Sunday, 13 January 2013

Preliminary thoughts - The World Until Yesterday

The big buzz in popular anthropology at the moment is Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday.  Diamond is a Marmite sort of guy; I happen to like his approach a lot, but some people absolutely hate it.*  This hatred is probably partly due to jealousy - Diamond has no formal qualifications in anthropology, and yet he's successful as a purveyor of insights about non-industrial humans.  A lot of anthropologists hate him for that, and they shouldn't, because it is certainly possible to be good at something without having any formal training in it (duh), especially something like anthropology, which contains hardly any technical knowledge these days.  Some of the hatred is due to legitimate flaws in his approach.  Certainly, Diamond's endorsement of the farming/language dispersal hypothesis is problematic, because it doesn't seem to be based on sound linguistic reasoning (or archaeological reasoning, for that matter).  Languages spread for a bunch of reasons, as far as I can tell, only one of which is down to population growth allowed for by agriculture and sedentism or the power of new cultigens.  Diamond's views can be a teensy bit simplistic.  They usually aren't, but they can be.

But I digress.  I haven't read The World Until Yesterday.  I'm interested in two things about it, however.  One is that the reviews have been very strange.  Bryan Appleyard's review** in the Culture magazine of the Sunday Times was typical.  It lauded Diamond's abilities as a researcher and scientist, but it failed to appreciate an elementary point in social science: you cannot take modern foraging societies as perfectly indicative of Pleistocene societies, and you cannot, as Appleyard suggests, simply go deep into the Amazon Basin to find people living as they did in the earliest times (especially given what we now know about the development of complex society in the South American lowlands from Heckenberger et al).  Besides this silly notion (I'm not sure if it's Appleyard's misunderstanding or Diamond's claim), the review was otherwise unremarkable.  I'm not sure Appleyard was the right person to review this book.

Wade Davis's review on the Guardian website was also a bit odd (which is to be expected; Davis is an exoticism-anthropologist, one who insists on the separateness of individual cultures and their 'ways of knowing').  Davis asserted that Diamond's method depends on the assertion of absolute cultural superiority.  According to this view, Guns, Germs, and Steel was about proving the cultural superiority of Europe and showing why it reached this superior level.  Geography meant that European civilisation grew to superiority, according to Davis's strawman of Diamond.

But that isn't what Diamond claimed - nothing of the sort, in fact.  In G,G,&S, he sought to understand why Europeans conquered Peru, Mexico, India, Indonesia, New Guinea, Australia, and so on, rather than the other way around.  How did Europeans - otherwise unremarkable specimens of H. sapiens sapiens - come to utterly dominate the earth?  That is quite a reasonable question, completely different from the purported cultural imperialism and geographical determinism that anthropologists like to tar Diamond with.

Diamond's principal claim is that the geography of Afro-Eurasia encouraged the spread of technologies so that they didn't have to be repeatedly invented.  Domesticated animals and plants could spread more easily due to the east-west orientation of the continent (as opposed to the largely north-south orientation of the Americas).  Maize required several adaptations to be able to grow north of the Missouri river, and it took time to develop into the Northern Flint varietal grown by plains and woodland groups, the propagation of the plant being limited by climate the further north one went.  By contrast, the wheat and barley domesticated in the Near East grew pretty well in Europe, around the Mediterranean, along the Indus, in China, and elsewhere.  The same was true of almost every other technology imaginable, from language to religion (if that can be considered a technology) to printing to musical instruments and board games (look at the history of chess, or that of mancala, to see a perfect demonstration of Eurasia's ancient connections).  The enormous population, high population density, and ease of movement allowed by various technologies (domesticated horses, lateen-sailed ships, camels, etc) ensured that Eurasian technological development could be cumulative over wide stretches of time and space.  It also meant that diseases could be spread and mutated easily, especially in the densely urban environment.  Smallpox, which comes from an African gerbil's parasites, mutated into its deadliest form in India and spread across the entirety of Afro-Eurasia in the pre-modern era.  Other plagues were also allowed to spread due to trade, conquest, and the massive (relative) population density.  In the Americas, even in the densest populated parts of Mesoamerica, urban life wasn't quite so pervasive and inter-regional contacts were somewhat less, meaning that no diseases of comparable power were generated or sustained, and the lack of pastoral economies ensured that transmission from animals to humans was much less likely.  Hence Europe's grip on the planet for nearly 500 years once these technologies came to a head in the extremely competitive and war-riven Europe of the fifteenth century.

