Things are getting tense between sociobiologist Jared Diamond and the campaign group Survival International over recent claims made in Diamond's new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? The Pulitzer prize-winning author is putting forth the idea that tribal peoples across the world live in a state of near-constant warfare. Survival director Stephen Corry has condemned the book, saying that it's "completely wrong — both factually and morally — and extremely dangerous" for portraying tribal societies as more violent than modern ones. Now, Diamond has tossed back a volley of his own.
Diamond is no stranger to controversy. Ever since he published Guns, Germs, and Steel he has been accused of harbouring colonial biases and overstating science's ability to study the development of human societies. This latest controversy once again threatens to divide the anthropology community, with each side making divergent claims about the nature of ancient societies.
Writing in the Guardian, Edward Helmore reports:
Survival accuses Diamond of applying studies of 39 societies, of which 10 are in his realm of direct experience in New Guinea and neighbouring islands, to advance a thesis that tribal peoples across the world live in a state of near-constant warfare.
"It's a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us," said Survival's Jonathan Mazower. "It simply isn't true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people's rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative."
In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that "tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace". He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as "primitive brutish barbarians" or as "noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes".
He added: "An occupational hazard facing authors like me, who try to steer a middle course between these two extremes, is the likelihood of being criticised from either direction."
But Survival remains adamant. "The clear thrust of his argument is that there is a natural evolutionary path along which human society progresses and we are simply further along it," said Mazower. "That's extremely dangerous, because it is the notion that they're backward and need to be 'developed'. That thinking – and not that their way of living might be just as modern as any other way of living – is the same thinking that underpins governments that persecute tribal people."
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