Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Diamonds and clubs

               Things have been building up, haven’t they? 

               There’s Jared Diamond, dressed like Santa Claus, pushing his new book, telling Stephen Colbert that the people in Papua New Guinea wouldn’t know what to do with an electric can opener, because they don’t have cans.  What a card.  Never mind that he’s being sued by a guy from there who made the mistake of once speaking to him, so that Diamond could casually accuse him of murder in the pages of The New Yorker.  Or that his last book, Collapse, was critically examined by archaeologists who actually work on the collapse of civilization, and found that his grand scheme for understanding it was useless, and had a conference and published a book about it. (Diamond responded by shitting on their book in the pages of Nature, and neglecting to acknowledge the conflict of interests.) 

               Diamond’s problem is not that he is a dummy, which he manifestly is not.  It’s that he has realized that the things he is an expert in are boring, and so he writes about interesting things that he is not an expert in.  That can sometimes work.  It certainly has worked for his bank account.  But he can’t figure out why he hasn’t been acclaimed King of Anthropology by the people doing the work that interests him, and everybody else in the field of anthropology.

               The reason is a simple one.  With depth of knowledge comes the ability to read critically.  My first run-in with him was about 20 years ago, when he was hawking some research that I happened to know far too much about, in particular that it wasn’t so much wrong as fraudulent.  We exchanged letters in Nature as the data falsification came to be exposed, but he nevertheless made the fraudulent work the centerpiece of his science bestseller, The Third Chimpanzee.

               That convinced me that Diamond is an anti-intellectual, that he thinks he knows more than the experts.  Where have we heard that before?  Well, from the creationists.  From the climate-change deniers.  In fact, back in the early 1960s, segregationists were saying in the pages of Science that blacks had not produced any good culture or civilization, in spite of what cultural anthropologists were saying, and various psychologists and biologists added their sober opinions on both sides of the issue.  It took the New School anthropologist Stanley Diamond (presumably no relation) to make what should have been an obvious point.  Why should anybody give a shit what psychologists or geneticists think about culture or civilization?  They are dilettantes in that area.

The expert most qualified to speak in this matter is the competent cultural anthropologist, precisely because [they deal] with the origin and growth of cultural behavior and with the cultural interaction of human groups. Once this plain fact is accepted in the scientific community at large – and it is high time that it was – geneticists and other biological specialists will no longer have to waste their time on this unrewarding problem ...
But anthropology holds a special place among anti-intellectuals, because it  has been from its very inception, “a reformer’s science”.   That is the concluding thought of effectively the first book on the subject, E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture.  Nevertheless, a century or so later, the segregationists had developed a unique anti-intellectual slander against anthropology, which they inherited in some measure from the eugenicists decades earlier. 

               I suspect the eugenicists picked it up from an ever earlier source, the neuroanatomist Grafton Elliot Smith, whose politics weren’t all that bad, but who had an axe to grind against cultural anthropology.  You see, Smith believed that “civilization” began in one place, Egypt, and was borrowed or stolen or otherwise adopted elsewhere by imitators and derivatives.  Because he was a respected biologist, his ideas got aired, and because they were false and stupid, they were rejected.  That didn’t stop him, though, because he knew that, as a real scientist, he was smarter than the so-called experts, who had a different view, “put forth ex cathedra by the majority of modern anthropologists”.

               Somehow, there is just something wrong with them dang anthropology perfessers. 

               The eugenicists picked up this thread, and wove it into the beginnings of a conspiracy theory – Franz Boas had come out against their applied genetics program, and it must have been because of his closed-mindedness, those Hebrews being a stiff-necked race, by their own admission.

               But it was the segregationists who took that thread and spun it into a suit – a white one, with a matching hood.  The psychologist Henry Garrett, geneticist Ruggles Gates, and their mouthpiece, writer/businessman Carleton Putnam revealed that anthropology had come under the influence of a cabal of Jews and communists, all dovetailing in the person of Franz Boas.  It was the commie-Jew-anthropologists who had made the discourse of human diversity political, when it should be dispassionate and apolitical.  The scientific segregationists were well financed, from the same funding source as Arthur Jensen, Philippe Rushton, and Thomas Bouchard – the Pioneer Fund.   And if you could be objective and scientific about human diversity, you would see the world as they do, ... and reject the civil rights movement.

               The idea that anthropology is hidebound in a leftist anti-science conspiracy resurfaced in 2000 in a book called “Taboo” by a writer named Jon Entine.  I crossed swords with him after he asked for my comments on his book manuscript and didn’t like the comments I gave him.

               And that brings us to this Sunday’s New York Times. 

