Sunday, January 29, 2006

Subjectivity by Proxy

Thoughts on Timothy Taylor’s* criticism of Guns, Germs and Steel

By Mark Dorroh

In a 5-12-97 critique* of Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Archeologist Timothy Taylor** takes Diamond to task for making assumptions about South Pacific aboriginal islanders based in Egyptologist Grafton Eliot Smith’s “underlying understanding of cultural worth.”

“Diamond talks of the Tasmanians’ technological changes through time as 'cultural losses', as if they had become somehow impoverished by their isolation,” writes Taylor. “Underlying his analysis then, is - ultimately - an assumption of western cultural superiority … Yet cultures, by their very nature (Gellner), have incommensurate value systems … The Tasmanians, according to Diamond, would have been better off if they had fished. In whose terms, and how do we know?” Taylor’s questions are puzzling. For one thing, we do in fact “know” the Tasmanians would have been “better off” fishing because we know the outcome of their practice of depriving themselves of the ocean’s vast bounty of high-nutrient food: It put them at a survival disadvantage.

Thus, Diamond’s proposition that the Tasmanians would have been “better off” catching and eating fish – as nearly all island people do - is not a proposition to be arbitrated by anyone’s “terms.” In regard to the survivability of a given culture, our shared “terms” are “behavior which enhances survival potential vs. behavior which promotes a survival disadvantage.” Any other “terms” are superfluous.

So far as any “assumption of western cultural superiority” on Diamond’s part, let us put this odd dietary prejudice into a cross-cultural context. Consider one chapter of Diamond’s later work, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In it, Diamond surveys the reasons for the failed civilization of Icelandic Norsemen who settled in Greenland.

Modern archeological evidence, specifically the very small number of fish bones found in excavations of Greenland kitchen middens, indicate the Norse had some sort of prejudice against the consumption of fish. Instead, they relied upon the same farming and ranching practices they had used in their home environment, the fjords of Scandinavia. Those practices were singularly unsuited to the climate and soil conditions of Greenland; consequently – and predictably - the Norse settlements crashed when the food ran out. Diamond goes on to note that Inuit peoples who lived in the area at the same time survived, in part because they were willing to eat what their environment provided in greatest abundance: seafood.

The Norse settlers, like the Tasmanians, allowed a cultural dietary predisposition to impair their chances for survival. Meanwhile, the Inuit, by choosing to base their dietary decisions in environmental reality, survived.

In other words, the Inuit, nonwhite aboriginals like the Tasmanians, made the proper adaptive choices. The Norse, white Europeans, were, for all intents and purposes, inferior to the Inuit because the Norse shared the dietary predilections of the Tasmanians and did not avail themselves of the rich harvest of the sea.

In all fairness, Collapse was not published until after Taylor’s critique of Guns, Germs and Steel. Still and all, it becomes evident that Taylor’s suspicion that Diamond underpins any part of his scientific analysis with an “assumption of western cultural superiority” is quite unfounded. Diamond is, in this regard, a pragmatist. His judgments come not from any sort of cultural prejudice; rather they are founded in historically observable and quantifiable outcomes of societal behaviors.

Taylor finishes off his observations about the Tasmanians by noting, “The only sure thing is that Victorian explorers came along and shot them for sport. That doesn't mean the Victorian explorers were better in any general way, just that they were more effective in mortal combat.”

An objective analysis of this sad chapter in the history of Tasmania makes it quite clear that the Europeans were in fact “better” than the Tasmanians in a “general way.” For is it not “better,” from an evolutionary standpoint, for a species to have at its disposal the best offensive and defensive options possible?

In the struggle to eat and remain uneaten, animals are endowed with offensive and defensive attributes such as fangs, claws, poison, camouflage, great size and muscular power. Humans possess none of those physical attributes … but we make up for it in our ability to reason, craft and use tools and communicate with one another so that what is known by one may be shared with – and improved upon by - all.

The Victorian explorers were “better in [a] general way” because their culture had provided them with better means to kill and avoid being killed. These facts presume no moral superiority on the part of the Europeans; theirs was merely the superiority of advanced defense/offense options. And while it is abundantly clear that the brutal and irrational practice of hunting other human beings is far from morally enlightened, it should also be noted that similar brutal and inhumane practices exist in virtually all human societies. No culture holds a monopoly on human depravity, but some cultures are more advanced, “better” if you will, in the science of survival.

So even though the Europeans acted in a depraved fashion when they hunted aboriginals for sport, the weapons with which they conducted their inhumane activities did in fact make them “better” in a general sense (as opposed to a moral/ethical sense) than the less-developed civilizations upon which they preyed. Interestingly, weapons research and production are frequently in the vanguard of scientific progress, precisely because they most often occur as emergency responses to military/political threats. More significantly, it should be noted that improvements in weaponry do not occur in a vacuum.

Consider just one example of a technologically-advanced weapons system which resulted in the general good of society: In the 1980s, the rapid expansion of the US military’s cruise missile program led to intensified research into semiconductors and the mass production of cheaper and more efficient computer chips. The civilian sector then took those better, cheaper chips and proceeded to greatly upgrade the efficiency of information storage and transfer. History is full of similar cases of the imperatives of warfare leading to spin-off technology which enhances human survivability and quality of life.

Taylor also writes, “Diamond sees environmental adaptation and an expansion of the resource base as self-evidently good. The Maya saw the location of cities close to subterranean caverns as self-evidently good, whatever the ecological costs in our terms. The Maya behaviour of intensifying monument construction to the point where their system collapsed seems like the 'wrong' decision to us, but their behaviour seemed right to them.”

Let us take a close look at the final statement in this graph, “but their behaviour seemed right to them.” The Mayan’s subjective opinion of their ecologically disastrous practices was and is, in terms of survival outcomes, immaterial. They, like the Victorian hunting parties of Tasmania, may have thought it was “right” to act in such a destructive manner, but we, removed from those times and places, find ourselves able to assess the outcomes of those practices … and we know they were in fact “wrong.”

One might contend that Taylor’s refusal to render judgment on practices which destroyed a great civilization is a scientifically objective way of looking at things. But by the same token it might be said that dereliction of one’s intellectual duty to make such a judgment - merely because the people who destroyed their own environment thought it was “right” - is a sort of “subjectivity by proxy.”

Would Taylor defend the continued overuse of fossil fuel today, even knowing that global warming is most likely at least in part due to such human activity? Nations whose economies depend on fossil fuels are loathe to change their practices, and probably believe they are "right" in continuing to burn coal and petroleum in massive quantities. But merely believing a thing is “right” does not make it so … as the destructive practices of the Mayans and Victorian explorers amply prove.

I submit that the objective measure of the wisdom (or foolishness) of cultural practices must be based on whether or not they promote and protect human life and societal survivability. It matters little whether we, the Mayans or the Victorian explorers believe, subjectively, that we are “right.” Only when measured against the analysis of outcomes – verifiable through historical and scientific research – can the “rightness” or “wrongness” of an act be determined.

In his most famous dictum, George Santayana was certainly "right." We who think and write for a living owe it to ourselves – and to society at large - to render our most objective judgment upon humanity's past mistakes ... and hopefully thereby learn how to avoid repeating them.

* Published on the web site Edge, at

** The Web site The Third Culture at states, “Timothy Taylor teaches in the Department of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford, UK, and conducts research on the later prehistoric societies of southeastern Europe.”

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