Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 1, 2014

My previous articles on Jared Diamond

Filed under: Jared Diamond — louisproyect @ 1:17 pm

Someone asked me for links on what I have written about Jared Diamond in the past. Here you go:

The links below are to articles that take up the New Yorker magazine scandal, where Diamond put words in the mouth of a Papuan New Guinea man to the effect that he was killing rival tribesmen to prove his manhood.

Jared Diamond on tribal warfare in New Guinea

Jared Diamond’s libel, part 1

Jared Diamond’s libel, part 2

Jared Diamond’s libel, part 3

Jared Diamond’s libel, conclusion

Latest developments in the Jared Diamond scandal


A detailed rebuttal of “Collapse”.

The collapse of Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond’s Collapse, part one

Jared Diamond’s Collapse, part two

Jared Diamond’s Collapse, part three

Jared Diamond’s Collapse, conclusion


A rebuttal of “Guns, Germs and Steel” based on the PBS series:

PBS series on “Guns, Germs and Steel”: part one

PBS series on “Guns, Germs and Steel”: part two

PBS series on “Guns, Germs and Steel”: part three (conclusion)


And I just stumbled across something I wrote for CounterPunch before I began feuding with Alexander Cockburn:

Jared Diamond, Greenwasher


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.

February 17, 2013

The Comanches and the Yanomami

Filed under: indigenous,Jared Diamond,Yanomami — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Napoleon Chagnon

Almost five years ago to the day, I resolved to begin researching the Comanche Indians of the southern Plains after reading Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”, a novel that was committed to the idea that this tribe (for lack of a better word) was no better than the white settlers who would eventually slaughter them into submission and drive the survivors into reservations. “Blood Meridian” is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

Now, after having read between 4 and 5 thousand pages on the Comanches, I am finally putting together an article for a special issue on indigenous peoples in “Capitalism, Nature, and Socialism”. The last book I am in the progress of reading that will help me finalize my thesis—namely, that the Comanches were bit players in the capitalist transformation of the southern Plains—is David J. Weber’s “Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment”.

On page 76 he gets to the heart of the matter, whether kin-based societies (ie., tribes) were warlike and violent and that “primitive man is a…warrior”. The scholars who defend this view go so far as to say that war is an expression of “human biology”. Other scholars, according to Weber, view warfare as “a response to material conditions in general and to European influences in particular.”

As it turns out Weber’s footnotes mention Brian Ferguson as a leading authority defending the “material conditions” outlook. Just three days ago I had emailed Brian to see if he could recommend any material on the Comanches. I knew of his prior work on Yanomami “warfare”, alluded to in Weber’s notes:

Brian Ferguson offers some of the most compelling arguments that Western contacts generated Native warfare. See, for example, Ferguson, 1900b, 237-57, and Ferguson, 1995, where he makes a case that Yanomamis (Chagnon’s “fierce people” who inhabit a remote mountainous country between Brazil and Venezuela), were not fierce or warlike until European manufactured goods altered their trading relationships with neighboring peoples.

It is more than coincidence that the Chagnon story came up twice this week, once in the Chronicle of Higher Education and now in today’s Sunday NY Times Magazine section. Both articles are geared to the 74 year old anthropologist’s new memoir titled “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists” [Chagnon uses “Yanomamo; other anthropologists prefer “Yanomami”].

I first learned of Chagnon in 2000 when the Chronicle of Higher Education began reporting on a huge controversy that had erupted over the publication of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, a book that charged Chagnon with a number of crimes. Chief among them was  a genocide based on the supposed administration of a faulty measles vaccine designed to support an experiment on native resistance to the disease.

The Tierney-Chagnon wars are reviewed in considerable detail in the article titled “Who are the Real Savages?” by Emily Eakin that is surprisingly objective. Given the NY Times’s tendency to side with the establishment, I fully expected a whitewash of Chagnon. He instead comes across as fairly despicable even if he is cleared at the end of the article as being mostly wronged by Tierney. In my view, Tierney’s biggest mistake was the measles vaccine accusation that was far too much an expression of conspiracist thinking. Most of the damage that Chagnon did to the Yanomami was attributable to his own bullheaded insensitivity rather than conscious evil. This excerpt from Eakin’s article will give you an idea of what he was up to:

He spent his first few months trying to learn the villagers’ names and kinship ties, a standard practice at the time and a particular challenge in this case, given the Yanomami’s name taboos: to call someone by his name is often an insult, and the names of the dead aren’t supposed to be uttered at all. Chagnon rewarded informants with fish hooks, matches and, for men who really dished, knives and machetes. (The Yanomami made no metal tools themselves.) Then, on a visit to another village, Chagnon cautiously mentioned the names of the Bisaasi-teri headman and his wife. The residents burst out laughing. He realized that he’d been had: the names he’d been given were slang for genitalia.

I actually prefer Chagnon’s telling of the story in a 1988 Science magazine titled “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population”. It is almost enough for me to feel kindly toward the elderly sociobiologist:

My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours’ walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling followed. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt.” It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called ‘long dong’ and his brother ‘eagle shit.’ The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath.”