               A journalist named Emily Eakin writes a puff piece on Napoleon Chagnon, whose memoir is being published soon.  Chagnon is renowned in anthropology as the counter-example of good fieldwork.  This is the anthropologist who worked with the Yanomamo, got them angry at one another (by broadly violating their taboos about names of dead relatives in order to collect his genealogical information), armed them (with machetes), and then reified the ensuing violence in his monograph “The Fierce People” – removing history, politics, and his own field methods from his analysis of their violence.  It was a great undergraduate read, but it isn’t taken very seriously as scholarship.  Why?  Because he removed history, politics, and his own field methods from his analysis of their violence.  

               Like some other fuzzy thinkers in the late 1970s, Chagnon believed the voice of Darwin had spoken to him, and adopted the tenet that only by studying ants could we become better ant-hropologists , and followed E. O. Wilson in trying to reinvent anthropology based on the idea that to do human science properly, you must begin by pretending we aren’t human.

               Well, that was a long time ago, and since then, the worst elements of sociobiology have metastasized into evolutionary psychology.  Evolutionary psychology is a brilliant coinage, because you don’t need to know much about either psychology or evolution to practice it, which makes evolutionary psychology particularly attractive to morons.   But in order to do evolutionary psychology, which has no discernible scholarly standards, you have to begin first by dismissing the field that studies the actual evolution and diversity of humans and their lifeways, namely anthropology.  And you do that by the exceedingly judicious citation of things that you agree with, and consequently wish were true.

               First, Napoleon Chagnon showed that the Yanomamo are inherently violent, and they stand as synecdoche for all human societies, especially ancient ones.  But what about the scholarly literature that showed how terribly flawed Chagnon’s analysis was?  Ignore it, or blame it on the commies and Jews who control anthropology.

               Second, Margaret Mead was bamboozled, and everything she ever said and did is wrong, as that fine objective  scholar Derek Freeman showed.  Not true either.  The remaining tatters of that argument are disproved by Paul Shankman in the latest issue of Current Anthropology.

               And third, anthropologists think there are no human races, because they are fluffy liberals, led by the geneticist Richard Lewontin (and don’t ask about his politics or ancestry)!  Actually, Lewontin’s famous 1972 paper on “the apportionment of human diversity” came after well over two decades of biological anthropologists (i.e., from the sciencey end of anthropology) coming to empirically reject the idea that race is a basic biological structure of the human species, while nevertheless studying the actual patterns of human biological diversity.  As far as I can tell, the idea that anthropologists believe everyone is the same goes back to a throwaway line in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”:

     I was a student in the Department of Anthropology.  At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody.  They may be teaching that still.
     Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting.

Probably not a good idea to take that passage at face value.  Vonnegut did do graduate work at the University of Chicago in anthropology, but most of the book takes place on the planet Tralfamadore.  It’s not really an autobiography.

               And as you can tell if you’ve read this far, anthropologists do think some people are ridiculous, bad and disgusting.  Top of the list: people who degrade science by using it rhetorically to naturalize social inequality.

               Some respectable scholars, like Johan Bolhuis and Kate Clancy, have recently tried to talk some sense into evolutionary psychologists, by suggesting ways to make the field more rigorous.  But I don’t think the evolutionary psychologists are listening.   The New York Times sought a soundbite from that great anthropologist Steven Pinker, who obliged: “Pinker said that he was troubled by the notion that social scientists should suppress unflattering information about their subjects because it could be exploited by others.”

               So here is my point to the evolutionary psychologists and race reifiers.   This is bio-politics.  What is “sociobiology” for ants is “sociopoliticobiology” for people.  And you had better smarten up, because if you are repeating anthropological arguments made first by Nazis and segregationists, then you are indeed political, and you are politically bad - in addition to being anti-science.


  1. John, thanks for this piece. Also struck by the parallel btwn recent attacks on anthro in the US and this article on the recent history of the Republicans in the US:

    "This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun's ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.

    "This is the politics of nullification."

  2. I only know Jared Diamond from "Guns, germs and steel", which was an interesting read. Would you say this book is flawed as well?

    1. Unfortunately, that book took an "environmental determinist" view of global history, which most historians found valueless.

    2. That's not true - Diamond explicitly shied away from environmental determinism. G,G,&S is nothing like the book social anthropologists make it out to be. Diamond is saying that environmental and geographical factors make certain actions easier than others, not that they determine human actions entirely.

