Angry Papuan leaders demand Jared Diamond apologizes

Benny Wenda, a Papuan tribal leader, says what Jared Diamond is writing about his people is ‘misleading’.

Angry Papuan leaders demand Jared Diamond apologizes. Definitely some headline flair from Survival International. Some anthropologists may not like the theater, some anthropologists may not like the activism, some anthropologists are just sick of hearing about Jared Diamond. Some anthropologists will point to factual inaccuracies in Stephen Corry’s Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ Is Completely Wrong, although my read of the empirical evidence and ethnographic record–The Yanomami Ax Fight: Science, Violence, Empirical Data, and the Facts–indicates Corry got more right than he got wrong, certainly better than Diamond’s read on the evidence.

Beyond the brilliant headlines, Corry and Survival International may pull off a rare feat: to facilitate the entry of others into the discussion, challenging the structure of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot called the Savage slot: “In the rhetoric of the Savage slot, the Savage is never an interlocutor, but evidence in an argument between two Western interlocutors about the possible futures of humankind” (Global Transformations 2003:133; for more about the revived Savage slot for anthropology in 2013, see the posts on Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages and Epigenetics on The Edge of Human Nature).

Trouillot compares such tactics to the Las Casas-Valladolid debate about the humanity of the American Indians, making the case that this is a rhetorical counter-punch based on three propositions. Stephen Corry and Survival International exactly echo the first of Trouillot’s schemes (2003:134):

  1. You have argued that human beings can only be controlled by fear by pointing to past or contemporary states of savagery;
  2. I will show you cases in which savages organize themselves through choice;
  3. So that you and I can envision a future based on our own free will.

Two points are worth making about this rhetoric. First, it is most powerful when it does not hide its grounds, that is, when the stakes become immediately public, either because the interlocutor is identified or because the rhetorical use of the Savage is explicit. The power of the Valladolid debate is that the fight was public, the positions explicit, and the opponents well known. That publicity advertises the fact that the ultimate stake was not the range of reasons behind the Indians’ alleged cannibalism, nor even their humanity, but Latin Christendom’s own conception of humankind and whether that conception allowed for a Catholic (i.e., universal) Church compatible with colonial control. . . .

Anthropology also needs to clearly identify its inescapable interlocutors within the West itself. If in the rhetoric of the Savage slot the Savage is evidence in a debate between two Western interlocutors, if indeed that rhetoric is most powerful when couched as a response to a clearly identified addressee, then anthropology should abandon the fiction that it is not primarily a discourse to the West, for the West, and ultimately, about the West as project. On the contrary, we should follow the steps of Las Casas in addressing the Sepulvedas of our times directly, in identifying clearly the ultimate listeners. . . .

The better we identify such interlocutors–inside and outside of anthropology, and indeed outside of academe, from rational choice theorists, historians, and cultural critics to World Bank officials and well-intentioned NGOs–the more chance there is for savages to jump into the discussion, establish themselves as interlocutors, and further challenge the slot by directly claiming their own specificity. The identification of the interlocutors and their premises facilitates the identification of the stakes. Las Casas and especially Rousseau are spectacular precursors who showed great political and intellectual courage in spelling out what they was as the stakes behind their counterpunctual arguments. Institutionalized anthropology has tended to choose comfort over risk, masking the relevance of its debates and positions and avoiding a public role. (2003:135-137)
[For more elaboration, see Anthropology and Moral Optimism]

Stephen Corry and Survival International have identified two very public interlocutors–Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker. In what may be the first time for these popular writers, Papuan leaders claim their own specificity.

That specificity includes the claim that they not be portrayed as people outside of history. Stephen Colbert should invite Benny Wenda, Matius Murib, Reverend Socratez Yoman, Dominikus Surabut onto The Colbert Report. It would be interesting to hear what they might say about Jared Diamond’s notion that they might take an electric can opener and try “sticking it through their nose or over their ears” because they would not know what to do with it. That may facilitate a public debate about the true stakes of this discussion.

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  • Jon Marks

    Yes, that “can opener” line was quite a bon mot by Diamond. I’m glad someone else picked up on it!

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Thanks Jon, I didn’t watch that Colbert segment until several days after, and it was even worse than I feared. The other great part was how he said some ranchers in Montana where he vacations, live like in traditional societies–as in pre-state, before 5000 years ago! I grew up in Montana. I’ll have more to say about that soon!

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  • Mike Fortun

    Jason, Jon, and other readers: you should check out another critique of Diamond, which is really just an excuse for a broadside against cultural anthropology (and postmodernism, political correctness, etc. etc.). Perhaps the most telling (and incoherent) line is:
    “Jared Diamond may be wrong on facts, but he has the right enemies.”

    See also his follow up post at

    where the commenters get especially ugly. I’m not sure what an effective response would be…

    Mike Fortun

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Mike, thank you, I definitely played off some of that broadside in my follow-up on The Yanomami Ax Fight: Science, Violence, Empirical Data, and the Facts. There is a sense in which this is all coming to a head, with Chagnon and Diamond publishing at a time when there has been so much attack on various parts of anthropology, a climate of cuts to education generally. I’m currently working on a longer piece about these issues, as they do go to the core of anthropological concerns. I also find Jonathan Marks’ recent Diamonds and Clubs to be a very useful contextualization. Thanks–and lets keep in touch.

  • Stephen Corry

    On February 4 2013 Jared Diamond was interviewed on BBC TV about his new book ‘The World Until Yesterday’. He would not agree to a Survival International representative being there to debate his points.

    During the interview, he addressed my critique, claiming that Survival’s policies rest on ‘falsehoods’, and that the universal finding is that violence almost always decreases when there’s European contact of ‘traditional’ societies.

    Please visit to see more of Mr Diamond’s claims, and Survival’s response to them.

    •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Stephen, thank you for this and for doggedly putting the facts out there in place of fantasy. I’m hoping the forthcoming volume on War, Peace, & Human Nature: Convergence of Evolution & Culture will provide helpful evidence, but really wish it had come out a few months ago!

      • Stephen Corry

        Hi Jason. Thanks a lot. We’ve made a real effort to bring the counter-argument into the public domain. Yes, War, Peace & Human Nature would have been most useful a few weeks ago! I’m in the throes of writing a similar piece to my Daily Beast article on ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ – much of Diamond’s ‘data’ is the same as Pinker’s. I’ll make sure you see it when finished.

        •!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

          Hi Stephen, thank you. Before I began looking into this, had no idea how much Diamond had come to align so firmly with Pinker, how much Pinker has become entrenched, and how both are so uncritically drawing on Chagnon. For a selection of reviews of Chagnon’s latest, see Anthropology on Noble Savages, Napoleon Chagnon which may have something helpful. All the best for your new article and will be anxious to read.

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