War is Not an Anthropology Value

Jared Diamond wrote a book. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” won a Pulitzer Prize and claims to be a comprehensive summary of “the fates of human societies” (how modest). It contains chapters like “Apples or Indians: Why did peoples of some regions fail to domesticate plants?” and “How Africa Became Black: The history of Africa”. That’s one whole chapter for ‘The history of Africa’, the second largest continent on earth, the one with the second oldest form of writing in existance. That chapter is a whopping 22 pages long if you leave out the illustrations. This is one of those guys who says he thinks ‘big picture’.
“We’re never going to achieve the level of precision in History that we achieve in Quantum Mechanics” he said during an interview on the BBC radio program ‘The Life Scientific’. Not with him at the helm we won’t, certainly. But it’s okay, because as he also said “Most historians bristle at the idea of making comparisons between different events… Like wars, a historian of the Spanish Civil War would never be taken seriously if he wrote about the American Civil War”. I guess he’s never heard of historiography. I guess he’s never heard of PBS Classroom who has a website that’ll do it for you. But nevermind, he’s here to give us the broad-strokes so we can reach the higher truths. He’s a maverick, just ask him.
Except he doesn’t, give us the bullet points I mean. He doesn’t think ‘big picture’, he doesn’t even think in generalities, or aggregates, he thinks in cliches. Why did the Indians of California not develop agriculture in such a fertile environment? Because the plants in the area “resist domestication”. “Look at deer”, he suggests, “they’re impossible to domesticate so the Indians didn’t try”. We’ll nevermind that the Russians proved it takes less than 75 years to domesticate a fox. We’ll nevermind that the Ancient Pueblo and Hohokan cultures of a few thousand years ago, in region, had extensive agriculture and still show evidence of irrigation canals to this day. California Indians didn’t do it because, well they just didn’t apparently.
But he’s not just factually inaccurate. In 2008 he wrote an article for the New Yorker about revenge killing in which he discusses a tribal skirmish. He gave the name of his informants. That’s just plain amoral. It’s so unethical that the American Anthropological Association Code has a whole section devoted to informant’s right to privacy. When asked on ‘The Life Scientific’ if he felt bad about the article, and his reporting one informant’s account as if it were a distillate of the entire event, he honest to goodness answered, “The thing I would change if I wrote that article today is I wouldn’t give the names. Because the expectation about Anthropology today is that you change names and omit details. It’s a practice I follow now.” Note the use of the present tense so specifically. Not that distant past of 5 long years ago.
So, cross-comparison is the only way to determine fact, that’s why historians are wrong so often, they don’t do cross-comparison. Cross-comparison is Social Science’s most important tool. Unless he’s only got the one source. Then it’s okay to not cross-compare.
Using someone’s name in a discussion of murder is totally unacceptable, so he won’t do that anymore. He’s not as reckless as he was in his youth, way back 5 years ago. Of course, the anonymity guidelines go back significantly more than 5 years, not just in the AAA but the American Journalists Association Code of Ethics. I’m beginning to question the Pulitzer Committee’s ethics.
So who cares? I’ll relate a story: Not too long ago, I got a Mr Diamond of my very own. He was some guy on Facebook who went head to head with me on a few different topics, and I eventually lost interest. Unfortunately not before he’d insulted everybody else in the threads, repeatedly, sometimes that’s the way it goes. He did seem to realize that most everyone had shruggingly abandoned the fight because as the number of replies decreased his baiting became more petty.
But this isn’t about me truly. I’m not relating that I got childishly dissed on a social networking site. I’m not self-absorbed enough to reduce serious concerns over what passes for pop-history to ‘someone was mean on the interwebs’. It’s why I got dissed that’s relevant.
He quoted some Freud, dropped some Hobbsian ‘Social Contract’ Theory, he brought out all the old standards. With “Nature red in tooth and claw” firmly established, he then proceeded to posit that humans are essentially monsters and civilization is nothing but a veneer of control hiding and off-setting the nastiness, brutishness, and shortness of existence. Generosity is a masque for greedy self-interest, compassion is a mass delusion, everybody is cruel. Why this onslaught of nihilism? Because I foolishly asked why he’d said that empathy wasn’t a factor in human kindness.
He even said that any Anthropologist would agree with him. I asked which ones. He said he had no time for philosophy and anyway, he wasn’t interested in trivialities, he was talking ‘big picture’ (where have I heard that before…?). Taking a different tack, I went to the biology. I pointed out that neurological science has discovered what Social Science has long suspected, we come together for love not out of fear. Fun fact: we get an oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine rush when we get a hug. We get a cortisol rush when we get yelled at. Literally, at our most vulnerable we feel relaxed, and at our most distant and insulated we want to run away.
