George Johnson wrote a story for the New York Times on Christmas day about a recent meeting of Anthropologists that took Jared Diamond (or more particularly his books Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse) to task.
What the scientists held in common was a suspicion that in writing his two best-selling sagas of civilization — the other is “Guns, Germs and Steel” — Dr. Diamond washed over the details that make cultures unique to assemble a grand unified theory of history.
“A big-picture man,” one participant called him. For anthropologists, who spend their lives reveling in minutiae — the specifics and contradictions of human culture — the words are not necessarily a compliment.
“Everybody knows that the beauty of Diamond is that it’s simple,” said Patricia A. McAnany, an archaeologist at Boston University who organized the meeting with her colleague Norman Yoffee of the University of Michigan. “It’s accessible intellectually without having to really turn the wattage up too much.”
In an e-mail message, he said that progress in any field depends on syntheses and individual studies. “In both chemistry and physics, the need for both approaches has been recognized for a long time,” he wrote. “One no longer finds specialists on molybdenum decrying the periodic table’s sweeping superficiality, nor advocates of the periodic table scorning mere descriptive studies of individual elements.”
For the anthropologists, the exceptions were more important than the rules. Instead of seeking overarching laws, the call was to “contextualize,” “complexify,” “relativize,” “particularize” and even “problematize,” a word that in their dialect was given an oddly positive spin. At some moments, the seminar seemed less like a scientific meeting than a session of the Modern Language Association.
These two camps, Hard scientists and soft scientists, are often at odds with one another.
In the soft sciences (sociology, psychology, cultural anthropology, political science, etc) there is a real emphasis on the particular situation, the case study. And because these are sciences that involve human behavior, these scientists are often reluctant to recognize patters that cross cultural lines, history, and place, for fear of the socio-cultural implications (or worse, the sociobiological implications).
Hard scientists (chemists, physicists, biologists, etc) haven’t any problem with broad over arching patterns, in part because there are few cultural implications in their findings in the first place (save for Evolution) to be afraid of.
I most certainly side with the hard scientists. I think the lack of objectivity, and fear of hurting someones feelings, obscures the potential for good science. But it is far too rampant in the social sciences.
That said, they have a certain point. One must be always careful not to be so enamored by the ‘big picture’ that one ceases to pay attention to the devil hiding in the details. The flip side is, of course, the tendency to lose the forest for the trees, or worse the shrubbery, or the cells that make up that shrubbery.
Classical Mechanics works quite differently than Quantum Mechanics. Neither is wrong. They just describe things that exist in different worlds. One large and mega, the other minuscule and nano. The existence of the laws of quantum mechanics does not change the laws of cosmology. The earth moves around the sun because of gravitational forces that are best described by a macro theory.
Of course, Jared Diamond’s a ‘big picture man’, and the cultural-anthropologists are not. The conflict is that simple. Darwin was once considered out of his mind for proposing ideas far more controversial, but equally grounded in data and fact. Darwin was a big picture thinker, who like Diamond, was not afraid of detail, but was willing to take a step back and see what the plethora of details ‘told him’ about patterns in history. It takes big picture thinkers to see patterns in a river of variables.
Social Scientists are on the defensive. They fear that their field of study is slowly being stolen away from them by the hard scientists. For instance, traditional Psychology is slowly being taken over by neurology, neuroscience, and other cognitive fields that are working to quantify how the mind works from a physical standpoint.
Diamond’s treatise on history, that geography plays a major role in shaping the fates of human societies would never seem weird if he’d chosen a different animal, like a wolf. We’re all rather comfortable dealing with the impact of external factors on the historic movements and spread of other species. It’s only when dealing with humans that we get cold feet. The implications scare us. “What about human choice? Free will?”
Humans ARE different than other species. We alone think about our ancestry, our cultural history, our biological make-up, our connection to the rest of the universe, and about God. But, we are still simply animals. And like all animals, we are not completely free of our environments, of our genes, nor of our history. Luck, that bastard stepchild of fate, can always, and more often than not does, intervene and play havoc with our self-determinism.
That is all Diamond is saying: That humans, too, have geography and climate and luck to thank for much of the course of their history. Humans are animals before they are anything else.