The title of Chagnon’s memoir should give you a good idea of where he is coming from. “Noble Savages” is the term coined by Rousseau that people such as Napoleon Chagnon hoped to debunk through an empirical study of a tribal people who made war in order to take women as booty. By having access to multiple sexual partners, the “savage” had a better chance of propagating his genes as Eakins puts it:

Chagnon believed that biology was essential to understanding the tribe’s warfare over women. After all, more women meant more opportunities to pass on genes through reproduction — a basic tenet of evolutionary thought. But biology had no place in the cultural-materialist paradigm. And explanations of human behavior that relied on evolutionary theory were typically met with suspicion in anthropological circles, a legacy of the American eugenics movement, which invoked Darwinian ideas to justify racist efforts to “improve” the gene pool. “The last bastions of resistance to evolutionary theory,” Chagnon told me, “are organized religion and cultural anthropology.”

The article cites Steven Pinker as an expert for the defense:

Scientists have since endorsed Chagnon’s Science article. “It shouldn’t be a shocking finding,” Steven Pinker, the Harvard evolutionary psychologist who cites the paper in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” told me. “As a pattern in history, it’s well documented.” Pinker said that he was troubled by the notion that social scientists should suppress unflattering information about their subjects because it could be exploited by others. “This whole tactic is a terrible mistake: always putting your moral action in jeopardy of empirical findings,” he told me. “Once you have the equation that the Yanomami are nonviolent and deserve to be protected, the converse is that if they are violent they don’t deserve to be protected.”

For those who haven’t kept track of the science wars, “evolutionary psychologist” is just another way of saying sociobiologist, a term that has become tarnished over the years for its obvious connection to social Darwinism. Pinker’s views about the warlike character of pre-class societies have been echoed by Jared Diamond, whose new book “The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” will likely repeat the points he has made in the past.

On February 3rd the Guardian reported on the reaction of Survival International to Diamond’s new book:

Survival accuses Diamond of applying studies of 39 societies, of which 10 are in his realm of direct experience in New Guinea and neighbouring islands, to advance a thesis that tribal peoples across the world live in a state of near-constant warfare.

“It’s a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us,” said Survival’s Jonathan Mazower. “It simply isn’t true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people’s rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative.”

In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that “tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace”. He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as “primitive brutish barbarians” or as “noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes”

Of course Diamond raises the “noble savage” canard as if his opponents think that indigenous peoples lived in a Garden of Eden. In reality the primary focus among Marxists, or their closest relatives cultural materialists like Marvin Harris, is on the social and economic factors that lead to peace or violence. To invoke the term “noble savage” is tantamount to a kind of essentialism that people like Brian Ferguson are anxious to eschew at all costs.

Like the Yanomamo, the Comanches of the 19th century have become poster boys for those who would line up with Pinker, Diamond and Chagnon, even if they are not so committed to evolutionary psychology. Two recent scholarly books “Comanche Empire” and “War of a Thousand Deserts” are replete with descriptions of wanton Comanche violence. Reports of scalping, rape, kidnapping, and murder appear on every few pages.

While the authors of “Comanche Empire” and “War of a Thousand Deserts” are unknown to the average American, a recent book by a journalist that obviously draws from their scholarship was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a best seller. This is how author S.C. Gwynne described the Comanches in “Empire of the Summer Moon”:

Thus some chroniclers ignore the brutal side of Indian life altogether; others, particularly historians who suggest that before white men arrived Indian-to-Indian warfare was a relatively bloodless affair involving a minimum of bloodshed, deny it altogether.16 But certain facts are inescapable: American Indians were warlike by nature, and they were warlike for centuries before Columbus stumbled upon them. They fought over hunting grounds, to be sure, but they also made a good deal of brutal and bloody war that was completely unnecessary. The Comanches’ relentless and never-ending pursuit of the hapless Tonkawas was a good example of this, as was their harassment of Apaches long after they had been driven from the buffalo grounds. Such behavior was common to all Indians in the Americas. The more civilized agrarian tribes of the east, in fact, were far more adept at devising lengthy and agonizing tortures than the Comanches or other plains tribes.17 The difference lay in the Plains Indians’ treatment of female captives and victims. Rape or abuse, including maiming, of females had existed when eastern tribes had sold captives as slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But that practice had been long ago abandoned. Some tribes, including the giant Iroquois federation, had never treated women captives that way.’ Women could be killed, and scalped. But not gang-raped. What happened to the Parker captives could only have happened west of the Mississippi. If the Comanches were better known for cruelty and violence, that was because, as one of history’s great warring peoples, they were in a position to inflict far more pain than they ever received.

Most important, the Indians themselves saw absolutely nothing wrong with these acts. For westering settlers, the great majority of whom believed in the idea of absolute good and evil, and thus of universal standards of moral behavior, this was nearly impossible to understand. Part of it had to do with the Comanches’ theory of the nature of the universe, which was vastly different from that of the civilized West. Comanches had no dominant, unified religion, or anything like a single God. Though in interviews after their defeat they often seemed to go along with the idea of a “Great Spirit,” Comanche ethnographers Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel were extremely skeptical of any creation myths that involved a single spirit or an “evil one.”19 “We never gave much consideration to creation,” said an old Comanche named Post Oak Jim in an interview in the 1930s. “We just knew we were here. Our thoughts were mostly directed toward understanding the spirits.”‘

The Comanches lived in a world alive with magic and taboo; spirits lived everywhere, in rocks, trees, and in animals. The main idea of their religion was to find a way to harness the powers of these spirits. Such powers thus became “puha,” or “medicine.” There was no dogma, no priestly class to impose systematic religion, no tendency to view the world as anything but a set of isolated episodes, with no deeper meaning. There were behavioral codes, to be sure—a man could not steal another man’s wife without paying penalties, for example. But there was no ultimate good and evil: just actions and consequences; injuries and damages due.

