Scott misses the point of Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday

Does James Scott have something personal against Jared Diamond? That is unfortunately the question one is left with after reading Scott’s review of Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday. Scott acknowledges that the question of whether there is something to be learnt from traditional societies is reasonable, however he resents Diamond’s answers.

First, he thinks the lessons to be learnt are unexciting:

But what a disappointment it is, after nearly five hundred pages of anecdotes, assertions, snippets of scientific studies, observations, detours into the evolution of religion, reports of near-death experiences – Diamond can be a gripping storyteller – to hear the lessons he has distilled for us. We should learn more languages; we should practise more intimate and permissive child-rearing; we should spend more time socialising and talking face to face; we should utilise the wisdom and knowledge of our elders; we should learn to assess the dangers in our environment more realistically.

But what what kind of magic bullets was Scott expecting?

Second, he mischaracterizes Diamond as maintaining

the indefensible premise that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are survivals, museum exhibits of the way life was lived for the entirety of human history ‘until yesterday’ – preserved in amber for our examination.

Of course Diamond believes no such thing, but in the absence of much hard evidence, contemporary traditional societies is what we have. Maybe Diamond exaggerates what can be learnt, but Scott does not make this nuanced criticism. And even if he had, that would partly have been missing Diamond’s purpose, which specifically is to see the world of traditional peoples as being full of small experiments that we might learn from, not to show exactly how people lived hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Scott tops it by ending the review with asking Diamond to “shut up”. All this is unfortunate, since what is valuable in his review disappears. I too thinks it strange that Diamond does not discuss large-scale wars or other dangers of modern states. There are problematic aspects of the development of states. Scott claims that slave-holding was also an essential part of early states.

To conclude, Diamond’s point, which Scott apparently does not see, is to see what we can learn from traditional societies. His sample size is limited, but he does a great job with what he has.

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