Sunday, December 26, 2004

Reading with Paul

Whew! What a week! Christmas has finally come and gone along with bookshelf space. I receive a total of seven books this year, primarily thanks to a new tactic I’m adopting: thumbing through the laissez faire books catalog, circling favorites and handing it off to the family. It’s an absolutely great method and it’s a lot easier than wadding through the book store.

My most anticipated book I got this year is Guns Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, a work I originally heard about at an IHS seminar in the summer. The basic premise of it is providing an ultimate explanation for why some civilizations advanced faster than others. Not merely stating that Europeans (and to some extent, East Asians) became world powers because they had guns, powerful germs to infect others and steel, Diamond proclaims why they had these things. The straightforward answer is one economists can related to: specialization. Due to ecological and geographic forces, these places developed the best agricultural infrastructure, allowing other people to devote their time to other tasks: governing, inventing, exploring, military training and manufacturing.

This is where things get weird. Scanning the praises on the back, I caught a name that made me do a double take: anti-globalizationist and famed stasist, Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich is famous for his various books on population growth—how it’s reaching a maximum—and for losing a bet with master resource economist, Julian Simon. (The bet was if the prices of various raw materials would go up or down over the course of several years—Simon correctly stated that they would decrease, representing a lessening scarcity.)

What’s the deal? A book featured in a libertarian catalog is praised by someone who is widely known as being anything but. You could argue that it’s history and thus neutral territory. There’re two things wrong with this. First, I doubt anything’s “neutral territory,” especially something as fundamental as history, especially a work that explains the underling reason for everything about our society and sets the bedrock for 13,000 years of human existence. Second, Ehrlich isn’t that famous. I can’t imagine publishers are so vying for his opinion that they would crowd out someone more renowned or connected with the topic. So why is Ehrlich quoted?

My best guess is two completely different interpretations. According to Ehrlich’s praise, “[The book’s] account of how the modern world was formed is full of lessons for our own future.” My take on Gun, Germs and Steel thus far is that specialization and private property led to greater wealth for those societies that practiced them. This difference is positive-sum in its nature; Diamond suggests that if other continents developed these things, they would be rich, too. Economics as a positive-sum interaction is not one anti-globalizationist accept so I assume that Ehrlich is thinking of the conquests of the poor by the rich. The “lessons for our own future” he sees are ones about protection while I see lessons for progress.

I don’t want to judge to quickly as I’m early still in the work, but I think Ehrlich is interpreting the book so far from its original intent, he’s missing the point. Diamond says that more people enhance societies because it allows for greater specialization and chance for invention. Ehrlich is a staunch supporter of lessening the world population. Ehrlich states the best salvation is “self-sufficiency,” when a society produces its own demands and doesn’t depend on importing. Yet Diamond cites specialization as a key to economic growth. This means societies must not produce other things, requiring them to import.

So am I silly for commenting a book I’m only 80-some-odd pages in or is Ehrlich just off his rocker? Given that friends tell me the book has a strong libertarian theme and LFB sings its praises, I have the feeling Ehrlich only pays attention to the facts that he likes and ignores the rest. This, of course, is not a new pattern.


Anonymous said...

"Second, Ehrlich isn’t that famous. I can’t imagine publishers are so vying for his opinion that they would crowd out someone more renowned or connected with the topic."

Woah, Ehrlich is quite famous, and--like Jared Diamond--a biologist (Yes, they both work in a group of interrelated fields, but biology is common to both). First, _The Population Bomb_ was a bestseller (regardless of its persuasiveness it is a work to contend with), which isn't so easy for an author who is a conservation biologist. Second, he's on faculty at Stanford, which says something important about his clout, but, by itself, does not set his fame at a high level. Third, Ehrlich has been called a modern day Thomas Malthus which says something important about his stature (and about how controversial his views may be). Fourth, Ehrlich is also a visible public activist who has worked hard to bring about birth control reform.

Publishers want to sell copies, and Ehrlich--who has that lucrative Stanford avatar and some controversial views--is a recognizable figure to spark sales. I think having him briefly comment on Diamond's book is more impressive than you give it credit.

Also, I think it's a straw man to indict Ehrlich on his dustjacket quote. It is important to say that you are making certain assumptions about Ehrlich's views, and you do say this. However, as far as I can tell your caricature of Ehrlich's view is just that: a caricature. From what information can you faithfully conclude "I have the feeling Ehrlich only pays attention to the facts that he likes and ignores the rest"? From his quote on the back or from an all-too-brief synopsis of his general views? I think that this is insufficient evidence on which to base the claim.

As an answer to your question "am I silly for commenting a book I’m only 80-some-odd pages in or is Ehrlich just off his rocker?," I would say that some of the things you say are silly but not because you are commenting on a book you're only 80 pages into. Instead the silly part is that Ehrlich's position is probably far more nuanced than given credit for. To make such an extreme claim that "Ehrlich [is] just off his rocker" certainly requires more textual support.

