October 12, 2008

Jared Diamond

Filed under: politics, race — ubikcan @ 9:43 am

Jared Diamond, physiologist, ornithologist and now professor of geography at UCLA (where he teaches intro world regional geography) held a series of faculty seminars last week. There were three topics: (1) the relation of science and the humanities (and how the latter can be more scientific, especially history), (2) race and gender (3) human violence.

I was able to attend and take part in the first two and it was really the second session I was most interested in. The format of the seminars was nice: a small group of people sitting around the table discussing readings distributed in advance. (Some of these readings are online; the violence reading for example included the recent article in the New Yorker).

The faculty group was diverse and included historians, 1 political scientist, 3 geographers, faculty from English and communications depts and philosophers. There were no anthropologists present. The talks were held under the aegis of “humanism” which I personally found a little odd (we were invited to attend as humanists!).

The reading for race/gender was “Race without Color,” a short paper explaining why race is not based in biology originally published in Discvover magazine. It’s a fairly unremarkable reading in that sense (it would not be out of place in an intro anthropology textbook on human biodiversity, as I remarked to him). It was a little odd that no-one from the anthropology department signed up. In fact the anthro dept is hosting a speaker from the University of Michigan who will give a talk “Questioning Collapse” (Diamond’s most recent book) so perhaps there is some sort of opposition involved here. It would have been nice to have the anthropological viewpoint represented, if say a bio-anthropologist could have attended, given that anthropology is the discipline of race.

The gist of this paper is that it is not possible to consistently use biological markers (whether phylogenic or just genetic) to mark out races. While this might be intro anth in a way it is still worth reminding ourselves, and certainly given that the room was non-anthropologists, he had judged his audience right. I think there were at least some among my colleagues who had not heard this argument in this form before.

I asked Diamond whether, given that there is no biological basis for race, we should continue to collect race-based data? I pointed out that in France they do not, and that while this has not eliminated racism this is due to their colonial past as much as anything. I like to ask this question of people who talk about race as it is an issue I’ve heard compelling arguments about from different angles.

His reply was interesting and certainly differs from what you could call the “standard” sociological view that we need to have race-based data in order to track discrimination. Diamond’s example was of a doctor’s office where you needed in an emergency to make a quick initial diagnosis. Say somebody comes in exhibiting signs of diabetes, you might use visible racial markers to administer insulin.

That was his example. Not quite what I was getting at. I was thinking of census data which I bet is used by a lot of people in the room. This is a classis non-manipulated variable, which changes pretty much with each census by the way, making it extremely difficult to compare from one decennial census to another (10 years!).

Another person asked if we should still use race at all. One person argued we should, using the “standard sociological” argument.  This still puzzles me as while I can see half a merit in this argument isn’t our concern with poverty–whoever is poor? (And by the way in this country the biggest group who are poor are whites…just saying). Diamond ducked this question a little, saying that perhaps this was a question for “humanists” (ie us rather than scientists) to answer. Fair enough.

There were some odd moments. Diamond repeatedly mentioned that anthropologists use race as a convenient shorthand, but he said it in such a way that seemed to imply that anthropologists were trying to hang on to race when it is not a valid biological concept. (Later, he did clarify this to say that in the context of one scientist writing in a textbook to others, you might say something like “black Africans in this area…”) There is some potential for misinterpretation here if you don’t parse his words exactly. At another point he indicated that if anthropologists don’t discuss races it’s because of political correctness. Again that may or may not be true but I think the overwhelming reason they don’t talk about races (blacks, whites, Asians etc) in their own work (not when eg., talking about the history of scientific racism) it’s because the data don’t support it–as Diamond details in his own paper!

In my question I also tried to point out that any discussion of race ought to acknowledge the intellectual history of race, for example the fact that in the twentieth century, as Jonathan Marks points out, there have been three major theories of race, that it varies from country to country (esp regarding whether race is fixed or more fluid like ethnicity).

In the end I was struck by the fact that while we can talk about racism quite well (we “humanists”) we’re not as informed or as good about talking about race. And we’re particularly not good at understanding the relations between racism. While we’re against racism, surely there can be no racism without some concept of race…so shouldn’t we be against reifying and reproducing and retaining race?

*  *  *

Diamond is apparently still in town as he is scheduled to give a lecture at Emory University on the 15th. The title is “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”



  1. I found your post very interesting. Thank you.

    In light of my research on Diamond’s article in the New Yorker Magazine, I wanted to ask you if Diamond discussed his revenge article or mentioned the main source for the story, Daniel Wemp?

    Also, did you ask why no anthropologists attended or participated as faculty ? What did you make of this absence?

    Your feedback would be very helpful. FYI I am writing a paper for the American Anthropological.
    Assn. My email is rrs at asrlab.org .

    Best regards,

    Rhonda Roland Shearer
    Director, Art Science Research Laboratory
    62 Greene Street
    New York, New York 10012
    phone: 212-925-8812
    FAX: 212-925-0459

    Comment by Rhonda R Shearer — October 12, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

  2. Rhonda,

    The third session (on violence) was the one I could not attend. Initially the New Yorker article was on the list, but then dropped in favor of the chapter in I think The Third Chimpanzee on genocides. I don’t recall now–was Wemp mentioned in the revenge article? In what way is he the main source of the story?

    I too was curious why no anthropologists attended.* It could be a local reason, but I wondered if they had the same reaction that some other people have had in my own discipline, a kind of doubt about Diamond. But I’m no disciplinary policeman, patrolling the borders and saying thou shalt not enter. As I mentioned the Anth dept here are hosting their own talk “Questioning Collapse”–whether this is coincidence (as I expect) or a sign of antipathy to Diamond I don’t know.

    *A detail I omitted in the original blog post is that a faculty member from Women’s Studies did raise her hand when I asked the room if there were any anthropologists present. When I wrote the blog I was thinking of people from the Anth dept. who of course I know personally and could see were not there.

    I could also add another oddity from the day before (the session on science and the humanities). Diamond said that as opposed to the sciences, anthropology “just tells stories, never to know” (I paraphrase slightly as I did not write down the exact quote). He also said that humanists more generally do not have “the goal to understand or describe the real world” (this is a more exact quote). I found this a disappointing parody, hopefully only made for rhetorical effect.

    The sessions were digitally recorded but I don’t know what will be done with them.

    Hope this helps,

    Comment by ubikcan — October 12, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

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