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29.7.05

Once More On Jared Diamond

I'm winding down what I have left to say about Jared Diamond given that it's been so long since I read GG&S. But I'd like to bring up one more point, which was mentioned early in the debate, lost in the shouting over whether Diamond is a crypto-racist or anthropologists are jealous, then hinted at in Tim Burke's critique (which largely agrees with mine in questioning Diamond's practice of reaching back too far for causes and ignoring the role of historical contingencies). The point is this: insofar as Diamond is successful, he only explains why Eurasia could conquer the rest of the world, not why it did. Why were the resource-mobilization advantages of one civilization directed toward developing military might and using it against their neighbors? (The impacts of disease are less intent-dependent -- smallpox wiped out tribes the Europeans had never heard of, much less planned to conquer.) Why are "Pizarro conquers the Incas" and "Atahualpa conquers Spain" the only options once trans-Atlantic contact becomes technologically feasible?

Implicit in Diamond's work is a sort of Hobbesian/Darwinian model. Even if all people aren't selfish militaristic bastards, they have to act that way lest the selfish militaristic bastards wipe them out. That sort of thinking only works if (as Hobbes argued) all parties are roughly equal in power. If you realize that you could squash your enemies with your pinky, you have no Hobbesian incentive to develop better armies, or even to use the armies you have against anyone. To reconcile this explanation for conflict with the clear resource superiority that makes the victor inevitable, you have to assume that none of the civilizations involved realized how unequal the fight was.

Both the "selfish bastards" and Hobbesian theories are useful starting points. But by leaving them implicit, Diamond's theory winds up with an underdeveloped hole. There's quite a lot to say about how different societies make decisions about how to develop and use their potential might -- how they define their goals, gather information about possible courses of action, and select among them. The need becomes obvious when you look at something like this article, in which Diamond explains how, because of Japan's greater biological productivity as compared to Korea, Korean dry-rice agriculturalists initially weren't able to conquer the affluent hunter-gatherers of Japan, but the invasion was only a matter of time once the Koreans got hold of iron and wet rice agriculture. Yet Diamond seems to expect that modern Koreans and Japanese can choose to end their (at times violent) feud.

Of course, some people go much too far in the other direction. A Marxist mailing list picked up my original GG&S post, and among the replies was a strange argument (I can't name the author or link to it because the archives apparently only go back 100 posts and I neglected to blog it while it was fresh.) The Marxist in question pointed out the decision-theory hole in Diamond's argument, then asserted that the lust for conquest is a uniquely European cultural feature, dating back to the glorification of war in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. The people vanquished by the Incas, Mongols, or Malians would be surprised to hear that.

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