Anthropology, Footnoted: Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday

If the unloved moments of history live on only in appendices, and forgotten scholars are relegated to footnotes, then one injustice of Jared Diamond’s new book is its dearth of end matter.

Jared Diamond is one of the world’s greatest public intellectuals, and his two previous books, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse have shaped our awareness of what human history has been and could be. The reason I worry about the footnotes to his most recent book is that I am one of them. The World Until Yesterday is powerfully shaped by Diamond’s time in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (‘PNG’, as everyone calls it). I conducted research in these very same highlands and moved in the same small circle that Diamond did: he quotes my colleagues and dedicates his book to a woman I’ve interviewed. I used his description of birdsong in Birds of New Guinea in the course of my fieldwork. Because of this, I saw some of my own experiences echoed in Diamond’s book. On the whole, however, I found my own understandings of Papua New Guinea portrayed in a way that is accurate but also ever-so-subtly distorted—as if my work, and that of my colleagues, had been turned into a footnote, then edited out of the final manuscript to clear the way for conclusions we would never make.

The topic of The World Until Yesterday is in its title: in the book, Diamond examines the lifeways of non-Western people, who he claims live the way we used to ten thousand years ago (that’s ‘yesterday’ in geologic time). His goal is to see what their cultures have to offer those of us who are ‘developed’ and slightly nostalgic for the good old days. This is Diamond’s most personal book, as well as his most anthropological one. Anthropologists have long sought to improve American culture by juxtaposing it with the culture of others. Margaret Mead, for instance, argued in 1927 that “it is possible to make a more reasoned judgment of the needs of our own society” by “the study and analysis of the diverse solutions which other members of the human race have applied to the problems which confront us today.” So when Diamond writes in 2013 that “traditional societies may not only suggest to us some better living practices, but may also help us appreciate some advantages of our own society that we take for granted,” he is pursuing an old anthropological project—albeit with a slightly new, more triumphalist tack.

It would be easy for anthropologists to dismiss Diamond because he didn’t write the book we wanted to read. But sadly, The World Until Yesterday has a more serious problem: the book fails to complete the project Diamond has set for himself. The World Until Yesterday is clearly written, well-conceptualized, and unresponsive to the human condition. The great tragedy of this book is not that Diamond has become the Margaret Mead of the twenty-first century, or that his work will be widely read, while the work of anthropologists and Papua New Guineans will be relegated to history’s appendix. The great tragedy of this book is that the profundity of Diamond’s personal entanglement with Papua New Guinea is lost because he can only describe—and imagine—the Papua New Guineans he has encountered in the language he uses to describe birds.

To be fair, The World Until Yesterday is not completely bereft of end matter. But the ten pages of ‘further reading’ (only five of which actually list further reading) cannot possibly bear the weight of Diamond’s argument. To contrast the lifeways of ‘traditional societies’ with our own, modern society, and to see what we can learn from them, Diamond must first reconstruct all aspects of those traditional societies, noting their similarities and differences. It’s a recklessly ambitious task, the sort carried out by Victorian gentlemen who produced well-known tomes like The Golden Bough and Scatalogic Rites of All Nations. Diamond is aware that the enormity of reconstructing ‘traditional society’ could detract from actually learning from it. In practice, he tends to concentrate his attention on peoples of the Amazon, South Africa (think: ‘bushmen’), and the island of New Guinea, which is home to the independent state of Papua New Guinea in the east (where I once lived), and the Indonesian province of Papua in the west. To a certain extent, I can buy Diamond’s claims that he skipped a massive apparatus of footnotes and bibliographies in order to save the casual reader both time and money—proving most of his claims would be the work of a lifetime. Still, it is telling that we live in an age when a member of America’s National Academy of Sciences and one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals has less concern for citations and footnotes than do the contributors to Wikipedia.

