May 2005

Interview with Jared Diamond published in World History Connected:

DIAMOND: Partly. I have lots of discussions with people in the social sciences, especially economists. And there are some groups of historians—environmental historians, economic historians, yes, and world historians who I talk to, yes. But conventional early 16th century Dutch historians? No.

Almost all scientists I know are interested in the humanities and social sciences. Many people in the humanities I know are not interested in science and are ignorant in science. This is something one sees more explicitly in the humanities-based publications like the New York Review of Books or the The New Yorker. The New Yorker does not publish articles by scientists.

WHC: I remember some years ago that The New Yorker published John McPhee’s series on California geology [later the basis for McPhee’s book Assembling California]. Was that just an exception?

DIAMOND: I don’t think of John McPhee as a scientist. The New Yorker publishes articles about science, but not by scientists.

WHC: Do you find that a problem?

DIAMOND: Yes, I find that a serious problem.

WHC: Why?

DIAMOND: Though the accounts of science that one reads in The New Yorker make good reading, they involve serious misunderstandings about science. I think I’ll stop at that point, because I don’t want to mention any names.

April 2008

Jared Diamond article “Vengeance is Ours” published in April 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker.


Jared Diamond sued by subjects of error-filled article in The New Yorker.


  1. I’ve never read any of Diamond’s stuff myself, but I have not heard good things about its accuracy or rigor.

  2. I thought Guns, Germs and Steel was a decent book – although at the time I read it, I think I was much more critical when I talked about it – but that almost all of the interesting stuff was already in Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism. I don’t know if you’ve read Crosby, but he writes about places Europe colonized that became “neo-Europes” (in his words); Diamond uses Europe as a reference point but mostly doesn’t write about Europe. But the processes he writes about and the explanations he gives are like Crosby’s, just applied at a more general level with different examples. He also does a fair amount of science writing – about plants, domestication of animals, etc. – that Crosby, writing as a historian, doesn’t do. So both make a point about domestication of animals and what that meant (or if you don’t agree, may have meant) for history, but Diamond spends more time on the process of domestication itself. There’s some historical linguistics too that Crosby doesn’t touch on – I suspect that someone with more knowledge of linguistics than I do would take issue with some or more of those parts of the book. (I think I once referred to the book’s overall argument as more or less Crosby with linguistics.)

    That said, there’s apparently some places where he’s got things wrong on a factual level, sometimes his writing is flip in a way that’s really off-putting, and some of his larger generalizations are not very convincing. I’d have to read the book again to be more specific. (I read it in 2001.) I almost did that a few years ago when it was all over the blogs, but other things got in the way and I never went back to it. I was going to read some other Crosby as well, and maybe contrast the two.

    At the end of the book, Diamond talks a bit about how bad history done by historians is but it’s not clear he understands what history is as a discipline, or what historians do. Looking at that comment he made in the interview about scientists being interested in the humanities and social sciences but the reverse not happening so much, I think he’s probably right, but at the same time he and other scientists also often seem to confuse being interested in the subject or result of humanities and social science research with being interested in the disciplines that produce it.

    I haven’t read any of Diamond’s other books. I thought he was right in that interview about science writing in the New Yorker when I read it a couple of years ago, back when I was trying to read the New Yorker regularly. I guess he might still be right.

  3. I haven’t read Crosby, but I have read David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, which I believe makes a similar sort of argument to both Crosby and Diamond. And yeah, some of the criticism of Diamond I’ve heard has been about his fast-and-loose approach to the linguistics, but I don’t recall any specifics.

    The Diamond book of most immediate concern to me right now, though, is Collapse, which apparently contains a whole chapter about Chaco that gets it totally and utterly wrong. This is a pretty impressive achievement, in a way, since there’s so much about Chaco that’s a matter of vigorous dispute among specialists and so little that’s a matter of general consensus. Diamond, however, seems to have found a way to present an interpretation that clashes with some of those few things that almost everyone agrees on. I haven’t read the book, as I say, so I don’t really have enough information to evaluate this myself, but it’s not encouraging.

    Does Diamond really present himself as a “scientist”? I believe he has some background in the natural sciences, but he’s really a geographer, which is only a scientist in a very broad sense that would not necessarily exclude historians.

  4. I seem to be having trouble with the threaded comments. I like the idea, but I guess I’m still too used to the old ways.

  5. Wait, my comments are threaded now? (I replied from the dashboard and didn’t look at the thread itself.) I wonder if I can turn that off.

  6. That’s better.

    Anyway, I’m not sure if he presents himself as a scientist, but he does seem to present himself as representing scientists or a scientific point of view. It’s not clear that he’s any more a geographer than a historian, at least relative to the geography I’ve read. By training, I think he was in physiology or physical anthropology, but he’s obviously ranged far beyond that.

    I haven’t read Landes, but it was often reviewed together with Diamond back when I was reading reviews of Diamond. They actually sounded fairly different in detail, though similar in goal (trying to explain the “rise of the West” or however they describe it).

    I recommend Crosby’s overall work. Ecological Imperialism has its interpretative problems – and apparently, if you know detailed history of the Navajo or New Zealand, you’re going to object to some of what he says about those histories – but overall it seems within the range of the kind of problems that are pretty much always going to come up in broader, synthetic work. Crosby’s also changed his views over time: his earlier Columbian Exchange, which I keep meaning to read, is supposed to be less deterministic than Ecological Imperialism with more emphasis on change in multiple directions; the more recent The Measure of Reality, which I also recommend, but which is a very different approach to the same general question about Europe and its later colonial dominance, is about culture and intellectual history rather than environment and biology.

  7. I haven’t read Landes, but it was often reviewed together with Diamond back when I was reading reviews of Diamond. They actually sounded fairly different in detail, though similar in goal (trying to explain the “rise of the West” or however they describe it).

    I’ve heard the difference described as Landes picking up where Diamond left off, chronologically, and focusing on more recent stuff. I’m sure there are interpretive differences as well, but the goals are certainly the same.

    if you know detailed history of the Navajo

    This could be an issue. In general that sounds like the same kind of complaint people make about Diamond’s work, and I’d agree that it’s the sort of thing likely to crop up somewhere or other in any work of such broad scope.

    Speaking of Diamond, I took a glance at Collapse in the bookstore today and the Chaco section didn’t look as bad as had been described to me. I didn’t read it in detail, though, so maybe I just didn’t see the really damning part.

  8. I’ve heard the difference described as Landes picking up where Diamond left off, chronologically, and focusing on more recent stuff. I’m sure there are interpretive differences as well, but the goals are certainly the same.

    Sure, I can see that, but since the goals are so broad, I’m inclined to think the interpretative differences are more important. Also, Diamond’s – and Crosby’s, to an extent, in Ecological Imperialism, if not in his other work – arguments kind of imply that what happened in the later centuries are just details and that the work of explaining the bigger picture is already done by the time you get there. I can’t remember if either come right out and say that you can skip a bunch of history, and I don’t think they’d mean to say that, but the generalizations are there to support such a reading. I think Crosby later refers to his arguments as having been too geographically determinist.

    As for the specialization question, unless things are truly, egregiously wrong, it always comes down to a judgment call as to how it affects the larger arguments. At the level of the generalizations, I’m actually inclined to be skeptical of Crosby in places – I’d have to take another look at it to pick out where and why – but I still think it’s worth a read. For what it’s worth, I was assigned Ecological Imperialism by a professor fully aware of problems in the way Crosby treats specialized literature – but who also believes that books with some, but maybe not too many, problems make for better teaching.

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