  3. Jonathan, you do a disservice to yourself, your field, and Jared Diamond in this rant. Where is it written that only people with a degree or job in a particular field are the only ones who can think and write about it? What happened to the notion that wide reading, listening and thinking -- which Jared Diamond has surely done, whether or not you agree with his syntheses -- do not count as education? Yes, sometimes outsiders (non-anthropologists) get it wrong. But so do anthropologists, and sometimes we are so imbued with the standard truths of our field (which also change from time to time, which is the nature of scientific progress)that we cannot see the forest for the trees.

    Science writers write about subject in which they do not do original work all the time and sometimes write very good books about fields other than their own. In the interests of discovering the truth, or a better approximation of it, I think we should welcome the ideas, hypotheses and syntheses of "outsiders" because they might just contain valuable insights. And isn't the staple of cultural anthropological field work to go somewhere where one is an outsider and try to observe and document critically and intelligently what is going on? Calm down,Jonathan, and think this over again.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Pat. However, I haven’t disputed Diamond’s erudition, and I have a lot of respect for science journalists. But science journalists generally begin with the science, and strive to explain it better than the scientists can. Diamond, on the other hand, begins with the proposition that the scientists are wrong, and he can do the science better – because anthropology is basically exploring and talking to people, which anybody can do. That is anti-intellectualism, not science journalism, and certainly not science. Rex Golub at has written some thoughtful posts on the details of the quality of the pseudo-anthropology that Diamond has produced. What Diamond represents as anthropology is the equivalent of the flood geology of the young-earth creationists.

  4. You see Pat, the problem is, that when things get put into print, people believe them. So when people that do not spend their time studying things that they write about, and just write about things they've read OTHER people write, they are simply writing opinion pieces. But the writings do not get read as op-eds...they are read as "gospel" by the untrained populace.

    And I promise you, "science writers" do not write about subject [sic] in which they do not do original work and get it published..there is a thing called peer review which keeps hacks from publishing scholarly papers, which unfortunately does not apply to fictional works, and well, pretty much any other body of bullshit that can receive a spine and page numbers.

  5. On February 4 2013 Jared Diamond was interviewed on BBC TV about his new book ‘The World Until Yesterday’. He would not agree to a Survival International representative being there to debate his points.

    During the interview, he addressed Stephen Corry's critique, claiming that Survival's policies rest on 'falsehoods', and that the universal finding is that violence almost always decreases when there's European contact of 'traditional' societies.

    Please visit to see more of Mr Diamond's claims, and Survival's response to them.

  6. the quote on Pinker is a bit ambiguous, if one was not aware of the irony then one might not get it. At least I assume you mean the ...'great'... anthropologist Stephen Pinker?

    1. At least *you* got it. That's good enough for me.

  7. Wow. This is complete boilerplate nonsense. I was waiting for the "argumentum ad Hitlerem" and, sure enough, last paragraph. When you don't have logic and reason on your side, call others Hitler. You people are like a broken record; you are just as bad as the creationists -- as you're both ideological fundamentalists at war with reality. Race is real. Get over it. Cease your quixotic war against reality and human nature. You'll feel better at the end of the day.

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Please define race in a biologically valid and reliable way.

  8. By the way, Boas and Gould have both been proven to be frauds:

    They both lied. Race is real.

    But continue on with your quixotic war against reality.

    1. Bullshit!

      First the study you mention here, doesn’t say that Boaz was a fraudster.

      Secondly Boas head shape studies was revalidated!

      And about Stephen Jay Gould this article is worth reading!

    2. Thank you, Hans. Nancy, your comments have no bearing on the subject of this post, and I’m sure even Jared Diamond would agree that you are a cretin. Not only were the slanders against Boas handily refuted in the 2003 paper by Gravlee et al., but of course Boas’s work spawned a century of immigrant studies, all coming to similar conclusions about the effects of environment upon the human body. One of the more important was one that a professor of mine, Fred Hulse, collected the data for, while he was a graduate student. It was published in 1939 as Heredity and Migration, by Harry Shapiro. I also wrote about the scurrilous attack on Stephen Jay Gould in an earlier blog post:

  9. If you are any sort of scholar you will allow people to read this about the fraud perpetrated against Chagnon and make up their own minds

    1. I certainly won’t prevent anyone from reading it, for they will see that the document is preliminary and unofficial, while nevertheless being over a decade old. That will suggest to them that it is the work of a few interested parties, wasting letterhead stationery. I didn’t say anything about Darkness in El Dorado, but for the record, it is almost certainly highly unjust in its treatment of James Neel. And if you are any kind of a scholar, I would have heard of you, jackoff.

  10. This is an awesome post. You are right, everything usually boils down to same parallel logic between creationists, segregationists and anti-intellectualism.