Enemies, meanwhile, were enemies, and the rules for dealing with them had come down through a thousand years. A Comanche brave who captured a live Ute would torture him to death without question. It was what every-one had always done, what the Sioux did to the Assiniboine, what the Crow did to the Blackfeet. A Comanche captured by a Ute would expect to receive exactly the same treatment (thus making him weirdly consistent with the idea of the Golden Rule), which was why Indians always fought to their last breath on battlefields, to the astonishment of Europeans and Americans. There were no exceptions. Of course, the same Indians also believed, quite as deeply, in blood vengeance. The life of the warrior tortured to death would be paid for with another torture-killing if possible, preferably even more hideous than the first. This, too, was seen as fair play by all Indians in the Americas.

What explains such a radical difference in the moral systems of the Comanches and the whites they confronted? Part of it has to do with the relative progress of civilizations in the Americas compared to the rest of the world. The discovery of agriculture, which took place in Asia and the Middle East, roughly simultaneously, around 6,500 BC, allowed the transition from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to the higher civilizations that followed. But in the Americas, farming was not discovered until 2,500 BC, fully four thousand years later and well after advanced cultures had already sprung up in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This was an enormous gap. Once the Indians figured out how to plant seeds and cultivate crops, civilizations in North and South America progressed at roughly the same pace as they had in the Old World. Cities were built. Highly organized social structures evolved. Pyramids were designed. Empires were assembled, of which the Aztecs and Incas were the last. (As in the Old World, nomadism and hunter-gatherer cultures persisted alongside the higher civilizations.) But the Americas, isolated and in any case without the benefit of the horse or the ox, could never close the time gap. They were three to four millennia behind the Europeans and Asians, and the arrival of Columbus in 1492 guaranteed that they would never catch up. The nonagrarian Plains Indians, of course, were even further behind. Thus the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and Newton and aboriginal horsemen from the buffalo plains happened as though in a time warp—as though the former were looking backward thousands of years at premoral, pre-Christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves. The Celtic peoples, ancestors of huge numbers of immigrants to America in the nineteenth century, offer a rough parallel. Celts of the fifth century BC were described by Herodotus as “fierce warriors who fought with seeming disregard for their own lives.”‘ Like Comanches they were savage, filthy, wore their hair long, and had a hideous keening battle cry. They were superb horsemen, inordinately fond of alcohol, and did terrible things to their enemies and captives that included decapitation, a practice that horrified the civilized Greeks and Romans!’ The old Celts, forebears of the Scots-Irish who formed the vanguard of America’s western migrations, would have had no “moral” problem with the Comanche practice of torture.

The civilized Greeks and Romans? Only someone steeped in the imperialist and racist ideology of a republic borne from the savage Greco-Roman bowels could ever make such a statement.

The best antidote to this way of thinking is a BBC documentary narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones that can be see in part here:

Jones quotes the words of a Celtic general as found in the writings of Tacitus. Although Tacitus was a Roman, he was not above allowing one of the “barbarians” to make an eloquent case for his people. It includes the famous dictum: “They built a wilderness (or solitude) and call it peace”, an apt description of Iraq today.

 To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant).

Chagnon’s memoir was eviscerated in the Sunday Times Book Review.

April 28, 2010

Rebutting Jared Diamond’s Savage Portrait

Filed under: Jared Diamond — louisproyect @ 3:06 pm

The Pig in a Garden Series
April 28, 2010   05:59 am EST
Rebutting Jared Diamond’s Savage Portrait:
What tribal societies can tell us about justice and liberty
by Paul Sillitoe & Mako John Kuwimb

Handa Moses Akol (white beard & shirt with necktie in the middle) marching a “holy march” with Ps. Henep Soap Lungil (with white shirt, left front) – two former enemies walking together united in the “holy march” leading their Christian flock at Punim near Nipa. As far as the eye could see, Christians are marching behind the banner. (Photo: MJ Kuwimb)
The Pig in a Garden: Jared Diamond and The New Yorker Series

Art Science Research Laboratory’s StinkyJournalism.org is publishing a series of essays on the controversy surrounding Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article, “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance is Ours.” The essay series titled, The Pig in a Garden: Jared Diamond and The New Yorker, is written by ethics scholars in the fields of anthropology and communications, as well as journalists, environmental scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists, et al. Paul Sillitoe & Mako John Kuwimb’s essay is tenth in the series.

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Introduction to the revenge ethic

How do tribal communities in developing countries without functioning police, judges, law courts and prisons ensure social stability?  This question is of perennial interest to anyone familiar with tribal societies.  It is difficult for those of us familiar with such state institutions of law enforcement to imagine how people in tribal environments create order, particularly in dense populations like that of the New Guinea Highlands which also prizes individual political autonomy.  The popular image – traceable to Renaissance times, when Europeans first encountered tribal peoples – is of savages condemned to disorderly, even anarchic lives of constant violence and frequent bloodletting.  A recent example of this image is portrayed and promulgated by Jared Diamond in “Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” published in the The New Yorker, April 21, 2008.

We seek to refute this portrayal in general and Diamond’s article in particular, which we believe amounts to nothing less than a betrayal. We were prompted to do this by the defamation of friends and relatives in the Was Valley of the Southern Highlands Province (SHP) of Papua New Guinea (PNG) who have, in Diamond’s article, been cast in such a caricature of tribal life as inveterate murderers, plunderers and rapists living in virtual chaos.

