Does Jared Diamond Really Mean What He Says?

Paleo Retiree writes:

sb_ucsb_jared_diamond02 copy

Short answer to the question posed in the title of this blogpost: I have no idea. But that’s not going to stop me from sharing some musings and hunches anyway.

Diamond is a bit of a puzzle. A much-celebrated scientist and author — he’s a prof at UCLA; he has spent long stretches doing fieldwork in New Guinea; his books (such as “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”) sell in the millions; he’s got a list of awards and prizes a mile long; and he’s a hero to the PBS-and-National-Geographic crowd — he’s clearly a substantial and knowledgeable guy. Yet to some (I’m among them) he’s also infuriating.

The main reason why: Although he’s clearly aware of genetics and evolutionary biology, he seems not just to refuse to accept the implications of both fields but to write in active defiance of them.

His main point in “Guns, Germs and Steel,” for example, is to argue that genetics plays no role — no role whatsoever — in how societies have developed. Where explanations for why some societies are throwing spears while others are launching drones go, you’d think any sensible person would be open — would want to be open — to a variety of factors: environment, genetics, luck, geography … But where Diamond goes, you’d be wrong. For him, all explanations are allowed — he even volunteers some fresh ideas having to do with geography — except for the genetic. For Diamond it’s always and everywhere important to maintain the belief that we’re all the same under the skin. He wants genetic explanations to remain unthinkable, in other words. Why should he be such a nitwit?

Until the other evening, when the Question Lady and I went to see Diamond speak (he’s promoting a new book, “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”), I was playing with three possibilities.

1) Perhaps he’s one of those people who’s worth paying attention to only so long as he’s discussing particulars and specifics. Such people really do exist — I know a few of them. Maybe — despite how smart and experienced as he is — Diamond happens to be someone who, when he kicks the generality-level up a notch, turns into a dodo.

2) At least in his books for a popular audience, perhaps he’s more driven by politics than he is by science. For whatever reason, maybe he’s more devoted to maintaining the fiction of egalitarianism than he is to exploring the paths the evidence seems to suggest.

3) Perhaps he’s an opportunist. Peddling bland idiocies while cloaking his arguments in the language of evolutionary biology and genetics hasn’t worked out badly for him, after all. There’s always a market for squishy feel-good messages, and maybe now, what with harsh and cold discoveries in genetics and evo-bio coming fast and furious, it’s a particularly lively one. Maybe Diamond spotted the commercial possibilities in catering to this crowd. Maybe he realized that he could offer the drippier element in the educated-nonfiction-book-buying audience a chance to recharge their belief in the old pieties.

The talk The Question Lady and I attended was OK, if a bit of a snooze. I’m very interested in contrasts between tribal and civilized life — hey, I’ve been one kind of Paleo fan or another for many decades. And while about half of his facts were familiar to me, Diamond’s tales and information were focused and provocative. So long as he stuck to them, you felt like you were in trustworthy hands.

Incidentally, and à propos of not much but my interest in performers: As an onstage performer Diamond is a peculiar creature. With his trim figure, his white Abe Lincoln beard, his bright red sport jacket, and his very weird accent — Boston/Jewish, as it turns out — he’s like an elfin wizard-creature out of Tolkien. And he’s as pedantic as you’d expect a successful veteran prof to be. Even when he goes off-book he speaks like a term paper. He states and restates his points; his sentences are full of fillers like “conversely” and “in short.” (Which left me wondering: Are some people genetically destined to become professors?) But maybe the package is theatrically effective anyway. Maybe to his audience it conveys “I’m a serious and eccentric — yet also bizarrely lovable — intellectual.”

But, sadly, Diamond isn’t a galvanizing storyteller — in fact, his talk left me wondering if he uses assistants to help make his prose more lively and accessible than it would otherwise be, or if he has worked with some really virtuosic editors. And the message his worthwhile bits of info-crunchiness were embedded in was the usual ooze: Let’s not look down on so-called primitive people. They’re people too. And finally: Let’s all strive to be nice to each other. I admit it: my mind did do a little drifting, as it will when liberals are patting themselves on the back for the sweetness of their intentions.

