Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 12, 2009

Jared Diamond, the New Yorker Magazine, and blood feuds in PNG: conclusion

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

For Diamond, the male bower bird makes art in order to pass on his genes

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.


  1. Thank you so much for this essay series. I learned a lot and although my late husband Steve Gould isn’t here, I am confident, even though I am no expert, that he would have enjoyed them too as the points are well argued and have splashes of humor to boot.

    It is truly odd from my perspective that my and my team’s research led to this discovery that Diamond’s general claims for his revenge theory were unsupported by the facts that he wrongly asserted. I only say it is odd because to outsiders the circumstances provide the false appearance that I am somehow following up on Steve’s work–even, perhaps, carrying a torch.

    I would opposed to carrying on Steve’s fight(s). I agree with you and Steve in the general principles laid out here. But in truth, since I know very little about biology and evolution –that was Steve’s life–I would be of little use as a torch bearer. Steve and I shared a common interest in the general history and culture of a science and it’s connections to art and representations, creativity and optical illusions.

    Frankly, I can’t even remember Steve saying anything much about Diamond. I wasn’t interested enough in the subject to bother to read Diamond’s books. I think I may have met him once?

    What I do know now is from the past year of looking at this case.

    Diamond, as judged by his lack of interest in knowing and pursuing the truth or the well-being and safety of his single informant, Daniel Wemp, informs me that at least in this case, in this past year, he has clearly and shamelessly abandoned both scientific method and his sense of humanity.

    Comment by Rhonda R Shearer — May 12, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

  2. Sorry for typo –it should be “I would not be opposed to carrying on Steve’s fight(s).”

    Comment by Rhonda R Shearer — May 12, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

  3. Applying sociobiological thinking to human societies is a perilous task. But the sociobiology of the New World Order must be revealed!!

    Comment by Heresiarch — May 12, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

  4. It may not be de rigueur to talk about genetic differences in intelligence, but that doesn’t make them disappear. So many other traits are unevenly distributed; why should intelligence be an exception? It’s a ridiculous taboo that won’t help anyone pass algebra.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — May 15, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

  5. Thanks again for this series on Diamond. I’ve long had issues with his material ever since I first skimmed through the book and read the reviews, but didn’t have the time to delve into it and nail it down. I saw him speak once and it confirmed my thinking. Your point on “the rich will perish along with the poor” is exactly on point with his “Collapse” and this theme was very strong in his talk. The nail in the coffin was when he answered a audience question on why China didn’t develop capitalism while Europe did. First, boiling it down to geography is the weakest explaination I’ve ever heard. Second, as soon as he framed ‘winning’ and ‘loosing’ with capitalist development or the lack of it, it clearly places his line of inquiry into the camp of classic orientalism: Why did China, the Middle East and India not become like Europe?

    Another theme I believe present is that of European society falling into decay and becoming like the barbarians of the world (ie brown people). Notice in history the Roman empire ‘declines’ but the Mayan empire ‘collapses.’ But if you look at each, you would find that each occured over a process of 80 or so years from what I understand. And while we might look back at Rome and give social explaination such as imperial overreach, when looking at the Mayans or other ‘barbaric’ peoples the exaplaination is much more moral or charactor based (greedy rulers, lack of concern for their ecosystem, etc). I feel like I could explain this better but lack the time and time to investigate this further.

    Anyways, great job.

    Comment by adamfreedom — May 19, 2009 @ 11:30 am

  6. […] another celebrity liberal defender of imperialism, Jared Diamond, has recently stumbled into a self exposure so comical and undeniable his last loyal champions are panting with their […]

    Pingback by Slovitzia, Capital of the 21st Century « Le Colonel Chabert — May 29, 2009 @ 11:30 am

  7. Let me first say that, if true, Diamond probably did commit an ethical breach by openly revealing the identities of the individuals in his New Yorker story. Probably won’t able to get him on anything legal either way, but by modern anthropological / social research standards, sure, kind of a dick move.

    That being said, I am really turned off by the circus-clown ideological prism being used to interpret the implications of Diamond’s overall body of work here. How you got from Diamond’s books to the statement “the natives had to be civilized, even at the point of a bayonet” literally hurts my brain trying to follow.

    First, violence and warfare ARE prominent in PNG tribal life. It’s not like this sort of thing doesn’t happen. From a followup article on this controversy in Science: “it is true that the tribes of PNG do practice revenge warfare, says [Pauline] Wiessner, who has studied war in PNG’s Enga Province, just north of the region where Wemp and Mandingo live. In Enga, more than 300 tribal wars have taken the lives of nearly 4000 people since 1991.” Diamond would be well aware of this reality, and even if the stories Daniel Wemp told Diamond did turn out to be untrue, the fact that these things happen remains accurate. For the moment, I will read your erroneous claim with respect to mass violence (that “none existed”) is a simple mistake.

    Second, if you actually read GGS, you’d notice that he points out (in irritating regularity, actually) that providing an explanation for how broad-scale patterns of inequality and development came about is not the same as providing an excuse. Frankly, I found the book itself definitively anti-racist in its intent and effect. I thought this was a redundant thing to even have to say, but I suppose after reading your essay that some people have more difficulty than others making this distinction of explanation vs. excuse-making.