Davis's review was based on a strawman, not an accurate view of Diamond's work.  Instead of showing why European civilisation is superior - it isn't, and it certainly wasn't in the sixteenth century - Diamond tried to show how Europeans could go around the world and act like dicks to everyone else, while people in New Guinea of equal smarts, and even equal belligerence, did not do this.  Davis makes a good point, in that Europeans tend to believe in the possibility of technological progress and that other civilisations sometimes do not, but this ideological principle alone can't account for the advances made by Eurasians.

Moreover, some of the examples he posits - including the 'Dreamtime' - were comparatively recent social and cosmological innovations in Australian aboriginal communities, likely present for around two hundred years.  Australia had a history before European conquest, and the dominant position in Australian prehistory is that the Dreaming, section-and-subsection systems, wife-sharing, and other features of aboriginal life once thought to date to the Pleistocene were new features, spread relatively recently.  (In the case of wife-sharing, it is thought that the massive 1789 smallpox epidemic, brought by Makassarese sailors to the north coast of Australia before the arrival of Europeans en masse, led to a shortage of women, as smallpox affects women more than men; wife-sharing was the innovation produced to deal with this gender imbalance.)  Davis was exoticising these traits - making it appear as if Australian aboriginal societies haven't changed in millennia because of an ideological opposition to the idea of progress.  That doesn't seem to be the case.

The other point to be made is that Diamond does seem to take a rather simplistic position in this book, which is that the societies he looks at are 'traditional' in some way that other societies aren't, or that they represent the earliest kinds of societies on earth.  But they don't.  I've recently been reading Flannery and Marcus's The Origins of Inequality, a really excellent survey of non-industrial social structure for a semi-popular audience.  They claim that corporate descent groups and ritual houses - features of the societies Diamond engages with in The World Until Yesterday - were a comparatively late development in human societies, emerging around 17-15,000 BP (so, existing for about 15% of human history).  They are features of unequal societies (usually, but not necessarily, with delayed-return economies based on cultivation, horticulture, agriculture, or pastoralism) with relatively large populations, not features of the small, generally egalitarian, immediate-return foraging communities focused on the nuclear family that actually characterised the 'world until yesterday'.  The societies Diamond surveys are societies with fairly advanced social technologies, not groups preserving the Pleistocene heritage of the human species.  This makes the choice of society a little arbitrary, given that the purpose is extracting some prescriptive insights instead of looking descriptively at a particular kind of society.

In any case, it sounds like an interesting book and I look forward to reading it eventually.  At the moment, I'm reading Neil Shubin's new book, The Universe Within, which is just fantastic.  The best popular science book I've read in some time (unless The Better Angels of Our Nature is included in 'pop sci'), with the right balance of biographical and scientific content (I hate the fact that pop sci has to involve the dilution of fact with quirky biographies, frankly; I find the science much more interesting, but apparently the man in the street doesn't).  I recommend it if you're interested in the universe, which you should be, because the universe contains everything.

*On the other hand, I hate Marmite.
** I find Bryan Appleyard about as appealing as Marmite.


  1. Interesting piece. Thanks, Al.

    I haven't read Diamond's book yet either. After we do, we should compare notes!

  2. Sure! I've got quite a bit of other reading to do, including at least one or two more entire books, before getting onto it, but it looks like quite a quick read. We'll see how it goes.

  3. Tamsuan here: I envy your access to books. Living in rural N.E. Thailand, I haven't been able to get a lot of reading done. I can see fragments of J. Diamond speaking on Youtube and perhaps there is something a bit off-putting in his presentation, but that doesn't mean he's wrong, of course.


You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.