Thursday, 31 January 2013

Stephen Corry on Diamond

This is a short reply to Stephen Corry's article on Diamond's new book.  Corry claimed that tribal societies - the sort his organisation, Survival International, was ostensibly founded to protect - were/are about as peaceful as modern democratic states, or perhaps even more peaceful than them.  This is not the truth, and Corry's argument amounted to little more than the moralistic fallacy ('it would be bad if that were true, ergo it isn't').

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Why Europe? II

I said in my previous post that Europe in 800 CE was not a 'backwater', and justified it by saying that Europe was literate and urban with trade links to the rest of Eurasia that were non-trivial.  At the same time, it is clear that Europe was quite poor at that time, especially in comparison to the Abbasid caliphate or China (both of which had undergone considerable strife in the preceding century, it should be pointed out).  But the point isn't to understand how Europe became wealthy - the answer to that question is reasonably obvious (hint: it involves global conquest).  The point is to answer the question of how Europe achieved the means to become wealthy (ie, the global conquest part).  Europe's success in conquering the world didn't require prior wealth - certainly no more than any other conquest did - and I think it is still eminently reasonable to see Europe's later dominance as having some precedents in 'dark age' Europe.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Why Europe?

The Atlantic Ocean is quite small.  It isn't anything like the size of the Pacific.  The North Atlantic, in particular, is a relatively short stretch.  To a small, fast vessel capable sailing into the wind, the Atlantic doesn't present much of a problem.

Saturday, 26 January 2013


Here's something amazing: this script originated in Egypt over five thousand years ago.  This writing system, this way of recording information so that you and others can benefit from it, is the direct ancestor of the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

New issue of the Bijdragen

The new Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde is out.  If you're interested in Timor, like I am, then you may like the piece on water symbolism in Tetun-speaking Koba Lima, on the Indonesia-Timor Leste border (south coast).  There's also a new article by Roxana Waterson, whose work is generally very good (see her The Living House: An Anthropology of Architecture in South-East Asia for a readable and beautiful survey of houses and social structure in the Malay archipelago).  Honestly, the other submissions failed to set my world alight, but I don't really mind - this is a free journal, and while I do have JSTOR access, I'm still appreciative when an organisation decides to spend its money on opening up its content to the world, even when it is about a subject as far from public interest as the ethnology of southeast Asia.

If nothing catches your eye there, don't forget to search the archives!  Some great old articles, including the earliest accounts of the Kutai inscriptions in English.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Guns, Germs, and Steel (again)

I've been reading a few of the articles anthropologists have written on Guns, Germs, and Steel recently, and I'm unimpressed by most of them.  Almost all of them repeat the common straw man errors and blatant misrepresentations that have caused the book to be seen as foreign to anthropology rather than important to it.  Jason Antrosio, for instance, repeats the tired trope about how being given technologies, like steel weapons or naval vessels, doesn't require turning them on other human beings.  This is obviously true, but entirely trivial, and Antrosio takes it to a ridiculous extreme.  Take a look at this statement:

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Freedom and Non-State Societies - 'Savage Minds'

I've decided to comment on another Savage Minds post, this time by Alex Golub (aka Rex).  Rex is reading through Diamond's book and blogging about it piece-by-piece.  In his latest post, I was struck by this comment: 
Let’s face it, people living in a world without the state, bureaucracy, police, and complex networks of material culture allied with these forces (fences, locks, concrete barriers) lived in a world of much greater freedom than those of us who have passports today. If you wanted to go somewhere, you went there.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A reply to a comment on Savage Minds

 This post is just an extended comment to Clare Sammells, an anthropologist who posted on the blog Savage Minds about Jared Diamond and his work.  The original comment can be found at that link.

European Technology's Prehistoric Roots

This is a follow-up post to the earlier one regarding a comment made on the anthropology group blog, Savage Minds.  Here, I'm trying to explain, in detail, why the distaste at Diamond is so misguided.