It is astonishing that media outlets still grant space to such a view of tribal life after a century of anthropological research has debunked it.  Stateless or acephalous (headless – i.e. without authoritative officeholders) polities have long attracted attention and we have accounts of fascinating arrangements that substitute for central government.  The Highlands of New Guinea have featured prominently in furthering our understanding of such tribal constitutions.  So here we go, yet again, to rebut the savage misrepresentation.

read full article

April 19, 2010

The Collapse Of Jared Diamond

Filed under: Ecology,Jared Diamond — louisproyect @ 2:12 pm

The Collapse Of Jared Diamond

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, Edited by Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee, Cambridge University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-521-73366-3, 372 pages.

(Swans – April 19, 2010) There are few professors with a higher profile than Jared Diamond, whose 1997 Guns, Germs and Steel (referred to hereafter as G, G & S) enjoyed blockbuster bestseller status and whose appearances on PBS have made him an instantly recognizable figure. With his avuncular beard, Diamond is the perfect figure to explain to middle-class television audiences why some people are on top and others are on the bottom. As the PBS Web site on G, G & S puts it, he will answer “Why were Europeans the ones to conquer so much of our planet?”

The way he answers this question has convinced some people on the left that he is “one of us” since it rejects the kind of racism that 19th century defenders of Empire espoused. Diamond says that it is not in the white man’s genes that he rules over people of color. Instead it is only a geographical accident that Europe and the United States became hegemons. If, for example, the Incas had access to horses rather than the llama, they might have become major world powers. While it is arguably a mark of progress that the intelligentsia no longer considers people of color to be closer to the apes than to homo sapiens, the net effect of Diamond’s grand narrative is to relieve the privileged men and women of the imperialist societies of any sense of responsibility for the suffering of the system’s victims. After reading G, G & S, they might say to themselves: There, but for the grace of geography, go I.

In 2005, Diamond came out with Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, another ambitious book geared to a mass audience. Long associated with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Diamond was finally getting around to answering another Big Question now that he had settled the issue of why the U.S. and Western Europe ruled the world. This time he would analyze why some societies suffered ecological collapse, a problem that is also very much on the mind of the PBS audience and all other solid middle-class people worrying about their future. After all, what good would it do to sit on top of the world when it was facing environmental destruction?

As was the case with G, G & S, Collapse was universally regarded as a prophetic and progressive manifesto. But unlike the earlier book, this one was less deterministic. Geography had little to do with, for example, the failure of the Haitians to succeed as the Dominicans did on the very same island of Hispaniola. How could one part of the island be an ecological disaster while the other half was a virtual Garden of Eden? The answer could be found in the choices made by the people themselves. While the Incas could not be blamed for lacking horses, the Haitians could be blamed for deforestation — or so it would seem.

read full article

November 2, 2009

The latest developments in the Jared Diamond scandal

Filed under: Jared Diamond — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

Jared Diamond

There have been some important developments in the legal and political struggle to make Jared Diamond and New Yorker magazine pay for their defamation of Papua New Guinea highlander Daniel Wemp, whom Diamond falsely named as a killer in its pages.

For the latest, check Rhonda Shearer’s Stinky Journalism website where you can find one recent article dealing with the legal aspects and another on the politics. In the former article, titled Jared Diamond, The New Yorker Deny All: New Guinea Tribesmen Wemp and Mandingo File Amended Libel Lawsuit, Katie Rolnick brings us up to date on where the suit stands today:

Last Friday, New York attorneys Jack Litman and Richard Asche filed an amended complaint for their clients New Guinea Tribesmen Daniel Wemp and Isum Mandingo in the New York State Supreme Court.

Wemp was the main source and character in Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article, “Vengeance is Ours,” in which Diamond depicted Papua New Guinean Wemp and his co-plaintiff Isum Mandingo, as murderers. Previously, Wemp — who claims that because of Diamond’s story, he cannot return to his PNG highlands village — and Mandingo sought $10 million in damages from Diamond and Advance Publications Inc., The New Yorker’s publisher, both of whom were named as co-defendants on the suit.

In September, 2009, following their original suit filed in April, 2009, Wemp and Mandingo served Diamond and Advance Publications with an amended complaint (as opposed to filing through the court system). When attorneys for the defendants filed an answer with the New York State Supreme Court last Wednesday October 14, 2009, Litman (a highly acclaimed criminal trial lawyer whose clients have included Robert Chambers) proceeded by filing the amended compliant with the Court on Friday, October 16, 2009.

According to Forbes magazine, Wemp and Mandingo’s 30-page amended suit details what they claim to be false and inaccurate information in Diamond’s story. “The latest filing identifies 24 separate passages in the story Wemp and Mandingo say are bunk. For example: Diamond’s account says 30 people lost their lives during a three-year clan war that began after a pig ransacked someone’s garden. The complaint says only four people died, the war lasted three months and the conflict didn’t start over a pig in a garden, but an argument over a card game. The filing claims Wemp wasn’t even a participant in the clan war: “At the time of the fighting, Wemp was working some 200 miles away at the coast, in a city called Madang.”

