Fair Criticism or Hit Piece?

By , August 2, 2012 1:19 pm

In Wednesday’s New York Times, Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, takes Governor Romney to task for misrepresenting the thesis of his book in the Governor’s speech in Israel. He goes so far as to “doubt whether Mr. Romney read” his book. In my view, Diamond’s NYT op-ed is an uncharitable hit piece masquerading as indignant criticism. That’s not to say that Romney was completely accurate in his discussion of Diamond’s book. It is to say that Romney got the thesis–as stated by Diamond in the NYT–essentially right; that his mention of iron ore, though a bit off base, captured the essence of what Diamond said about iron in his book; and that judging by Romney’s discussion of Diamond’s book in his own book, No Apology, Romney has read Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Before we begin, let’s remember the context of Romney’s speech. He was speaking at a fund-raiser in Israel. He spoke about a variety of issues for around 20 minutes. I’ve not been able to find a copy of the speech–if one exists–but judging by something he said, I’d guess the speech was an off-the-cuff recitation of his stump speech, tailored to his audience (more below). What it was not was a book review of Diamond’s book. What it was not was a point-by-point discussion of Diamond’s thesis. And that’s important.

Here’s the relevant part of Romney’s speech, as quoted by Diamond:

[Diamond] basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth. (emphasis mine)

Note, the words “and so forth.” That’s the little throwaway that tells me Romney was speaking off the cuff and without notes. Note also that he summarizes Diamond’s book in about 30 words–hardly a full discussion.

According to Garance Franke-Ruta at the Atlantic, Romney goes on to say,

And you look at Israel and you say you have a hard time suggesting that all of the natural resources on the land could account for all the accomplishment of the people here. And likewise other nations that are next door to each other have very similar, in some cases, geographic elements.

That’s it. As far as I can tell, that’s all that Romney said that relates to Diamond’s book other than the next paragraph where Romney mentions David Landes’s Wealth and Poverty of Nations, which I’m not going to discuss here because my interest is in Diamond’s criticism.

Now, here’s how Diamond characterizes his own book:

My focus was mostly on biological features, like plant and animal species, and among physical characteristics, the ones I mentioned were continents’ sizes and shapes and relative isolation. I said nothing about iron ore, which is so widespread that its distribution has had little effect on the different successes of different peoples. (emphasis mine)

In fact, he did say something about iron ore, on page 246, where he writes,

[Ancient peoples] gradually learned . . . to work available pure soft metals such as copper and gold, then to extract metals from ores, and finally to work hard metals such as bronze and iron. (emphasis mine)

and on page 259, where he continues,

One reason why technology tends to catalyze itself is that advances depend upon previous mastery of simpler problems. For example, Stone Age farmers did not proceed directly to extracting and working iron, which requires high-temperature furnaces. Instead, iron ore metallurgy grew out of thousands of years of human experience with natural outcrops of pure metals soft enough to be hammered into shape without heat (copper and gold). It also grew out of thousands of years of development of simple furnaces to make pottery, and then to extract copper ores and work copper alloys (bronzes) that do not require as high temperatures as does iron. In both the Fertile Crescent and China, iron objects became common only after about 2,000 years of experience of bronze metallurgy. New World societies had just begun making bronze artifacts and had not yet started making iron ones at the time when the arrival of Europeans truncated the New World’s independent trajectory. (emphasis mine)

Diamond goes on to say that what Romney said was not new because he apparently got it wrong in his book No Apology as well. Here’s the relevant passage from that book, again according to Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic:

In his best-selling book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond notes that long ago, the availability of minerals like iron ore meant that some nations could fashion weapons and conquer their neighbors while others without those minerals could not. The complex geography of germs and disease could cripple the economy of one nation while opening new possibilities for another. A nation’s rivers, mountains, and deserts dramtically shaped the transportation network essential for trade and economic development. For scholars like Diamond and many others, the relative differences between nations and people are largely the result of these kinds of inherent natural features. To a degree, there is truth in that perspective, but it simply doesn’t fully account for the great differences between nations and civilizations.

Diamond is right that in both in his speech and in his book, Romney does imply that iron ore was unevenly distributed around the world, when in fact what was not widespread was the ability to turn iron ore into steel. A different disparity, but a disparity nonetheless, and apparently an important one, given that Diamond points out in his book that the Europeans “truncated the New World’s independent trajectory.” Why? Because “New World societies had . . . not yet started making iron [artifacts]” when the Europeans arrived. Isn’t that essentially the point Romney was making in No Apology, that some had iron weapons when others did not? The only difference is Diamond attributed the relative circumstances to metallurgy; Romney mistakenly attributed them to the uneven distribution of iron ore.

Furthermore, Romney–especially in his book–briefly covers the same ground Diamond does in his NYT summary of his book’s focus. As someone who has read neither Romney’s speech nor Diamond’s book in their entirety, I ask anybody to explain to me how Romney’s brief discussion of Diamond’s book is so far off base as to warrant an op-ed response in the New York Times. Then tell me if you think Romney has read Diamond’s book.

UPDATE: Given that Diamond forgot that he did discuss iron ore in his book, isn’t it only fair to give Romney some slack for forgetting that the it was metallurgy that was not widely distributed across the earth rather than iron ore?

Leave a Reply

Panorama Theme by Themocracy