Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A reply to a comment on Savage Minds



 This post is just an extended comment to Clare Sammells, an anthropologist who posted on the blog Savage Minds about Jared Diamond and his work.  The original comment can be found at that link.



J[ared] D[iamond] seems to think that similar geographies are inherently advantageous, while disparate ecologies are a problem. There are cases where that might be true, but not always. In the Andean case, political and economic power of the Inca and other Andean civilizations was predicated on access to multiple, widely different ecological zones separated by short distances (as the crow flies).

That is certainly not the impression he gives in either G,G,&S or any other work.  The diffuse nature of Andean economies is pretty well-known, I think - it's referred to in almost every modern work on the topic as a strength.  I don't think Diamond said anything about Inka agriculture being a specific weakness, because it wasn't - in terms of its ability to provide for a large population, it was very successful, and in terms of its impact on the modern world, pre-Columbian South American agriculture has been extraordinarily important.  The disadvantage for South America was the difficulty of moving between and around North and South America, not necessarily anything local to South America itself.  The uniformity of Eurasia - the factor he presents as of primary value in spreading technologies and domesticates - is really limited in his account to its horizontal, rather than vertical, orientation with respect to the poles.  This encouraged the spread of ideas through the ability to use similar technologies in different parts of the continent, and the effect of the near-uniformity in climate was that the technological products of human civilisations could be more easily mingled and improved upon.

Moreover, Diamond is pretty clear that humans benefit from diversity, whether in terms of exploiting multiple ecological zones in a local setting or in terms of the cultural and ecological differences across a continent like Eurasia.  That's kind of the point of the book, in a way.  Eurasians were able to benefit from diversity over massive distances in both time and space.  Americans were less able to do this despite clear variation in almost every regard.

And Diamond seems pretty cautious to me in G,G,&S - I don't remember if he repeated the claim that the Americans saw the Europeans as gods or not, but I don't think so. (UPDATE: He did indeed repeat this myth.)  Such an explanation would also run counter to his central thesis, in any case.  And Restall's debunking of those myths leaves Diamond's ideas untouched.  For instance, it was smallpox that decimated Mexico and Tawantinsuyu, in the latter case even indirectly causing a civil war before Pizarro had even arrived.  Diamond presented the real reason why Europeans dominated the Americas and used the wealth gleaned from this to conquer much of the rest of the world, not the mythic version, and you'll find that his account of the destruction of the Inka realm doesn't differ substantially from, say, Michael Moseley's.


One could argue that’s not the scale JD wants to examine history at, which would seem a better (if imperfect, IMHO) defense. But I find that deeply unsatisfying.

Let's be clear about the question Diamond was trying to answer with the book.  It was: how did Europeans manage to conquer the world and accrue all of the advantages they have since benefited from?  It wasn't exactly the same as, 'why is the world unequal today?', although that is how the whole thing was framed.  Implicating environmental factors in the development of European civilisation and its dominance of the earth does not mean that other factors, or present circumstance, have nothing to do with inequality in the world today, because clearly we could do something about this inequality even while recognising its roots in European conquest.


That’s unfortunately, because Wolf is asking all the same questions about global inequality that JD is, with quite different answers.

I don't think that's true.  Wolf was asking very different questions - not why Europeans conquered the world, which they did, but the effects of that on the conquered people, or people brought into Europe's orbit.  A little different, and sufficiently different that to compare the two is perhaps inappropriate.  When you said that Diamond didn't mention colonialism or development aid, that's because he was trying to explain colonialism, to explain why it is European, or at least Eurasian, nations that give aid to non-Eurasian ones.  If he had attempted an explanation using colonialism as the explanans, he would have been explaining colonialism with colonialism.  The point was to explain global inequality by looking at how it first came to be - not saying that this generated an immutable natural order, but merely that it is partly, even primarily, because of geography that Europeans conquered Zambia and Tuvalu and California and thereby generated/stole wealth for themselves.

I don't think we're flogging a dead horse, by the way.  Most anthropologists have a straw man view of Diamond and his work, and that seems to be largely based on disciplinary prejudice than anything else.  Diamond has been pretty successful at showing why it is that Eurasians, and Europeans specifically, had a clear advantage in the game of world conquest, and his approach does not amount in the least to geographical determinism.  The fact that this misconception is so common among anthropologists shows that this horse still has some life left in it.

Finally, in your earlier comment, you said:


The end conclusion seems to be, yes, people in PNG (or wherever) are our equals, and if only they had wheat/horses/small pox instead of potatoes/llamas/syphilis, they’d be running the world economy now instead of us.

I find this curious.  Diamond doesn't limit himself to such a short list as that and doesn't link the European-derived management of the world economy to these factors as a matter of necessity.  I've provided a much fuller list in another post.

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