For those who still might have some illusions in Jared Diamond’s scholarly credentials (at least on human beings; he is much more reliable when writing about birds), they would be shattered by Valerie Alia’s Jared Diamond in the Rough: Media, Misrepresentation, and Indigenous People.  Alia’s article does something I think is essential for putting this scandal into perspective. She shows that demonizing native peoples is a very old story:

In 1991, the national British newspaper, The Telegraph, sent a team of journalists to Holman Island in the Canadian Arctic to prepare a photo essay for its weekend magazine. Headlined “Dressed to Kill: Hunting with the Eskimos of Holman Island,” it told thousands of readers that an Inuit hunter has “no code of honour” and “is merciless and self-interested, gathering food only for himself and his family …” That was pure fabrication. The strong sense of community, interdependence, and centuries-old Inuit food-sharing system are well-documented in academic studies and Inuit oral histories.

The story mentions a “young white man who stepped off a train to stretch his legs,” whose “frozen body was discovered the following spring.” Perhaps someone had a joke at the journalist’s expense. Or maybe the journalist just made it up. Either way, he never checked the facts, and the editor never verified them. No one has ever stepped off a train at Holman – the nearest railhead is more than a thousand miles away

While the fight for native rights has advanced in recent years, largely due to the efforts of activists in groups like Survival International, there is still a large reservoir of hostility that can only be attributed to 5 centuries of colonialism. In seeking to marginalize indigenous peoples often to the point of genocide, the colonizers bent on wholesale extraction of minerals from native homelands, it was convenient to turn the victim into the criminal and the criminal into the victim. What better way to make the European or American invader look enlightened than to turn his victims into wanton killers. In Diamond’s New Yorker article, he compares people like Daniel Wemp to a Nazi storm-trooper and argues that Papua New Guinea was “rescued” from tribal warfare once the British came in and put the savages under their control. Of course this killed two birds with one stone since it made it all the more easy to extract minerals from the soil without interference.

If you click https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/category/jared-diamond/, you will find all my articles dealing with this latest violation of scholarship and progressive values by Jared Diamond but this does not exhaust my inventory of critiques of the UCLA superstar professor. And if you go to http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/my_ecology.htm, you will find a series of articles on “Collapse” and “Guns, Germs and Steel”, two of his best known books and a harbinger of the polluted nonsense that would make their appearance in the New Yorker Magazine. Despite his reputation as a fair-minded friend of stone age peoples, he is anything but.

For those who have been reading my series of posts on Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomami (I will be putting this on the front burner shortly), you will be aware that many of the same issues are involved. Like Diamond, Chagnon had a vested ideological interest in making these Amazon rainforest Indians look like something that walked out of a horror movie. Both Chagnon and Diamond adhere to a view within the dubious sociobiology discipline that amounts to an update of Hobbes. They argue that stone age peoples, unimpeded by courts and cops, have an unbridled appetite for mayhem in pursuit of the basest instinct, namely to control and own female bodies in order to spread their genes. This is a neo-Darwinian worldview that people such as the late Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin have eviscerated and one that refuses to go away because it satisfies an imperative of late capitalism, namely that white Europeans and Americans have the right to rule the world in the same way that dinosaurs became extinct: it was an act of nature.

Ironically, as long as the ruling class and its mouthpieces such as Jared Diamond have their way, humanity and nature will face the very extinction they supposedly want to prevent. Ultimately, the collapse that confronts us is one based on the private ownership of the means of production, a system that certainly deserves to become extinct.

May 15, 2009

Science Magazine article on Jared Diamond/New Yorker scandal

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 1:58 pm

Fierce advocate. Media critic Rhonda Roland Shearer (above) charges that Jared Diamond’s article included errors about Daniel Wemp (left).


Science Magazine
May 15, 2009:
Vol. 324. no. 5929, pp. 872 – 874

Science and the Media: ‘Vengeance’ Bites Back At Jared Diamond

by Michael Balter

Two tribesmen from Papua New Guinea are suing the prominent biologist over a popular magazine article about the human thirst for retribution.

In April 2008, well-known biologist and author Jared Diamond penned a dramatic story in The New Yorker magazine, a violent tale of revenge and warfare in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Titled “Vengeance is Ours” and published under the banner “Annals of Anthropology,” the 8000-word article tells the story of a clan war organized by a young Papua New Guinean named Daniel Wemp to avenge the death of Wemp’s uncle, Soll. In Diamond’s telling, the war started in the 1990s over a pig digging up someone’s garden, went on for 3 years, and resulted in the deaths of 29 people. In the end, Diamond wrote, Wemp won: His primary target, a man Diamond referred to as “Isum,” had his spine cut by an arrow and was confined to a wheelchair. Diamond juxtaposed Wemp’s story with that of his own father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor who never exacted retribution for the loss of his family, to draw an overall lesson about the human need for vengeance.

Read full article

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.

May 10, 2009

Jared Diamond, the New Yorker Magazine, and blood feuds in PNG: part 3

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

Anthropologist Rex preparing for a field study

Anthropology studies primitive peoples: a mixed record

Even under the best of circumstances, the study of “primitive peoples” formalized in the academy as anthropology has had a troubled past. This is a function of the power relationships that existed between the conqueror and the conquered as well as the emergence of a social Darwinism in the 19th century that served as the intellectual backdrop for the new discipline.

Major John Wesley Powell, the subject of an admiring biography by radical environmentalist Donald Worster, was named director of a newly created Bureau of Ethnology in 1879 whose task it was to collect data on indigenous peoples. General Francis Walker, former Commissioner of Indian Affairs, supported the initiative wholeheartedly since it was essential for administering the tribes.