In Diamond’s analysis of the West and Traditional Societies, the West wins by technical knockout. Traditional Societies eat healthier diets, but fear starvation. They treat their children more humanely than we do, but their societies are locked in cycles of warfare triggered by grief and revenge. We treat our elders poorly, but their lifespans stretch decades longer than those of people in Traditional Societies. Diamond clearly wants to show the world the complex reality of ‘traditional societies’ and he is careful to point out the variety within them, and the ugly behavior that occurs in some, but not all, of them.

In the end, however, Diamond believes that the advantages of living in an industrial, modern nation far out-weigh the costs. He suffers from what Marshall Sahlins calls “sentimental pessimism,” the nostalgic longing for a world that you are sure is destined to pass away. Civilization, in so many words, is simply better than the life lived by traditional societies. “Traditional people … willingly abandon their jungle lifestyle,” Diamond writes. In the words of one New Guinean he quotes, settled life means “rice to eat, and no more mosquitoes.”

Arguments like this have attracted a legion of haters to Diamond’s work, ranging from unhinged trolls to staid professors (Collapse actually has an entire book dedicated to dismantling it entitled Questioning Collapse). In the brief time it has been in press The World Until Yesterday has attracted its own criticisms as well, but few of them seem to stick. Why?

Some commentators argue that Diamond contributes to an intangible but potent discourse that harms indigenous people—a claim which is true, but will only convince those who have already bought in to the idea of potent discourses, and is unlikely to convince anyone else. Others criticize Diamond for how the press and public interpret his work, rather than for what he actually said, which is not fair. Like Mead, Diamond sometimes draws flack from those who disagree in principle with the compromises that are part of any broad, popular work. But this is an argument against accessibility itself, not Diamond the man.

More thoughtful critiques of Diamond have been made, and yet even they slide off him. Some critics claim that Diamond believes that culture is merely an adaptation to the environment, and not a force in and of itself that shapes human life. And yet it is clear that Diamond recognizes this fact—indeed, it’s telling that Diamond is uneasy with just how little of the details of human culture he can explain (a weakness I will discuss below). They claim that he doesn’t appreciate the role of individual agency in history, but Diamond has written of the way leaders make decisions that shape nations, and nations make decisions that shape history. This was, after all, his argument in Collapse. They claim that he ‘decontextualizes’ (a very bad thing to do according to anthropologists), ignoring colonialism and other ways that human communities are affected by each other. But this was precisely his topic in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Those of us who have not drunk the haterade face an interesting question: why does Diamond rub us the wrong way? Why do we find his work so troubling? Why, despite his careful hedging, do anthropologists like me find it so misguided?

A Bird’s Eye View of Humanity

To understand Diamond’s broader worldview, it’s worth moving past his popular writings to consider his career as a whole. Many critics have misread The World Until Yesterday because they assume that Diamond’s overall thought is no more complex than what is conveyed in his popular books. In order to understand this newest book, however, we must go deeper. In fact, Diamond has thought long and hard about what it means to offer a historical explanation, how different groups interact with each other, and what it means to study change and transformation over time. But while anthropologists have asked these questions while studying people, Diamond has asked them while studying birds.

Like anthropologists, Diamond has thought deeply about how to defend the legitimacy of his discipline against those who insist that the only sort of knowledge that counts is ‘Science.’ But while anthropologists have defended themselves from the depredations of biologists like Diamond, Diamond has been looking over his shoulder at the physicists, who have discovered natural laws with no analogue in evolutionary biology. Like anthropologists, he is a fieldworker who gathers data through observation, not experiment, but he studies avian populations, not human communities. Like anthropologists, Diamond is interested in producing a history of the complex connections between his community, other species, and the environment. But while Diamond does this work in the name of natural history and evolutionary biology, anthropologists do it in the name of cultural history and political economy. Whereas anthropologists of Papua New Guinea have studied the relationship between residence and descent in cognatic societies, Diamond has examined the biogeography of montane avifauna.

