Another Flaw in the Diamond

by Gene Callahan

The famed “geographical historian,” Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, is being sued, by two New Guinea tribesmen, for $10 million. It seems a feud he described didn’t occur, and a man he describes as paralyzed in that feud has been found walking about just fine.

Diamond’s failure, I suspect, is not one of honesty, but one of gullibility: he heard this story from someone and failed to check it out. This is something of which he frequently has been guilty in the past. In a paper of mine, which is forthcoming in a volume entitled The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott’s Conservatism, I write:

*****

If [the historian] is to succeed, he must resist the temptation to interpret the portion of his evidence consisting of any deliberately generated texts according to the intention of its author, a natural and easy, but quite unreliable method of constructing the historical past; the testimony of the humans who acted in or witnessed the episodes he is hoping to illuminate can never be taken at face value. A text purporting to describe a battle “just as it happened” actually may have been composed to glorify the victor or excuse the loser. A politician’s memoirs may have been written with an eye to making him look good to future generations. The inscription on a statue may have been re-inscribed at the behest of a ruler jealous of his illustrious predecessor’s accomplishments. The historian always starts with a collection of initially ambiguous and often, on their face, mutually contradictory present artifacts surviving from the past, and it is only by critically and cannily interrogating his witnesses that he can hope to determine what really occurred. The “facts of history” do not provide the input to his inquiry; quite to the contrary, they are its output, as Collingwood illustrates with the following example: “The fact that in the second century the legions began to be recruited wholly outside Italy is not immediately given. It is arrived at inferentially by a process of interpreting data according to a complicated system of rules and assumptions.”

Diamond, quite likely because of his apparent failure to grasp that genuine historical research is an exercise in critical interpretation, often engages in a form of pseudo-theorizing that professional historians have dubbed “scissors and paste” history. He places unwarranted faith in sources offering support for his own preconceived theories, and assembles his account of the past by snipping out favorable bits of testimony to place in his collage, while discarding anything that does not fit into his design.

For instance, when Diamond tells the story of the infamous QWERTY keyboard, he asserts, “trials conducted in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent.” Those are startling figures; if they were accurate, then the fact that no company employing large numbers of typists, and wishing to double their productivity while at the same time making its employees’ jobs less onerous — surely a profitable move! — has not chosen to break with convention and switch to this efficient keyboard layout is astonishing, and suggests that we can get stuck with patently inferior conventions like QWERTY far more readily than was previously suspected.

But we can save our astonishment for another day: It turns out that the study Diamond cites was severely flawed, as it lacked a genuine control group and did not employ random sampling for selecting the participants. That the study was biased in favor of the new, “efficiently laid-out keyboard” might be thought, by those more cynical than the author of this paper, as having something to do with the fact that it was designed and conducted by none other than August Dvorak, the inventor of the purportedly more efficient keyboard, who, holding the patent to his design, had a large financial stake in proving the superiority of his model. Later, independent studies did not confirm Dvorak’s outlandish claims.

Another case where Diamond cherry-picks his evidence so that it backs his preconceptions can be found in his more recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. There he contends that the Greenland Norse settlements expired primarily because those Scandinavian colonists did not adapt sufficiently to their new environment. One purported piece of evidence with which he supports this claim is that, despite the wealth of fish available at their doorstep, the Norse settlers did not eat them. That they did not consume fish is demonstrated, according to Diamond, by archeologists’ failure to find fish bones in the Norse “middens” (piles of rubbish).

But research, which although fairly recent still was available well before the publication of Collapse, appears to falsify Diamond’s conjecture:

“As a result of 80 years of excavations in Greenland, The Danish National Museum possesses a large collection of bones from burials in churchyards in the old Norse colonies. Stable-isotope analysis of selected parts of this bone material has enabled us to determine which kind of food each individual has eaten – or more precisely: the balance between terrestrial and marine diet. . . . At the same time, we have 14C dated the bones by the AMS technique. . . . We cannot claim to have solved the enigma of the disappearance of the Norsemen from Greenland, but we can at least exclude some hypotheses. The isotope analysis indicates that the Norsemen changed their dietary habits. The diet of the first settlers consisted of 80% agricultural products and 20% food from the surrounding sea. But seafood played an increasing role, such that the pattern was completely turned around towards the end of the period — from the 1300’s the Greenland Norse had 50-80% of their diet from the marine food chain. In simplified terms: they started out as farmers but ended up as hunters/fishers. Some archeologists have claimed that the Greenland Norsemen succumbed because they — being culturally inflexible — either could not or would not adapt to changing conditions and therefore came to a catastrophic end, triggered by deteriorating climate. This hypothesis may now be refuted.”

How, then, can the absence of fish bones in the middens be explained? Fairly easily, it seems: “For example, the absence of fishbone in the middens does not prove that the Norse did not eat fish. Not only will fishbone rapidly decay in a midden, more likely they never got there in the first place — fishbone is a food source highly appreciated by, e.g., birds, dogs and pigs.”

*****

Diamond, in his disdain for “old-fashioned” history (i.e., history not informed by his bio-geographical principles), has entirely missed the fact that the genuine historian stands in a critical relationship to his sources. And this failing has become apparent once again.

30 thoughts on “Another Flaw in the Diamond

  1. I assigned Diamond’s Guns… and Collapse in class recently, which resulted in a discussion about cherry-picking cases to support his hypotheses. But I never suspected that the purported avoidance of fish among the Greenland Norse might have been wrong, although I found it difficult to believe (given the dietary habits of Icelanders and Norwegians). Thanks for the information!

  2. Oh wow, I didn’t realize Diamond was an evolutionary biologist–or if I did, I forgot. I thought he was a historian.*

    * Or is it AN historian?

  3. Yes, his specialty was population biology, and he approaches history as a problem in that field.

  4. J. Arneborg, J. Heinemeier, N. Lynnerup, H. L. Nielsen, N. Rud and Á. E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, “C-14 Dating and the Disappearance of Norsemen from Greenland,” Europhysics News, 33, no. 3 (MONTH?, 2002); http://www.europhysicsnews.com/full/15/article1/article1.html, downloaded on October 28, 2005.

    Christopher Shea, “Big Picture Guy: Does Megaselling Scientist-Historian Jared Diamond Get the Whole World Right?” Boston Globe (January 16, 2005); http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2005/01/16/big_picture_guy?pg=full, downloaded on October 28, 2005.

  5. Yes, the idea that they didn’t eat fish was already doubtful absent the Danish archaeology; but that really put the nail in its coffin.

    Even though that study came out 3 years before Collapse, Diamond is still contending that his is “the only serious explanation”!

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  7. Can I just say what a comfort to uncover somebody that actually knows what they are talking about online. You actually realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important. A lot more people have to read this and understand this side of the story. I was surprised you aren’t more popular because you surely have the gift.

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