I haven’t read Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday. I’ve enjoyed his other work, and this one seems interesting. I read Wade Davis’ recent book The Wayfinders. I’m so immersed in more in-depth works looking at tribal and foraging cultures that such accessible, popular fare isn’t quite juicy enough to really galvanize me. But Davis is a good writer, and it’s naturally heartening that there are more popular books flying the flag for indigenous people. On this level, while I’m not sure when or if I’ll get round to Diamond’s book, I’m glad it exists.
However, I just came across an article by Survival International director Stephen Corry that describes much of the book as “dangerous nonsense”.
There are two related points on which Corry takes Diamond to task. Firstly, the extent to which contemporary indigenous cultures can be take as representative of the world before farming. Secondly, the thorny debate, recently given life by Steven Pinker, about who is the most violent: pre-civilized tribes or the modern industrial world? I deal with both of these issues in my book War & the Noble Savage. Assuming Corry isn’t misrepresenting Diamond’s work, I have to concur with much of his critique.
For me, the bottom line is that both of these issues are extremely complex. I wonder to what extent the subtle (or not-so-subtle) demands that writing for a mass market place on the level to which you can present truly complex debates have shaped Diamond’s position. The problem is, Corry’s position—having to counter such simplifications at a level which will have as broad an impact as possible on the book’s probable readership—also lends itself to simplification, and an ongoing polarization that seems inevitable, but worth calling out where possible. Actually, Corry’s article does pretty well to represent complexity, by constantly raising questions.
Further than that, I wonder if “bottom line” is the best expression for the undoubted role of irreducible complexity in these debates. Maybe “rule of thumb” is better? Because even though things are complex, often the evidence—if you examine it closely, and are forced to come down on one side or the other—points in the opposite direction to Diamond, Pinker, and other mass-market authors who are, perhaps unwittingly, resurrecting old myths about “savages”. I can’t in good intellectual or moral conscience merely object to these people by shrugging my shoulders and saying, “Well, it’s complex.” They are feeding destructive cultural prejudices that are wrecking lives on an ongoing basis, and this is all based on questionable scholarship.
My upcoming book touches on some of these issues related to contemporary indigenous people, and archaic foragers. I don’t quite agree with Corry’s implication that we might be able to learn nothing about our remote ancestors from living pre-agricultural people, and I do try to make use of inferences from anthropology into deep history (in this book, mostly to do with issues around cosmology and egalitarianism, as opposed to the issue of violence that I dealt with in War & the Noble Savage). And while I’m aware that my position as an armchair anthropologist involves certain dangers of generalization, this issue with Diamond’s book reminds me that fieldwork has its own pitfalls. Diamond’s fieldwork has been for the most part a deep involvement in New Guinea. I learned from my research into tribal violence that this region has been at least semi-agricultural for quite a while, leading to inter-tribal dynamics that involve quite a lot of conflict—conflict that bears little relation to the dynamics of hunter-gatherers. While it has to be stressed—lest we invoke the ‘Noble Savage’ straw man that is the prime weapon of people arguing that people living without states are excessively violent—that all humans are violent to some degree, this kind of indigenous cultural complex cannot be taken as representative of anything in our past before around 12,000 years ago. Corry says Diamond’s book’s dust jacket says that “tribal societies offer an extraordinary window into how our ancestors lived for millions of years”. If Diamond really is taking semi-agricultural people like those in New Guinea as representative of our lineage going back long before the advent of Homo sapiens, then his closeness to that region seems like a severe problem. Of course tribes in New Guinea deserve respect and autonomy like any other people. But in contributing to the West’s grand narrative about human history, Diamond should be casting his net much wider.
Enough. Judgements on books you’ve not read are dubious, even based on reliable reviews. I’ll be revisiting a lot of these issues, not only in my upcoming book, but also in blog posts on the book’s website that will accompany the book’s launch, and elaborate on the many issues it raises. No doubt I’ll write something updating my views in War & the Noble Savage—hopefully I’ll have read Diamond’s book by then, to pass better-grounded comment. Until then, if you have read or are going to read it yourself, do read Corry’s piece for some crucial balance.