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Jared Diamond and Papua New Guinea

With anthropology (my chosen field of study) being distant from the levers of power these days, it's rare that a controversy within the discipline spills up over the tall walls that surround the ivory tower, and into public discourse.  But recently, a scandal has erupted that has broken down those walls, and shined a light on the proverbial (and literal) skeletons in anthropology's closet.

Jared Diamond, author of the Pullitzer prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel , as well as Collapse , and The Third Chimpanzee , and lessor known, but academically influential articles like "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race" (agriculture, by the way) wrote an article last year in the New Yorker Magazine called "Vengeance is ours:  What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?" (registration required).  In this article, he profiles a guy named Daniel Wemp, an indigenous resident of Papua New Guinea (PNG), and uses his life, and quests for revenge, to tell a story about the tragedy of violence in human society.  When it came out, I got into an e-argument with some folks over at Boing Boing because I said that Diamond wasn't an anthropologist, had no formal training in anthropology, and wasn't in an anthropology department (he's trained as an ornithologist, and has a position in the geography program at UCLA). Alongside that argument was a general critique I have of Diamond's work, which basically boils down to him being an ecological-determinist--someone who views human history and social progress as a product of the environmental variation, rather than of human action and inequality. 

Within the last month, it has come to light that Daniel Wemp, the PNG man that Diamond had quoted in his article, is suing Diamond and the New Yorker for $10 million dollars, for slander--Wemp claims that Diamond fabricated huge sections of their conversations, including stories of murder and sexual assault supposedly perpetrated by Wemp in his "primitive" need for revenge.  You can read about Wemp's claims against Diamond at here, at the Website, run by Rhonda Shearer, the widow of one of my science heroes, Dr. Stephen Jay Gould.  (As an aside, Gould was a brilliant and groundbreaking evolutionary biologist, a tireless crusader against all forms of shoddy science, including racist socio-biology, to which Diamond's eco-determinism is a not-so-distant cousin, and creationism, as well as being a rabid baseball fan.)

At its heart, this lawsuit is tied to anthropology's deeply colonialist legacy.  Anthropology got its start as the science of cataloging people that Western nations had conquered and exploited in other parts of the world.  In America, Anthropology springs from two large roots--the cataloguing and documenting of indigenous people, as well as the exhuming of them and their ancestors remains , and the quest to determine the biological fixity of race, in order to perpuate slavery and white supremacy (no links, but see Chapter 2 of Gould's book The Mismeasure of Man .)  Diamond's books are anthropological, even if he isn't an anthropologist per se, and he is consciously or not, continuing a tradition of exploitation and marginalization of non-white indigenous people across the world. 

What is so ironic to me is that Daniel Wemp is from Papua New Guinea, and Diamond begins "Guns, Germs, Steel" with a conversation he had with another Papua New Guinean--a man named Yali.  The book starts with Yali and Diamond walking on a beach in PNG, and Yali asks Diamond "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo, and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"  The title of the book is Diamond's answer to that question, and he spends the next few hundred pages articulating why geography, environment, and resources led to Europe expansion to places like PNG. 

But Diamond glosses over the historical context of the question.  For more on this, you can can read Gewertz and Errington's book "Yali's Question: Sugar, Culture, and History" .  Diamond describes Yali as a "local politican" who had a "role in getting local people to prepare for self government".  This is a gross over-simplification of Yali's place in Papua New Guinean society.  Yali had been a religious and political leader since after WWII, when he had served, with commendation in the Australian Army.  After returning to PNG and attempting to utilize what he had learned in Australia to modernize the country, and re-inspire indigenous religious traditions (the most famous of which is the so-called Cargo Cult, and see also Lawrence's Road Belong Cargo ), he was deemed a threat by the Australian colonial authority, and put in prison.  While in prison, and afterward, he organized strikes and other protests against the government and capitalist plantation interests whom he felt had turned on him and his people (can't find any web citations, but I think it's documented in Marvin Harris's Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches   He was one of the central figures in the drive toward New Guinean independence.  In 1972, when Diamond met him, he had become disillusioned with politics, and even though PNG would soon become independent of Australia, he was still concerned with the inequality that the cash-crop system and its capitalist exploitation had wrought in his country.  His question to Diamond was not about why his people didn't have more "things", but why colonialists had more than their fair share, and his people had so much less.  In short, Yali's question was about inequality, not about environment.

Okay, here's a summary of some great pieces providing extensive context on this controversy:

1.)Diamond's original New Yorker article, which unfortunately is by Subscription only, and may have been taken down by the New Yorker after the controversy ensued.

2.)The Summary of Wemp's lawsuit and claims against Diamond's article, written by Shearer and her colleagues.  To my understanding, this is a summary of a much larger report that they have put together, but not yet released.  They also have a good list of articles on this controversy as well, that, I'm happy to say, parallels mine.

3.)Articles on Diamond at, an anthropology group blog.  These articles, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, have documented the problems and pitfalls of Diamond's article, and are pretty interesting reading on the cultural context of war in New Guinea (itself a long-studied anthropological topic), anthropological ethics, and more.  I don't agree with everything they've written, but there is a lot there, if you're interested in delving.  The comments section is pretty hot right now, and well worth reading for why this is so controversial.

4.)Articles on Diamond by Louis Proyect:  The Unrepentant Marxist.  Proyect is one of my favorite bloggers, and writes with equal skill and verve about socialist party politics, indigenous rights issues, and the latest in cinema.  His articles have contextualized Diamond's work in the larger social history of anthropology, particularly as it relates to state and capitalist exploitation.


Reader Comments (2)

Quentin!!! Thank you so much for this info. I have got into so many arguments with people because I don't adore Diamond...deep in my heart I knew he was a fake.

Big hug!! Fabiola

May 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFabiola

Diamond is a buffoon when it comes to understanding people. His ornithology is, as I understand it, impeccable, and he's written really cool stuff about bowerbirds in PNG (not the band - But he has no interest, for example, in Feld's work on the co-evolution/co-existence of birds and human societies in PNG....

May 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

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