Jared Diamond won’t beat Mitt Romney

Diamond Romney

Update: This post was written during the political campaign of 2012. For an update, see Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires and for thoughts on more recent work–Jared Diamond and Future Public Anthropology.

The really scary thing is not that Mitt Romney misused, misinterpreted, or just didn’t read Jared Diamond. It’s that Romney’s views are very much in line with what Diamond gave us from Guns, Germs, and Steel to Collapse: the differential success of the world’s nations–and European imperialism–is due to accident, except when societies “choose to fail.”

Everybody knows Jared Diamond chided in the New York Times that Mitt Romney Hasn’t Done His Homework. Excited tweets follow:

  • Richard Dawkins: Believing he’ll get his own planet after death, it’s not surprising Romney misreads Jared Diamond’s book about this one
  • Katrina vandenHeuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation: Jared Diamond warns Romney — Don’t use my work when you’ve failed to do your homework.
  • Mother Jones: Epic smackdown of Romney by Guns, Germs and Steel author Jared Diamond.
  • Slate: Guns, Germs and Steel author Jared Diamond SLAMS Romney for misunderstanding or mischaracterizing his book.
  • Atomic Spin: Anthropologist Jared Diamond offers a brutal take down of Mitt Romney for misrepresenting his work. Fantastic stuff.

And they keep on streaming. A Twitter search on Diamond Romney yields more gems, like this is “ahh so satisfying”; “gaffes, germs and steel”; “blistering critique”; and one of my favorites: “Don’t mess with Academics! Jared Diamond shreds Mitt Romney’s sad attempt to use his book to add intellectual heft.”

The big thinkers have spoken. Look out Mitt Romney. Plunging poll numbers to follow.

Let’s get real. Does anyone actually think a Jared Diamond piece in the New York Times–of all places–is going to move a single vote? Or even, for that matter, help us understand contemporary politics, international relations, and world history? If anything, it may be counter-productive. Considering how well Richard Dawkins belittling arrogance has been working for public acceptance of evolution, this so-called gaffe may be just what Romney needs to put him over the top.

The funny response from Alex Pareene in Salon is more apt:

First of all, Professor Diamond, your book came out like 50 years ago so of course no one remembers every single little detail. Second of all, 90 percent of the people who tell you they read it are also probably lying. (It was long!) . . .

This will definitely hurt the Romney campaign, especially among voters in swing states with easy access to navigable rivers or seas and conditions suited for the development of agriculture. (Mitt Romney accused of not actually reading book he mentioned and thanks to Phillip Buntin on Facebook for the alert)

I tried to take this further in More than Guns, Germs, and Steel, claiming Romney may have flubbed Diamond’s details, but nails the basic premise: that the differential success of the world’s nations is due to the accidents of agriculture, except when societies “choose to fail.” And that’s what is really scary.

My critique simply extends what already appeared in the 2007 New York Times: “Taken together, the two books struck Frederick K. Errington, an anthropologist . . . as a ‘one-two punch.’ The haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise” (A Question of Blame When Societies Fall, Johnson 2007). This critique re-appears in Questioning Collapse, although it could be argued the longer treatment dilutes the message.

Moreover, there is a certain irony that Diamond accuses Romney of not reading or misrepresenting his work. That’s pretty much what the Savage Minds review of Questioning Collapse argues (Alex Golub), and at least two of the authors in Questioning Collapse say the same thing: Norman Yoffee says Diamond has misinterpreted his book as well as Joseph Tainter’s work, the first two sources cited in the “Further Readings” section of Collapse (Yoffee 2009:177). Drexel Woodson “wonders how discerningly Diamond read the five books on Haiti” (2009:278).

I have been reading Diamond since I began teaching Introduction to Anthropology–Diamond’s Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race and Guns, Germs, and Steel are surely the most widely read pieces about domestication and agriculture ever produced. If anthropology is to have a coherent public or teaching message on domestication and agriculture, it must engage with Diamond. (Interestingly, I note the 2012 edition of the four-field anthropology reader Applying Anthropology no longer includes any Diamond articles, when at one point it had three.)

As my approach has turned more critical, I’ve noticed two things about attempting to critique Diamond. First, people often seem to treat Diamond with kid gloves because of shared political commitments–Diamond appears to be an ally on issues of race and racism, evolution and science, climate change and enlightened politics, which apparently mutes voices that might be more harshly critical. Second, any critique of Diamond is immediately plugged into an existing set of tropes, so that any critique is dismissed as nitpicking academic anthropological jealousy rather than taken on its own terms.

