Blogs > Cliopatria > Diamond, DeLong and Savage Minds

Jul 29, 2005 4:58 pm

Diamond, DeLong and Savage Minds

Brad DeLong has been fairly harsh in his response to the Savage Minds bloggers on the subject of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. I also have problems with the SM bloggers in their reading (or viewing) of Diamond, but there are some legitimate criticisms of Diamond to be made, both problems that are particular to his work and problems that are more general in sociobiological or materialist histories.

I’m going to focus in particular on the chapter of GGS that deals most centrally with Africa.

First, on the contested question of Diamond’s “racism”. It’s a serious mistake to even imply that Diamond is racist, as Henry Farrell properly observes. I would say that he has a stubborn inclination to use racial terms when they don’t serve any empirical or descriptive purpose. It may be that a term like “race” can still serve some useful purpose in describing variations between human populations: I’m not going to make a definitive statement on that subject here. But just to give the example of the Africa chapter, Diamond clings to the term “blacks” as racial category within which to place most pre-1500 sub-Saharan Africans except for Khoisan-speakers and “pygmies”, even as he explicitly acknowledges that it is an extremely poor categorical descriptor of the human groups he is placing in that category. The chapter’s central interest is the migration of Bantu-speakers across the continent, with the argument that iron working and agricultural knowledge were what enabled them to displace autochthonous Khoisan and pygmy societies. This is an uncontroversial argument, but the point is that it doesn’t require a category of “blacks” to function, because the only thing Diamond is interested in is Bantu-speakers and their technological and material capacities. There’s no need for him to enfold the African populations of West Africa, who are not Bantu-speaking: their history isn’t what interests him in the chapter, he doesn’t talk about it save at the beginning. Why not call Bantu-speaking societies what they are? It’s not that much more technical a term than “blacks”. Throughout the book, Diamond seems to me to cling to terms and categories that he doesn’t need, and I’m not really sure why. However, I also think this is a relatively minor technical argument that doesn't demand or deserve any kind of strong rhetoric.

Second, Diamond has a tendency to exclude—not even mention or argue against, but simply bypass—deeply seated causal arguments and evidence that don’t fit his thesis. Let me take the Bantu-speaking migration again. There’s no question that iron working and farming were very important to driving their movements across the central, eastern and southern portions of the African continent, and were the central reason why older populations of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers were either absorbed into Bantu-speaking societies or fled from their advance. But Diamond takes it as a given that iron working and farming are sufficient explanation of the migration itself, that they made the expansion of the Bantu-speakers inevitable. That may be so, but he doesn’t even bother to discuss segmentary kinship as a form of social organization within Bantu-speaking societies, and its possible role in pushing expansion. This is the key explanation that many Bantu-speaking societies offer themselves for their migrations, that when there was at some past point strife or tension among kin, a portion of a lineage would break off behind a charismatic lineage head and move on. That’s obviously not the whole story, but I think it’s part of it. Diamond’s materialism is so confidently asserted and at such a grand scale that he doesn’t even pause to defend it trenchantly the way someone like Marvin Harris does. It’s more at times as if he’s not even aware of other causal arguments. This is especially acute, as many readers of GGS have noted, with his views on Chinese history and the venerable question of why China did not industrialize but the West did. There’s a tremendous weight of evidence that the general political traditions of the Chinese state plus the particular decisions of its political elite at key moments are much more powerfully explanatory of China’s failure to expand or dominate in the post-1500 era than the big-picture materialism that Diamond offers.

Third, he is a bit prone, like many sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, to what I think of as “ethnographic tourism”, scooping up all the cases of human practice or culture that fit his assertions about universal patterns or behaviors. I think Diamond indulges in this bad habit more in The Third Chimpanzee than GGS: see for example in TC his discussion of penis size and male display among humans, where he asserts a universal and adaptive explanation but ignores historical and contemporaneous examples that don’t really fit the pattern. You can get away with that when you’re just describing a tendency, but the stronger your claims are couched in terms of universality and adaption, the harder it becomes. Diamond is by no means as egregious in this kind of cherrypicking as some evolutionary psychologists are, but the selectivity of his evidentiary citation grates a bit on anyone who knows the ethnographic literature. (Especially when you know that some of the 1970s and 1980s syntheses that he cites rely on older studies that are dubious or have been challenged since by both empirical work and theoretical critique.)

Fourth, on Yali’s question, I have a few problems. Though Brad DeLong insists that Diamond only means his answer to explain the relative imbalance in material wealth and power between many non-Western societies and the West up to 1500 and not afterwards, I think it’s clear that Diamond thinks that post-1500 events are no more than the icing on the cake, that the fundamental explanation of post-1500 inequalities and disparities in the world derive from the grand arc of pre-1500 development, from the luck of the geographical draw. He’s not alone in that: this is a venerable argument which takes on variant forms among world-systems historians and Marxists. But DeLong is being a bit unfair to insist somehow that the Savage Minds bloggers have in this respect misread Diamond: he clearly argues that the pre-1500 history is crucially determinant of the post-1500 history.