Another seminal figure was Frederick Ward Putnam who was the driving force behind Harvard’s Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology until his death in 1915. In 1891 he was asked to collaborate with experts from Powell’s Bureau of Ethnology and the Smithsonian Institution on displays for the Chicago World’s Fair. Indians would be recruited to live in a diorama-like village in the style of the Museum of Natural History in New York, where they would go about their daily lives while the paying customers would watch them like zoo animals.

Another mover and shaker was Daniel G. Brinton, a professor of Ethnology and Archaeology at the Academy of Social Sciences in Philadelphia. He lectured on American Indian linguistics and ethnology from the 1860s onward. Although he paid lip-service to the idea of racial equality, he still managed to claim in an 1895 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “the black, brown and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white…that even with equal cerebral capacity they never could rival its results by equal efforts.”

Against the social Darwinist prejudices of the most powerful figures in the anthropology establishment, Franz Boas rose to the challenge. Arriving in the United States in 1887, he wrote articles rejecting the idea of a linear process from savagery to civilization, a notion that existed unfortunately in cruder versions of Marxism, from Kautsky to Plekhanov. Two years after Brinton’s talk, Boas gave a speech to the same body that delinked racial type and cultural development. He was an outspoken opponent of immigration restriction laws based on racist conceptions of “inferior” peoples invading American society. He was also opposed to anti-Black racism, so much so that he attempted to establish a African-American Museum in Harlem. In 1915, he wrote a letter to a U.S. Senator arguing that woman should enjoy the same privileges as men.

Foreshadowing the way in which anthropologists are being “embedded” in the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan today, Sylvanus Morley, who researched early Mexican society for the Carnegie Institution, spied against the Germans during WWI using his work in Mexico as a cover. Boas, who had already denounced WWI as an imperialist war in the pages of the N.Y. Times, was outraged to discover what Morley and some of his colleagues were up to. He wrote an article in the December 20, 1919 Nation Magazine that did not mince words: “The point against which I wish to enter a vigorous protest is that a number of men who follow science as their profession, men whom I refuse to designate any longer as scientists, have prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies.”

The American Anthropological Association voted for a motion of censure prepared by W.H. Holmes, a director of the Smithsonian Institution. It stated, among other things, that “To question the honor of the President of the United States is a disloyal act.”

Given Boas’s commitment to progressive values, it must be reported that he was capable of the same type of abuse of native peoples that his social Darwinist colleagues routinely engaged in. While at the Museum of Natural History, Boas decided that Eskimos were suitable objects for study, because they represented a kind of “living fossil” that demonstrated a connection to Ice Age hunters in Europe. So eager was he to have some useful specimens that he commissioned Robert Peary to bring back some back from an Arctic expedition on his ship “The Hope.” Some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each in 1896 to view the six Eskimos that Peary retrieved from their home. Later on they were transported to the basement of the Museum in order to be studied. When a reporter asked Boas how they were kept busy, he replied:

Oh, we try to give them little things to keep them busy. Their work doesn’t amount to much, but they have made some carvings, and occupied themselves either indoors or around the place with any employment that suggested itself to them. They do not seem discontented.

Apparently, even someone as enlightened as Franz Boas was capable of descending to the point of view exhibited by Napoleon Chagnon who described his research on the Yanomami as follows:

I don’t look at ‘first contact’ as a coup similar to raping a virgin. It’s a privileged opportunity to learn something precious about another people before they’re snuffed out. I would have given my left testicle to see the Plains Indians in the 15th century, to see what they did, to see what their society was like.

Needless to say, given the power relationships that exist between colonizers and colonized, it is never the Yanomami or the Inuit who come to study Connecticut venture capitalists on the golf course or at their Presbyterian Church. It is always the other way around.

Despite the fact that Jared Diamond’s article on blood feuds was titled “Annals of Anthropology”, there is very little evidence of professional anthropology in the article, a fact that has been alluded to repeatedly on the leftish Savage Minds group blog, a site owned by professionals in the field. To my dismay, the objection to Diamond has seemed more like an expression of professional proprietorship there than sensitivity to indigenous peoples. As Rex puts it (more about him below), “It is one thing to have Diamond’s book show up on the shelves of airport bookstores, but quite another for it to be described as ‘anthropology’ in the subheading of a story in the New Yorker.”

Savage Minds, as you might expect, has been devoting a lot of attention to the Jared Diamond/New Yorker scandal, most of it coming from Alex Golub, the “Rex” above who teaches anthropology at the University of Hawai’i. His dissertation was on mining and indigenous people in highlands Papua New Guinea.

Given his background, it was logical for him to be contacted by the New Yorker Magazine as a kind of outside consultant fact-checker for the Diamond piece. Since the Diamond article is such a mess, inquiring minds might want to know how Rex managed to give this article a clean bill of health. He explained it as a function of having spent only 10 minutes on the phone with the New Yorker.

Indeed, right after it was published, Rex blogged about the article taking issue mostly, as one might expect, with Diamond’s failure “to think anthropologically”. This was manifested by Diamond not having a proper appreciation of pigs in PNG culture, a failure to see that a state structure did exist at the time of the “wars”, etc. Having seen Diamond’s article, my own reaction to it right off the bat was that Diamond was spinning a tale, the biggest tip-off being the words that supposedly came out of Daniel Wemp’s mouth:

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.

