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July 27, 2005

A Better Class of Critics of Jared Diamond, Please...

C. Northcote Parkinson was the first to identify the phenomenon of "injelitance"--the jealousy that the less-than-competent feel for the capable.

Here we have a classic case from the anthropologists at Savage Mind, who are both positively green with envy at Jared Diamond's ability to make interesting arguments in a striking and comprehensible way, and also remarkably incompetent at critique. Assertions that Nigeria was one of the richest countries in the world after World War II and that California's Amerindians had as ample a portfolio of plants and animals to draw on as did the people of the Fertile Crescent are just plain embarrassing:

Savage Minds: I finally watched episode one of the Guns, Germs, and Steel TV show... painfully made.... So many shots of Jared Diamond looking scholarly.... Ugh!.... The show is framed by the motif of "Yali’s Question."... "Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?"... [T]he show is forced to portray New Guniea as a land of poor people, and the US as a land of wealth.... [O]ne would hardly know that there is internet access in the country.... [I]t overlooks a fundamental issue: the inequality within countries as well as between them. I assure you that logging industry executives in New Guinea live better than you or I do!... Nigeria (environmentally blessed with some of the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East) used to be one of the richest countries in the world. Corruption, aided by Western banks who provided the means of funneling the majority of the nation’s GDP into private bank accounts, and deep cultural divisions between North and South, destroyed that wealth. Yet there are still many, many, millionaires and billionaires in Nigeria....

As best we can estimate, Nigerian real GDP per capita peaked at $942 per head at the start of the 1980s. Nigeria had oil. But Nigeria was never, not by anyone's wildest dreams, not by any stretch of the imagination, "one of the richest countries in the world." An extraordinary degree of detachment from the reality of Lagos or from the technology and land availability of Nigerian agriculture is required for anyone to imagine that this was so. (See http://pwt.econ.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt_index.php.)

The gap in median living standards between the United States and Papua New Guinea today is about ten-to-one. And out of every hundred households in New Guinea, only two have the real purchasing power of the median American household.

Savage Minds: Kerim suggested Savage Minds mount a response to... self-described polylingual polymath Jared Diamond.... [W]e all conceded it was a worthy idea.... 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. Alas, I did read most of the book.... Part the first is: white people are immeasurably superior to everyone else on the planet, in terms of technology, wealth, store of knowledge, and actual power, and have been so for a long time. Part the second is: this is not because non-white people are lazy and stupid. Part the third is: it’s because of the determining force that geographical and ecological constraints have exerted on human history....

I can’t exactly remember the Eurasian landmass part of the argument.... I don’t have any grounds for critiquing this part.... It sounds like a plausible hypothesis to me, but (given the caliber of the rest of Diamond’s case) might be ridiculous....

Diamond... argues that the inhabitants of... Eurasia... started off with a better array of potentially domesticable plants.... [M]y problem with this argument was that it is utterly post-hoc: he insists that there just plain are (and thus, by inference, were) more such plants in Eurasia than elsewhere, but I wondered about ongoing hybridization between wild ancestor plants, land races, and domesticated plants across thousands of years of domestication and whether that may have transformed what he takes to be the “wild” baseline.... Diamond likewise argues that the Eurasian landmass offered a uniquely amenable population of potentially-domesticable proto-livestock.... Now, again, this argument runs into the a posteriori problem... hand-waving.

Furthermore, in the lowland South American context at least, there is considerable evidence that human-animal relationships are in important respects conceptualized and experienced as relations between social equals, such that a pastoral, dominating, domesticating relationship is rendered “no good to think” (apologies to Stanley Tambiah).... The point, though, is that given the presence of potentially useful animals, it is not a foregone conclusion that humans will set about domesticating them....

I will admit I never finished reading GG&S....

Diamond's argument is that in a really big continental landmass stretching east-west--like Eurasia--somebody, eventually, will start domesticating animals. And if it seems to work as a lifestyle, their neighbors will copy them. And their neighbors will copy them. And so on. Somebody in South America did domesticate the llama--even though it was "no good to think" in such terms. It is indeed not a foregone conclusion that any one group of humans will start domesticating animals--indeed, almost none of the groups will. But it is a foregone conclusion that some group, somewhere, will try, and that what they learn will spread to those in ecologically-similar regions with whom they are in direct and indirect contact.

Diamond's argument is that in a really big continental landmass there will be lots of variation in animal and plant life, some of which will turn out to be useful for agriculture. Hence wheat, rice, barley, rye, oats--an impressive portfolio compared to corn (and a lot of people must have worked really hard over a long time to turn teosinte into corn) and... acorns. California Amerindians were doing the best they can at making bread and porridge, and yet they could only get as far as gathering and grinding acorns.

It does indeed take a very special cast of mind--or injelitance--to critique a book you didn't finish, and don't remember.

Posted by DeLong at July 27, 2005 11:08 AM