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Human evolution: Quest for primitive human backfires

Best news I’ve heard all year, actually. Also the worst.

Bear with me.

A friend writes to tell me that

Jared Diamond, geography prof at UCLA, ornithologist and popular science writer, is in hot water for writing a story in the New Yorker last year that described “vengeance wars” among tribes in Papua New Guinea that apparently has angered the tribes. The convoluted episode has resulted in his being vilified by anthropologists and by Stephen Jay Gould’s widow, who runs Art Science Research Laboratory.

He is being sued for defamation by his New Guinea subjects.

The story is told in Science by Michael Balter, who also has a summary on his blog.

An anthropologist can no longer just visit a native tribe, take notes, and come home to write pretend science articles about their “primitive” habits. Today, many members of traditional peoples have computers, jobs, and political clout. Anthropologists are answerable to the people they write about, who are now paying attention.

In truth, this whole area has been marked by huge scandals over the years. I strongly recommend Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in Eldorado, as a remedial text for anyone who took anthropology under a materialist system, where the profs were looking for evidence of “primitive” humans, and caused huge disruptions in aboriginal communities as a result.

Want to see a “primitive” human? Go to the bathroom and look in the mirror.

But … I am concerned that this may be an instance of libel tourism. That just means looking for a favourable jurisdiction in which to launch a suit that would be considered frivolous in most jurisdictions, and would not gain standing in a typical court.

The only solution, in my view, is the one we are embarking on in Canada – reform of the defamation laws to clarify what we do and do not consider defamation. For example, if my – very traditional – view is adopted, we don’t consider dead people, abstract ideas, religions, or groups to be plaintiffs for defamation. Defamation means that a live person suffers specific, identifiable harm as a result of demonstrably false or unprovable statements made about him/her.

If the person is a public figure, that bar should obviously be lowered. He who seeks greater power than his fellows must deal with greater detraction.

Also at The Post-Darwinist:

Intelligent design and high culture: Mike Behe is not a creationist, but whocares?

Human evolution: Hype, tripe, trumpets, and (lagging some way after, way out of breath) truth and realism

Human evolution: The spin machine in top gear

Intellectual freedom in Canada: “human rights” commissions, spreading the oppression, may trigger their own well-deserved destruction

(Note: the “Post-Darwinist” will shortly be heading up to the Home of the Giant Nickel (yes) for the Canadian Science Writers’ Association conference, and service may be spotty in the meantime. She will, however, judge the second Uncommon Descent contest.)

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8 Responses to Human evolution: Quest for primitive human backfires

  1. How is the “Best news I’ve heard all year”?

  2. I should add, that Diamond published an entire book (Germs, Guns and Steal) in which he puts forward his thesis of environmental causes of ethnic/societal differences.

    He is strongly against genetic/evolutionary causes of ethnic differences. And as such, does not use the word ‘primitive’ in a racist sense. In fact he believes that ‘primitive’ peoples are more intelligent than their Western counterparts.

  3. Mrs O’Leary,

    Safe journeys to the science writers conference. Will you be covering it, attending, or speaking? Given the beat you’ve made for yourself, I think it could be any of the three! :)

  4. Diamond’s book is a mixture of good insight and PCness gone amok. He has it in for Western Civilization and when he addresses it, he like a petulant toddler lashing out at anyone who tries to restrict him.

    But what he does seem to get is why civilizations arose where they did and didn’t. Namely, where domesticated plants and animals thrive. The fertile crescent and China is where there was more than an abundance while in Africa and the Americas there was little. So he seems to be right up to 3000 BC.

    In his quest to demean Western Civilization he fails to look at the obvious. Namely Ancient Greece which is the source of most everything that led to Western Civilization. I will make my traditional pitch. If you want to understand history make sure you spend a large percentage of your time on Ancient Greece, especially the 5th century BC.

    People seem to have a slavish adoration of Diamond and his book. A very liberal aunt told me she was in a book club discussing Diamond’s book and I told her all the things wrong with it. She was horrified that anyone could have taken away what I said and said she could not bring those things up in her discussions.

    Yes, Diamond claims the people from Papua are smarter than those in the West. It is our fate to be the dumbest on the planet.

  5. Jerry: I would probably agree that Diamond is over rated. However his books are entertaining to read.

    But my point in my original post, was not to glorify him, or agree with his views. Simply to show that he is not racist and if anything, has a bias toward the so-called ‘primitive’ peoples.

  6. “He has it in for Western Civilization and when he addresses it, he like a petulant toddler lashing out at anyone who tries to restrict him.”

    Diamond just recognizes the genocide of millions of native American Indians and the destruction of their civilizations by Western Europeans. Of course maybe the ends justify the means – after all we wouldn’t have our civilization otherwise. And by our standards there were some civilizations that deserved it due to their cruelty, like the Aztecs. Of course this is hardly politically correct. And there are plenty of other examples of the inhumanity of non-western civilizations, such as the Mongols and their extermination of millions and whole cultures. The general view is of a sorry spectacle East and West.

  7. “Simply to show that he is not racist and if anything, has a bias toward the so-called ‘primitive’ peoples.”

    And that is not racist? Any bias one way or the other based on race or ethnic background is supposed to be racist.

    I actually do not believe that because I believe it is legitimate to consider any group of people to be influenced by their environment and culture and as such to make judgments on that. Thus, that should not be racist in the negative sense it is used. And like any group there is a wide range of variability within it that should be recognized.

    I prefer not to set this thread off on a racist discussion which could easily go 600 comments and not get anywhere. It is just that Diamond makes some asinine conclusions in his book but it then held up as an icon.

    I enjoyed the Diamond book but having spent a lot of time reading about Ancient Greece, it was obvious he was being biased or sloppy or probably both and definitely had an agenda that was not academic truth.

  8. “And there are plenty of other examples of the inhumanity of non-western civilizations, such as the Mongols and their extermination of millions and whole cultures”

    I mentioned Timur a couple weeks ago. He had few peers.

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