The end conclusion seems to be, yes, people in PNG (or wherever) are our equals, and if only they had wheat/horses/small pox instead of potatoes/llamas/syphilis, they’d be running the world economy now instead of us.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Preliminary thoughts - The World Until Yesterday

The big buzz in popular anthropology at the moment is Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday.  Diamond is a Marmite sort of guy; I happen to like his approach a lot, but some people absolutely hate it.*  This hatred is probably partly due to jealousy - Diamond has no formal qualifications in anthropology, and yet he's successful as a purveyor of insights about non-industrial humans.  A lot of anthropologists hate him for that, and they shouldn't, because it is certainly possible to be good at something without having any formal training in it (duh), especially something like anthropology, which contains hardly any technical knowledge these days.  Some of the hatred is due to legitimate flaws in his approach.  Certainly, Diamond's endorsement of the farming/language dispersal hypothesis is problematic, because it doesn't seem to be based on sound linguistic reasoning (or archaeological reasoning, for that matter).  Languages spread for a bunch of reasons, as far as I can tell, only one of which is down to population growth allowed for by agriculture and sedentism or the power of new cultigens.  Diamond's views can be a teensy bit simplistic.  They usually aren't, but they can be.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

'The People of Alor' and Anthropology

I've been filling up the Kindle with books and articles, and managed to find - for free! - the classic work, The People of Alor (1944), by the American anthropologist Cora DuBois.  DuBois was one of those early twentieth-century American anthropologists fascinated by personality and the effect of culture and experience on the psychological welfare of the individual - quite a noble project in its aims, of course, but not necessarily framed in the most politically-correct way.  She decided to go to Alor, an island north of Timor, to study what she thought were the psychological pathologies of the Malayan peoples, although she did realise, in the course of fieldwork, that Alorese people are not so culturally similar to people in the western side of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago.  (In fact, she ended up writing a bit on Abui, a non-Malayo-Polynesian language of Alor.)

Monday, 7 January 2013

Social Facts, and a little about Searle's theory of them

See my earlier posts here and here.

Explanation in social science has to be a) reductionist in principle and b) holist in practice.  This is because social facts and other social phenomena reduce to human actions and mental states, but reducing them to this for explanatory purposes would require knowing each and every action and plausibly-ascribed thought that had a causal role in producing the social phenomenon, and this is probably impossible.  Likewise, the properties of a dodo entirely reduce to the atoms that compose it, but knowing precisely how they all inter-relate in producing the actions of a single dodo, let alone the species, is impossible.  (Dodos are extinct, after all, so we can't reconstruct very much beyond generalities!)  In social science as in biology, we can and should accept the view that all sociological phenomena reduce to human thoughts and actions while using entities for explanatory purposes that we do not necessarily have to explain in terms of those individual thoughts and actions.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Holism (again)

In my last substantive post, I outlined the difference between reductionism and holism, and showed how anthropologists tend to get it wrong in using these terms to outline theoretical differences (especially with regard to complexity and explanation).  But there is another way in which anthropologists, and other social scientists, use the word 'holistic'.  It isn't to do directly with complexity, or with the tradition, from Herbert Spencer on, of treating societies as wholes that amount to more than the sum of their parts (the classic holist premise, embodied primarily in the sociology of Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown).  This other use isn't holism in its classic sense, and isn't really an ontological term at all.  Instead, these anthropologists are using 'holism' to describe an approach that attempts to integrate data from several streams.  So we might say 'a holistic approach to the peopling of the Pacific' (see Patrick Kirch (2010) 'Peopling of the Pacific: a holistic anthropological perspective', Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 131-148), or 'holistic anthropology' as a generally-applicable phrase (see David Parkin's and Stanley Ulijaszek's book of this title, 2007, Oxford: Berghahn).

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Upcoming posts

I was given a Kindle Fire for Christmas along with several books, so I'm going to spend the next few weeks reviewing some of them.  These include R. A. Donkin's Between East and West, about the Moluccan spice trade, and the trade in sandalwood (which actually comes from Timor, not Maluku) before European domination (see Gerrit Knaap's review here); Ted Nield's Supercontinent, a pop-sci book about the formation of the continents of the planet earth; Flannery and Marcus's The Origins of Inequality, a brilliant popular account of the development of inequality in human societies (I'm only about 20% through it, but it's great stuff thus far); Champa and the Archaeology of Mỹ Sơn (Vietnam) by a collection of authors, about, well, Champa and the archaeology of Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam's premier archaeological site; Brotherhood of Kings, by the historian Amanda Podany, about diplomacy in Egypt and the ancient Near East; and Ian Tattersall's The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE, part of OUP's line of works on the history of the world (a good place to start for world history, although quite uneven in terms of quality).  I've also started After the Ice, Steven Mithen's classic on human history between 20,000 and 5,000 BCE, but since that's so well-known and well-reviewed elsewhere, I won't be saying much about it, except that it's a really great read.

Stay tuned for reviews of these books and a few other bits and bobs.  Happy New Year!