Of course, you could totally be right about Ehrlich's shaky interpretation of Diamond's book, but I think that we'll need more evidence to settle the matter.

David said...

Two things.

First, I know Paul is famous, but he's not as famous as, say, Bill Gates, another person quoted for the book. The point is, I can't imagine the average person on the street knowing who he is--the whole point behind using praise from famous people. Wide appeal does not apply for Ehrlich; him being called a modern day Malthus is immaterial and not just because the average person doesn't know who Malthus was, either.

Second, I know Ehrlich's arguments and read his materials. Sure, his arguments are more complex than what can be squeezed on a book jack cover, but they still keep coming up wrong (see the links I provided in the article) because he ignores basic realities about humanity and economics (is there a difference?). I'm completely in-bounds using this pattern of sloppiness to infer the depth of Ehrlich's review of the book. I wouldn't call my statement extreme at all.

Anonymous said...

First, Diamond's book isn't marketed for the everyday person on the street alone. As I said, and you didn't mention, Diamond and Ehrlich work in the same field--evolutionary and ecological biology. Hence, Ehrlich's comments have a greater relevance than, yes, even Bill Gates. The whole point isn't to market the book to the everyday person on the street but to market it also to those who know something about what Diamond and Ehrlich do. If it were the other way around, why wouldn't Oprah simply have comments on every book (It would be somewhat embarassing if Oprah actually did have a quote on the back of Diamond's book. :))? They are trying to capture more of a market than you have provided for. I guess this explains why there are quotes from a whole set of different people. I mean, seriously, what authority does Bill Gates have to comment on Diamond's work? The answer: it doesn't matter because lay people will see the name Bill Gates and think "woah, this must be something important." Are you familiar with Petty and Cacioppo's Elaboration Likelihood Model? You should check it out (you probably have), even though it is only tangentially relevant to what we're talking about here. The point, put all too briefly, is that the everyday person is not going to care about the relevance or rigor of arguments given by people involved with the subject, and, if they do not really care about the subject, will be persuaded by "big names." However, for those interested the authority and relevance of the source matters greatly. I guess I'm trying to say, in a tortuous way, that Ehrlich's work in the same field as Diamond gives a relevance that Oprah wouldn't have to capture those that are familiar with the field. Thus, those people are more likely to take interest in the text.

Also, why do you think likening Ehrlich to Malthus is immaterial to his fame? It certainly is controversial, and strikes a chord for those who are familiar with Malthus (which is more than a handful of people). What about, as I called it, that "Stanford university avatar" which also carries sway? These last two sentences aren't tied into my argument so much, but I was just wondering what you have to say about them.

I still disagree about your second point. What I think would be a more felicitous way of phrasing what you are really saying is to oppose the arguments Ehrlich makes elsewhere with the arguments Diamond gives in the book. Framing the issue this way leaves Ehrlich's reading of Guns, Germs, and Steel out, and instead opposes two ideas by competing biologists. This really is what you're doing, I guess, which is totally fine. But I do think that the inference about his reading of the text is off limits since there really isn't enough to go on. I guess you could say that you are giving a hypothetical reading of what Ehrlich might or might not think about the issues of Diamond's book. That too doesn't put words in Ehrlich's mouth, necessarily. Maybe this is what you have been doing the whole time and I've just missed it. If so, kudos. If not, then we're still at odds.

Have you read about the second bet Ehrlich tried to make with Simon? It's kind of interesting to see how Ehrlich spins the bets. Check Ehrlich's website:

Another comment, and this might not relate to you specifically, I find too often that people are not charitable enough when interpreting the arguments of others. This is intellectually shallow. Too often academics polarize an opponent's position, making it sound like their opponent is "off their rocker." I think that comments like these are, more often than not, indicative of uncharitable readings of opponents, and certainly aren't helpful. The tough question is when is one being uncharitable and when is the other person just that wrong?

How is Diamond's book going? I'm dying to read it, but I haven't had the time yet.

marissa said...

well, i'm too lazy to read all of this carefully, but I would say that Diamond is one of those guys who just doesn't really offend anyone academically. My only experience with him is in the area of anthropology, and I find it interesting that in that context he comes across as a social ecologist (not such a popular theoretical leaning anymore, went out in the 70s) or a social biologist (the more contemporary version of the former, but still despised by many a cultural anthropologist). But anthropologists seem to get along fine with the guy... Maybe the publisher was just trying to bring that aspect of Diamond out? He just has sort of generalized good ideas, not developing them to the point that people vehemently oppose him (that's my experience; I haven't read GGS, just some short articles about human adaptation to disease). Out of curiousity, who else is quoted on the jacket?

Anonymous said...

Talking heads quoted on the back of Guns, Germs, and Steel: Bill Gates, William H. McNeill (New York Review of Books), Paul Ehrlich (Stanford University), Colin Renfrew (Nature).

David said...