    But as I can tell by some posts made here, the race idiocy certainly won't go away soon -- and that wasn't even the topic here. Haha, these people would enjoy Stormfront, though

    Thank you for this post -- my Anthropology professor said you were his professor back in Yale!

    1. Thanks. As it turns out, Chagnon's book is reviewed critically in the same issue of the New York Times by Elizabeth Povinelli (Columbia University).

  11. Thanks for writing this article. I wasn't aware of this history. It clarifies for me a number of popular media articles with obvious hidden agendas.

    I appreciate the history about the creationists, segregationists and anti-intellectuals. Doesn't Jared Diamond and his following in the popular media point to something even darker? In the last few years, I've noticed an increasing desire to be indifferent and to naturalize inequality. It's become socially acceptable. You can see it in the slavish devotion to the iPhone and our indifference to various events in Africa. Everyone knows that the workers producing the iPhone work for nothing in conditions that here would be considered to be sub standard. However, confronted with the price tag for a phone that was produced without indentured labor, we balk.

    Poverty and the increasing impact of climate change in places like Mali and Nigeria are glossed over even in the liberal media in the US. I heard an expose on NPR yesterday largely implying that the situation in Mali was a product of their own incompetence.

    Where is the call to Steven Colbert to interview Survivor International? Ah, but that would not sell advertisements, now would it?

    This is also not a "white only" issue. For instance, I've noticed some of the Latino media television channels tend to be very disrespectful toward women, LGBTs, Asians and African Americans. (see

    I wish the tendency to be indifferent and naturalize inequality was just an issue of a few anti intellectuals and nuts. It is not.

  12. Excellent article Jonathan, I was actually forwarded to this piece by the folks who wrote Sex at Dawn. Have you read the book, and if so, what is your opinion?
    Additionally, prior to reading this I greatly admired Diamond's work (being only familiar with Guns, Germs and Steel) as I found it to be one of the most equalistic (I hope that's a word) accounts of anthropology and evolution that I had ever seen. In light of a greater realer context, however, Diamond's work seems as dubiously biased as many other so-called evolutionary psychologists. Can you recommend an alternative author or work that actually achieves a notion of equality?

    1. I don't know that book, but will look it up. I'd also recommend Agustin Fuentes's recent book:
      Try Agustin Fuentes's recent book:

  13. A great piece. Btw, I worked closely with Rhonda Shearer on the Jared Diamond New Yorker article controversy. Here's my latest on Chagnon:

    And here's something from the Jared Diamond investigations:

  14. Extremely provocative article, although I'm not entirely sure what to think. I'm not an anthropologist, and while I am attempting to engage myself with the field out of intense interest, my knowledge of these various controversies is unfortunately limited.

    An additional problem is that anthropologists ask extremely difficult answers, and sometimes the questions are not particularly well-formed in a philosophical sense; I don't hold anthropologists at fault, though, any more than I hold physicists at fault for not conclusively explaining all the mysteries of the universe.

    It sounds based on your account that evolutionary psychology in its present form is laden with ideological biases and justification for class inequality, a possibility which I would certainly entertain. Still, the relationship between evolution and psychology strikes me as incredibly interesting, so how exactly do we preserve the baby when we're ridding ourselves of the bath water?

    A few years ago, I read a provocative book by Jacques Bernard entitled Primeval Kinship. He was a primatologist speculating on the relationship between primate mating patterns of various kinship structures, exogamy... in your view, is this pseudoscience? Is it presumptuous of a primatologist to speak to issues of culture? Is it controversial to suggest here evolutionary links? Where's the line?

    Also, I feel somewhat uneasy about your appeal to authority vis-a-vis cultural anthropologists. A lot of people, including, I hope, myself, might have some insights into questions of culture, and I don't really see any intrinsic need to consult or get approval from cultural anthropologists. This exchange should be voluntary and hopefully mutually enriching. Also, the very structure of academy is such that, regrettable as it is, cultural anthropology and anthropology in general reflects class structures, just as any other field, and the interminable need 'to consult the relevant literature' often amounts to the need to pass through the toll gates (and pay sites) of the 1% (and their children.)

    I'm not at all defending Diamond, Pinkard, and the rest of them. But I think we all need to recognize our limitations and our own political biases as well as those of the opposition, as it were, broadly construed. Also, I wonder if the proper target is not specialists outside of their field, but media systems that promote these specialists and use their science-y credentials as a kind of shield to promote what amounts to rather vicious argumentation. Specialization!--academia needs to get out of this nineteenth century intellectual assembly line. Anthropologists above all.

    Also, it's all right not to know! Cultural anthropologists do not definitively understand culture, because no one does! Etc. etc.

    Anyway, just dashing off thoughts.

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