Here, then, is the reason why Diamond’s work looks like our own, reflected back to us in distorted form, as if from a funhouse mirror: for decades Diamond has followed a parallel track to anthropologists, working in the same country and asking the same questions. But his topic and methods are unmistakably different. The result is an author who looks and talks like us, and who inhabits an alternate universe almost exactly like our own, except for one key difference whose consequences ramify out, altering the entire universe in small but important ways.

In his previous books, we could not see Diamond’s changeling nature because of the topics he chose: when you’re doing ten thousand years of history in four hundred pages, people do look a lot like other animals. But in the more intimate setting of World, Diamond’s natural-historical mind-set creates problems that sabotage his book in two key areas: the study of power relations, and his ability to understand the details of human culture.

At the most basic level, the biggest problem with Diamond’s work is that he didn’t get the memo on colonialism, despite the fact that he himself has helped write substantial portions of it. Diamond operates with a Whiggish view of history, seemingly suggesting (but never out-and-out saying) that the modern nation state is naturally the best form of government yet invented. For over five millennia, he writes, people have “more or less willingly (not just under duress)” surrendered their individual freedoms to gain the benefits of government. It is as if the modern nation state is the ideal adaptation for the human species. It’s an argument that radically underplays the downsides of social inequality within states—and when, by the way, do children born in modern states officially decide to willingly live in them?—but, more importantly, it is one that overlooks the historical process by which such states expanded across the globe.

In his own equally sweeping global history Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, the anthropologist David Graeber has made the exact opposite point: that highly complex social systems are fundamentally based on violence and subordination, not consent. Graeber gets guff from the right the same way that Diamond gets it on the left, and it’s true that world-historical diagnoses rely on philosophical premises that reasonable people can disagree about: What is the good life, that people might accept it in exchange for government? What constitutes consent when people are socialized into a preexisting state? (I’d argue, though, that Graeber has thought much more deeply about these issues than Diamond.)

But the actual historical record is much less malleable, and you don’t have to be a bleeding heart liberal or activist to recognize that in the past five centuries the West’s expansion across the planet has been grisly and violent. The facts speak for themselves. While many indigenous people actively resisted colonialism (and continue to today) there is no doubt that the spread of the nation has been a brutally successful affair.

No one knows the impact that guns, germs, and steel have had on human history better than Diamond, and yet The World Until Yesterday seems strongly to suggest that being taken over by white people is not that bad a fate. He notes, for instance, that inter-group fighting in traditional societies decreases after contact with the West. This is a bit like saying that Han Solo should be grateful to Darth Vader for encasing him in carbonite because it cut down on his consumption of transfats, or that America’s nuclear strike on Hiroshima improved air quality there by decreasing the number of people commuting to work in their cars. Make no bones about it: the reason fighting stops in traditional societies after contact is that, in too many cases, there are no traditional societies left to fight. Life on the rez might not involve tribal warfare, but that hardly means that the Trail of Tears was a good idea.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and one of the biggest exceptions happens to be the one that most shaped Jared Diamond: the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Few have appreciated how much his time there may have affected his outlook on history and colonialism. Papua New Guinea had a relatively benign experience of colonization, partially because of its brevity (1884-1975) and the good intentions of its colonizers, but mostly due to their lack of resources and general incompetence (as the historian John Waiko points out, in early campaigns to pacify the Binandere, it was the Australians who were under the Binandere thumb, not the other way around). This was particularly true of the highlands. In 1884, when European powers first annexed what is today PNG, coastal people felt the impact the most. It was not until the 1930s (or even later in some areas) that Australia took control of the highlands.