More, Diamond’s arguments about Yali’s question strike me as sometimes being too large in temporal and geographical scale. He goes back too far and enfolds too much for at least some of what he'd like to explain. Because the grand argument of GGS turns on the slow accumulation of geographical advantage to people inhabiting the Eurasian continent, it sometimes ignores much more short-term material explanations which are potentially in and of themselves sufficient explanations. To explain the Atlantic slave trade in materialist terms, for example, you may need nothing more than the relative proximity of Africa and Europe, the trade wind system across the Atlantic, improvements in European nautical capability prior to 1450, and the relative lack of harbors plus poor habitability of the West and Central African coastline. To explain other aspects of Western expansion, you may need little more than the Crusades, the Mongols, and an understanding of long-distance trading patterns circa 1200. That may sound like a lot, but it’s a much more constrained set of factors with a much shorter temporal scale than what Diamond puts into play. And the Atlantic slave trade may itself be a nearly sufficient explanation of the expansion of the West after 1500, given the cascade of effects it unleashed.

Anthropologists and historians interested in non-Western societies and Western colonialism also get a bit uneasy with a big-picture explanation of world history that seems to cancel out or radically de-emphasize the importance of the many small differences and choices after 1500 whose effects many of us study carefully. For example, it seems to me that if you want to answer Yali’s question with regards to Latin America versus the United States, you’ve got to think about the peculiar, particular kinds of political, legal and religious frameworks that differentiated Spanish colonialism in the New World from British and French colonialism, that a Latin American Yali would have to feel a bit dissatisfied with Diamond’s answer.

For me, I also feel a bit at a loss with any big-picture history that isn’t much interested in the importance of accident and serendipidity at the moment of contact between an expanding Europe and non-Western societies around 1500. That seems a part of Cortes’ conquest of Montezuma, or the early beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, when West African practices of kinship slavery fed quite incidentally into exchange with Portuguese explorers who weren’t there for slaves at all. It may be that such accidents are not the cause of the material disparity that Yali describes, but in many cases, they’re what makes the contemporary world feel the way that it does. It’s not that Diamond argues against such matters, but he doesn’t leave much room for them to matter, either.
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Caleb McDaniel - 7/31/2005

I didn't mean to oversimplify by settling on those two motives as the only, mutually exclusive possibilities. Mainly I wanted to make the point that you do: that there was a period of indeterminacy (in the sixteenth century especially) when Europeans were trying to settle on a model for settler colonies that would "work" from their perspective, and that it wasn't inevitable that they would succeed in finding one.

Timothy James Burke - 7/30/2005

And a bit of neither: at least some of those who came along in the early Spanish expeditions found themselves landholders as a result, and they wanted to recreate models of late medieval landholding in the New World because that was the social model of status that they understood. I'm not sure they either struck on a money-making enterprise or found themselves with a servile labor supply: they found themselves with land but without the social mechanisms that made land meaningful. I think we sometimes tend to forget that there's a period after contact in the Atlantic world that's actually pretty muddled. This is what I'm alluding to about Diamond: he sets up an expectation that at 1500, blammo! Eurasians sweep the field. That's true where disease was an issue, but in many other cases there's a long, complicated and often surprisingly level period which has its own character and isn't just a prelude to a much more lopsided form of domination at a later date.

Caleb McDaniel - 7/30/2005

Ralph, I'm embarrassed that I missed your earlier comment before posting mine! Eltis' big punchline is that understanding why Europeans enslaved Africans as opposed to Europeans has to do with the perceived "outsider" status of the former; by the time the transatlantic slave trade was taking off, enslaving fellow Christians was culturally and legally, rather than economically or practically, prohibitive. (I think Eltis does talk about contact with Muslim practices of enslavement as part of the reason for the development of this prohibition.)

It may seem like this isn't that big of a punchline, but what makes it compelling is that Eltis, as an economic historian, reaches the conclusion that economic calculations can't tell us everything about the contingent form that the slave trade took. His preferred methods, in other words, eventually point out their own limitations.

As for whether it really would have been feasible to enslave Europeans on the scale required to fuel the productiviy of New WOrld plantation societies, even in the absence of cultural taboos against enslaving fellow believers ... I'm not sure.

