Saturday, April 25, 2009

Jared Diamond in Trouble

Jared Diamond, of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" fame, is being sued by two citizens of Papua, New Guinea, for allegedly fabricating a story of violence and revenge for a New Yorker article in 2008. The article (which has been taken down, though the abstract can be read here) tells about a feud involving a stolen pig that supposedly resulted in a horrible series of revenge-killings, culminating in a body count of about 17, with numerous injured parties as well. Diamond apparently uses the story to illustrate something about revenge and violence in culture, contrasting the Papau, New Guinea incident with the story of his father-in-law's rejection of revenge in favor of using more civilized methods of discourse (i.e., the Police).

The problem is (well, aside from the disturbing subtle racism in the article) is that Diamond apparently made the whole thing up. Numerous quotes, attributed to the Papaun tribesmen in the story, are apparently amalgamated reminiscences of Diamonds, rather than actual quotes; these faux-quotes were strung together into a longer narrative, undoubtedly to give the story a little more heft (in my opinion, a very common tactic in Diamond's works). Also, apparently the story of the feud is made up whole cloth, while some of the violence described coming from events that happened years before Diamond's story.

You can read a painstakingly detailed examination of the claims here, including a discussion of the lawsuit and the dangers the men who filed it say they are facing due to Diamond's falsehoods.

All in all, it's pretty grim stuff, both legally and scholarly. I've always found Diamond's work a little troubling, anyway; his "Guns, Germs, and Steel" was an exercise in poor scholarship, both in the interpretation of other peoples work as well as failing to cite the people who actually came up with the ideas in the first place.

Look, the guy ISN'T an anthropologist; he's an anatomist. He has NO training in the social sciences, in history, or in human or cultural geography, which is exactly what he's been writing about for years. By the by, ol' Diamond REFUSES to give talks in History or Geography departments anymore. Kind of telling, don't you think? Maybe this will make people stop and evaluate some of his other works as well.


Unknown said...

Wow, Eric, thanks for posting this. Very interesting. I enjoyed "Guns" very much (though could not plow through all of it). Is the basic premise of the book being challenged, because a lot of it made sense (at least to this person trained in geomorphology)?

Eric said...

The Papua, NG suit is being brought against an article (and The New Yorker itself) from well after "Guns" was published; that said, however, I think that some the same ideas (if not the exact fabricated stories) are in Guns as well, especially in his discussions on socialization and culture.

What I do think this lawsuit shows, however, is Diamond's poor scholarship and questionable research practice, which are all over Guns. Very little of his "Guns" stuff is original, and alot of it is misrepresented and uncited work of others.

I mean, Historians had done much of this work before Diamond, and came up with many of the same arguments (and actually cited them properly). Alfred Crosby wrote a book called "Colombian Exchange" in the 70's, and another called "Ecological Imperialism" in the late 80's. And the book that did the same thing (First, I might add, and better) is "Plagues and People" by William McNeil in the 70's. AND, of course, there is considerable scholarship on these topics in the History and Human Geography literature, refining and advancing more detailed ideas (especially about the role Culture, which Diamond kind of ignores, in my opinion).

PLUS, they are all better written, in my opinion.