JARED DIAMOND HAS obtained a niche for himself as the go-to anthropologist for the green left in the same way that James Lovelock held the post of Gaia-science guru for the same folks until he decided nuclear power was a good thing. Anything you want to justify a return to the prelapsarian stone age of wandering fruit and veg gatherers dressed in rabbit skins, singing songs of ancient enchantment to their liberated children and living harmoniously with Mother Nature then Diamond’s your man.
You want something to knock the smug superiority of westerners? Go to Diamond. He’ll confirm there was nothing special about people and societies in the West to explain their development of science, arts, education, technology, agriculture, medicine, philosophy, politics, human rights and just about everything else we take for granted – and he knows why.
It’s all down to geography, apparently. Without the right stuff lying around you there’s no chance you’ll invent the wheel or glass, for instance. The problem is, that kind of thing leads to ploughs and crops and terrible diseases and digging stuff out of the ground and colonialism and everything bad, so I suppose in greenie universe wheels and glass are to be condemned. A wheel of glass would therefore symbolise supreme evil.
As Robin McKie says, referring to Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, published in 1997: “The book’s message is simple but politically charged: there is nothing special or innately superior about western people. They are not the master race. They are simply geographically privileged.” There you have it, neatly packaged for the politically correct: “geographically privileged”. Aristotle, Archimedes, Plato, Einstein, Brunel, Locke, Newton, Voltaire, Faraday, Vergil – you’re nothing special, you’re just geographically privileged. Shame on you for being so lucky!
There’s a distinctly repellent element of cultural self-loathing in this attitude, mixed with a juvenile back-to-nature impulse that always has a strong whiff of fascism about it, despite its left wing credentials. Perfect green left compost, in other words.
IN HIS LATEST book, The World Until Yesterday, Diamond exhorts us to think about what we can learn from tribal cultures. His fans are pointing to better ways of dealing with children and old people. Given that they mention some rather unappealing characteristics of various tribes – strangling your mother when she’s widowed or bumping off your grandpa when he’s past his use-by date, for example, I think they may be straining for the positives.
Now that I think of it, I suppose the NHS is starting to practise a version of this.
And maybe we can learn from the Aborigines of Australia. Their ancient and venerable traditions required women accused of adultery to be stoned to death, a custom still practised by some cultures to this day. That’s a start. Not everyone has given up on these noble customs.
I haven’t read Diamond’s new book yet but I can guess that my prejudice will remain unchanged when I do. My hunch is that we can learn nothing of any use from tribal cultures. That’s based on some pretty crude but straightforward logic: we used to live like that but have found other ways of living which we’ve chosen instead, because they proved to be more comfortable, productive, healthy, generous, entertaining, pleasurable, humane and, yes, more civilised. Not perfect, but infinitely preferable to what our ancestors endured.
I don’t even want to go back to the 1970s, let alone start learning from tribes from thousands of years ago who lived in constant fear of wolves, bears, their neighbours, hunger, childbirth, measles and pneumonia and who would go to sleep at night not knowing that when they got up the next morning the heating would have come on and they’d be able to tuck in to an immense choice of fattening or non-fattening breakfast foods.
Diamond’s work is indeed fascinating and adds to our general understanding of human culture, but its political message is flawed and dishonest. The ghost of Rousseau’s noble savage stands behind it, gurning and gesticulating like a contemporary right-on comedian, blaming society for all the ills of the world. The savage was never noble. He stank, led a short life, survived against nature, not in harmony with it, and didn’t have the miracle of paracetamol. Contrary to the belief of the contemporary green statist who would banish Frosties from your table and ration the amount of electricity you can use, the comfortable banality of modern life is a sign of its unassuming superiority.