Grass Clearing Man, Paul Sillitoe’s scrupulously detailed reconstruction of pre-contact life in the highlands, demonstrates that highlanders cared more about obtaining wealth than being great warriors—although to be sure, violence could be a way to earn renown for some. Contrary to Diamond’s argument, the moral failing of most highlanders is embezzlement, not violence. Australia’s apartheid system in PNG resulted in the wealth highlanders desired, as well as a welfare state paid by Australian citizens (and missionary organizations), and government officers who patiently tolerated highlanders’ attempts to shake it apart to pick up the good bits. Although often racist, absent, and inconstant, Australian rule was preferred by many highlanders to rule by educated coastal elites, whom highlanders feared would reduce them to second class citizens.

Diamond has surely visited much more of the country than the highlands, but his intuitions about the country seem fundamentally shaped by the highlands. His immersion in that area, I believe, is the origin of his view that colonialism brings benefits, that people are willing to trade their old ways for new, and that imperial conquest brings few problems—in the long term. Then again, Diamond’s tone-deafness regarding these issues might be related to his scientific background. Bird species are morphologically distinct, but human communities in Papua New Guinea lack bright and clear boundaries. Cultures, languages, and subsistence techniques ooze across the landscape, passing through villages and hamlets with a mobility totally different than the learned behavior of birds. The issues at the heart of population ecology are calories, birthrates, and morbidity while the central topics of legitimate and empowering governance are dignity, freedom, and quality of life—the things we fight for, but not the sort of thing that you learn about studying avifauna. Only people, not birds, would rather die on their feet than live on their knees.

The Hold Life Has

Or perhaps Diamond has it right. It’s ironic that Diamond’s thinking about people is so shaped by his thinking about birds, because many Papua New Guineans think in the same terms. In his classic ethnography Sound and Sentiment Steve Feld writes that “birds are mediators [between death and life] because they are both natural beings and the ‘gone reflections’ of Kaluli who have left the visible world upon death and reappeared.” That’s why Kaluli spend so much time thinking about “which birds say their names, which ones only sound, make a lot of noise, whistle, speak the Bosavi language, weep, sing, or dance.” Both animals and absent loved ones, for Kaluli birds are the definition of aesthetic beauty. “Song is inspired by thinking about birds; when it is performed, it is sung in a bird voice; men wear bird feathers to make themselves beautiful and evocative.” When death and loss move women to weep, onlookers say they sound like an Ornate Fruitdove, “because the weeping has bird sounds as its melodic base and sadness over loss as its social base.”

The Kaluli worldview is a melancholy one, deeply aware of the power of human connection, as well as its impermanence. Ipili speakers, who I once lived with, imagine our vital energy as something like water, a fluid energy that drains slowly out of us and into our children. As the anthropologist Jerry Jacka astutely put it, Ipili are fundamentally aware that we are biodegradable. It for this reason that the young are plump and round and the elderly old and shriveled. Ipili call their children their lawa, a word that could be translated as ‘replacement’ but also ‘exchange’ or even ‘trade.’ In the West, we are not supposed to admit that we view our children as parasites, but Ipili are willing to face up to that fact. Ipili feel clearly a deep and ambivalent realization about the costs and pleasures of parenthood that I’ve learned to appreciate all the more now that I am a parent myself. I never cease to be amazed by how distinct and vibrant—how genuinely different—Papua New Guinean cultures are from the America I grew up in. I believe Diamond when he tells us how much he has learned from Papua New Guineans, because I myself have learned so much from them and feel that it is such a privilege to visit the country.

But readers of The World Until Yesterday will not find out that adorned dancers are birds, that we pour energy into our children, that a clan becomes reality in the danced unison of its men, or that we grow, like taro, only when others cannot see us. This, for me, is The World Until Yesterday’s biggest failing: it desires to understand what Papua New Guineans have to teach us, but ultimately cannot. The World Until Yesterday seeks to understand how Papua New Guineans love their children so that we might love our own better, but can only conclude, lamely, that we ought to carry them vertically and not horizontally. In the macro-level history of Guns, Germs, and Steel it was forgivable that Diamond treated humans as like other animals in an ecological system. In the extended close-up that is World, it is inexcusable.

