IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN CULTURE, intellectual celebrity requires the ability to hear the ideological background music of the historical moment, and to play effortlessly in tune with it. Some people have a special knack for this: One thinks of Francis Fukuyama announcing “the end of history” when the Soviet Union fell, or Malcolm Gladwell celebrating the value of snap judgments (in Blink) to the leaders of recently downsized corporations. The key move is to avoid any discussion of power or class relations, of political or social conflict, in favor of apparently neutral and impersonal forces.
In recent decades, there has been a powerful resurgence of deterministic schemes—technological, biological, environmental—all exuding an aura of scientific inevitability as they claim to explain centuries of historical change. Rather than attend to the messy struggles between haves and have-nots, or between colonizers and colonized, our celebrity intellectuals prefer to focus on the cosmic implications of the latest networking strategy from Silicon Valley, or the natural selections they imagine happened on the savannah one hundred thousand years ago. This is what passes for serious thought in our neoliberal moment—a vacuous ahistorical frame of mind that allows the privileged to feel comfortable with their privilege, and well-informed into the bargain.
Jared Diamond is nothing if not a celebrity intellectual, though he achieved that status somewhat late in life. Having toiled in comparative obscurity for decades as a physiologist specializing in gallbladder functions and later an ornithologist specializing in birds of New Guinea, at the age of sixty, in 1997, he burst into prominence with Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and became the basis for a TV series; eventually Diamond was landing speaking gigs at TED conferences and Microsoft-sponsored events. (Bill Gates wrote a blurb for the book, which he found “fascinating.”) What was in Guns, Germs, and Steel to create such a commotion among the custodians of conventional wisdom?
Diamond claimed that the book was an effort to answer “Yali’s question.” Yali was a man Diamond had met in New Guinea in 1972, who asked: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” Diamond interpreted this to mean: Why did you Europeans create wealthy and powerful nations, and why did we—the rest of the world—fail to? Diamond’s answer was that the triumph of the West had nothing to do with racial or intellectual superiority. Instead, it was about the rise and spread of agriculture, beginning in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East.
The gradual growth of farming over centuries allowed time for the development of technologies (which included guns and, eventually, steel) as well as the domestication of large animals. Domesticated animals became a crucial cog in the wheels of agricultural production; they also introduced disease germs, which gave Eurasians the opportunity to develop some immunity over time. The spread of agriculture stemmed entirely, in this telling, from topography, from climate, and, at bottom, from the shapes of the continents themselves. The longitudinal gradient along the temperate zone made trade and other connections between peoples easier to establish across Eurasia than in Africa and the Americas, where latitudinal gradients posed stiffer obstacles to the circulation of goods and technology. Geography was destiny.
This was a sweeping argument against politics, economics, culture, or any of the other categories of understanding that historians and anthropologists like to use when they try to explain broad changes over time. Part of the appeal of Guns, Germs, and Steel was its simplicity, which was fortified by a foundation of scientific expertise. But it had a subtler political appeal as well. Diamond presented himself as a tolerant liberal, challenging racist notions of Western supremacy. Of course, no one with any intellectual legitimacy was invoking racial superiority as a historical explanation (at least not in public) by the 1990s, but Diamond still had comforting news for his upper-class, enlightened audience: The conquest of dark-skinned people was a process that occurred long ago and far away, and the dominance of the West over the rest was a product of impersonal forces, not human decisions.
There were major problems with Diamond’s argument, even on its own terms, beginning with its imprecision and disregard for contrary evidence. In slipping from Europe to Eurasia, he failed to acknowledge the vast stretches of inhospitable mountains and desert along the longitudinal gradient that was supposedly the sluiceway of agriculture. But the more serious difficulties involved what he left out. His self-proclaimed brief against racism let imperialists off the hook. Indeed, the word imperialism never appeared in the book. Empire, in Diamond’s view, just grew. Ignoring class and other social divisions among the victors as well as the vanquished, he overlooked the complex political conflicts involved in imperial policy—which included decisions about how to use guns and steel as well as how to make alliances with native elites. As the anthropologist Michael Wilcox writes: “A more appropriate troika of destruction [than ‘guns, germs, and steel’] would be ‘lawyers, god, and money.’”
The most glaring omission from Diamond’s account is the violence involved in the imperial grab for power. As Eric R. Wolf wrote in Europe and the People Without History (1982): “Europeans and Americans would never have encountered these supposed bearers of a pristine past if they had not encountered one another, in bloody fact, as Europe reached out to seize the resources and populations of the other continents.” Wolf was a Marxist, writing at the dawn of the neoliberal era; his work will never be made into a PBS documentary series as National Geographic did with Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond’s bowdlerized account of empire, in contrast, left out the inconvenient history and captured the triumphalist zeitgeist of the fin de siècle.
