What can we learn from Jared Diamond?

23bDiamond.jpgIn his new book, Jared Diamond asks “What can we learn from traditional societies?” In my review for the Los Angeles Review of Books I ask “What can we learn from Jared Diamond?” The intro:

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS as if Jared Diamond can’t help but take on the world.

The physiologist-turned-ornithologist-turned-geographer-turned-“master storyteller of the human race,” as the Daily Mail describes him, befuddles more than his fair share of readers with his ambition. Each of Diamond’s works of popular science is, in one way or another, an attempt to capture the whole of human experience, with subtitles like “The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal,” “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” and “The Fates of Human Societies.”

The last one belongs to Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond’s best-known book, which sought to answer how Western nations came to dominate much of the world. Diamond ultimately traces their success to the orientation of the Earth’s landmasses — the continuous latitudinal stretch of the Eurasian landmass, he writes, allowed for the most efficient interchange of species, resources, and technology. This led to agriculture, writing, states, and you know the rest.

Though Diamond won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Medal of Science for the book, he is not a professionally trained anthropologist. Many who are take issue with his theoretical perspective, which they dismiss as determinist or racist or neocolonialist or some other -ist. Others question his command of the facts, including his firsthand observations. His 2008 New Yorker article about an alleged clan war in Papua New Guinea was the subject of a 40,000-word rebuttal written by Rhonda Roland Shearer, the widow of the late naturalist and author Stephen Jay Gould. Diamond was even sued by the principal informant of the piece, a New Guinean tribesman who claimed his life was endangered by the publication (the suit has since been withdrawn).

Sometimes when you take on the world, the world fights back.

Here’s the rest of the review.

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