Jared Diamond and the Anthropologists: The Wrath of Razib Khan

Razib Khan, who writes Discover Magazine’s Gene Expression blog, has been a bit testy lately about some unusually vile ad hominem attacks being directed at Jared Diamond by some of the usual suspects among the pathologically pious faction of cultural anthropologists and miscellaneous self-appointed saviors of indigenous peoples.  It seems that Diamond, author of such bestsellers as Guns, Germs, and Steel, and by all accounts safely on the left of the ideological spectrum, has been unmasked as a closet colonialist, imperialist, admirer of Cecil Rhodes, and pawn of evil global corporations.  Razib’s response to all this:

 I want to be clear that I think Jared Diamond is wrong on a lot of details, and many cultural anthropologists are rightly calling him out on that. But, they do a disservice to their message by politicizing their critique, and ascribing malevolence to all those who disagree with their normative presuppositions. Scholarship is hard enough without personalized politicization, and I stand by Jared Diamond’s right to be sincerely wrong without having his character assassinated.

I grant that some anthropologists are responding to Jared Diamond in more measured tones, and occasionally even clear sentences. But by and large the reason that the discipline is properly thought of as an obscure, if vociferous, form of politics rather than a politicized form of analysis is that professional character assassins are thick on the ground in cultural anthropology.

and, more poetically,

Many cultural anthropologists  believe that they have deep normative disagreements with Jared Diamond. In reality I think the chasm isn’t quite that large. But the repeated blows ups with Diamond gets to the reality that cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.

I wouldn’t go quite that far, and, in fact, the people at Survival International who were responsible for giving Razib the final nudge over the top don’t actually claim to be cultural anthropologists, but I must admit it’s a nice turn of phrase.  You can read the rest of what he had to say here and here.  While I, too, have taken a rather dim view of Diamond’s books, I can only heartily agree with Razib when he says,

Jared Diamond may be wrong on facts, but he has the right enemies.

And with that lengthy preamble, let me finally get to the point of this post.  It has to do with something else Razib wrote in the articles linked above, namely,

As the vehemence of my post suggests the only solution I can see to this ingrained tick among many cultural anthropologists is to drop the pretense of genteel discourse, and blast back at them with all the means at our disposal. Telling them to stick to facts nicely won’t do any good, these are trenchant critics of Social Darwinism who engage in the most bare-knuckle war of all-against-all when given any quarter.

To this, a commenter replied,

There’s always room for polemic, but in general it’s not the right tactic. Calm refutation is more scientific, and after all that’s what counts in the end.

I side with Razib on this one.  Appeasement has never worked against self-righteous ideological zealots of any stripe.  To this, an insightful reader who’s been following my blog for a while might reply, “But how can you favor responding to morally based attacks with morally based attacks?  You don’t believe in morality!”  Of course, that’s not quite accurate.  I do believe in morality as the expression of subjective emotions whose existence ultimately depends on evolved behavioral traits.  I don’t believe in transcendental morality, e.g., the existence of Good and Evil as objects, or things in themselves.  For that reason I see the morally loaded attacks on Diamond that Khan objects to for what they really are; a self-righteous and self-interested display of moral emotions that have become disconnected from the “purpose” those emotions evolved to serve; the propagation and survival of the genes of the phenotypes from which the attacks are emanating.  Or, to put it in the vernacular, they are absurd.  They are being mounted by people who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of something that doesn’t exist; objective Good.  They are not mounted because they are really likely to save anyone, but because they give pleasure to those who pose as saviors.

In spite of that, they are potentially very effective, are demonstrably very destructive, and are certainly not to be defeated by calm, scientific refutation.  One must fight fire with fire, or accept defeat.  Call it doublethink if you will.  Essentially, I am advocating the use of a weapon whose existence is based on the premise that there is such a thing as objective Good, when there quite clearly is not.  However, we are a moral species, and these battles are carried out in the realm of moral emotions, not reason.  Jonathan Haidt even goes so far as to suggest that our rational minds themselves only exist to serve as advocates for those emotions.  This is not a question of moral “shoulds,” but of mere practicality.  Those who have convinced themselves that they are the noble defenders of the Good in itself are not to be dissuaded by calm logic.  Let history judge.  How often were the fanatical zealots of such spiritual religions as Christianity and Islam, or such secular religions as Communism and Nazism, persuaded they were wrong by patient, reasoned argument?  All of them were extremely effective at exploiting moral emotions as a weapon.  One can either pick up that weapon and fight back, or sit back and await the pleasure of one’s enemies.


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