So how to resolve that our very brains seem to be programmed to contra-indicate a pain motive to all things? Simple, deny it. The guy pulled a line straight out of “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. Right there, page 291, in answer to why people come together to form cohesive groups, “…Wars, or threats of war, have played a key role in most, if not all, amalgamations of societies.”
My own arm-chair psychologist said this: “Right and wrong are cultural phenomena. Not even sure if empathy factors in. There’s two main motives: The first is fear of consequences, we outlaw what we don’t want to happen to us. The second is an ego defense mechanism, we create laws to justify/rationalize our actions.” The two of them completely agree, fear brings us together and the invisible hand of the state unites our beliefs and gives us an after-the-fact excuse for our atrocities. And they’re both wrong, and we’ve known it for a long time, and that’s really dangerous because one of them won a Pulitzer for saying it.
I asked, “Who cares?” We all should. When someone says that the only reason we love our friends or family is because we’re afraid of them, that’s wrong. Factually it’s wrong, biologically it’s wrong, ethically it’s wrong. When someone says the only reason we care for the sick or the dying is because we hope to establish a debt of reciprocity, that’s wrong. It’s wrong factually, biologically, and ethically.
Even if it were true, where does the justification end? Should rape victims band together in a gang of mutual fear and pain and form a Castration Complex? Should murder victim family members band together in a self-perpetuating spiral of paranoia and create the Everyone’s A Potential Killer Confederacy? And given the rationale, shouldn’t that have happened already?
How do we heal if the only reason other people are in the room is because they’re terrified of us, but they’re more terrified of everything else? How can we call society social if we’re not, we’re just a bunch of people who’ve squeezed into a smaller place so the lion has a harder time getting the out-layers? It’s like some Dystopic fantasy authored to justify being horrible to one another for no other reason than that we’re all in close proximity.
My amateur philosopher was just a dick on Facebook, but the other guy won a damned Pulitzer. More importantly, people believe the argument so pervasively that they can quote it at me in a meaningless post without even realizing that they’re doing it. Maybe it’s not that we’re all monsters, maybe it’s that these two are, and they want the rest of us to believe it’s okay.
I remember an anecdote from “The West Wing” TV show. Toby Zeigler tells the story of an old Jewish man in a concentration camp who falls to his knees and begins to pray. “What are you doing??” His friend asks.
“I’m giving thanks.” The man replies.
“Thanks for what? Are you stupid, look where we are!”
“I’m giving thanks,” the man continues, “For not making me like them.”
I love my friends. They seem to like me a fair amount. I love my partner too, and consider myself quite lucky for all of them being in my life. But it’s certainly not just to cover my ass when the zombie apocalypse comes. More importantly, I’m thankful beyond measure that I know that ‘we’re all just wallowing in collective misery’ is wrong and that I’ve got science on my side.
I’m thankful I’m not like him, and that most of us aren’t. Jared Diamond is wrong, it’s not that war is what causes society. Pain and fear are not humanity’s primary motives, he’s just hateful. But there is a lesson to be had from Diamond’s writing. It’s a warning to watch for those who justify their meanness not by actually proving it’s natural, but by arguing it should be.
In answer to the question of how we protect ourselves from people with no conscience, people trapped in a constant mindset of amoral self-interest, Martha Stout in ‘The Sociopath Next Door’ states, “As a psychologist, I can tell you that the absence of an intervening sense of responsibility based in emotional attachment is associated with an endless, usually futile preoccupation with domination…”
Jared Diamond is preoccupied with domination. He ignores facts, and codes of ethics, and people who don’t say what he wants. He is not a good theorist, he’s not a good researcher, and he’s not a good author. Because of that he’s a terrible anthropologist. He says it’s all about war, I say he’s telling more about himself than society.

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The Piebald One

The Dark Fool dances like a harlequin, like a rabbit in a field when no one is watching. His diamonds are so deep they’re embedded in his very skin. He spirals and hops and he makes jokes that hide and reveal more and less than he knows. Here he records some of what plays in his mind, his own little mark upon the stones, like those who came before and have left us with as many questions as answers. Oh, and there’s gonna be a lot of sarcasm, some irony, and way more than enough absurdity to go around.

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