. Indigenous peoples armed with nothing but bows and arrows went into battle against the multinational that once again relied on the Indonesian government for protection.”

    Bougainville is in Papua New Guinea.

    The mine there was shut in 1989, after a local revolt that used weapons considerably more modern than bows and arrows.

    Comment by Alan B — November 4, 2008 @ 8:22 am

  5. Jared Diamond’s treatise sounds like the universal bore in the pub, who has an explanation and solution of stupefyingly moronic simplicity to everything and begins each sentence with “It’s very simple really…”

    The position that “Warfare has been with us since the beginning of time, ergo it is a natural state of mankind” is nothing new. The basis used every time ranges from ancient and tribal societies to mammals and insect colonies. And every time historical & socioeconomical factors are glaringly absent.

    Comment by Antonis — November 4, 2008 @ 10:18 am

  6. Yes the current impact of imperialism, government corruption and collusion etc in PNG is bad. However while not necessarily agreeing totally with diamond, I’m sorry to burst the balloon of your armchair philosophising. As someone who’s lived in png, I can tell you that a lot of the cycles of tribal violence preceded any ‘capitalist’ introduction of farming methods or imperialist invasion. In fact, there’s been efficient farming methods in png for quite a bit longer than capitalism (ie 50,000 years); I don’t know how far back the cycles of violence go but they definitely go pre outside contact. PNG has a different ‘culture’ of violence than the West(endemic tribal warfare in many parts). I’m not going to speculate on the reasons (biological, social, economic or other) that brought it to this place; just to say that it might be better to at least give a little credit to someone who’s lived in or visited the place (like Diamond) rather than speculating when you’ve never even been there.

    Comment by Andrew — January 27, 2009 @ 3:55 am

  7. Using a picture of a “nearly naked native” is condescending. No one in PNG dresses like that anymore. If you are supposedly so concerned about the people of Papua New Guinea, use a picture of a typical Papua New Guinean, not a picture that seems to portray us as naive, stupid, primitive peoples.

    Comment by Jerry Maino — April 20, 2010 @ 12:24 am

  8. So your article seems to claim that warfare is a recent or modern addition to Papua New Guinea, in fact that is exactly how it concludes. I noticed somebody else already commented and made the point that warfare has actually existed for thousands of years in Papua New Guinea. This you concede to(which contradicts your article) and then go on to say that while you do accept that warfare existed there before modern times, it was not “tribal warfare”. So what exactly was it then? Are saying that tribes never went to war against one another there? Also, are you saying that warfare did not sometimes(or most of the time) arise between these various people from very basic causes (like the stealing of a pig)? I honestly don’t think you know what you’re talking about. Tribal societies around the world fought/fight wars over local and escalating feuds, originating from sometimes menial events(Well they may seem menial to us, but are not menial to them). There may have been all sorts of reasons why tribes might have gone to war against one another, but it happened. Also the state DOES take away ones’ ability to have satisfaction through revenge, this is absolutely true. Please explain how this is not true. Perhaps you are not the sort of person who understands what the desire for revenge feels like, but trust me it is a real thing. You seem to be speaking from an extremely narrow, self-satisfied, and ignorant point of view. You don’t seem to know enough about the things you are talking about to make such criticisms as these. The thing is, you just kind of mentioned Jared’s point of view, and sort of made the point that you think it is nonsense, however you never actually explained why you think so. This is nothing more than an attack on a guy you don’t like, who seems to be more profound than you are. You just a hipster and you probably think you are far smarter than you actually are. I put no stock in your opinion.

    Comment by Salvus — August 13, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

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