Is Jared Diamond racist?

Illustration for article titled Is Jared Diamond racist?

Even Jared Diamond's most avid supporters have been raising eyebrows at his new book, The World Until Yesterday. But University of New Mexico American Studies professor David Correia thinks this book is the most convincing evidence yet that Diamond isn't just played out — he's racist.


Correia has written a very scholarly article about the problems with Diamond's work in the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, but he's not afraid to use plain language once in a while. For example, his article is called simply "F**k Jared Diamond." And he begins his scathing commentary like this:

Jared Diamond is back at it, once again trading in the familiar determinist tropes that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for his 1999 book Guns, Germs and Steel. That dull book was chockfull of the bad and the worse, the random and the racist. At best it is just silly, as when he offers unsupported, and unsupportable, assertions such as his get-off-my-lawn grouse that children today are not as smart as in the recent past and television is to blame. At worst, it develops an argument about human inequality based on a determinist logic that reduces social relations such as poverty, state violence, and persistent social domination, to inexorable outcomes of geography and environment.

Arguments such as these have made him a darling of bourgeois intellectuals, who have grown tired of looking meanspirited and self-serving when they make their transparently desperate efforts to displace histories of imperialism back on its victims. They need a pseudointellectual explanation for inequality in order to sustain the bourgeois social order that guarantees their privilege. This they found in Guns, Germs and Steel.

His crime spree continues with 2012s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, which takes its readers on a racist tour from the primitive to the modern. Give him credit, he may be a hack but he is a clever hack. And he knows how to make himself useful. He disguises the racism of his biological and environmental determinism in a Kiplingesque narrative that seems downright thoughtful and caring. They—those primitives—have so much to teach us moderns. We have an obligation, a burden you might say, that comes to us ordained by a divine accident of geography and environment, and so we must, with humility (and sometimes bombs), cultivate that exceptionalism. And, of course, the subtext here is that our exceptionalism is not a thing, but a relation; it cannot exist without their primitivism. These are not categories but relations biological and environmental in nature.

Everything Diamond does is motivated by an environmental determinism that takes the physical environment, including the climate, to be a determinant on human society. Diamond and his partners in crime, such as Jeffrey Sachs, argue that we can look to patterns of environmental change or geographical difference as a way to understand trajectories of human and social development and, by so doing, explain why some societies flourish while others languish in poverty or even collapse.

Diamond won a Pulitzer Prize because he made this ridiculous, racist argument sound like common sense. His books do not merely sanitize a history of colonial violence; they are its disinfectant. They offer compelling and seemingly intuitive arguments that serve as the "ideology of an imperial capitalism," as geographer Dick Peet called it.

Ouch. It's not often that you find a scholarly essay that is so blunt. Is the world's love affair with Diamond almost over?

Read the rest of Correia's article over at Capitalism Nature Socialism.



I'm not a huge fan of Jared Diamond. I think Guns, Germs, and Steel, while strong in a number of ways, got a lot wrong and ignored some big problems with his thesis. And I thought Collapse was far more eco-pessimistic than is supported by the data. I have no interest in reading The World Until Yesterday or in primitive culture worship.

But... I think calling him a racist is a stretch. Guns, Germs, and Steel (which I have issues with it) was really a very long attempt at dispelling a racist meme - at showing that it was the chance of the environment people found themselves in - and not their own race or genetics - that played the major role in how well their societies flourished. That is really pretty anti-racist in my book.