It's way early Saturday morning and I'm banging around my apartment dealing with a bout of insomnia, so I might as well post this. Fair warning --- I'm going to be writing more about my reactions to this subject than the subject itself. Navel-gazing ahoy.
Nomadic Thoughts has the link rundown for a recent trans-blog dustup, about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, & Steel, between Crooked Timber, Brad DeLong, and a bunch of anthropologist types at Savage Minds. I wrote some slightly lengthy comments on the first post in the controversy, though I now realize that this was stupid of me. My summary of the debate:
- Ozma of Savage Minds writes: "Jared Diamond is wrong, and the reason people like Guns, Germs, & Steel is that they're racists."
- Brad DeLong writes:: "No, you're confused about Jared Diamond's ideas. And we like the book because it's well-written, and makes a striking argument about an important question."
- Kerim of Savage Minds writes: "Well, it's stupid and maybe even morally wrong, even to ask that question."
- Henry of Crooked Timber writes: "No, it's just a different question than the one you'd investigate."
- Ozma repeats, in comment threads on the above posts, over and over again, that "Jared Diamond is wrong, and the reason people like Guns, Germs, & Steel is that they are racists." She doesn't address any of the objections, evidently subscribing to the theory that vociferous repetition is the key to winning arguments.
- Kerim repeats, in comment threads on the above posts, that either Diamond's question is immoral, or that he's not really asking a different question, or that the reason people like Diamond is that they mistakenly believe he's asking a different question. His position keeps changing, so that as one position is refuted he moves to another one and claims he held that other position all along; in this fashion, he cannot be proven wrong, nor can anybody engage in productive debate with him.
- Throughout all of the above, several anthro types insist that (1) Diamond's theories are old hat, and (2) they have been thoroughly debunked. They fail to present evidence or argument for these two points, insisting that they are common knowledge among anthropologists. (Yeah, OK, you supercilious jackasses; we have crackpots in computer science too, but when somebody claims that, for example, they've invented an algorithm that can compress all strings, we can concisely explain exactly why that claim is a crock, in terms that anybody with a little math background can understand; and you should be able to do the same.)
Reading all this got me pretty mad. As those who've known me for a long time can attest, there's almost nothing in the world that makes me madder than bald-faced nonsense. My reaction to nonsensical statements is usually much more intense than, for example, my reaction to immoral or insulting statements. Allow me to elaborate slightly. When I read an argument that's completely unsound (as opposed to one that's wrong, but defensible), it strikes me like a blow to the head. I literally feel a bolt of dull pain pulse between my temples (and I do mean literally, not "metaphorically, but with such intensity that I feel obligated to describe it as literal"). I get a surge of adrenaline-fueled fight-or-flight response, and often feel the need to get up and pace around the room. I find myself wishing that I were omnipotent, solely so that I could obliterate that argument from the face of the Earth, because the very fact that a human being has the effrontery to make such an argument, and to expect other people to believe it, is an insult to all of creation. In short, nonsensical arguments send me completely off the deep end. I'm not claiming that this is a sane reaction, but it's how I react.
Ozma and Kerim's original posts were bad enough, but as I read their replies, and the replies of some others, I could not avoid smacking myself on the forehead, just to make the pain stop. Ozma, especially, seems to embody a perfect storm of rhetorical incompetence: she's unable to understand Diamond's argument, she's unable to coherently explain her objections to (her mangled understanding of) Diamond's argument, and she's unable to handle critical responses to her own arguments. She's also a new professor at the U. of Alberta, and I sincerely pity her students.
In retrospect, it's pretty obvious to me that Ozma and Kerim are fractally wrong, i.e. so wrong that arguing with them will lead to an infinitely recursive regress of wrongness on every sub-point of debate. I should have recognized this before I invested time in commenting, but somehow I mistakenly thought that since (a) I liked Diamond's book, and (b) I wanted to understand the objections to it, that there was some value in sinking my time into this debate. Stupid me.
p.s. Lots of anthro types seem to have some pretty absurd notions about biology. Two examples:
- I compared the difference between Diamond-style hypotheses of ultimate causation, and anthropological hypotheses of proximate causation, to the distinction between evolutionary and developmental biology; and I suggested that, as with "evo-devo", there might be gains to merging the two. Ozma followed with the absurd statement that "evo" was "in retreat", which is absurdly incorrect --- evolution is stronger than ever. She then had the amazing temerity to refer to this bizarre misconception in the Crooked Timber thread, evidently believing that it was a point in her favor rather than evidence of her disconnection from reality and willingness to spout off about subjects that she's completely ignorant of.
"J Thomas" wrote, in a comment, that Darwin "got evolution all wrong but at least said evolution was going on". Ahem. Biology has advanced a great deal in the past century and a half, but Darwin was fundamentally right. It would be accurate to say, "We know a great deal more than Darwin; in their daily work, modern biologists rely on modern theories that are not directly attributable to him." But it is a complete distortion to say that Darwin "got evolution all wrong", and only somebody who was supremely misinformed could say otherwise.(UPDATE 31 July: J Thomas has clarified, so I retract this; see comments.)
This, combined with some disparaging comments by Kerim about "biological/deterministic" reasoning, leads me to believe that anthropology in general (or at least a certain sub-community thereof) has some real problems with the theory of evolution. Given that the theory of evolution is simultaneously one of the greatest intellectual achievements of humankind, and the engine driving one of the most productive and exciting scientific disciplines today, this doesn't speak well of these anthropologists.
UPDATE 31 July: I was too hasty in inferring too much about anthropologists and evolution from what I read. See comments for further discussion.
 OK, they did present two references. However, closer examination by commenters --- including myself --- revealed that one is totally irrelevant to Diamond's thesis, and the other seems to be based on significant misreadings of the conditions necessary for Diamond's thesis to be valid. Also, the anthro types never explain in the first place how these citations supposedly demonstrate that Diamond's arguments are either old hat or thoroughly debunked --- they simply point to the footnote and say "See?" This might be acceptable if the citations themselves were not so weak, but as it is...