Thursday, September 28, 2006

Destiny or Luck?

What makes one person win a prestigious award and another not, for the same work or discovery?

One of my heroes during school was anthropologist Marvin Harris. We had one of his books as a text book in first year anthropology. I liked the book so much, I read everything else he wrote. One of his basic observations was that most people decide on lifestyle based on the best returns economically.

Harris termed his approach cultural materialism. Cultural materialism seeks to explain the organizational aspects of politics and economy and the ideological and symbolic aspects of society as a result of the combination of variables relating to the basic biological needs of society.

In 2000, Jared Diamond won the Pulitzer prize for his book Guns, Germs and Steel. I really loved Diamonds book and it reminded me of many lessons I learned through studying the carreer of Marvin Harris. Guns Germs and Steel examines how one society over took other societies because of geographical resources. A common misinformation has been that European and Asian societies conquered the earth because of some racial or intellectual superiority, when it was actually specific advantages of resources due to geography. The means to farm with large domesticated pack animals, and different strengths of metal, resulting from different effects of the Ice Ages on different continents.

Twenty years before Guns Germs and Steel was published, Marvin Harris had written several books published for a non-academic readership as well as research level pieces.

Harris was asked to write a book, a summary of all his research, into a dictionary, reference sort of format. It is called Our Kind and it basically sets out to answer all the major mysteries of culture. Each chapter is a nutshell of previous large scale works. It's really fantastic. A real life "Hitchhikers Guide" to the many layers of meaning within cultures.

Near the end of this handy encyclopedia is a chapter titled "Why The First Earth Conquered The Second." You can read it here, if you are so inclined.

Harris an anthropologist and Diamond an historian, both believed their observations and conclusions could be accounted for in material scientific standards, despite traditional sciences like biology treating the newer feilds of study as intangible, even flaky.

Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?

I admire Jared Diamond as much as I do Marvin Harris.

I wonder what makes one researcher win the Pulitzer rather than another in this case?

Neither of these scholars had blind acceptance, but Harris's detractors were much more vitrolic than Diamonds.

I believe the difference in reception represented by the Pulizer Prize has no value on the stature of Harris's work over or under Diamonds. I believe the eventual acceptance and reward going to Diamond is a result of newer generations being raised already understanding that race, gender and domination are social constructs. Harris was a groundbreaking academic in a generation and history of racism and ethnocentricism. I was raised knowing that there was no such thing as race and humans had the potential and past history of living as eqalitarian societies. A scholar like Harris was an exhilarating body of work to explore. By the time Diamonds detailed history of Guns, Germs and Steel was published his audience was ready to accept revisiting misguided social constructs. Grade seven curriculums have included Guns, Germs and Steel. Although I was exposed to egalitarian cultures growing up in the pacific northwest of Canada now twelve year olds are studying what I was introduced to officially in first year college, research that was often rejected and ridiculed when first surfacing in the 1970's.

Comparing the work of Harris and Diamond is an opportunity to witness transformative history and thinking as it happened.

The comparison may be a reason for hope.


Karen said...

Damn, more books to check out. I read Diamond's book back when it first came out and loved it (naturally - I have a degree in Anthro!). I've got a couple of his other books on my wishlist on amazon, just waiting for me to win the lottery so I can get them all. Now, thanks to you (wink wink), I'm going to add a few more from this Harris person I'm sure.

Lynn said...

This is a great commentary.
You have posed a valid point.
I always wondered why you seem so on the pulse of it all. Now I get it!

Underground Baker said...

I think your right in that time itself allowed some of the ideas and arguments of Harris to work into the public (and academic)mind.
I've often wondered if maybe its just easier to think in terms of landscape and geography rather than theoretical dialogue. Guns Germs and Steel is a pretty easy read, which is great because more people will read it, (I hope). Even now I visualize his ideas rather than swim like I did with Harris. This may have more to do with the fact that when I read Harris it was making me rethink many things, where as Diamond has used geography to explain something that has already been discussed by anthropologists for some time now.
And I think he has done a great job.
Although, if I may be so bold, I find in Collapse that he kind of repeats himself after presenting the culture and idea in every chapter. I feel a little guilt for speeding over those parts. Its been awhile since I read Guns Germs and Steel, but I think he (and I)did the same thing there.

Gardenia said...

Canadian schools must be waaaayyyyyyyy ahead of U.S. Schools. I too had this stuff in college. I don't think in the U.S. our 7th graders are coming close to this kind of reading - in public schools, it seems the education is so lacking that upon graduation, a student has to spend a year in remedials to catch them up enough to enter college....

* (asterisk) said...

It's incredible to hear that Canadian schoolers are getting educated in this sort of stuff. Wow. I dread to think what state British schools are in these days. This stuff sounds fascinating, but how the hell is a guy supposed to find the time to read all the books you recommend, Candy? Fascinating post, as always.

Candy Minx said...

Karen, I knew you'd want to read these, or already had read them.

Lynn, hi how are ya? Yeah, I don't think most people "change" their ideas...and I think diamonds book award and mainstream "fame"(pbs specials) is because the past minds are simply gone, and a newer geenration grows up with new information.

Undreground Baker, What is interesting, is, I think...the excerpt I linked of Harris...only took him four pages to summarize. Whereas, Diamond took 400 pages. And yes, the nature of much academic writing, especially for popular reading is "tell them what you're gonna say, then say it, then tell them what you just said" so it always is repetitive feeling for an active reader.

Diana, OH! I never even thought about the idea that it was Canadian schools versus U.S. That is super interesting! It never occured to me that curriculum would be different. Uh, and actually, this kids I was aware of reading Diamond were in "alternative" school...I wonder if that makes a difference? I would tend to say that I don't think schools are more or less progressive in Canada or anything. I went to high school in small town, when I moved to a large city and then to college, I noticed right away, Mister Anchovy is a good example-that he knew way more about art and art history than I did and I realized then we had very different high school experiences/courses. West coast Canada tended to be extremely liberal, and sort of not too concerned with traditional study materials. Mister Anchovy seemed to know everything about art history, where I had no idea there was a thing Byzantine or Renaisance. Needless to say, I was like a complete retard in classes hahaha, but also, I was a generally terrible student!! (I just did not fit into any kind of school system)

*, Hey, you don't need to feel like you have to read all these books. I found two articles here...that so perfectly represent Diamonds thesis. I think it would only take half an hour to read it. And the Harris chapter is only 1500-2000 words I'm guessing. Even these two examples online show how tight Harris writes and how thorough and descriptive Diamond writes, but both would only take a bit of time. I'm here for you man!!!

Now one thing I can kind of say back to Canada and U.S. schools learning...Stagg gets completely overwhelmed in Canada by...tolerance. He finds it mindblowing how skin color, gender, religion...things that tend to divide people into neighbouhoods in America or class...doesn't seem evident least in Toronto.

I suggest that the idea of tolerance as an ethical mandate may also be a perfect open minded attitude to take towards learning and education.

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