What woke me up was something that slipped out of Diamond in passing. Asked some fate-of-the-earth type question by the usual earnest-and-concerned, worshipful fan, Diamond revealed that he took up writing the big books for the popular audience when he became a parent. Up until the arrival of the kiddies, he’d focused on the kinds of small and tight questions that concern your everyday hardworking scientist. Now that the little ones were here, he knew that it was time for him to set aside academic disputes and start worrying about the future instead.

As far as I could tell, Diamond was admitting flat-out that, right from the outset, he intended his big books to be do-gooding “message” books.

So much for my other explanations for his apparent disingenuousness. He turns out to be a much simpler puzzle than I’d thought. He’d simply come down with what afflicts so many people when they have kids: a bad case of the Worthies. Where his big books go, his main concern hasn’t been to share his knowledge and his thinking. It’s “What shall we tell the children?” My conclusion: maybe Diamond’s books are best taken as morality fables for overgrown kids.

Question Du Jour: How is that a few people who become parents continue to be fun and interesting nonetheless? Surely there’s a book in that topic.

FWIW: In case I’m not being clear, I think Jared Diamond is basically a smart and interesting guy. I don’t look down on tribal peoples, and I have no trouble whatsoever with the idea that we ought to make some effort to be nice to each other. I wish the future well too.

Bonus links

  • Despite the brain-numbing worthiness of its big points, there’s interesting information to be found in “Guns, Germs and Steel.” I recommend skipping the book, which is mighty long-winded, and watching the National Geographic TV adaptation instead.
  • Wade Davis criticizes Diamond for not being PC enough. (!!!)
  • John Horgan loves Diamond’s new book.
  • A mixture of anthropology and genetics in its full, unconcerned-with-PC, blast-of-cold-water glory can be found here.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Does Jared Diamond Really Mean What He Says?

  1. dearieme says:

    IIRC, in Guns, Germs and Steel he adopted the tedious PC habit of putting “explored” or “discovered” in inverted commas because (presumably) the indigenous people had already discovered Nowhereville, hadn’t they? Except, mirabile dictu, he dropped the habit when discussing his own pootling about in New Guinea. So there you are, he’s a more authentic discoverer than all the chaps you heard about at school.

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  2. I’d have had a question for Diamond:

    Has he thought about the fact that every traditional society on Earth has a great deal of wisdom and insight to offer us, with the sole exception of our own? How does he explain the fact that our own particular traditional society happens to be the only one that objectively has nothing to offer us?

    I’d enjoy seeing him stroke his beard and commend my sagacity in noticing that fact. Either that, or he’d say that if you look hard enough, you can find traces of robotically doctrinaire NYT progressivism pretty much anyplace you look. Even — gasp — in… America!

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    • “How does he explain the fact that our own particular traditional society happens to be the only one that objectively has nothing to offer us? ”

      Because we are dumb enough to listen to him and it benefits his tribe.

      Like

  3. ironrailsironweights says:

    It could be that over the course of his research he’s begun to realize that genetics do play an important role, but he’s unwilling to say anything publicly as it’s so controversial.

    Peter

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  4. Pingback: Daily Linkage – January 20, 2013 | The Second Estate

  5. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    I think he wrote GG&S to prove that Western Culture had no role in the rise of the West.

    Like

  6. Atypical Neurotic says:

    “Are some people genetically destined to become professors?”

    Only if they are not so far along the autism spectrum that they cannot play the game to the extent that they are able keep the kiddies happy and enrollments up and get the great student evaluations necessary for promotion (one set of standards for teaching and another for scholarship – Aspies are uncomfortable with having, in essence, to lie, so they end up as career assistant professors). The lucky ones find more lucrative – and more prestigious – ways of making the most their talents.

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  7. Jack Donovan says:

    This was helpful. His new book looked like something I might find useful, but I am so skeptical of him as a writer.