In this review I’ve emphasized the similarities between Diamond and Margaret Mead. But there is another anthropological ancestor to whom Diamond is deeply indebted: Bronislaw Malinowski, the great pioneer of the method of participant observation. Malinowski’s charter for anthropology is very similar to Diamond’s goal in The World Until Yesterday:

Perhaps as we read the account of these remote customs there may emerge a feeling of solidarity with the endeavours and ambitions of these natives. Perhaps man’s mentality will be revealed to us, and brought near, along some lines which we never have followed before. Perhaps through realising human nature in a shape very distant and foreign to us, we shall have some light shed on our own. In this, and in this case only, we shall be justified in feeling that it has been worth our while to understand these natives, their institutions and customs.

But in fact, Malinowski’s focus on empathy and identification couldn’t be more different from Diamond’s naturalist gaze. Malinowski argues that “to study the institutions, customs, and codes or to study the behaviour and mentality without the subjective desire of feeling by what these people live, of realising the substance of their happiness—is, in my opinion, to miss the greatest reward which we can hope to obtain from the study of man” [my emphasis]. He argued that we must record the “imponderabilia of actual life” in order to “grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world.” “We have to study man,” Malinowski writes, “and we must study what concerns him most intimately, that is, the hold which life has on him.” This is exactly what Diamond has not done, and it is a task that biology has not prepared him for.

Unlike some critics, I take Diamond at his word: I believe that he does want to show traditional lives in their complex reality, to demonstrate what they have to teach us without unduly idealizing them. He wants us to see people who live careful, attentive lives in a world of want and uncertainty, people who know how to love their children without reading books on how to do so. He wants to show us the dangers of war, and the bittersweet comforts of industrialization. Above all, he wants to show us how he has been changed by the life he has led. In the end, however, his scientist’s eye plays him foul. Diamond’s stories give one a clear understanding of the exact physical locations of the objects he describes, but leave the culture and emotion of Papua New Guineans unexamined. His description of the lives of traditional people accurately describes their digestion and gestation, but not their thoughts and feelings. And in the end, despite his attempts to be nuanced, his portrayal of the life of traditional people is straight out of Hobbes: nasty, brutish, short, and escapable only by submitting to the authority of a sovereign.

But there is nothing in the study of wildlife that prepares you for the work of empathy, interpretation, and observation that anthropology requires and the public wants. It is not just that Diamond did not systematically record the imponderabilia of everyday life because he was too busy watching birds. It is not just that he moved around too frequently to put in the time needed to understand a particular community of Papua New Guineans, or that he glosses over the differences between Papua New Guinean cultures for the sake of a general audience. The problem is that, at a basic level, a naturalist can do a good impersonation of an anthropologist, but it will only ever be that: an impersonation. Diamond’s inability to show us the inside of the cultures he studies, despite his professed desire to do so, is proof of that.

Malinowski was convinced that anthropology could be both a natural science of society and the greatest adventure story ever told, and anthropologists have attempted to reconcile that vision ever since. For a hundred years we have been trying to answer the questions that Diamond asks in The World Until Yesterday: How can we write compellingly about human life without sliding into subjectivism and anecdote? How can we honor the details of individual lives even as we generalize about the fate of whole cultures? Can objectivity be a goal when our greatest advantage as observers is our empathy and understanding? Anthropologists have discovered that to achieve Diamond’s goal we must move beyond recording the behavior of humans in the way a biologist records the behavior of other animals. Instead, we must grasp the significance and meaning of these practices—not just because of a moral imperative to understand others, but out of methodological necessity.

As Ira Bashkow writes in his masterful account of Papua New Guinean attitudes towards Europeans, The Meaning of Whitemen, most thinking about others is just a way to reflect on ourselves. Diamond’s work is, like Mead’s and Malinowski’s, one more attempt by anthropologists to undertake this much broader task. I can only hope that in the future it will be our work, not Diamond’s, that will help a global readership understand where they have come from, and where they are going.