    Your thesis seems to be that “socio-biological” explanations can be used to rationalize bad behaviour and absolve past injustices. I grant this this might be true to some extent, though I would sharply disagree with you on the actual extent. Even so, the possibility of such a rationalization by racists I think does not disqualify Diamond from (a) fruitfully seeking to answer the question scientifically (i.e. “how did the pattern inequalities we now live with come about?”), and (b) being ultimately correct.

    I guess Diamond is supposed to be racist because he provides an “excuse” for colonialism or whatever structure of domination is in style with socialists these days, whether inadvertent or no. Do you believe that Diamond and this terrifying “socio-biology” that you try to associate with him are threatening because they take significance away from individual choice and emphasize the role of the environment in which these decision-makers make their choices?

    Think about how you would answer this.

    Because I would argue that if that is indeed your problem with his perspective, you are in fact arguing with science altogether. Science strives to discern the mechanisms and dynamics of systems, whether atoms, forests, or societies. This is exactly what Diamond tries to do in GGS and elsewhere. While I grant that he probably dropped the ball on the details in several well-publicized places, do you question the entire project to which he is trying to contribute? Because what a crazy world that must be, where facts can only tolerated when they conform with one’s ideology.

    People are animals, and all of our choices are the product of some combination of our biology, environment, and individual histories. Diamond et al. (and me, practicing scientist) are just filling in the details. Live with it. It is possible to both understand the origins of inequality and also act to mitigate them. Try it.

    Comment by dan — May 30, 2009 @ 10:03 am

  8. #7: How you got from Diamond’s books to the statement “the natives had to be civilized, even at the point of a bayonet” literally hurts my brain trying to follow.

    Reply: Try standing on your head.

    #7: First, violence and warfare ARE prominent in PNG tribal life. It’s not like this sort of thing doesn’t happen.

    Reply: I don’t doubt that. What I reject is Diamond’s claim that such violence exceeded that of the Nazis, not to speak of American imperialism.

    #7: Second, if you actually read GGS, you’d notice that he points out (in irritating regularity, actually) that providing an explanation for how broad-scale patterns of inequality and development came about is not the same as providing an excuse.

    Reply: It is not so much that is providing an excuse for inequality. It is more that he is allowing the imperialists off the hook. A Marxist analysis would, for example, explain the rise of steel in Great Britain as a function of its ability to subdue and colonize India and China, two societies that were superior to Britain in the early stages of capitalism. Without the wealth expropriated from the colonies and slave labor, British steel would have not gained the prominence it did. With respect, however, to providing excuses, there is no doubt that the white middle-class consumers of GGS do feel absolved after reading the book. It was only an accident that they have all the “cargo”.

    #7: Do you believe that Diamond and this terrifying “socio-biology” that you try to associate with him are threatening because they take significance away from individual choice and emphasize the role of the environment in which these decision-makers make their choices?

    Reply: Sociobiology is garbage. I urge you to read Richard Lewontin’s book but fear I am wasting my time.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — May 30, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  9. #8: I urge you to read Richard Lewontin’s book

    Which book?

    Comment by stoatmusic — June 4, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

  10. Not in Our Genes.


    Comment by louisproyect — June 4, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  11. “With respect, however, to providing excuses, there is no doubt that the white middle-class consumers of GGS do feel absolved after reading the book. It was only an accident that they have all the “cargo”.”

    He is ultimately saying it’s just luck the white people have all the power. But not as an excuse for imperialism. He hardly talks about imperialism. He says it was luck as opposed to the rarely spoken anymore but still secretly believed idea that whites are biologically superior. If anything it’s a case against biological determinism. It is ultimately just a lot more nuanced than your own views. He doesn’t think that any admitting of differences whatsoever in people (he opinions that the people of Papua New Guinea are probably more intelligent than Northern Europeans right now thanks to sociobiology for example) necessitates knee jerk cries of “Racism!”

    I do strongly disagree with Diamond’s thoughts about capitalism. But the fact that the book isn’t a Marxist analysis and that Diamond doesn’t go on and on about imperialism and how (obviously) wrong it is doesn’t mean he is some kind of unethical racist monster.

    Comment by emp — January 4, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  12. #11: “He hardly talks about imperialism.”

    Yeah, that’s a big problem, isn’t it…

    Comment by louisproyect — January 4, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

  13. I suppose so. I think he must not even know actually very much about imperialism?? As I don’t understand how one could be such a believer in capitalism if they understand the extent of imperialism. (How for example the governments of every single Latin American nation were interfered with, installing rightwing dictators, assasinating leftists, etc. The IMF/WB. The resulting increase in poverty…)

    Comment by emp — January 4, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

  14. What is the supporting historical reference for China never having developed “Capitalism”? China had a well developed exchange system where goods were represented by standardized manageable artifacts. Accumulation of such artifacts represented wealth storage. Apart from accounting systems, how did this differ from accumulation of capital in the “West”?

    Comment by Jonathan Taylor — February 5, 2010 @ 8:19 am

  15. […] today’s elites – any responsibility for having created our grotesquely unjust world. As one writer put it, after the book was adapted for the US TV network PBS, his stance means that “a PBS donor can […]

    Pingback by Jared Diamond: 150,000 years ago, humans wouldnt figure on a list of the five most interesting species on Earth — October 24, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

  16. […] one writer put it, after the book [“Guns, Germs, and Steel”] was adapted for the US TV network PBS, his […]

    Pingback by Fuck Jared Diamond | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 26, 2014 @ 6:15 pm

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