Now I don’t have a PhD in anthropology, but I have an advanced degree in street smarts. If you believe that a native in the highlands of Papua New Guinea said anything to Jared Diamond that remotely resembles this, then I have a bridge spanning the East River that I can sell you at a cut rate.

Rex officially took note of the Jared Diamond scandal on April 22nd,  just after the news broke. He starts off by distinguishing himself from the view the affair is about “powerful white outsiders” and “(relatively) supine brown people”. Jeez, I don’t know, but that’s kind of the way it sounds to me. Instead, he feels that it is really about “the radical answerability that researchers increasingly have to the people they depict.” Well, I suppose I have no problems with that either but I can’t get that business about powerful white outsiders out of my mind, especially in light of the history I tried to cover in the beginning of this piece.

In the penultimate paragraph, Rex reveals his real interest in the controversy which strikes me as a bit postmodern. The question of right and wrong is almost secondary, when it comes to the far more interesting question of “reentextualization”, a neologism straight out of that wing of the academy drenched in Bakhtin studies:

Anthropologists understand that social life is a constant process of narration and renarration—and I’ve always felt this is particularly true of highlands PNG, somehow. I am not Melanesian (obviously) but looking at this case through a Melanesian lens it seems to me that there is something complex and fascinating about the way Shearer’s report has elicited a whole series of responses from people in PNG and is yet another step in the ongoing reentextualization of events that happened a decade ago in Southern Highlands as it twists and turns into various forms of compensation/litigation.

More recently, on May 8th, Rex came up with another way to understand the issues that once again elided the question of “powerful white outsiders”. He thought that the suit against the New Yorker was following a certain “Melanesian logic”:

In Papua New Guinea, sometimes you take people to court as part of the process of dispute resolution, and I suspect that Kuwimb’s statment that “Mr Mandingo and Mr Wemp were hoping for an apology and a cash settlement” indicates not opprtunism [sic] on their part, but a different sense of what counts as closure (or at least the next step in the ongoing relationship) than we in the states might have.

I don’t know whether there is anything particularly “Melanesian” about taking the New Yorker to court. Jeffrey Masson sued journalist Janet Malcolm for writing what he maintained were lies about him in the pages of the magazine some years ago. I think it is pretty universal to want to make a libelous publication pay for its sins.

Even more disconcerting was Rex’s willingness to take seriously a malignant troll who has been posting anonymously on Savage Minds and who has called Rhonda Shearer a “bag lady” for having the temerity to disagree with him. This character, who goes by the tag “JohnSo” and who represents himself as a journalist at a major magazine, stated in one of his comments that: “We don’t know what kind of quotes Diamond had: we only know what was printed. I often get all sorts of back up quotes that I give to my editor but leave out of the piece. The flow of the story tends to be more important to magazines than it is to newspapers.”

That prompted Rex to muse somewhat postmodernistically:

A lot of the substantive and important issues raised by JohnSo come from the fact that we have the history of these stories as the originated in Nipa, and ended up being told to Jared Diamond in a pickup truck. But what we do not have is the story of their reformulation, verification, and editing as Diamond retold them to The New Yorker. That is a black box that, ethnographically, I feel really needs to be opened up.

The idea that anything coming from this malignant troll is “substantive” and “important” is dismaying to say the least. But to throw a cloud over everything as if it were children playing Telephone is an invitation to treat all participants—Diamond, Wemp, Shearer—as equally culpable. If the truth is relative, then what is the big deal if you embellish it?

Rex’s comment prompted Rhonda Shearer to reply to Rex: “Your selective praise and silence on his clearly out-of-bounds troll behavior rings of—unfortunately for you and me and everyone who reads this blog—your acceptance of such behavior, if not, worse, an endorsement by omission.”

At the risk of being reductionist, I think that the issues are rather clear-cut in this case. There is no “black box” that needs to be opened. The key to understanding how and why Jared Diamond concocted a fiction is in his underlying sociobiological framework, something I am going to explain in my final post in this series.

May 8, 2009

Jared Diamond, the New Yorker Magazine, and blood feuds in PNG: part 2

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

More violent than the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge?

Violence and indigenous peoples

While nobody but the unfortunate Professor Diamond could possibly explain the origins of the monumental work of fiction in the pages of the New Yorker Magazine under his byline, an article supposedly in pursuit of The Truth, one might surmise that he was driven to tailor the facts to a conclusion that he had worked out in advance, namely that under duress “modern state systems” devolve into bloody killing sprees such as the kind that Daniel Wemp supposedly took part in.

Even when modern state societies wage war, they are not nearly as bloodthirsty as indigenous peoples such as the ones that feuded in Papua New Guinea. Diamond states “the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.

So brutal and inhumane were the Papuan tribesmen to each other that when the European colonizers arrived, they submitted to their own “pacification” happily. Finally, the blood feuds would be eliminated by the more civilized representatives of modern state societies. Despite Diamond’s carefully crafted image of himself as an enlightened “multiculturalist”, this analysis is not that different from the ones put forward during the Victorian era. The bloody natives had to be rescued from themselves.

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.

You can read Mako J. Kuwimb’s entire rebuttal of Jared Diamond on the Savage Minds blog, but this one brief excerpt demonstrates that the indigenous person is every bit as civilized as the famous UCLA professor, if not more so:

The comparison between international European war and tribal fights is too farfetched. Killing of enemies are never paraded; some old men who speared their enemies told me of nightmares. Killing is not fun at all as the article seems to suggest.

