Jared Diamond’s Creative (Non)Fiction and Nostalgic Anthropology
May 5, 2009 11 Comments
Long ago and far far away, in a high school anthropology class, I read a few monographs on some of the few remaining “primitive” cultures: the !Kung, the Tiwi, the Yanomamo, and the BaMbuti pygmies. The latter two books–one by Napoleon Chagnon, the other by Colin Turnbull–were quite thrilling reads. John J. Miller writes that the former is “widely considered the best ethnography ever written.” (A claim I’ll anecdotally challenge by sharing with you that, of the four anthropology graduate students I know at fairly prestigious institutions, not one has heard of any of these great founders—the field seems a bit embarrassed by its baby steps.)
Less oblique than the dry structuralist stuff of Claude Levi-Strauss, both Yanomamo: The Fierce People and The Forest People were elaborate masterpieces of what we would now call creative non-fiction: often as autobiographical as academic, and grappling self-consciously but inconclusively with the philosophical problem of a human studying humans.
In his article on the controversy that plagued Chagnon, Miller excerpts the following famous passage, illustrative of Chagnon’s sometimes sensationalistic stuff:
I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark- green slime dripped or hung from their noses.
Chagnon depicts their drug use, their violence and their kinship structures. Much of the book, however, deals with the challenges of gathering this information. They lie to him interviews. They create entire false systems on the spot. They approach his investigative process in a most un-utopian way, offering information and misinformation in exchange for machetes or other goods, with ornate agendas that frequently outstrip and outcalculate our own rather blunt (and capitalistic) motivational bludgeons. There’s almost always a game, and it becomes Chagnon’s responsibility to locate it, define it and in some sense “purify” the data so as to give us an accurate account.
Of course, he doesn’t. He includes an account of these challenges, which compounds the anxiety of the whole problematic project. The reader sits uneasily with Chagnon’s supposed success, repressing for the moment the possibility that he didn’t in fact see through many of the lies, that his conclusions might not be sound. The monograph acknowledges the flaws of its methodology while implicitly assuming the author’s eventual omniscience. See how hard it was to get here, it says, but trust me, NOW WE KNOW.
Turnbull’s monograph on the BaMbuti pygmies is a more pleasant read, largely because both he and the pygmies come across as more pleasant people. The egalitarian tug-o-war, the playful (if dangerous) elephant-hunting, the hilarious and short-lived offers of work to the self-serious Bantu farmers (who are locked in a Sisyphean war with the encroaching jungle and hire the pygmies to help). The BaMbuti live in glorious symbiosis with the jungle. They need little, they work little. Their lives are filled with pleasance. At one point Turnbull is sent a young woman, with whom he awkwardly and innocently spends the night. Turnbull derided even the pretence of “neutral” anthropology. He blatantly idealized the BaMbuti and would later judge the Ik just as strongly, only in the opposite direction.
Both the Fierce Yanomamo (or Yanomamee, as they’re sometimes called these days) and the Elvish Pygmies are the predictable outgrowth of the kind of fieldwork propounded by Bronislaw Malinowski, who set the tone for twentieth-century anthropology with his emphasis on fieldwork, and particularly on “participant-observation,” a method in which the anthropologist was charged to dutifully observe, note and participate in all the “imponderabilia of everyday life.”
I want to read Malinowski, because it seems to me that what he really equipped the twentieth-century anthropologist to do was WRITE and psychoanalyze a culture. That is, he’s positing some sort of telos behind the everyday—some sort of revelation that’ll ensue if we just pay enough attention and correctly interpret the things we note down. It’s precisely what you and I try to do on this little blog.
It’s a problematic approach for anthropology as a field and there have been takedowns aplenty: Chagnon was brutally and inaccurately walloped by Patrick Tierney in his book Darkness in El Dorado, and Margaret Mead’s work was the subject of a major attack by Derek Freeman.
