Learning from the book we love to hate.

So I finally read Guns, Germs, and Steel today. By the time I had made it through the preface and the introduction, I had already scribbled all kinds of notes in the margins, most of them involving interrobangs and written in a hasty hand that reflected (rather well, I thought) my surprise and disbelief. Oh, man, where to begin?
This has been a much lauded, much debated, much criticized book. It’s been controversial. Reading the reviews is not like converging to a clear picture of what the book is about and how it has been received, but rather more like exploding into a constellation of attitudes, opinions, and even ideas as to what is most important, most innovative, most laudable, most detestable about the volume. The biologists say one thing, the African historians say another, the historians of technology say something else, and the economists are pissed they weren’t consulted. I can only imagine what the geography reviews were like: Diamond is, after all, currently making his academic home in the Geography department at UCLA, a fact at which most (admittedly people-environment and other human) geographers with whom I have spoken tend to cringe. What’s going on here?
Up until now, the major criticisms I had heard of Guns, Germs, and Steel had been along the lines of its environmentally determinist argument. Though Diamond says he is not being a determinist right up front in the introduction, I think it’s fair to say that he doesn’t do a whole lot to defend himself against that charge: he’s just chucking biological determinism in favor of a softer environmental determinism. And there’s the obvious point that his materialism really blinds him to social and cultural factors, which, for him, arise out of environmentally determined factors. (In fact, Diamond really has no idea what social or cultural history entail: viz. the amazing moment on p. 216 where he uses the term “cultural history” to, I think, mean “the history of cultures” — def. not the same thing!) And then there’s his whole rejection of race as a determinant (good) leading to a rejection of race as a category of analysis (not so good!). Just because race may not have a biological or genetic basis doesn’t mean it doesn’t exert (enormous) power as a cultural category (it most certainly does). Which brings us to the real problem with Diamond’s argument: his uncritical acceptance of scientific (i.e. human, cultural) categories and knowledge as natural and unproblematic. How is it that I have not yet heard historians of science tear this book to shreds? I’m sure they have — it wouldn’t be very hard.
Let’s talk environmental history for a second. When the field was getting started in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a lot of focus on the reconstruction of past landscapes using the techniques of the natural sciences (e.g. palenology, paleoecology, archaeology, &c.). But while there is a great deal to be gained from the use of such techniques, it is important to remember that they are in and of themselves ways of producing knowledge about nature that have a particular cultural context that must be taken into consideration when using their results. This is, roughly, the history of science position: if you’re going to use science as a historical tool, you have to at the very least recognize the assumptions that are built into it, as well as the fact that what you are doing is projecting modern ideas and categories back into the past. The basic tensions are between science as a tool and science as a category of analysis, between analyst’s categories and actors’ categories. Good work at the intersection of environmental history and the history of science confronts and engages with these issues. Guns, Germs, and Steel does not, accepting without question that what we know today (from science) is true and was true in the past. The point being that Jared Diamond (like, say, Mike Davis) has apparently missed the history-of-science critique of environmental history entirely — not to mention some other major debates in the literature. (As one of my friends put it, “you should read old school environmental determinists, the ones who had an excuse.” She’s right: in terms of where we are today historiographically speaking, this book is something of a throwback.)
Now, as my non-Westernist colleagues will very readily point out — as will those who study periods before written records — Diamond’s problem is partly one of sources. His use of archaeology &c. is out of sheer necessity: there simply aren’t documents you can read to find out what was going on at a particular time. Maybe we can excuse his anachronism, or his somewhat naive (though completely earnest) reading of scientific sources. What happens when Diamond does have written sources to go from?
Well, as is obvious in the chapter on the Spanish defeat of the Incans at Cajamarca, Diamond commits the same errors when reading more traditional historical sources. He quotes at length from a Spanish account of the incident, never reading into the source as anything more than a simple blow-by-blow of what happened. But this is not how to read a primary source! As one wise historian has put it, when you look at a document — no matter what it is: an image, a diary entry, a book, a piece of pottery, a map, a graph — you have to ask two questions. How is this document lying to me? And how is this document telling me the truth? Diamond never asks the first question.
Of course, there are enormous difficulties inherent in writing this kind of big, très, très longue durée history. It takes a brave soul to even attempt a book of this scope. Sweeping global history still happens — just look at the McNeills — but it is safe to say that it doesn’t have the best rap right now. That certainly doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, but as my friend pointed out, people writing such histories today don’t have the excuse that earlier scholars did in ignoring certain problems inherent in the work. William McNeill and Al Crosby did groundbreaking stuff that is still important today (and upon which Diamond bases much of his theories — take a look at his bibliographic essay if you doubt it), but the problems with their work are well known. I think it is important to do this kind of history, but I also think it is important to learn from the critiques that have been leveled against other scholars, and to improve upon their analysis, not simply digest it for a new readership. There is a certain irresponsibility in that.