I also agree with Tim that the "pull" factors from the New World need to be examined as closely as the "push" favors. But it's worth remembering that the earliest European colonists in the New World (as well as those who first explored settlement possibilities in West Africa) were not inevitably committed to the growing of agricultural cash commodities on the scale that the sugar plantations eventually achieved. There's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here: did colonists strike on a money-making enterprise and then look around for a servile labor supply, or did they find themselves with a servile labor supply that could be put to use in money-making enterprises that they had not originally envisioned? Some of both, I think.

Henry Farrell - 7/30/2005

Ralph - there seems to me a missing middle to this argument. Do we have any evidence whatsoever that Diamond's claim is actually playing into a Japanese tradition of racism or populism; i.e. that Japanese racists are, or are likely to, make use of Diamond's arguments to support their cause? If so, I haven't seen it. Unless there are demonstrable (or at a pinch, plausible) effects of this sort (and they are hardly likely, given the overall tenor of Diamond's article, which nationalists are likely to find highly unsympathetic), possible Japanese readings of the piece aren't really relevant. And Tak's article at the very least has a very odd theory of what constitutes racism. He claims that Diamond “perpetuates racism by associating a group of people with specific traits.” Is this a defensible claim? As the bit from Koskennienni (sp? am no good with Finnish names) above notes, that a set of claims (creationism or Darwinism)has been, or might be, used by racists, is not to prove that they are inherently racist ideas. And to show (which I agree is a somewhat different proposition) that they might feed into Japanese forms of racism, one needs to have a plausible account of how Diamond's specific formulation is likely to be taken up by Japanese racists (or otherwise significantly contribute to the cause of Japanese racism). Such a theory or argument is conspicuously absent in Dresner's arguments to date. And without it, all that we have is a quite dubious theory of contagion-by-intellectual association. Over on the other thread to emerge from this post, Tim is talking about Eltis's work on the agency of Africans in the slave trade, and how it is unlikely to be taken up in school curricula. Is Eltis "perpetuating racism" by making this argument (which could fit in nicely with the claims of white supremacists)? Is Tim? Hardly.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/30/2005

Henry, It appears to me that Tak and Jonathan may be making a point that you don't hear because you all are talking past each other, rather than with each other. Isn't it possible that, read in a Japanese context, Diamond's argument plays into a Japanese tradition of racialism or racism that isn't otherwise inherent in Diamond's argument in non-Japanese contexts? As Japan specialists, Tak and Jonathan have some obligation to make that point and make it reasonably forcefully, if we fail to understand it. I don't see them as attempting to shut down debate, but as arguing that _we_ -- you and I -- simply don't know enough about the Japanese context to appreciate that fact. I don't have any problem with acknowledging that I don't know nearly enough about Japan to argue with them.

Henry Farrell - 7/30/2005

You have repeatedly asserted that I don't know what I am talking about, and that you, as a Japan expert do, and repeatedly failed to address the argument that I actually make. I've stated that your arguments about Japan are irrelevant to the question of whether or not Diamond is promoting a racist cause; you haven't given anything even verging on a satisfactory response. To put it bluntly: you don't seem to be engaging in argument here, as Tim is, and as others are. Instead, you seem more interested in shutting down argument by claiming that (for mysterious and ineffable reasons known only to Japan specialists), Tak's original post is justified in claiming that Diamond's argument promote a racist cause. This isn't academic debate; it's an attempt to shut down debate through what appears to me to be an entirely spurious appeal to authority.

Timothy James Burke - 7/30/2005

I like Eltis' work. I'm trying to recall what he says about the very earliest interactions between the Portuguese and various African polities, but I'm not sure he challenges the argument made by others that the primary interest the Portuguese had in trade with Africans was precious metals (finding out where all that gold that came in through the Maghrib had been coming from) and in resupply for longer voyages around the continent to Asia, that slaves were an afterthought.

But I think he's right that the relative strength of African polities in dealings with a larger array of European actors just a bit later is one thing that very much shaped the location of the trade. Eltis is actually one of the people I had in mind when I voiced my unease about Philadelphia's new high school course on African and African-American history: here's a new history based on a huge amount of research that insists, very strongly, that African agency was absolutely key to shaping the slave trade, both in making it happen and in locating it, and not from weakness but from strength. Moreover, it was the (somewhat accidental) fit between kinship slavery as an institution and the needs of the growing Atlantic slave trade that helped shape Africa's role in the Atlantic system, in Eltis' argument. I just have a bad feeling that work like that is simply never going to come up in that high school class.

Of course, Europeans *did* enslave other Europeans in the New World, but indenture was legally and politically different in crucial ways that limited its use and impact, a detail that's too granular to show up in the kind of writing Diamond does but which is the kind of detail that makes all the difference.

