Friday, 10 August 2012


         I came across a comment recently, by Mr.Kumaarasami Perumal, on my blog, saying that my article on foreign vegetables(What would make Gandhi's salad bowl?) is inspired by Jared Diamond and talks only in geological terms and is least concerned in political issues. I have come across many criticisms with similar views on Jared Diamond's theory and addressing it as simplistic and inadequate to explain what he intends to.

         To begin with, the article takes nothing from Jared Diamond’s book but the fact that Native American species like potato and tomato are dominating other vegetable species of the world, which is indispensable. I further dedicated two paragraphs paraphrasing the reason for the fact getting mentioned on the book just because my hesitation to leave it enigmatic and of course, to give an introduction to the book. The article stands on its own, completely intact, without these paragraphs for it is a Gandhian one. It argues against exotic vegetable dominating over indigenous vegetables. Jared Diamond’s way of looking at it would be exploring the scientific reason behind domination without commenting on its economic or social outcomes.

            The article does try to find out the social attitude behind the preference but it is purely statistical. And I think any scientific hypothesis should not consider sociopolitical barriers more than their actual relevance. Trying to reach a compromise between science and existing political issues would get nowhere. Imagine compromising conservation with political views of majority. Gandhi’s proposal of indigenous self-sustainability, far-fetched as it is, cannot be attained by taking stand point anywhere near being moderate. A scientific article which is compromising on itself, of its content, has no value politically either, instead optimum must be reached outside article’s hypothesis, with the practicality.Considering social issues such as fate of exotic vegetable cultivating farmer in my article is, I think,unnecessary. Gandhian way of life is deeply political and has a solid economic vision, one would say, that an article based on such views can hardly be considered apolitical.There is a common miss notion that only issues of minority are to be considered politically significant, health and economic issues discussed in my article are aimed at majority, though a scientific article need not be.

               Now, coming to the criticisms on Jared Diamond, firstly, it is not a simple idea to explain fates of human societies by geographical factors,but a profound one. Any illusion of it being simple is because of its seemingly obvious nature. He doesn’t try to ‘explain everything’ but the anthropology involved in deciding fates of human societies. He does not consider role of social or cultural attitudes in intercultural encounters merely because it is not what he is interested in. His field of interest is how some societies gained the power to exercise their cultural attitudes or rather prejudice and others couldn’t. For example he does not elaborate the role of religion played in the European and Native American interaction but never fails to mention it. 

          In fact, a book that I read recently, ‘1491’ by Charles C. Mann, claims that Native Americans within short exposure adapted to tackle most of the threats posed by Europeans and they could only have been exterminated by deliberate spreading of epidemic disease, the small pox. But this speculation, nevertheless, rests on the fact that lack of exposure, and therefore resistance, to the disease is because Native Americans had no large mammal species that can be domesticated except llama(which is only semi domesticable) and therefore no animal-human interaction possible to spawn new breeds of disease, as Jared Diamond mentions in his book. So it finally comes down to geography again.

         Jared Diamond’s theory stems from the assertion that human beings of all races or societies are equal in their mental, if not physical, abilities and morality. This assertion, previously, apart from being politically correct, did not answer the dominance of one society over the other, both in the past and present. It is not reasonable postponing intercultural encounters and its aftermaths as inexplicable in terms of science. This is where Jared Diamond’s contributions gain significance as he brought geography as an important scientific tool to look into fates of human societies.

               This is a strong anti racial message emphasizing on the fact that no human society is incompetent. He, in fact goes off the balance to prove that, one can sense that from the way he stresses upon feats of certain communities far beyond the potentials of their contemporary human societies like maize domestication by Native Americans which is considered man’s first feat in genetic engineering and canoe building of population what would become Aborigines dating back to 42000 BP. Both these communities are almost exterminated due to intercultural encounters.


              I above mentioned that his theory is based on the assertion that all human beings are equal in their mental ability and morality. This further raises the question of ‘why does cultural attitudes differ among different societies?Various factors play a role on them; geography being one of them, I think they will be further examined in future. I had a question after reading the book, that why sociocultural attitudes sometimes supersede geographical endowment? I Thank author Jeyamohan for raising that question, on a conversation we had, about the rise of VijayaNagara Empire established by Nayak community who were basically herders taking over a well-established complex society of south Tamilnadu . I thought of Mongols as Nayak’s curious parallels, both were herders, both mastered horses (geographical reasons again). But giving it a thought, Jared Diamond does not falter here either, herder communities though cannot produce enough surpluses to afford society as complex as an agricultural society, can still support artisans like blacksmiths for necessary technologies of war. And it can be observed all over the world that a society which had just attained such a threshold complexity is far more aggressive than those that are further more complex. They are armed and have nothing to lose. It is much like an oppressed class given access to education.

