Jared Diamond has a new book out, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies, and academic anthropologists are again up in arms. Just as they were when he published his famous Guns, Germs and Steel and its successor Collapse. The vituperation and bile by some academics that are directed at Diamond are extraordinary, and well out of proportion to the interpretative and factual differences noted by Diamond's serious critics.
I'd like to thank Diamond for writing all of these books -- not because I agree with them completely (I do not), but for their intellectual rigor, their cross cultural analysis, their accessibility, and most importantly, for taking on "big issues" that are far too frequently ignored in academic literature. Diamond reminds me that one of the central goals of anthropology is to demonstrate the differences and commonalities of the world's many cultures, and in the process teach all of us a little bit more about each other and ourselves.
Most importantly, Diamond encourages a reader to think about the broad questions that face the world today, places them in historical context, and teaches much about how past societies encountered and dealt with similar issues -- no small feat! Much of what many a layperson, well-educated or not, knows about the past in general and anthropology in particular comes from Diamond's books. Numerous times on planes my seatmates, upon learning that I am an archaeologist who is familiar with Easter Island, have asked me what I thought about Diamond's hypothesis regarding human-driven deforestation as the cause for the collapse of Easter Island civilization. These have led to wide-ranging discussions regarding the relative importance of the environment, human agency, government and war, to name a few, in the rise and fall of societies throughout the world and the course of time -- in sum, all the issues that critics fault Diamond for ignoring or insufficiently emphasizing.
Diamond's books achieve exactly what academic scholarship purports to seek: He makes well-reasoned fact based arguments to explain human behavior past and present, and inspires additional research and debate on those subjects. He is not writing some irrefutable theory but rather gathering data and interpretation to force us to engage in more dialogue. Unlike most of my colleagues, Diamond manages to achieve this for both an academic and a lay audience, and anthropology and other fields are far richer for it. Without Diamond, much of the public would be unaware of what anthropologists do or its relevance to modern society. Indeed, the inaccessibility of much academic literature would make it impossible for others to know. Diamond makes readers smarter and better informed, and brings anthropology to a public that welcomes it. So thanks Jared, I appreciate it!
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