Diamond on Race, Evolution, Climate Change–Not Helping

Many people give Guns, Germs, and Steel a pass because it seems to be a non-racist explanation for differential developments. But I agree with Michael Wilcox–Guns, Germs, and Steel is actually “disguised as an attack on racial determinism” (Marketing Conquest and the Vanishing Indian: An Indigenous Response to Jared Diamond’s Archaeology of the American Southwest, 2009:122). And it’s a weak disguise. No one who really wants to find biological race and correlate race to intelligence is swayed by Diamond. For example, Neven Sesardic’s “Race: A social destruction of a biological concept,” which somehow made it past peer review at Biology and Philosophy:

After raising his famous “Yali’s question” . . . Jared Diamond briefly considers a possibility that a genetic difference in cognitive ability between the two groups might partly account for the observed disparity in their economic development. . . . Diamond immediately rejects the genetic hypothesis for the following reason: “To me, any explanation based on race is absurd. I know too many really smart New Guineans to believe there is anything genetically inferior about them” (Diamond 2005). It is easy to see that Diamond’s objection to hereditarianism has no force, and that such a reasoning would be at once recognized as a blatant fallacy in any other context. Just consider an entirely analogical and equally faulty inference: “Any explanation of the difference in height between men and women that is based on genetics is absurd. I know too many tall women to believe that there is anything genetic about their comparatively lower height”. (2009:158-159)

As I note in Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race, Sesardic blatantly misconstrues and misuses forensic anthropology. However, you can’t correct statistics based on anecdotes, and Diamond’s anecdotes don’t fool the people who really really want to see race-and-IQ.

Similarly, Diamond’s Race Without Color, long a staple of Introduction to Anthropology, is seen as a rather laughable example of an outdated genre. Propping up Diamond because he seems to be with anthropology on race and racism does not help the cause.

Others give Diamond a pass because of his staunch support for evolution, especially human evolutionary narratives, and demonstration of human continuity with the biological world, such as in books like The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. However, once again we have to consider how Diamond’s prominence coincides with many years in which acceptance or understanding of evolution has hardly budged, or may even be moving in the wrong direction.

This could have something to do with the fact that Diamond’s view of evolution–and humans as a Third Chimpanzee—are wrong. Jonathan Marks has made this pithy point in a number of places:

We have evolved into biocultural ex-apes.

Pre-Darwinian scholars of the Enlightenment tried to imagine a noncultural human condition, but we now know that we have been coevolving simply with stone tools for over 2.5 million years. Consequently, the quest to imagine a human condition without culture is simply the tortured dream of a hack philosophe. . . .

To imagine that we are nothing but apes, and to find human nature there, actually constitutes a denial of evolution. We evolved; get over it. . . . Evolution is the production of difference and novelty, and you are not your ancestors. (Off Human Nature, Marks 2010:513; see also Marks 2012, The biological myth of human evolution and the section on Stone Tools for 2+ Million Years)

Finally, on climate change. My feeling is one reason Questioning Collapse became a significantly diluted critique was because of the authors’ desire to praise Diamond for his contemporary scientific and political commitments on climate change issues. One of the few pieces to actually challenge Diamond on policy, from an Australian context, is also a hidden gem in Questioning Collapse:

Diamond’s zeal to rid Australia of agriculture, and to conserve remaining forests, water, and fishing grounds, leads him to excess. . . . It is interesting that Diamond does not advocate the cessation of intensive irrigation and fertilization practices in the Imperial Valley of California, his home state. . . . Indeed, it would be an act of the grossest folly if Australians were to choose such a course of action when much less radical, but no less effective, means of improving sustainability are already available. (Tim Murray,The Power of the Past, 2009:319-320; see also the blog-post Anthro-Flop-ology.)

Here again, can we really imagine attitudes about climate change would be worse in the U.S. if it weren’t for Jared Diamond?

In this context, Diamond’s latest intervention on Romney fits the trend. If Diamond has successfully delivered an “epic smackdown” of Romney–and we critique it–then we risk being branded as Romney supporters!