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  8. Pingback: Jared Diamond’s “Just So” Stories - Jack Donovan

  9. Jack Donovan thinks that Steven Pinker has come down with the Worthies too:

    http://www.jack-donovan.com/axis/2013/01/jared-diamonds-just-so-stories/

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  10. hbd chick says:

    @paleo retiree: “Although he’s clearly aware of genetics and evolutionary biology, he seems not just to refuse to accept the implications of both fields but to write in active defiance of them.”

    diamond knows better. (~_^)

    Like

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  12. Callowman says:

    Funny that both you and Jack Donovan imagine having kids would cause a man to start thinking about the world in terms of worthy messages and perfectibility. It had the opposite effect on me. Crass considerations about where to live and who to be around were always a factor, but now they are more important than ever. I have ever fewer illusions about being able to right wrongs, and am more concerned with not letting those wrongs get at me and my progeny. The time horizon I’m personally concerned with stretches past my own death. There’s no longer any escape. Now that the kids are into puberty, I’m more concerned with helping them navigate the challenges of early adulthood with their eyes open. Peddling romanticized illusions about egalité and the noble savage are the last thing on my mind, though we talk about them at the dinner table. They need to understand contemporary mores, mythologies and taboos. They don’t need to believe in them.

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  13. Steve Sailer says:

    “Diamond revealed that he took up writing the big books for the popular audience when he became a parent.”

    He had twins at about age 50.

    I read his first book, The Third Chimpanzee, in the mid-1990s and wrote him a fan letter asking him about exactly that: did fatherhood encourage him to start writing books?

    No reply.

    Like

  14. Bill says:

    His main point in “Guns, Germs and Steel,” for example, is to argue that genetics plays no role — no role whatsoever — in how societies have developed.

    No, it isn’t. As a commenter at Sailer’s site pointed out, Jared Diamond claims that the development of civilization is determined entirely by genes: plant genes.

    Like many of his ilk, he tempts me to go all Straussian. Many of his points are so idiotic (people from New Guinea are smart b/c they know which mushrooms are poison, zebras can’t be domesticated, etc) that they seem like intentional tells, attempts to let the initiated know the surface meaning isn’t the meaning.

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  15. Laban says:

    I liked his little aside on mating, bad boys and hypergamy in the foreword to GG&S.

    “Woman after woman, when asked to name her husband, named several sequential husbands who had died violent deaths. A typical answer went like this: “My first husband was killed by Elopi raiders. My second husband was killed by a man who wanted me, and who became my third husband. That husband was killed by the brother of my second husband, seeking to avenge his murder.”

    Like

  16. Greg2 says:

    Dear Paleo, I thank you for for your wonderful posting. Was scratching my head, reading (and listening to Diamond). I feel you are spot on.

    Like

  17. cootie says:

    So sad…your blog leaves me convinced that our country is really as split as it seems to be. Is there no hope for middle ground?

    Like

  18. JV says:

    Missed this post when it first came out, cootie up there bumped it with his/her comment. I’m mixed on Diamond too, but I “felt compelled” to respond to a couple of your sentences:

    “He’d simply come down with what afflicts so many people when they have kids: a bad case of the Worthies. Where his big books go, his main concern hasn’t been to share his knowledge and his thinking. It’s “What shall we tell the children?””

    “How is that a few people who become parents continue to be fun and interesting nonetheless?”

    That’s a very real, visceral concern of parents. For most parents, our focus utterly shifts from the self to our progeny. A deep sense of tradition and legacy kicks in. I think here you write of what you know not, and so it comes out as belittlement. Frankly, the concerns of self-expression of grown adults take a back seat, and rightly so. “Fun and interesting” takes many forms.

    Like

    • JV says:

      Also, you guys still write compelling and at times provocative stuff, yet the comment section is almost empty. I miss the lively 2Blowhards commentariat! Not your fault, but where are they? I can’t overstate how much of my thinking the past decade was influenced by you and them.

      Like

      • A few notable exceptions aside, people don’t seem to comment on blogs like they used to. I think all of the commenting has moved to Facebook. People post stories and discuss them there.

        Like

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