Now there’s a new scandal: the New Yorker’s Annals of Anthropology, for which Jared Diamond wrote an article which Rhonda Shearer at StinkyJournalism.org has decimated. Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, a physiologist by training, stands accused of essentially making up his now infamous April 20, 2008 New Yorker article on tribes in Papua New Guinea.
The article itself has been taken offline, so I can’t read it, but descriptions of it, and the controversies surrounding it, are here and Shearer’s full expose appears here. It’ll be supplemented shortly in a 40,000-word article called Real Tribes / Fake History: Errors, Failures of Method and the Consequences for Indigenous People in Papua New Guinea.
Diamond seems to have operated under an early twentieth-century understanding of access—the kind that may in fact have benefitted Chagnon, since he was one of the first to find, let alone study, the Yanomamo. Diamond’s process seems to have been as follows: talk to a chauffeur, hear some interesting stories, make a mental note that they’re good and worth revisiting, come back a few years later, backdate your notes, thoroughly mix up the information you received, brush up your “quotes” so they sound more complex and articulate, make some up if you need ’em, and manipulate the figures involved so as to create the most dramatic story possible. Include a paralysis and a cathartic handshake, even though the protagonists of your story have never (in fact) met.
It’s unconscionable. It’s also, in many respects, what we writers of nonfiction do daily.
Here is a photograph of one of the two subjects Diamond chose for his article (via StinkyJournalism):
Here is the other:
It’s easy to see how Diamond might’ve thought this would be an easy story to (I’m feeling charitable) embellish. He falsified Wemp’s place of work and really, how likely was it that Stinky Journalism—or anyone—would send three researchers out to investigate and verify the details of this story?
I like these visuals because they illustrate the real distance between technologies: Isum may not have shoes, but the internet is everywhere. Isum is clearly not (as Diamond claimed) paralyzed by an arrow that hit him as the result of a revenge attack spearheaded by Wemp. Wemp has not taken pleasure in Isum’s disability, nor has he apologized to him. According to Shearer, the two archenemies of Diamond’s account had never even met.
The assumption was probably that this published story would never get back to its origins. Little did Diamond know that a member of the Handa tribe, Mako John Kuwimb, a lawyer in Papua New Guinea getting his PhD in law, wrote a 26-page analysis of Diamond’s article.
Graduate school, like the internet, is everywhere. And look at the terrible things that can happen. On the damage Diamond caused, Shearer writes that
The untruths in The New Yorker article by Dr. Jared Diamond are already poisoning the future of indigenous peoples. Mako John Kuwimb, Handa clansman must publish a peer-reviewed paper before being able to finalize his PhD degree after four years of study. The referee notes for Kuwimb cites Diamond’s article as evidence of violence of Handa in SH PNG [Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea]. The anonymous reviewer suggests that Kuwimb is somehow not honest about his area’s violence (” the actual circumstances of Papua New Guinea today” pg.3 ) and uses Diamond’s article to support this assertion. He/she writes: “The author comes from Handa village (the subject of an essay by Jared Diamond in the New Yorker, 21 April 2008), not far from the production facilities in the oil fields of Southern Highlands Province in Papua New Guinea (not discussed).” (pg.4) The key words are “not discussed.”
As someone who once tried to write this kind of thing, I was chastened by an encounter with a sun-beaten kerchiefed Lao itinerant saleswoman who sold me a pair of earrings she’d made out of tin. She lived somewhere on the outskirts of Xam Neua, which barely has inskirts, Xam Neua where the public outhouse sits over the river but the houses have satellite dishes on the roofs. Turned out she had a sister in Michigan.
ETA: Thanks to the commenters, I can add that the stakes are high: Isum and Wemp are suing for $10 million dollars. Savage Minds is publishing a series of essays (along with Stinky Journalism) exploring the ethics of the situation, the accuracy of Shearer’s report, and the extent to which what Diamond did can or cannot properly be called anthropology.
(See CF’s response here.)