I don't think we should forget the factors involved on the other side of the Atlantic--that many new European landholders found themselves without labor to work their land in the aftermath of Native American deaths and that the model of labor most of them understood as accompanying the working of land was servile.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/30/2005

Caleb, I'm not sure how this modifies what you've said about Eltis's argument, but as I said above and if I'm not mistaken the Portuguese purchased African slaves and developed sugar plantations on Principe and Sao Tome, previously unoccupied islands just off the coast of west Africa, prior to the development of the trans-Atlantic trade. There is, then, that powerful precident, unopposed by African powers, that precedes the trans-Atlantic trade and anticipates what would become much more significant on this side of the Atlantic. On Eltis's counterfactual, wouldn't it be the case that European authorities already had a form, in indentured servitude, for obliging Christian labor, when prior experience in the wars with Muslims had confirmed the belief that slavery was a fit status only for infidels?

Caleb McDaniel - 7/30/2005

Thanks for this thoughtful intervention.

Out of curiosity, I wonder whether you have read David Eltis' recent work on the African side of the transatlantic slave trade (in the _Rise of African Slavery_). Eltis argues (if I remember correctly) that many Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese, had been initially interested in setting up plantations or mines in West Africa. But resistance by West African polities, who were happy to supply captured slaves from other tribes but unwilling to cede their own territorial sovereignty to the Europeans, helped redirect the slave trade across the Atlantic to plantations in the Caribbean, at considerable extra expense (at first). So it was actually African agency and power (according to Eltis) rather than mere weakness or geographic disadvantage that helped explain the shape the slave trade took--at the very least, the trade was the product of negotiation between trading "partners" as much as the product of outright conquest by Europeans with superior technology.

If you or other readers are familiar with Eltis' work, I'd be very interested to know what you think about it. His arguments seem to be the kind of thing that Diamond's theory wouldn't account for as well (although I'm one of those who have "viewed" Diamond rather than "reading" him, though I plan to read him as a result of this wide-ranging discussion). Eltis also shows that there are ways to think counterfactually and comparatively on a macrohistorical level without resolute materialism. For instance, one of his major arguments in _The Rise of African Slavery_ depends on asking, counterfactually, why did Europeans not enslave fellow Europeans to supply plantation labor in the New World? It's a thought-provoking question, whose answers almost have to depend on culturalist explanations about European identity and racism.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/30/2005

You have misconstrued Mr. Watanabe's initial post because you don't know anything about the subject, and every argument you have made since then has simply perpetuated the error.

My and Mr. Watanabe's objections to Diamond's piece rest on a great deal more than the "rather banal" statement you cite here, another misrepresentation which serves your (to me, quite obscure) purposes, but simply recycles the stalled debate.

Henry Farrell - 7/29/2005

With respect that isn't correct. That Diamond's rather banal statement that Japan has a unique culture has similarities with Japanese imperialist rhetoric does not prove by any stretch of the imagination that Diamond is purveying or furthering racist causes or racism. Nor, apparently, has explaining this to you affected your opinion.

Coincidentally, I came upon this piece in a book review by Martti Koskenniemi today, which seems appropos.

But the matter becomes much more complex when one tries to identify some views as 'intrinsically racist', whatever it is they teach because, we think, racist policies are necessary outcomes of such doctrines. This approach has an altogether excessive faith in the social determinacy of political or legal doctrines; that is, in the tendency of particular doctrines to bring out particular outcomes, whatever the circumstances. To take an example, it is certainly possible to buttress racist policies by, for example, Darwinist and creationist arguments alike. Perhaps some communities are thought inferior because this has been decreed by the 'laws of evolution' or by the 'laws of God'. But surely the fact that some people may make such arguments does not compel us to view Darwinism and creationism as inherently 'racist'

Jonathan Dresner - 7/29/2005

With respect, Farrell may be right, but he's making the point in relation to a post which does no such thing. Farrell's fulminations about "guilt by association" are smoke obscuring the fact that neither he nor Diamond really understand the Japanese discourse on issues of origins and race. Nor, apparently, has explaining it to him affected his opinion.

Louis N Proyect - 7/29/2005

(Part 3 deals with how the Zulu are represented--falsely.)

Timothy James Burke - 7/29/2005

I think it's a contributor but actually not a necessary part. It just meant that slavery per se was not unfamiliar to the Portuguese. But notice that the most important thing about that was that it was a legal and social preparation, not a material one. The sugar plantations in the eastern Mediterranean also helped demonstrate a profit model, so that's important, too.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

Tim, Just one quick question about your fourth point: Don't you think that the experience in the Crusades of Christians enslaving Muslim captives and Muslims enslaving Christian captive is also a necessary prior factor in the development of the early modern slave systems, first off the coast at Principe and Sao Tome, and then the trans-Atlantic trade?

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