Jared Diamond is not the first white man in a pith helmet who has descended into the rain forest in search of a savage that only existed in his mind. In 1998, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon published “Yanomami: The Fierce People”, a book that described the beleaguered denizens of the Amazon rainforest as being almost as bloodthirsty as Jared Diamond’s representation of the PNG’ers. Some anthropologists would believe that Chagnon is as trustworthy as Diamond’s New Yorker article.

The fierce people?

Not surprisingly, Changon’s version of Yanomami reality is shared by those in the profession who line up with him ideologically, while his detractors uphold a less bellicose version of the indigenous people. In a December 10, 2000 Washington Post review by Marshall Sahlins of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, a book that is highly critical of Chagnon and that has polarized scholars in the field, we see anthropology of the sort that gives the profession a bad name:

Needing blood and information quickly, Chagnon would announce his visits to a village in the guise of a Yanomami warrior: dressed only in loincloth, body painted red, feathered–and carrying a shotgun. His field kits have been known to contain chemical mace and an electric stun gun. He tried to cultivate a reputation for dangerous magical power by engaging in narcotic shamanistic séances. When someone stole from him, he got children to inform on the thief; then he returned the favor by carrying off the latter’s hammock until he got his stuff back. But when it came to the reciprocity of food sharing, he protested that he could not feed the whole village. On the contrary, he disgusted curious Yanomami by telling them the canned frankfurters he was eating were animal penises, and peanut butter likewise was just what it looked like. Unselfconsciously, he acknowledges that his unwillingness to share food generously or widely made him “despicable in their eyes.”

After Chagnon retired, he relocated to the North Woods of Michigan, a region seemingly in sync with his personality and prejudices. He told Scott Wallace, a producer from the National Geographic Channel who was preparing a documentary on the Yanomami:

I don’t look at ‘first contact’ as a coup similar to raping a virgin. It’s a privileged opportunity to learn something precious about another people before they’re snuffed out. I would have given my left testicle to see the Plains Indians in the 15th century, to see what they did, to see what their society was like.

I guess that’s what native peoples ultimately get reduced to in the world of a Jared Diamond or a Napoleon Chagnon, a kind of opportunity to see an exotic species before it dies off. It also helps when the species under examination are a bunch of savages. It makes their domination by more “civilized” species more tolerable.

When news of Daniel Wemp’s suit against the New Yorker broke, I was in the midst of my own debunking project about the purported savagery of indigenous peoples. In November 2007, I wrote a review of the movie “No Country for Old Men” that was based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the second coming of Herman Melville in the eyes of some more credulous critics.

Curious to find out more about the author, I went to the Cormac McCarthy Society website and discovered that his 1985 “Blood Meridian”, a work described as his masterpiece by Yale’s Harold Bloom, amounted to a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

While a fictional work, “Blood Meridian” purportedly describes native peoples of the Southwest during the 1840s as no better than the white men who were trying to exterminate them. Like Napoleon Chagnon, Cormac McCarthy would reject the notion that such peoples were “noble savages”. One of three epigraphs that open the book is from a 1982 Yuma Sun new clipping about a 300,000-year-old human skull being found in Ethiopia that showed the first evidence of a scalping. The moral, of course, is that evil is inherent in the human species.

“Blood Meridian” is focused on the predations of a group of scalp-hunters led by John Joel Glanton, a historical figure but the Apache and Comanche play key secondary roles. The Indians and the mercenaries take turns killing each other in the most unimaginably vicious manner, described by McCarthy in a manner that amounts to a more elevated version of the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons on “The Simpsons” television show.

In many respects, McCarthy’s version of 1840s reality is a throwback to the movies of the 1940s and 50s when the Apache and the Comanche were depicted as cold-blooded killers. Like Jared Diamond’s “modern state societies”, the cavalry led by John Wayne was just the ticket for “pacifying” a savage people involved with killing whites and fellow Indians alike.

A selective reading of American history might reinforce this interpretation since it is a fact that the Comanche drove the Apache from Texas, while both tribes raided Mexico to capture horses and slaves—events that led Mexican authorities to hire scalpers like John Joel Glanton.

But I wanted to know the background to the violence. What led Indians to steal horses and attack Mexican villagers? Are we simply dealing with the case of people doing it out of blood lust of the kind that supposedly led Daniel Wemp to shoot an arrow into an enemy’s spine (at least according to the fiction set down by Jared Diamond)? Is the subduing of native peoples, even by the predatory capitalist colonizers of the British Empire or their rivals in the New World, a necessary step toward progress?

Over and over I have seen attempts by anthropologists and historians to put the worst possible face on native peoples in what amounts to an attempt to legitimize existing power relationships. In response to the evidence of white hunters wantonly killing bison, some historians feel it their duty to remind us that the Indians drove the same animals over cliffs, killing many more animals than they can possibly eat.

Such questions led to a deeper examination of the nature of progress. Are there lessons to be drawn from the “savages” of the world that will help us resolve the deeper problems humanity faces as “civilization” sweeps the world, threatening to destroy all living things in its pursuit of profits?

When considering these questions, I always find it useful to keep anthropologist Jack Weatherford’s books close at hand since they have a way of reminding us of our debt to those we have vanquished. Read this to appreciate the perspective that is missing entirely in Diamond and Chagnon’s accounts.

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