Paleo Retiree writes:
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.
- 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.