Diamond’s next book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), was a fitting companion to the previous one. If Guns, Germs, and Steel played to the racial liberalism of upper-class professionals, Collapse flattered their environmental concerns. It purported to illuminate the dark side of the story told in the earlier book. If the haves acquired wealth through geographic accident, Diamond claimed, the have-nots lost it by squandering their own natural resources. He told tales of ecocide by indigenous people of the North American Southwest and of Easter Island, of postemancipation Haiti and of modern China. Here again the publicity machine clicked in, producing uncritical reviews—including one by Gladwell himself. Civilizational collapse made a good story, especially if it could be shown to be the fault of the native populations themselves.
In Collapse, the ignorance of history and the neglect of power relations were even more apparent than in Guns, Germs, and Steel—so apparent that it provoked a volume of critical essays by anthropologists and historians called Questioning Collapse (2009). The book made it clear that Diamond was out of his depth. A leading historian of China, Kenneth Pomeranz, posed the question “What Chinese collapse?” with respect to the fifteenth-century Chinese and answered that there was none. Other critics took Diamond to task for ignoring the role of Western conquest and its aftermath in bringing about the catastrophes he described.
The case of Haiti provided the most egregious example. After a successful slave rebellion formally freed the Haitians from their French masters, the French still managed to bully the Haitians into paying them the huge indemnity for “lost property”—that is, freed slaves—in exchange for diplomatic relations. By 1900, 80 percent of Haiti’s annual budget was consumed by these payments, which did not end until 1947. By then, Haiti had paid France about $21 billion in contemporary US dollars. In explaining Haiti’s social collapse, Diamond ignored 120 years of illegitimate debt payments as well as the long history of US interference in Haitian affairs, including America’s decades-long support of dictatorship under the Duvalier regime.
Diamond’s blindness to imperial power was of a piece with the assumption embedded in his subtitle: Failed societies (a reified abstraction) have somehow chosen to fail. In the wake of the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, the New York Times columnist David Brooks revealed his attachment to the same point of view: Haitians’ attachment to voodoo and other primitive superstitions, Brooks believed, had immeasurably exacerbated their suffering in the wake of the disaster. Once again, Diamond’s work revealed its resonance with neoliberal conventional wisdom. As the anthropologist Frederick K. Errington wrote, Diamond’s two books constituted a “‘one-two punch.’ The haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise.” One could hardly imagine a more comforting account of global inequalities.
Now Diamond has published a retrospective summary of his career, featuring his adventures in New Guinea but also drawing on scholarly accounts of other hunter-gatherer and subsistence-farming societies. According to his publicists, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? is Diamond’s “most personal book to date,” as well as his “most urgent book.” It is in fact too bland and self-assured to betray any sense of urgency, but it does reveal Diamond to be a fundamentally decent and humane man. Unlike his earlier books, The World Until Yesterday is not concerned with constructing grand theories of historical change. Yet when his conceptual assumptions do surface, Diamond reveals his continuing debt to contemporary conventional wisdom. He remains in thrall to neoliberal politics and pop-evolutionary biological determinism.
He seems characteristically unaware of the huge historical and anthropological literature complicating the categories of the traditional and the modern, as well as calling their utility and their empirical basis into question. His understanding of modern societies is thin, superficial, and overgeneralized: He ignores differences created by culture and political economy, making no distinctions among neoliberal capitalism, social democracy, and the authoritarian hybrids emerging in such places as China and Singapore. All modern societies, to use his acronym, are WEIRD—Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. As in his earlier books, differences in how power is shared or not shared simply escape his notice. Everything is lumped together in the wan category of “the modern.”
“The traditional,” in contrast, is more complex. Diamond’s notion of the category veers toward the primitive, excluding complex civilizations routinely deemed traditional by historians in the past—such as medieval Europe and Tokugawa Japan. “By the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘small-scale’ societies,” he writes, “I mean past and present societies living at low population densities in small groups ranging from a few dozen to a few thousand people, subsisting by hunting-gathering or by farming or herding, and transformed to a limited degree by contact with large Westernized, industrial societies.” He recognizes the many differences between hunter-gatherers and herdsmen, or between herdsmen and subsistence farmers, as well as the differences dictated by geography and climate. Still, he finds common patterns. From the Siriono of Bolivia, the !Kung of the Kalahari, the Iñupiat of the Arctic, and above all the many tribes of New Guinea, Diamond extracts mild and mostly incontestable lessons: We should consider following their example (he thinks) by spreading child care among a local network of providers, respecting the knowledge of elders, adopting agricultural practices designed to anticipate food shortages, learning multiple languages, and embracing a low-salt, low-sugar diet. This is hardly a controversial agenda.
