Wednesday, November 28, 2012

World History and Jared Diamond: Ramblings and Frustrations

One of the areas of history that I'm keenly interested in studying is a burgeoning sub-field known as World or Global History. Now of course the study of world history is not exactly a recent phenomenon. Scholars of old such as H.G. Wells, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee took up this task, Toynbee's own work amounting to 12 volumes. But their concerns were chiefly with discerning cycles or patterns in history and usually placed an emphasis on the West's central role in World History, often relegating other civilizations to a peripheral and subordinate position. In contrast, the kind of World History that is studied today is somewhat different and owes its origins to the minority movements of the late 60's and 70's and to the K-12 (kindergarten through 12 grade) establishment.

For the longest time most school curricula provided "Western Civilization" classes which as the name indicates were focused primarily on teaching the origins and rise of the West. And because of this many other groups in history were marginalized or altogether ignored in such classes. For example, the standard background to North American history typically emphasized English history to the near exclusion of Indian or Native American history.

And so as mentioned ever increasing calls for a focus on the study of minority history likewise led to a cry for a replacement of Western Civ classes with World History classes for the purpose of curing Westerns, chiefly Americans, of their provincialism and to give due attention to those various groups of peoples that had been historically ignored in the discipline. But in the beginning no one had any idea how to accomplish such in the academic community. Thus, the testing ground became the K-12 system which over time progressed its courses to incorporate other civilizations and usually renamed or sublimated history into "social studies" classes. Eventually, World History took root on the college level as well and has since become quite successful with many more universities adding MA's and Phds in World History every year.

The method used in the field today tends towards a thematic approach as opposed to a diachronic one which is typically narrative based. Popular modes of inquiry here include examining early cross-cultural contacts, trans-atlantic or trans-pacific studies, human-animal relations...analytical topics of that sort. But also a lot of pre-history (usually somewhat arbitrarily defined as the period of human history before "written" language) has begun to be incorporated into the study of World History such that many of the sciences have become a huge part of the discussion (e.g., the magisterial Big History by David Christian). Now, I absolutely applaud this development for I have an amateur love for the natural sciences, regularly reading works in astronomy, paleontology, evolution, et al as often as I can. But this of course means historians, because most aren't trained in the scientific disciplines, inevitably make mistakes when entering into these fields of scientific inquiry.

And yet curiously enough opening the door of these traditional areas of science to historians has meant that scientists can make their way through the other side of the door and study those areas normally the sole purview of historians. I myself welcome their inclusion since I'm an avid supporter of interdisciplinary studies. Yet, just as historians often err when attempting to enter into the domain of science, likewise do some scientists when they try to engage in history. Case in point: Jared Diamond.

I have tried to give this man a chance, twice now. First, I read his highly praised, Pulitzer prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel which tries to dazzle its readers with lots of data to support a thesis of geographical determinism. Essentially, Diamond's argument in the book is that geographical placement of peoples-nations is what accounts for the modern day success of Western civilization and the "failures" of other civilizations. Now there's nothing new with such a position which is partly why I'm flummoxed that Diamond has garnished such attention over this book. I mean, the damn thing has a National Geographic program devoted to it!

 Except for a few chapters such as the one on the development of animal husbandry I found the book mostly a bore, partly I suppose because I was already familiar with Diamond's thesis, one which is ridiculously reductionist. The reasons for the success and/or failures of some civilizations vis a vis others are the result of a myriad of complex elements and cannot be reduced to one single, overarching factor. (See further my review of Kenneth Pomeranz's The Great Divergence for a bit fuller critique of the geographical determinism view.)

Nevertheless, I wanted to give Diamond another go by reading one of his early works that actually touches on his area of expertise, namely, human evolution and physiology. It's entitled The Third Chimpanzee and for the most part I found its first two-thirds or so a much more entertaining read than Guns, Germs, and Steel. I especially liked his chapter on the development of human language. And then I read his section on agriculture and became so infuriated I almost heaved the book across the room.

Basically, in this chapter Diamond reduces all of human woes to the development and prominence of agriculture in human history. According to Diamond, it was the discovery and success of agriculture which produced the great inequities and ills of our present times from class struggle, to the oppression and subjection of women, to climate change, to genocide, to George W. Bush, to the Star Wars prequels, etc. Once again I found Diamond being ludicrously reductionist in his conclusions. But worse than that, Diamond implies in this chapter that modern society would actually be better off by returning to some kind of hunter-gatherer state because he thinks that will create more equality than we currently have!

Ok, so to partly what is going on here with Diamond has to do with his New Guinea experience. For you see Diamond is also an ornithologist of sorts and sometime in the 70's (I believe) Diamond went to New Guinea to study bird species native to that island and in doing so fell in love with the tribes peoples of New Guinea, most of whom who have managed to maintain a mostly hunter-gatherer society for thousands of years. And in both of the books I read New Guinea features prominently,  ad naseum really. Diamond's New Guinea experience functions as a kind of cypher through which he thinks he can interpret the world. Time and again in these two books Diamond refers back to something that happened to him on New Guinea that he believes helps him to understand whatever it is he happens to be talking about. Quite honestly he does this so often that it's part of the reason why I found it a chore, with some exceptions, to get through his two books. My point is that he interprets just about everything under the sun in terms of New Guinea which only exacerbates his problem of reducing the complex to the simple. He seems to see the world only through the prism of the people of New Guinea.

And so I think I'm through giving Jared Diamond chances to persuade me. I won't be reading another one of his books.

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