Rex Golub reviews Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday, and tries to explain why it rubs anthropologists the wrong way: “Anthropology, Footnoted: Jared Diamonds The World Until Yesterday”. Golub works in Papua New Guinea, the area of the world Diamond most closely examines in his book.
Diamond has surely visited much more of the country than the highlands, but his intuitions about the country seem fundamentally shaped by the highlands. His immersion in that area, I believe, is the origin of his view that colonialism brings benefits, that people are willing to trade their old ways for new, and that imperial conquest brings few problemsin the long term. Then again, Diamonds tone-deafness regarding these issues might be related to his scientific background. Bird species are morphologically distinct, but human communities in Papua New Guinea lack bright and clear boundaries. Cultures, languages, and subsistence techniques ooze across the landscape, passing through villages and hamlets with a mobility totally different than the learned behavior of birds. The issues at the heart of population ecology are calories, birthrates, and morbidity while the central topics of legitimate and empowering governance are dignity, freedom, and quality of lifethe things we fight for, but not the sort of thing that you learn about studying avifauna. Only people, not birds, would rather die on their feet than live on their knees.
Golub approaches the question of “What does an anthropologist have to offer?” but doesn’t give a crystal clear answer. The anthropologist considers complexity and treats people as people, not birds – to be sure. But is Diamond’s account of small-scale societies doing anything different from what Marvin Harris might have done? If The World Until Yesterday were a dissertation, would it earn its writer a PhD in anthropology today?
I’m inclined to think that cultural anthropology as it exists in the world today actually includes Jared Diamond…