You’re just jealous: Why it’s impossible to critique Jared Diamond

In addition to the kids-gloves treatment Diamond gets because of his political affinities, critiques of Diamond are almost always caricatured and then dismissed. They get caricatured by being slotted into one of many already-rehearsed “you’re just” tropes:

  • You’re just angry because Diamond isn’t an anthropologist.
  • You’re just jealous because Diamond is popular.
  • You’re just a nitpicking specialist–Diamond is a big-ideas man.
  • You’re just playing by academic rules–Diamond is an intellectual.
  • You’re just calling Diamond a determinist, and he isn’t a determinist.

What’s disarming is that any critique of Diamond gets read in those terms rather than on substance.

In a bid to disarm these tropes, I’ll say right now that I support and promote the writings of Charles C. Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Mann is not an anthropologist. Mann is a best-selling author. He deals in big ideas that nit-picking academic specialists have questioned. But I still like him. Mann’s account of the Americas–both before and after Columbus–is quite different from Diamond’s. There is substantial overlap on germs, but Mann minimizes the role of guns and steel, instead emphasizing human agency all around, and the huge role non-Europeans played in the conquest and shaping of the Americas.

Mann does not carry the same weight as Diamond, nor have the differences between their accounts been sufficiently noted. In part this may be because Diamond is seen as a World History, while Mann is confined to the Americas–and we all know what happens when people are too sympathetic to Native American accounts. Mann has also been used by a more conservative set than Diamond, like John Tierney’s whack against locavores as a way to review 1493, or those who’ve tried to use Mann to argue against Amazonian rain forest conservation. Even Razib Khan recommends Mann.

Nevertheless, Mann’s account is the closest thing I’ve seen to a popular follow-up on Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History. That’s why this all matters.

Why this all matters: Diamond’s coffee-table story of world history supplanted Eric Wolf

Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History is from 1982, five years before Diamond’s “Worst Mistake” and back when Diamond was strictly published in ornithology. Thumbing back through Wolf, there is a surprising degree of organizational similarity with Guns, Germs, and Steel, including Wolf’s extensive treatment of geography and the fact that apart from trying to place non-European peoples in a historical frame, Wolf was really grappling with the same question: the rise of the capitalist-imperialist West.

Wolf’s book won many awards. It was dense and complex, but not out of range for undergraduates–I read parts of it for a history course during my first year of college, and then finished it over the summer. It is not an exaggeration to say Wolf’s book changed my life.

With Wolf’s book already around since 1982, what allowed Diamond to claim the popular space in 1997 with Guns, Germs and Steel? First and most obviously, Wolf’s book was for the anthropological and historical guild, while Diamond aimed directly at the liberal coffee table. But in retrospect, why would Wolf have done it differently? Wolf thought he was writing for the people who were actually creating and writing world histories. Why would he be concerned with what an ornithologist might speculate about world history?

Wolf of course was also a little too Marxist–and with at least a small cabal of contemporary internet denizens calling anthropologists “Boasian Cultural Marxists” (see comment stream for this post, this post, and this one), taking a Marx-inspired approach can still be fighting words.

But perhaps most importantly, Wolf had no patience for inadvertent conquerors and liberal naïveté.

As Thomas Hylland Eriksen wrote in a new 2010 introduction, Wolf’s “perspective is even more sorely needed than it was when Europe and the People Without History was written in the early 1980s” (2010:xvii). But we can’t return to Wolf in 1982 as if 1982-2012 has been a vacuum. In large measure, the 1982-2012 space was colonized by Jared Diamond.

A crucial signpost in that colonization seems to be the 1987 Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. With that article, Diamond went from ornithology to borrowing a lot of anthropology, especially from Richard Borshay Lee, without attribution. As far as I can tell, there was no response from anthropology to Diamond in 1987. Anthropology cannot, of course, respond to everything, and there may have been little reason to comment on an article whose author had previously only written about birds. But perhaps if Diamond had been called on that borrowing in 1987, it might have at least slowed his march to becoming The Authority on The World, Evolution, Humanity.

Once again, the Headline I Wish We Were Reading is quite different from the headlines we actually are. We should be reading about how anthropology changed the way people think about the Rise of the Western Project. Instead, we’re treated to Jared Diamond lecturing us about agriculture, latitude, and “institutions promoting wealth.”


To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Jared Diamond won’t beat Mitt Romney: Anthropolitics 2012.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/diamond-romney/. First posted 4 August 2012. Revised 21 September 2017.