To his credit, Diamond avoids oversimplified and invidious comparisons between tradition and modernity. He recognizes, for example, that traditional (or nonstate) justice and modern (or state) justice have different aims and cannot be evaluated one against the other. Nonstate justice adjudicates disputes between neighbors who must continue to maintain relationships; state justice adjudicates disputes between strangers who (in most cases) will never see one another again. The first aims to restore the fabric of social relations, the second to determine individual guilt in accordance with an abstract ideal of justice. The modern state offers, in Diamond’s words, “a mandatory alternative to do-it-yourself justice” but not the “emotional closure” provided by the New Guineans’ practice of settling disputes among themselves.
When DIY justice fails, the alternative is violence—the outcome that state authority is designed to prevent. As an example of traditional warfare, Diamond discusses the Dani War in New Guinea during the early 1960s, after a series of revenge killings touched off a protracted and bloody struggle between two alliances that spoke the same Dani language and shared the same culture. The Dani War, for Diamond, epitomized the characteristics of traditional war in general: ambushes; massacres; the demonization of enemies; the involvement of the whole population (not just soldiers); the burning and sacking of villages; low military efficiency combined with chronic hostilities, leading to constant anxiety and fear among the populace; and a per capita death toll higher than Europe’s during the world wars.
What Diamond calls traditional war, in short, is total war—as total as any waged in the twentieth century. Anthropologists have claimed that war is just a game among traditional peoples; in fact, Diamond maintains, it is in deadly earnest. This is a persuasive argument, though it is coupled with Diamond’s less persuasive tendency to minimize European responsibility for the slaughter of indigenous people. Equally unconvincing are his suggestions that modern state-sponsored warfare is easier to manage and contain than traditional war. Surely this is a provincial American perspective, the product of a country that has yet to be laid waste by a distant enemy. And most troubling of all is his claim that modern state authority makes wars easier to stop—especially given the situation in the contemporary United States, where the national security state prosecutes endless wars around the globe, conducted in secret and without congressional authorization. Still, Diamond raises an intriguing issue when he notes that nonstate societies accept violence and vengeance as inevitable parts of life, while state societies send mixed messages, discouraging violence until war breaks out, when killing strangers becomes a duty. No wonder we require “boot camps” to teach young people how to do it.
If warfare among nonstate societies elicits Diamond’s revulsion, their patterns of child-rearing inspire his admiration. He likes the multiage playgroups of small-scale societies, which “resemble one-room schoolhouses.” There is no privacy, but also no competition; play is cooperative. Children learn everything—including sex—by imitating adults and each other. “Knowledge is inseparable from social life” among the Nayaka of South India, Diamond writes (quoting an anthropologist), and indeed among any other group he surveys. Modern kids’ lives are hyperorganized by comparison. While children’s sex play and the lack of privacy even for adult sex may make us uncomfortable, Diamond admits, still we could learn something from small societies’ child-rearing. He has been constantly struck by the “emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy” of the children he has encountered in New Guinea. Apparently, he writes, “the hunter-gatherer lifestyle worked at least tolerably well for the nearly 1,000,000-year history of behaviorally modern humans,” without producing “obvious sociopaths.” Leaving aside the question of whether hunter-gatherers can be said to have a “lifestyle,” that faint praise seems more than justified.
Old people have it harder than children in small-scale societies. Among nomads they are left behind when they cannot keep up with migrations. During food shortages they are allowed to die so that others may live. But they play a vital role as biological or adoptive grandparents in the “allo-parenting” that involves multiple members of a village or extended family. And they can also be sources of essential knowledge, such as the old woman on the South Pacific island of Rennell who remembered what roots were eaten at the time of the hungi kengi—the tremendous cyclone that swept the island around 1910, uprooting trees, destroying crops, and reducing the people to dependence on roots otherwise considered inedible.
Old people in our own society remember things, too, but they are often sidelined and even rendered irrelevant by the “American values” of individualism, privacy, and self-reliance, as well as “our cult of youth” or “rapid technological change,” Diamond observes. All of this is true, but familiar to the point of banality—and it gets worse, as Diamond concludes: “Technological change regularly brings unanticipated problems in addition to its anticipated benefits.” Greater health and longevity among the old has made them a greater burden to society and has led to the “looming crisis of funding the American Social Security system,” he writes. No neoliberal account of contemporary eldercare would be complete without mentioning the nonexistent “crisis” of Social Security. Here, as elsewhere, Diamond is wearing conventional blinders when he looks at the modern world.
