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Shine on you crazy [Jared] Diamond

Ok, since everyone on here seems to be writing about Jared Diamond, including Jason, I am going to go ahead and jump on the bandwagon too.  I can’t resist.  What can I say?  I’m a complete opportunist.

A true story in which Jared Diamond plays a key role: During my undergrad I had two back-to-back anthropology classes. One was an archaeology/ethnohistory class about the European conquest of the Americas. The second was a course focused on pastoralism that took a cultural ecology/environmental anthropology approach. Both were excellent classes that I remember well to this day. Fantastic classes, actually.  One day, Diamond came up in class #1. My prof said: “Don’t waste your time with Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond’s arguments are terrible and full of environmental determinism.” In the next class, on the same day (no joke), my prof in class number two also brought up Guns and said, “It’s a GREAT book you have to read it.”  He was emphatic.  Considering the strong opinions: I read the book.* Now, there are plenty of ecological and environmental anthropologists who could certainly teach Diamond a thing or two…but I can’t think of any who have written a comparable book that’s going to end up in a lot of hands in the general public. So, by default, Diamond wins.  Besides, if Diamond has all these people reading his book, well, maybe we have something to learn from what he’s doing.  Style?  Presentation?  Choice of publisher?  What’s he doing that we’re not?  Hmmm.  Something to think about.

So, how should anthropologists respond to the likes of Diamond (and others like Charles Murray)? Well, here’s my solution: write better books than those folks, and get them out in public view.  Done.

If you look at the sheer number of Amazon reviews of Diamond’s Guns it’s pretty interesting: 1,265 total reviews. People *read* that book…for better or worse. In contrast, Richard B. Lee’s ethnography of the San people has 16 reviews. Roy Rappaport’s classic Pigs for Ancestors has one review. Susan Stonich’s 1999 The Other Side of Paradise: 2 reviews. Anna Tsing’s excellent Frictions: 5 reviews. Ben Orlove’s Lines in the Water: 2 reviews. Questioning Collapse has 11 reviews.

Compare with other books that cross into somewhat anthropological territories:

Charles Mann’s 1491: 309

Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man: 106

Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve: 217

Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography: 142

Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman: 294

The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman: 207

Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring: 191

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: 492

Diamond’s Collapse: 509

Diamond’s Third Chimpanzee: 114

Interesting, no?  Are the number of Amazon reviews the best indicators for assessing impact? Maybe, maybe not. But they do tell us a little something about what general readers are willing to take the time to read and discuss. And contemporary anthropology isn’t exactly getting a lot of air time. People outside of our own circles aren’t talking about what we’re doing, and the Charles Manns and Jared Diamonds of the world are doing our anthropology for us.

However, books like David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold give me hope. Anthropologists have plenty to add to all kinds of important conversations that truly matter today.  There is plenty of excellent anthropology out there. This isn’t just a bunch of now-I’m-ending-the-post-on-a-good-note-feel-good-puffery.  I am dead serious here.  We have no shortage of good material and ideas to add to the maelstrom that is public discourse.  Now we just have to write the books that need to be written–and find ways to get those books to wider audiences, one way or another.**


*How could I NOT read that book after two of my favorite profs had such clashing and very visceral reactions?  Seriously.

**Of course it’s easier said than done!!!  This is a blog post!  What do you want from me?  Now, let’s all get to work writing 500 page masterpieces.


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