The great Guns, Germs and Steel debates

4 minute read

I posted on the three-part PBS special "Guns, Germs and Steel," but I didn't watch it myself. I tried for a few minutes, but it didn't grab me. Maybe I'll catch a rerun.

In the meantime, a fairly intense set of online discussions have grown up around GGS. It seems to have begun with this post at Savage Minds. It has a great beginning:

Has this ever happened to you? You are at a party, or perhaps a family gathering, or maybe even just standing in line at the DMV when the person next to you strikes up a conversation. If they don't start talking to you about Indiana Jones at the mention of anthropology, there is a fair chance they'll bring up GG&S - expecting that you just love the book. Now you're in a pickle. Diamond showily positions GG&S as the definitive anti-racist take on human history. If you say you don't really care for it, your interlocutor is likely to get a slightly baffled look on her face. What could you possibly mean, you don't like Diamond's noble tome? Are you... a racist? To explain why you don't like the book would take more time than most people making friendly small talk want to spend, and - worse yet - your explanation will necessarily impugn the motives of people who do like it, a group that you now know includes the person with whom you are speaking. My own usual reaction in such encounters is to say that unfortunately I have not read the book but that boy, it sure does sound interesting.

It even quotes me, the part of my post that connects Diamond's ideas to early 20th century anthropology. The point of citing me is to skewer the connection, but I don't buy it. Diamond borrows very freely from pre-postmodernist cultural anthropology; most of what he writes in GGS is no news to anyone who has had a first course in theory. Sure, Boas emphasized cultural differences (as opposed to ecological or environmental differences) to explain differences in cultural products like folk art. But what is there to explain cultural differences themselves? Let's ask Boas himself:

Ethnological phenomena are the result of the physical and psychical character of men, and of its development under the influence of the surroundings...'Surroundings' are the physical conditions of the country, and the sociological phenomena, i.e., the relation of man to man. Furthermore, the study of the present surroundings is insufficient: the history of the people, the influence of the regions through which it has passed on its migrations, and the people with whom it came into contact, must be considered (Quoted by from "The Principles of Ethnological Classification").

Boas certainly emphasized culture as an explanation rather than geographic determinism. And historical connections among cultures provided a reason to reject law-like evolutionary progressions of societies. But his rejection of racism did not depend on the primacy of culture: it depended upon the availability of alternative causes for racial differences. One of those was the suggestion that racial features were influenced directly by the environment; a finding that emerged from his study of immigrants. Another is history itself: by applying historicism directly to cultures that lacked a written history, he enabled the examination of the reasons for present material differences between groups.

Here I am reminded of Kroeber's -- Boas' student -- curious fascination with the fire drill and the number of times it was independently invented versus diffused to different societies. This mode of explanation is clearly very similar to that applied by Diamond. Diamond is not an ethnographer, and doesn't care about particular cultures or events, except as examples to bolster his broad trends. But Boasian anthropology was not entirely about ethnographic description or cultural particularism; these particulars were meant to be employed in pursuit of broader goals. Not the broad goal of explanation of history, but the broad goal of debunking racist theories. Of course, Diamond attempts both.

There is a key difference between Boas' and Diamond's theories: a difference in the questions they consider to be important. Boas was concerned with explaining present disparities among human groups; for this, he viewed the history of colonialism to be more than sufficient. Diamond is concerned with explaining why some groups became the colonizers, and for this, he must turn to more distant historical explanations. Again, I think Diamond's work has weaknesses within this historical framework, but I also think it is a lot closer to traditional anthropology than some find comfortable.

On the other hand, I accept the critique of my use of "a strongly Marxist element" to describe his hypothesis. Outside of Marxist anthropology, few take note of the difference between strict and vulgar materialist approaches, and this one is definitely in the vulgar materialist school. A caution to me about the problems of overspecialization.

But I'm not much of a target; my post briefly explained my problems with the book's premise. For the most part, that qualifies me as a "friendly", I guess.

Other blogs have taken each other on more directly. Brad DeLong posted a critique of the critics, which cuts pretty deep. Crooked Timber has a side discussion of the critics and their critics. Nomadic Thoughts has a brief review of the whole thing, with references to his own reviews of the TV miniseries, if you are interested in the series itself. And Savage Minds weighed in with a second post focusing on the problems of ignoring within-society variation in material wealth.

What I like about the back-and-forth is that many of the posts and commenters actually provide references. (What I don't like is how few of them seem to have read these references.) These posts aren't expert opinions; mine isn't either. But they give an impression of the reaction of anthropologists to GGS, and they give an avenue toward finding real expert critiques of Diamond's theory. And it's all free, so I'm happy to point it out to anyone who's interested.