Things get more interesting when he returns to New Guinea and explores the “constructive paranoia” of the natives—their tendency to take routine precautions even when danger is slight. He recounts that he was at first puzzled when his companions refused to pitch camp near an old dead tree, until he discovered that falling trees were one of the leading causes of injury and death among New Guineans. However remote the possibility, the prospect of death from a falling tree justified their careful avoidance. Diamond tells how he almost drowned in a boat accident off the coast of Indonesia when he failed to imagine the potential consequences of the crew’s sloppy and reckless behavior, which was apparent even as they were preparing to get under way. Since that time, he has tried to exercise constructive paranoia when performing even simple household tasks, such as climbing a ladder. The New Guineans have set him a cautionary example.
To be sure, there are times when risks cannot be avoided, such as when the hungry !Kung, in need of meat, try to chase off lions from their recently killed prey. Still, if they can, the !Kung wait until the lions are sated; there will be plenty left for humans, and the lions will likely leave without a fight. Caution is never confused with cowardice in these societies, Diamond insists; there is no macho ethic, no risk for the sake of risk, and no shame in hiding to avoid danger, as Diamond recounts two !Kung boys doing when their father speared a gemsbok. After their retreat, he notes, no one taunted them or asked for an explanation. Yet it is also true, as Diamond admits, that warriors in small-scale societies acquire much prestige and attract many wives.
Everyday life in nonstate societies reflects an outlook of constructive paranoia, an effort to anticipate the worst-case scenario. In an atmosphere of unpredictable but pervasive violence, tribal folk build villages on high hilltops, create networks of alliances, and talk constantly to one another to learn about the activities and intentions of strangers. Expecting frequent food shortages, they scatter their planting in various fields—an approach that drives development experts crazy, but makes sense as a way to ensure that yields never drop below a certain level, rather than try to maximize average yield over time, the modern way.
Diamond’s affection for traditional ways—and regret at their passing—is most apparent in his lament for the loss of indigenous languages. But that is only an interlude. The final chapter returns to familiar ground, a repetitive complaint about modern societies’ sedentary habits and high-sugar, high-salt diet. Hunter-gatherers, it appears, could teach us a thing or two about health. They also illustrate a recurring principle of pop-evolutionary explanation: in Diamond’s words, “a mismatch between our bodies’ genetic constitution, still largely adapted to our Paleolithic diet and lifestyle, and our current diet and lifestyle.” Diamond evokes what he believes is a similar mismatch in his evolutionary account of religion, which flattens a complex subject in predictable ways.
Originally, religion explained the universe, he asserts, but that function has been usurped by science. Now, at least in modern societies, religion mainly functions to defuse anxiety and provide emotional comfort in what would otherwise be a potentially meaningless universe. The adaptive mechanism (religion) survives, in other words, but its functions change. Yet according to Diamond, “we still have our same old brains that crave meaning,” even if we lack scientific evidence for it. The yearning for a meaningful cosmos, like a hankering for a Paleolithic diet, is structured into our “genetic constitution” long after it has outlived its evolutionary moment—or so Diamond seems to be saying. The ideas are muddled and unclear, but the strategy is a familiar one in Big Picture arguments: Evolutionary theory—or some crude facsimile of it—is trundled onstage to provide legitimacy for an author’s claims, regardless of whether the theory has any actual power to illuminate the subject in question. The notion that religion is an outmoded evolutionary adaptation does not really tell us much about how and why human beings believe in a supernatural dimension of meaning. But it does have the sort of scientific aura that appeals to Diamond’s middlebrow audience.
This casual recourse to scientism is, indeed, the most revealing—and the most tellingly American—calling card of Diamond’s foreshortened approach to world history. Science, for Diamond, is teetering on the brink of explaining just about everything. At one point he even makes the vague assertion that scientists are busy unpacking the ultimate ontological question: “Why is there something, when there could have been nothing?” This is the question the theologian Paul Tillich posed back in the 1950s to his Harvard undergraduates (who included Diamond), daring them to provide a scientific answer to it. Yet “in fact,” Diamond announces, “scientists are working now on Tillich’s question and have proposed answers.” He leaves readers to wonder who those scientists are and what sort of falsifiable hypotheses they have proposed.
As the publicists at Viking have assured us, The World Until Yesterday is indeed less driven by Big Ideas than Diamond’s earlier work, more engaging in its anecdotal knowledge of small-scale societies. But behind the stories, familiar baggage lies strewn about—textbookish prose, stupefying banalities, overburdened conceptual frameworks. The most rickety framework is the concept of “the modern,” which Diamond sees as both the product of irresistible forces and the outcome of our choices. This is the contradiction at the core of neoliberal culture. It pervades the deterministic fantasies of freedom peddled by the likes of Bill Gates and Tom Friedman, who tell us that we will all choose to do what we will have to do anyway. Diamond has heard this music, and he is still playing in tune with it.
Jackson Lears, the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University, is the editor of Raritan and the author, most recently, of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (Harper, 2009).