From the Archives: Savage Minds vs. Jared Diamond
Those of you following Savage Minds since the beginning will remember when this blog was the object of scorn and ridicule across the blogsphere as a result of our temerity in attacking Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. The debate was nicely summed up at the time by Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik:
And in the last week, a relatively new blog in anthropology — Savage Minds — has set off a huge debate over the book. Two of the eight people who lead Savage Minds posted their objections to the book, and things have taken off from there, with several prominent blogs in the social sciences picking up the debate, and adding to it. Hundreds of scholars are posting and cross-posting in an unusually intense and broad debate for a book that has been out for eight years.
A collection of links related to the discussion was posted here on Savage Minds as well. But the discussion did not end there. It is for that reason that I thought it might be a good time to highlight how the discussion continued after 2005. Although it got less attention, we subsequently had Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington as our very first guest bloggers (establishing a long running tradition on this blog). They drew from their book Yali’s Question to write a series of posts bringing significant expertise and nuance to the questions which had been raised about Diamond’s book. They were later interviewed for a NY Times piece about Diamond’s new book, Collapse.In 2006 we had a few posts on Collapse, but not anything significant. My own posts on Collapse largely consisted of relaying emails others had sent me, while Rex linked to this review article. In 2010, however, Rex returned to Collapse with an in-depth blog post about the edited volume Questioning Collapse.
At root, the problem — and it is not a fatal flaw, just a problem — with Diamond’s article is that it teaches us that Other Ways Of Life Have Something To Offer Us, but the only way it can do so is by making Papua New Guineans appear more Other to us than they really are.
[Apologies for the awful formatting on some of these older posts, we used to use a Markdown syntax plugin on our site, but we removed it when it became apparent it was slowing down the site. As a result, many of Rex’s older posts are now unformatted.]
Then came Rhonda Shearer’s piece “Jared Diamond’s Factual Collapse:
New Yorker Mag’s Papua New Guinea Revenge Tale Untrue, Tribal Members Angry, Want Justice” which Rex wrote about here, and a letter from Mako John Kuwimb, one of the people named in the lawsuit. Rex later complained that the problem with Diamond was that “his piece ran under the banner ‘annals of anthropology’” thus sending an “off-brand message to our audience.” Then, in conjunction with Stinky Journalism (now iMedia Ethics), a series of posts were published on Diamond’s “vengeance” article and the Daniel Wemp affair: Nancy Sullivan, Rex, Andrew Mack, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Rex again, and yet again. The last post links to this article which Rex says is “the lengthiest, most competent, and most incisive account of the short-comings of Diamond’s article.”
In looking back on all of this, I feel that the NY Times article on Collapse got to the heart of the problem anthropologists have talking to those outside of the discipline:
For the anthropologists, the exceptions were more important than the rules. Instead of seeking overarching laws, the call was to “contextualize,” “complexify,” “relativize,” “particularize” and even “problematize,” a word that in their dialect was given an oddly positive spin.
So it is interesting that the very last blogger on Savage Minds to discuss Jared Diamond was David Graeber, who asked “Can We Still Write Big Question Sorts of Books?” Unfortunately, he then became a media darling for having done just that, and never had time to follow up on his initial post.
So there you have it. If nothing else, Jared Diamond has given us all a lot to talk about.
P. Kerim Friedman is an assistant professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University, in Taiwan, where he teaches linguistic and visual anthropology. He is co-director of the film Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!, winner of the 2011 Jean Rouch Award from the Society of Visual Anthropology. Follow Kerim on Twitter.