December 26, 2007

Responding to Jared Diamond

I loved Jared Diamond's last two books, Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel. But evidently a number of anthropologists don't think he got the picture right.

Central to the “cosmology” of Dr. Diamond’s tribe is a principle celebrated throughout the physical and biological sciences — to understand is to simplify and seek patterns.

In an e-mail message, he said that progress in any field depends on syntheses and individual studies. “In both chemistry and physics, the need for both approaches has been recognized for a long time,” he wrote. “One no longer finds specialists on molybdenum decrying the periodic table’s sweeping superficiality, nor advocates of the periodic table scorning mere descriptive studies of individual elements.”

For the anthropologists, the exceptions were more important than the rules. Instead of seeking overarching laws, the call was to “contextualize,” “complexify,” “relativize,” “particularize” and even “problematize,” a word that in their dialect was given an oddly positive spin. At some moments, the seminar seemed less like a scientific meeting than a session of the Modern Language Association.

But the anthropologists had a point. As Einstein put it, explanations should be as simple as possible — but no simpler. Is it realistic to hope, as Dr. Diamond did at the end of “Guns, Germs and Steel,” that “historical studies of human societies can be pursued as scientifically as studies of dinosaurs”?

One reason I find his arguments compelling is precisely because he uses a systemic model to explain human societies. We are much more susceptible to human failings and patterns of thoughts than we'd like to believe. See Philip Zimbardo's summary of human propensities in The Lucifer Effect to understand just how deeply we are tied to our societies.

Coda: A fascinating review of Collapse by David Pollard in How to Save the World.

Posted by Mary at December 26, 2007 12:00 AM | History | Technorati links |

From what I can tell Diamond is very responsible about methodological limits, for example in his contrast of the Norse outposts and the Polynesian outposts he notes that the use of statistical methods requires more cases than variables.

My suspicion is that anthropologists dislike Diamond because he's an ornithologist writing about people, just as they dislike Desmond Morris for being a zoologist that writes about people.

Posted by: Huskarl at December 26, 2007 06:58 AM