Big Questions

One of my favourite popular science books is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. It is packed with fascinating details, has a great tempo, and addresses an important topic. Diamond’s aim was to answer Yali’s question: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” (Diamond, 1997, p. 14). This is a “big question”, one where the answer has social impact. I agree with Diamond that if we don’t try and answer this question we leave people to supply their own poorly informed answers. Unfortunately these answers often have a racist tinge. Diamond sought to combat this by stressing the importance of geography in the rise to power of Eurasian societies.

Push back from academics, and pseudo-academics, was illuminating. One critic said that Diamond did a good job refuting claims about European cultural or racial superiority but the book was a failure. (What do critics want from a single book? Need it tackle racism, solve world hunger while delivering belly laughs?) The criticism seemed to be that he didn’t address all possible academic disputes within anthropology and history. If I was Diamond I’d be able to sleep at night.

Of course within any book examining “the fate of human societies” there are going to be contentious bits and errors will creep in. My point is that Yali’s question is worth addressing, it is a big question. Too often academics choose to answer small, easy questions rather than address big, tricky questions. We want to avoid suggesting anything that might be wrong (or even debatable) so answer questions no one cares about. (But the answer is impeccable). 

This isn’t (necessarily) because of the type of people who go into academia. Maybe the “geography” of academia determines the outcomes. Academics sometimes face an environment that only values precision. No one is against big picture thinking but whether you are thinking big or small you had better have no errors. Any sane person therefore makes their work as small as they can to remove possible sources of error. Maybe Diamond should have drilled down into a trivial question — no one would have read his book but his academic critics would have been happier.

Read: Jared Diamond, 1997, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, W.W.Norton.