            And finally, there is a growing appeal among non-scientific communities, for views, particularly when proposed by a person affiliated with science, which criticize scientific theories that, they are generalizing and lack sociocultural or political insights. It is inherent nature of any scientific theory to generalize, which is the only mean to derive a concept. It is the authenticity and objectivity that matters. A scientific theory need not consider sociocultural or political issues more than their actual relevance, as I have mentioned earlier, for it is the nature of science to bring about a change in culture and politics not vice versa. A good scientific theory gains a political force on its own, I am reminded of Marxism at this instance. By mentioning‘actual relevance’ earlier, I mean their(cultural and political attitudes) scientific value, the reason for them to have evolved. History has taught us that scientific theories those shook the world in the past were nothing less than radical, so dubbing a theory as being radical, by itself cannot be a criticism. 

         Of course scientific viewpoints can be criticized; one of my personal favorites James Lovelock has laid some of the strongest criticisms against natural sciences. But he does that, as Fritjof Capra says, resting on more holistic, unconventional disciplines of science like microbiology and ecology. But scientific theories should never be confronted or criticized politically, unless they are politically inclined and manipulative.

         All great scientific theories proposed on the past were simplistic on the surface, and were vehemently opposed for the nature, all their complexities arise when they are taken further to check for their pertinence and I think Jared Diamond's one is no exception. 




  1. Your arguments and language of expression is really good. You have the skill to narrate things brilliantly. But I want to clear myself. Western academic world is very vibrant one. It is funded by their corporate sector in a grand manner to collect and process various data from all over the world for their trade purpose.This large quantity of data inevitably produces theories.

    You can observe this, at every five year period we can see a new theory emerging and dominating the entire thought in every field of knowledge and people are carried away by it. In the past few years we read a lot about thinkers like Claude levi strauss, Theodor W. Adorno, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida …Their theories were discussed with great enthusiasm for few years allover the world and suddenly they lost their importance. New theories arrived and replaced them.

    So ultimately what is their result? They occupied our intellectual arena and exhausted our mental energy. We have our own peculiar cultural and social issues and we can think about them in our own way. We can create our own theories and find our own way out. This occasional western wave of ideas directly influences our brilliant young people and makes them just followers. This is what I mentioned in my brief note.

    This is what t referred as apolitical approach. Just following a foreign thought and looking the world through it. To create a own idea and discuss it we need our own political ideology. Off course Jared Diamond has his own political ideology, we can call it as a simple western liberal thought. But following him definitely lacks political vision.

    Anyway a good discussion. Thank you

  2. dear aji,
    the arguments which you have listed on your side is coherent. since i have no knowledge about mr.diamond's work, i cannot comment on that arena.
    but , i do see that you took a lead from diamond's ideas and spun your own yarn. hence i dont see this as a blind following of a foreign thought process and viewing everything with that obsession.
    also, i have to agree with one point which mr.kumar has stated in his comment, "Their theories were discussed with great enthusiasm for few years allover the world and suddenly they lost their importance. New theories arrived and replaced them."

    but anyway thats the way of science, ..
    thank you

  3. Dear Aji,
    I am proud and happy that you are working hard. These arguments about science, social perspectives and interpretations are quite stimulating. However, I must say that there is inter-disciplinary drive in all the arguments. For instance, If you want to say that science has no space for social concerns, such a science is a mere observation(neutral as you put it) There may be hidden drives and obvious as well. When we are enjoying a cosmic view through science, we constantly look for what we can work upon(Term it anthropocentric). There is an interesting genius in Diamond. However, we can go beyond, both as science lovers and people with social concerns. This large spectrum presented by Diamond is also a content to be discussed. In the whole book, I enjoyed two elements. One is about domestication of plants and animals ( though a debatable chronology) I also liked the part where he is talking about the effective use of natural resources by the hunters and gatherers. A political interpretation of science is must these days. For instance, the first lesson of Biology starts with the theory of genesis. Whose belief is it? Whose science is it? The misconception of religion also has a political tone. Historically speaking, we have lot of scope to argue over science with its methodology and approach. Objectivity and skepticism are secondary for a social thinker, isn't it? Engage in a dialogue with all kinds of sciences. It will be good.

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