February 23, 2010

Jared Diamond: Is There Room for Mindfulness in Social Science? ~ Kelsi Coia

Recently, I was lucky enough to attend the Aspen Writer’s Foundation’s Winter Words series lecture featuring Jared Diamond. A dear friend of mine/employer/guardian angel offered me one of her extra tickets because she knows I am a geography super-fan and I have never seen Mr. Diamond speak before. If you didn’t know already, Jared Diamond is an incredibly popular physiologist-turned-ornithologist-turned-geographer who has written three very popular books filled with popularized social science: The Third Chimpanzee; Guns, Germs, and Steel; and Collapse.

I should say outright that I am not a Diamond fan. Ever since I was forced to read Collapse for a freshman intro geography class at the University of Denver (and then forced to watch the PBS rendition of Guns, Germs and Steel), I haven’t been able to think of Diamond without feeling a just a little bit nauseous. There has always been something about him that rubbed me the wrong way. And I couldn’t put my finger on it until last night.

Since the Aspen Writer’s Foundation was expecting such a large crowd of Diamond fanatics (Diamondites? Diamondheads?), the event was moved from the usual location, University of Colorado’s Given Institute, to the very beautiful Aspen Wheeler Opera House. And Diamond packed the house. The pint-sized New Englander-gone-Californian spoke to the audience much like one would expect a UCLA Physiology Geography Professor to do. He paced the stage back and forth, rattling off amusing anecdotes mixed with social theory.

Professor Diamond spoke mostly about his latest book, Collapse, released in 2005. He reviewed various collapsed and successful societies he discusses in his book, as well as what we can learn from them, and why it is important to do so. One contemporary example he gave of societal failure and success was the entire island of Hispaniola, and its two extremely different countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Although they are both located on the same island, and therefore in similar environments, the two countries are vastly different.

The Dominican Republic, he said, is doing pretty well for a Caribbean developing nation, while Haiti (and this is pre-earthquake mind you) is/has been somewhat of a cluster you-know-sited massive deforestation as one example. He asked the audience if they had looked out of their plane windows while flying to St. Maarten or Barth’s (or wherever the riches go these days) and see the literal line dividing Haiti and the Domican Republic. One side has trees and one doesn’t. And in addition to taking care of their environment/trees, the people of the Dominican Republic have experienced economic success because of their exporting of baseball players. Silly Hatians, all you need is some saplings and some Sosas and you will be on the right track to development success.

From deep inside of me, a miniature Joe Wilson stood up and yelled “YOU LIE!” As my wonderful and intelligent (and fellow elephant author/commenter) friend Rachel said, Haiti’s problems might have something to do with all IMF policies toward Haiti that have kept the country economically and socially crippled. Just maybe. Or, most likely, the Haitians just sold their souls to the devil.

Diamond later spoke about the United States’ potential for collapse. He listed environmental destruction, toxic water, and segregation of classes of people. Then he went on a rant about the rise of gated communities in L.A., and how this creates opportunity for collapse. When the elite, the wealthy “decision makers” as he calls them, are separated from the common masses, whom the decisions affect, then chaos may ensue. For almost ten minutes, Diamond carried on about the danger of gated communities’ effect on the whole of society. I couldn’t help but wonder if Professor Diamond saw the irony in speaking to people in one of the most wealthy and isolated communities in the country about the danger of wealthy, isolated (or “gated”) communities.

Was he really that witty?

Then Diamond mentioned that he lives in Beverly Hills, and I realized 1) he is not that witty and 2) he is, in fact, a hypocrite. It’s a little more than ironic that the man preaching to America to become more environmentally-minded, flies around the country (and world) to deliver his message.

For the next half-hour or so, Diamond continued talking but I couldn’t pay attention because I was so frustrated with what he said, and frankly his weirdo New Englander accented voice put me right to sleep. I came to somewhere around the question-and-answer session. Of course someone had to ask whether or not Jared Diamond, in his infinite wisdom, predicted a collapse for the United States anytime soon. We do have a lot of huge issues here that could lead to collapse- environmental destruction (domestically and abroad), toxic water, a few countries who might like to bomb the us to smithereens (just to name my personal favorite opportunities for collapse). Diamond’s response was we just need to get through the next 50 years, and by then we will have failed or solved all the problems that may lead to collapse.

Hear that elephants? By 2060 we’ll either all be dead or living the good life. Awesome.

So what was it that made me realize exactly why I don’t like Jared Diamond? And why did I decide to share with you lovely elephants?

Professor Diamond is known in the academic community as some one who continually misrepresents both historic and contemporary indigenous peoples. Example: Diamond is currently in a $10 million lawsuit with Henep Isum Madingo and Hup Daniel Wemp regarding Diamond’s article Vengeance is Ours: What can Tribal Societies Tell Us about Our Need to get Even?, published in The New Yorker. Diamond allegedly embellished details of the story regarding Mandingo and Wemp, which have since been proven false in an investigation by Rhonda Roland Shearer. Both Diamond and The New Yorker claim that Diamond has done no wrong.

Another example, from his 1999 book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond cites guns, germs and steel as the prime forces with which Cortez conquered the Aztec people with. While those may have been very important and significant factors for Cortez’s “success” (rather genocide) in Mesoamerica, Diamond does not give credit to the tens of thousands of indigenous people that helped Cortez and his men fight the Aztec people.

I had known both of these examples going into the lecture, but I still had hope for Diamond to redeem himself (because lets face it, we all make mistakes). But I was sadly disappointed. Diamond’s blatant belittling of the peoples of the entire island of Hispaniola (whether they are “successful” or not) was his third strike for me.

I want to say that I appreciate Jared Diamond for trying to get people to be more aware of societal/worldly problems, and how to prevent and/or deal with them. We, as both a national community, as well as an international global community, need to take action to deal with the messes we have created, as well as prevent new problems. This isn’t news. But it’s not something to be forgotten either. And we need all the reminding we can get.

As I reflect on my experiences with Diamond, I wonder if it is really Jared Diamond I have issue with, or if it is popularized social science in general. Maybe in the process of “popularizing” work (whether it is social science or otherwise) integrity is lost. Does “popular” mean lack of integrity? As a very passionate aspiring cultural anthropologist and geographer, I truly hope not. I believe that popular (and un-popular… er, uh, academic?) science can and should have integrity. Science should be conducted and produced mindfully. Mindfulness doesn’t end off the yoga mat, and it doesn’t end when you leave your house. It doesn’t end when you go out with your friends (a lesson I am still learning), and it doesn’t end when you go to work.

“Scientific methodology” does not take the place of “mindful” living/acting. In fact, science/scientists (especially social science/scientists) should aspire to be the most mindful it/we could be. We (social scientists) often represent people who are under represented, or not at all. We speak for people who often are not allowed to speak for themselves.**

Maybe this is the reason I don’t like Jared Diamond’s work; it isn’t mindful. Maybe this lack of mindfulness is the reason I wanted to share my experience with you elephants. And maybe I should stop caring so much about one man’s work. But I cannot help but hold the man, who is very much the public face of one of my fields of study, to a higher standard. By representing geography, Jared Diamond is representing me, and my passion. And frankly, he is not doing a good enough job.

**Note: I do NOT intend to victimize people and/or societies, which are subjects of social science. I just use this situation to exemplify the need for mindfulness in social science

Below: Jared Diamond TED Talk

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