Intellectual Trespassing

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bowandarrow.jpgRecently there has been some controversy brewing across the blogosphere about Jared Diamond�s book Guns, Germs and Steel.

Many expert generalists and synthesizers (Diamond is physiologist specializing in membrane physiology of the intestine, an ornithologist the first westerner to observe the mating rituals of the golden-fronted bowerbird and wrote a book called Why is Sex Fun, and a historian all rolled into one) run into trouble with specialists who often fails to see the big picture. Of course there are legitimate criticisms of his views in Guns, Germs and Steel and his most recent book Collapse.

Even Bill Gates praises Guns, Germs and Steel:

It's the first explanation of history I've seen that gets at the key question of why Europeans and Asians, came to control most of the world, rather than Africans, Native Americans or other people.

Diamond's primary thesis is that there's no inherent superiority among any racial or ethnic groups, and that the often-tragic failure of other races to resist expansion by other peoples was largely a matter of bad luck.

What I�m amazed is how he manages to churn out these massive tomes when he doesn�t even use a computer (Bill Gates doesn�t explain this):

I do not have a computer. I do not know how to turn on a computer.

Further he explains his approach when questioned about his approach to generalist thinking:

Q: Is there a process that you go through, a way you organize your thinking, to be able to synthesize from such a broad array of fields?

A: A couple things. One is that I found that the more things you�re interested in and the more you learn, the richer the framework into which you can fit any new thing. So synthesis, if you do it at all, gets professionally easier with time. It�s no surprise that older people can do better at synthesis, because they�ve been learning their entire lives. It�s the opposite of, say, reasoning skills in mathematics. Synthesis increases with age as you learn more.

I�ll show you upstairs one of the chapters that I�m working on for my next book. It�s about the history of Viking Greenland. When I started reading about Greenland, one of the first things I wondered was: Where did their iron come from? Another thing I wondered was: Could grain grow there? So knowing about other things, there were just more questions I could ask about Viking Greenland.

As for how I actually go about working with some new area, you�ll see the piles of books and papers upstairs � I do lots of reading, I talk to people, I find out who has written
stuff in an area, and then I call them up and I ask them to recommend more things, which I then read and I come back to them with questions. Then, if possible, I go visit the sites.
I�m hoping to go visit Greenland this summer. I read the stuff, I take notes on it, I organize, I type up the notes, my secretary transcribes my dictation, and then I organize notes into topic headings, and the topic headings then get organized into different sections of the chapter.

Book Recommendation: Intellectual Trespassing As A Way of Life

Here are two good lectures from Jared Diamond; The Broadest Pattern of Human History and Ecological Collapses of Pre-industrial Societies.

3 Comments

Tyrrany of the specialists!

If I were him, my response would be that most of these subjects are not particle physics. They are accessable to anyone willing to put in some time reading. You don't need to understand partial differential equations or even the difference between a mean and a median.

The biggest problem I find when reading history is getting past the author's own bias. I just finished a book on Frederick Taylor, and the author was a friggin Communist. It was extremely difficult to get past the (wrong) conclusions that the author was constantly coming to, and get down to the facts of Taylor's life. I'd like to know how Diamond does this. Maybe just the volume of sources allows you a variety of perspectives? But with so many academic historians being full blown commies, even today, it might be very difficult to filter out that bias.

To be honest I don't like Guns, Germs... very much, and think his latest is just gibberish. The problems with Guns is not the shallowness nor the political correctness, but the fact that he doesn't explain what he claims he will explain.

The most convincing explanation why Europe become rich and the rest of the world didn't is North�s institutions. Primarily property rights, rule of law, reasonably free markets and limits on political power.

Guns doesn�t not explain why Britain, China, India and Iran that were in the same geographical landmass with all the same germs by 1850 were so different. In fact more different than India-Peru were, with both living roughly on subsistance.


His latest is simply idiotic. Just drawing unwarranted inference from outliers (marginal societies like Greenlanders), and ignoring the norm in order to give the impression societies are very vulnerable to environmental disasters, which they historically simply have not been. That he is just trying to make a political point for our time is quite obvious. The problem is his point (environmental alarmism) is wrong, unscientific and goes against the improvements in environment we have seen.

I believe that Diamond's book is a rip off of Willam McNeill's "Plagues and Peoples" which was published back in 1977. Here is a synopsis of the book from Powells.com:

Plagues and Peoples is historian William McNeill's classic and radical interpretation of world history as seen through the extraordinary impact � political, demographic, ecological, and psychological � that disease has had on human history. From the conquest of Mexico by smallpox as much as by the Spanish, to the bubonic plague in China, to the typhoid epidemic in Europe, the history of disease is the history of humankind. Today, with the proliferation of AIDS since the early 1980s, another chapter has been added to this chronicle, and McNeill explores this frightening phenomenon in a new introduction.

Sounds familiar to me....

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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on August 8, 2005 7:28 PM.

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