In his search for “ultimate causes,” Diamond is decidedly not interested in things like contingency or contestation — the life bread of historians — but in some kind of Grand Unifying Theory for human history. His approach is clearly that of a scientist trying to write history. Which is fine, or would be fine, if he had bothered to engage with the kinds of questions historians care about. Instead, his message is “I’m a scientist, and science is better than history, and I can show you how to make history more scientific (i.e. better).” Hey Jared, has that kind of argument worked with your scientific colleagues? “Joe, I’m an evolutionary biologist, which is better than being an ecologist, but I can show you how to make your ecology more like my evolutionary biology (i.e. better).” Somehow I just don’t think that would go over well.
Diamond’s complete ignorance of the concerns of historians is just one thing that makes this book hard for a historian (or humanist of any stripe) to swallow. For someone who claims to reject hierarchies of culture, he seems incredibly wedded to hierarchies of knowledge and knowledge production. But let’s swallow our pride and ask another question. What are the lessons that historians can take from this book (once they get beyond the incredibly condescending way in which Diamond treats history — and, for that matter, anything that isn’t generally considered to be a “real” science)? As frustrating as it can be to read books like Guns, Germs, and Steel — especially when their authors win MacArthurs and Pulitzers — surely their popularity and (market) success have something to teach us.
Perhaps the best way for me to answer this question is to compare Diamond’s work with that of another learned author who writes for a popular audience about topics relating to environmental history: Michael Pollan. What sets these two authors apart? Why do environmental historians tend to sneer at Diamond but have little trouble adopting Pollan as one of their main emissaries to the world at large? Why do they find a book like The Omnivore’s Dilemma so much more palatable than Guns, Germs, and Steel?
One explanation that comes to mind is the author’s rhetorical style. Michael Pollan’s books tend to be written in a personal style that invites the reader along on a process of discovery with the author, who is generally not an expert before he sits down to write the book, but who becomes one — as does the reader, to some extent — over the course of its creation. Pollan is very much in his own narratives, a participant in their discovery. Diamond, on the other hand, tends to speak from a position of (not not quite flaunted, but certainly made apparent and acknowledged) expertise, walking the reader through a series of seemingly logical deductions based on his (admittedly impressive, if flawed) collection and digestion of vast quantities of information from a diverse array of fields. His is definitely a style inherited from scientific writing (and very good scientific writing at that), in which the author is not so much a participant in the argument as simply an incredibly curious yet somehow also completely objective observer (i.e., the ideal scientist). Though in both books the reader learns a great deal, their two divergent rhetorical strategies foster very different experiences. While Diamond’s argument derives its power from a perceived impartiality, Pollan’s narrative strength stems from situatedness and positionality, from his personal experiences and his ability to bring the reader along on them. Diamond, though very engaging and even at times personal in his writing, is nevertheless detached from the events he is describing, maintaining an emotional distance from his object of study.
Perhaps in the end it comes down to the objectivity question. When I have conversations with scientists about their work, most are actually quite aware of the ways in which their work is not objective. The same is true for historians, who have, I think, long since given up the idea that objectivity is an achievable goal (though this is not to say that they do not try to be objective). Having a sensitivity to the analytical problems in one’s own work is generally something to be respected. Knowing your biases, and those of your sources, and demonstrating them openly, acknowledging your weaknesses as well as your strengths, and still marshaling a clear and persuasive argument: these are good practices in history as in science. I think historians tend to like Pollan because he does a good job of reading up on, engaging with, and appreciating the kinds of issues and questions that historians tend to think about. He shows — may I say it? — respect.
So what do we learn? Good, engaging writing with clear, concrete examples (e.g. Yali’s question, Zebras) that can be returned to and invoked with anecdotal signifiers (both Diamond and Pollan do this), asking questions that have big implications and that make people rethink the world around them (ditto) — these are good things to do. As unfair and obnoxious as I think Diamond’s criticisms of history are, I would agree that there is a good deal of room for big-question history that reaches a big audience. Scholars should not simply dismiss this kind of work, but take it and learn from the ways in which is is successful, improve on the ways in which it is not. I have high hopes for environmental historians in this regard. We have important things to say that have important implications for the world today. We can even communicate them without being completely presentist or pretentious, too.


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