Bush Public Diplomacy
Hedgehogs Are Everywhere

The Strong Do What They Want, and the Weak Suffer What They Must

Ah. Fred and Deborah at Savage Minds finally write something interesting--something that does not pretend that Jared Diamond is blind to western colonial domination of Papua New Guinea or that Diamond's argument is an ideologically-driven "perverse justification of colonial forms of inequality." We seem to be back in speech-situation territory:

Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology -- A Group Blog: Diamond's conflation between the necessary and the sufficient grows out of the link between his interest in "history's broadest pattern" (1997: 420) and his determination to develop "human history as a science, on a par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology" (1997: 408).... Crucial to this search for law like explanations that will generate long chains of causation back to first causes (chains of causation that even link mountain range formation to Yali's quandary) is Diamond's distinction between ultimate and proximate causes. Ultimate causes are those broadly applicable and pervasive forces, such as guns, germs, and steel. Diamond is interested in these causes because he thinks they are the ones which really drive history -- both past and present. These ultimate causes shape derivative and more immediate occurrences, such as particular battles, conquests, economic systems. The effects of these more immediate occurrences, in turn, become proximate causes of yet other events.

Diamond's view of an inevitable and inexorable course of human history, one driven by the operation of ultimate causes over the span of its 13,000-year course, rests (as some of you suggested in earlier postings) on what seems to us to be an implicit view of human nature.... This is a view of human beings as necessarily leading lives so as to extract maximum advantage over others: give a guy--any guy--half a chance and he will conquer the world; give a guy a piece of appropriate metal and he will inevitably fashion a sword to cut you down; give a guy a piece of appropriate metal and he will inevitably fashion a chain to enslave you within the hold of a ship bound for a New World sugar plantation. In a way that many in the contemporary West find seemingly self-evident--in a way that does not problematize the way the world works--Diamond suggests that people everywhere and at all times, if they had sufficient power, would necessarily use it in seeking to maximize their own advantage through the domination of others. This implicit view of a trans-historical and trans-cultural human nature is consistent with Diamond's explicit rendering of both historical context and cultural perspective as irrelevant. In fact, Diamond works hard to exclude such perspective and context from his scientific history.

Correspondingly, Diamond describes the rise of mercantilism and capitalism as only "proximate forces" in the course of world history (1997: 10).... From our perspective, however, mercantilism and capitalism provide particular historical contexts in which (and in different though related ways) expansionist conquest appears an especially desirable activity--and one made especially feasible by the availability of guns, germs, and steel. This is to say, rather than merely proximate causes of lives more fundamentally and inexorably determined, mercantilism and capitalism impel the use of guns, germs, and steel in particular manners for particular ends.... [L]ives and historical outcomes as made possible by (for instance) guns, germs, and steel but as importantly propelled and shaped by cultural visions of what was worth pursuing and at what cost: of winning favor from God and King, acquiring gold and silver, attaining certain lifestyles, or achieving national strength.... [W]here we see the likes of guns, germs, and steel as necessary but not sufficient causes of such lives, Diamond sees such lives--apparently all lives--as inevitably seeking as much conquest and domination as possible....

Raymond Kelly's recent comprehensive analysis of the origins of human warfare provides a relevant and contrasting view of human nature and of inevitability. In this critique of the Hobbesian notion that there is a "trinity of interrelationship between human nature, war and the constitution of society" (Kelly, 2000: 121), he writes:

Warfare is an episodic feature of human history and prehistory observed at certain times and places but not others. Moreover, the vast majority of societies in which warfare does occur are characterized by the alteration of war and peace; there are relatively few societies--only about 6 percent--in which warfare is continual and peace almost unknown. It is only in this relatively small percentage of cases that something approaching a Hobbesian social condition of pervasive and unending warfare can be found.... The human propensity to peacemaking, so strikingly evident from the characteristic alteration between war and peace, is central to the nexus of interrelationships between human nature, war and society--and this bodes well for the future (2000: 161).

It is the case that Yali was poor and that the people of the New World were brutally conquered by representatives of the Old. It is also the case that those who beat up on other people have the capacity to do so. But are these facts inevitable by virtue either of the nature of history or the nature of humans?... They might make war, but they also might make peace. Whether they choose one or the other is powerfully affected by particular historically and culturally located ideas about the desirable and the feasible....

The existence of such alternatives means that human beings may, realistically, be held accountable for the choices they make. We find this stipulation important both in combating Diamond's general world history and in constructing an aspect of Papua New Guinea's more particular one. Pizarro (for example) had the capacity and resources to behave with remarkable brutality in the New World--he had both the technology and will to conquer. But the mere capacity to behave brutally does not absolve him from having done so. Likewise, Europeans had the resources to treat Yali and other Papua New Guineans with contempt. But that position should not absolve them from having done so...

I have three responses:

First, Fred and Deborah are correct in identifying one important piece of Jared Diamond's visualization of the Cosmic All: Jared Diamond has a Melian Dialogue view of how human societies interact with each other--the strong do what they want, and the weak suffer what they must.

Second, for reasons I don't understand, Fred and Deborah take the fact that Jared Diamond has a Melian Dialogue view of how human societies interact to entail that Jared Diamond approves, justifies, or excuses conquest, genocide, and slavery. Diamond does not. If you were to read the first few pages of Guns, Germs, and Steel, you would find that Diamond writes:

The history of interaction among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics, and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries.... [M]uch of Africa is still struggling with its legacies from colonialism. In other regions... civil unrest or guerrilla warfare pits still-numerous indigenous populations against governments dominated by descendants of invading conquerers. Many other indigenous populations... so reduced in numbers by genocide and disease that they are now greatly outnumbered by the descendants of invaders... they are nevertheless increasingly asserting their rights...

Third, Fred and Deborah believe that Diamond's Melian Dialogue view of how human societies interact must be rooted in some kind of social-darwinist cartoon view of human nature. They claim that Diamond sees "human beings as necessarily leading lives so as to extract maximum advantage over others: give a guy--any guy--half a chance and he will conquer the world; give a guy a piece of appropriate metal and he will inevitably fashion a sword to cut you down; give a guy a piece of appropriate metal and he will inevitably fashion a chain to enslave you within the hold of a ship bound for a New World sugar plantation. In a way that many in the contemporary West find seemingly self-evident--in a way that does not problematize the way the world works--Diamond suggests that people everywhere and at all times, if they had sufficient power, would necessarily use it in seeking to maximize their own advantage through the domination of others."

I see Diamond's Melian Dialogue view of human nature as coming out of what some have called the tragedy of power politics, an argument that goes roughly like this:

  • Human societies vary.
  • Some human societies value, practice, and train for war, others do not.
  • When they meet the societies that value, practice, and train for war will conquer, enslave, and absorb the others whenever they have the technological capability to do so.
  • In the long run we will all be ruled by thugs-with-spears: the only societies we will see surviving as independent entities will be those that:
    • practice and prepare for war--if only in self-defense
    • have good enough military technology to resist whatever aggressive societies that do value, practice, and train for war that they come in contact with.

I hope this "tragedy of power politics" argument is wrong. The existence of the United Nations and the fact that Papua New Guinea is now an independent nation allows us to hope that it is wrong. But the "tragedy of power politics" argument has force, and does not rest upon a social-darwinist cartoon view of human nature. I would be happy to be taught that the "tragedy of power politics" argument has less force than I think it does: examples of hunter-gatherer cultures adjoining agricultural ones for considerable periods of time without bloody war and conquest, anyone?

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