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Jared Diamond not an environmental determinist

August 2, 2012

I’ve just posted this brief response to Antrosio, Jason, 2012. More than Guns, Germs, and Steel. Living Anthropologically,

Thanks Jason, a very interesting – and timely – essay.

I read Guns, Germs and Steel over a decade ago, but as I recall the argument, Diamond is not saying that geography *determines* the cultural trajectory of a people or civilisation, but rather that certain environmental conditions *made it possible* for humans living in regions such as the Fertile Crescent, China and Central America to domesticate wild plants and animals over a long period of time. Such conditions did not exist in, say, northern Europe, Australia or central Africa. In other words, he is writing about uneven affordances, not determinism. In turn, the development of agriculture *afforded* (but did not determine) over time independent cultural innovations such as writing and cities in precisely those regions.

I think this makes perfect sense, and it’s in fact wholly compatible with the idea that humans are historical agents. Human agents don’t operate in a transhistorical and geographical vacuum – they can only work within their own material and socioeconomic circumstances. If you’re interested in domesticating plants or animals, don’t move to Antarctica, for however driven an agent you are, it ain’t gonna work.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2012 4:31 pm

    Hi John, I put this up as a reply, but will post it here too:
    Thank you for this reply, and an admirable analysis after more than 10 years away from Diamond! However, I believe you have constructed a more complex argument for Diamond than is in his book, and the idea of affordances makes me think of Heidegger or psychologist James J. Gibson.

    Diamond indeed says that you can’t domesticate what is not there. But he further claims that everything domesticable in every environment was domesticated. Diamond postulated that all human groups were equally smart and with detailed knowledge of their natural surroundings, so every candidate for domestication was tried and if possible, domesticated. If one group did not do it, then another group would, and over-run the others.

    I don’t think this is compatible with the archaeological record–see the papers in the 2011 Current Anthropology The Origins of Agriculture: New Data, New Ideas–nor does it explain the dynamism of city-states. As McAnany and Yoffee write in their introduction to Questioning Collapse:

    Can anyone say that the present balance of economic and political power will be the same in 2500 as it is today? For example, in the year 1500 some of the most powerful and largest cities in the world existed in China, India, and Turkey. In the year 1000, many of the mightiest cities were located in Peru, Iraq, and Central Asia. In the year 500 they could be found in central Mexico, Italy, and China. . . . What geographic determinism can account for this? (McAnany and Yoffee, 2010:10)

    But the real problem is when this is extended to explain European conquest and imperialism. And I would argue that the issue is not so much whether Diamond is a “determinist” or not, which is a rabbit-hole of claim and counter-claim, but at what points he uses a more determinist perspective and at what points he switches to agency.

    • August 7, 2012 8:33 am

      Thanks Jason. I’ll have to dust off my old copy of Guns in six weeks’ time (it’s now inside a container headed for Melbourne) or browse through Google Books before then to examine his alleged environmental determinism vs human agentism in Diamond’s famous book.

      By the way, let’s not forget that going to the other extreme of exaggerating human agency is equally problematic; it can end up being another form of that most dreaded -ism in today’s social theory: determinism. Surely human agency – like most other things – is unevenly distributed and it’s only part of a complex field of interactions, not least with non-human entities?

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