In defence of Jared Diamond, ‘Western’ science, and the reality of human progress

Dani tribe warriors, Irian Jaya, Indonesia
Dani tribe warriors, Irian Jaya, Indonesia. (Photo: Alamy)

Jared Diamond, the author of the fantastic Guns, Germs and Steel – notable not only for its hugely sensible discussions of race, empire and civilisation, but also for its clear-eyed and important look at the relative sizes of great ape genitals – has written a new book. Called The World Until Yesterday, it’s about what the West can learn from other civilisations.

I’m always a bit dubious about that sort of thing, not because there is nothing that the West can learn – that’s clearly not true – but because it’s always difficult to walk a line between sensibly looking for useful information, and the sort of full-blown tie-dye hippy thing where you start using Ayurvedic medicine and talking about chakras. But I have no doubt that Diamond, who is a good scientist and spent years living with Papua New Guinean tribes, will be able to walk that line.

However, Wade Davis, an anthropologist who has reviewed Diamond’s book in The Guardian, appears to have jogged merrily up to the line, tap-danced over it, done a Downwards Facing Dog, and sprinted off into the distance, cackling about Aztec birthing blankets and natural yoghurt.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. But Davis takes issue with Diamond for his claim, first made in Guns, Germs and Steel, that the differences in human development can be explained by differences in environment and resource availability. As Wade puts it, Diamond asked “Why was it that some cultures such as our own rose to technological, economic and political predominance, while others such as the Aborigines of Australia did not?”

Diamond first examines, then rejects, the hypothesis that there were racial differences in intelligence: a hierarchy of man, such as that in which the Victorian colonialists believed. But for Wade, this doesn’t go far enough. What drives him “to distraction” is Diamond’s premise that “a hierarchy of progress exists in the realm of culture”: “in seeking ecological and climatic explanations for the development of their way of life, he is as certain of their essential primitiveness as were the early European settlers who remained unconvinced that Aborigines were human beings”, he says.

Instead, says Wade, people like the Australian Aborigines remind us that there are “different ways of being”: the Aborigines are not savages, but instead failed to embrace technological process “because in their intellectual universe, distilled in a devotional philosophy known as the Dreaming, there was no notion of linear progression whatsoever, no idealisation of the possibility or promise of change. There was no concept of past, present, or future. In not one of the hundreds of Aboriginal dialects and languages was there a word for time.”

Admittedly, says Wade, “had our species as a whole followed the ways of the Aborigines, we would not have put a man on the moon. But, on the other hand, had the Dreaming become a universal devotion, we would not be contemplating today the consequences of climate change and industrial processes that threaten the life supports of the planet.”

One thing that’s worth pointing out here is that Wade seems to have his facts wrong on one point. “In not one of the hundreds of Aboriginal dialects and languages was there a word for time” is, apparently, false, or at least misleading. Language Log records the sophisticated ways in which certain Aboriginal languages mark future, past and present. Claire Bowern, a Harvard professsor of linguistics, says: “Plenty of Australian languages have separate adverbs for yesterday and tomorrow (e.g. Bardi ngoorriji ‘tomorrow’ and bardi ‘yesterday’; Yan-nhangu gordarr’ ‘tomorrow’ and gathara ‘yesterday’. In some languages ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ are the same word… Most languages in Australia have a tense/aspect system that distinguishes past from present from future (although not all do).”

This is an example of what Language Log more generally calls a “snowclone“, after the “Inuits have 50 words for snow” canard: an attempt to show that some exotic civilisation thinks differently from us, because their language is different (“No word for X”). It’s rarely as clear-cut as it seems. (And, of course, “not having a word for something” is not the same as “not being able to think about something”: after all, English didn’t have a word for “Schadenfreude” until relatively recently.)

But more importantly, the idea that there can be no “hierarchy”, no progress, only “different ways of being”, is simply idiotic. Is the plough not an improvement over the hoe? Was the Pentium not an improvement over the ZX81? Is stereotactic radiation therapy not an improvement over X-ray radiotherapy? Is the World Wide Web not better than the telegraph? If you accept the idea that technology A is better than technology B at achieving a desired end, you are immediately tied into the possibility of progress and, therefore, a “hierarchy”.

And once you have accepted that, you have to accept that certain Western technologies are simply better than their Aboriginal equivalents. You can do so without for a moment thinking that there is any biological reason for it, that it is anything other than an artefact of who turned left and who turned right when leaving Africa, and while cheerfully acknowledging that Aborigines are not “savages” but every bit as complex and intelligent as Westerners. But modern (Western) farming techniques can support more people on less farmland. Modern medicine can keep people alive for longer. Modern transportation gets people from place A to place B quicker and more safely. More importantly, the scientific method, developed largely in the West, allows the systematic improvement – yes, improvement – of all those techniques, and leads us to counterintuitive truths about the universe that traditional methods of any society would be completely incapable of finding. The Standard Model of quantum mechanics, Einstein’s relativity theory, the inflationary model of the universe: none of these may be perfectly right. But they’re a lot less wrong than the Aboriginal creation myth, or for that matter the Christian creation myth, or the Hindu one, or the Muslim one.

Whether we’d have put a man on the Moon isn’t the half of it. If we followed traditional thinking, we wouldn’t know that germs cause disease, we wouldn’t know that atoms can be split or that time and space are linked. This is better: it is more correct; it is a more accurate picture of how the universe actually is than any “traditional” thought; the “child raised in the Andes to believe that a mountain is a protective deity” that Davis refers to may have a different outlook on life, but that outlook is simply wrong. By all means look at how we can learn from other civilisations. But don’t pretend that there is nothing that the West, however you define that and for whatever reason, has simply done better. Or at least, if you do, you should publish it on the traditional Javanese internet, to remind us that it’s just as good as the Western one, only different.


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