A) First, I think GGS is for the general audience. For one, it reads very nicely and as a Pulitzer Prize winner, I would hope so. Diamond also says he hopes the book will encourage people to be less racist (this is the reason that Africa didn't develop as fast as Eurasia, not because black people are stupid). Generally speaking, books you find at book stores are for the general public (expect for the classics, which, as Mark Twain said, are books everyone owns, but no one bothers to read).

Now I have no doubt that the publisher included Ehrlich because he's a Stanford professor, but there's lots of other professors out there. Why him? Probably to attract a particular group, as in his followers and like minded thinkers, but not for mass attention.

But lots of other people are heads of movements and this book is about the origin of all civilization so it can link to any of them. So again, why Ehrlich? Well, you bring up a good point--they are in similar fields. But if their conclusions are fundamentally different then that doesn't matter. A socialist and a libertarian are both in the field of economics, but one would never use the others' quote on their book.

I maintain that because Ehrlich is no Bill Gates, the publisher didn't inlcude his comments because he commented. And because one would think Ehrlich wouldn't agree with Diamond, he missed the point of the work and gave it praise when normally he wouldn't. But he attracts a certain demographic, so the publisher slapped on the quote. That's my theory.

B) I didn't think the Malthus link was significant because I was referring to fame in the more widespread term. If the press said so and so is the modern Malthus, the general public would say, "who?"

C) I only had time to skim the take on the bet as its New Year's Eve (9pm) and there's a neighborhood party I want to get to. But I notice that Ehrlich wanted to bet on things that were less clear and indictive of properity. Agricultural soil per person would of course go down as population increases. The point is that doesn't matter because each plot of land becomes more productive, thus creating a glut of agricultural land. The price of that lands drops (which explains why cities expand outwards, not upwards; they are surrounding by cheap land, esp amazing when you consider all those government subsidies which inflate the price). A more appropriate bet would be the price of agricultural land in ten years.

D) Your concern about civility is well recieved and noted. But I always thought of writing a place where one is unapologetic and brutally truthful. (Also, confidence is important to create a convincing argument when writing) Conversations, however, are meant to be more polite and, to be sure, if Ehrlich and I would have a discussion about this, I wouldn't be so nasty.

Anonymous said...

First, it's important to note that I never said that the book is NOT for the average person, but that it's not for the average person ALONE. That was the point I wanted to get across in the first sentence of my previous post ("First, Diamond's book isn't marketed for the everyday person on the street alone.").

Second: "But if their conclusions are fundamentally different then that doesn't matter. A socialist and a libertarian are both in the field of economics, but one would never use the others' quote on their book."

I have to say that it most certainly does matter, but there is a mediating variable: what the opposition says. A publisher would most certainly include a quote from an opposing viewpoint if the opposition praised the book they are presumably opposed to. That was a little unclear. Here's an example: The topic of abortion is as highly contested as any topic in the field of applied ethics. David Boonin, professor at Colorado-Boulder, recently released a book length defense of abortion. On the back, Donald Marquis--the most ardent proponent of the anti-abortion camp at the University of Kansas--is quoted. The two work within the same field yet have flatly opposite conclusions, much like a socialist and libertarian may. But Marquis deems Boonin's book persuasive, which is big news, and should indicate that the book is particularly noteworthy. The same could be true of GGS. Ehrlich and Diamond work within the same field and may have fundamentally opposing viewpoints. If Ehrlich likes the book's message, that's going to speak highly of Diamond's work. So I think that you're not quite right here to say that the contradictory nature of their conclusions makes their work in the same field unimportant, and what is missing is that we must consider what the opposition is saying. If an ardent socialist had high praise for The Road to Serfdom, I think you'd probably see their quote on the back cover to affirm the persuasiveness of the Hayek's work. One could argue that this is the most convincing way of communicating the cogency of a given text. I mean if all the quotes come from loyal supporters of the author's point of view, then the reader might think "yeah, well sure THEY thought it was good. They're all libertarians!" But if members of widely divergent opinions all contribute high praise then the book looks like it's winning some converts in a world where that just isn't easy, which could make the book appear to be a masterpiece.

As for Ehrlich's fame (again) in relation to the back of the book, consider the other two people who comment on the back of the book (one guy from NYRB and one from the science publication Nature). I think that you can understand that fame amongst the laity isn't the only important factor. Now, a more educated part of the demographic will realize that an editor from Nature--arguably the top scientific journal in the world--and an editor from the highly intellectual NYRB should be pretty highly regarded even if the average person is going to say "who?". As I said before, why not have Oprah comment on the back if all you want is name recognition? Since Diamond's theme is so general, certainly she could have something to say about it. You've basically got this with Bill Gates. Ehrlich contributes something more than face appeal, and I've already suggested what I think that is. We seem to be approaching agreement on this particular point.

What's funny is that, in the end, I agree with your theory as you state it, and I think that's because it's the story I've been telling the whole time! Publishers include the talking heads to spark sales, and this means capturing a multifarious market. We seem to be saying the same thing in different ways, which is a good sign that we've sufficiently covered this topic. I had a fun time discussing it though.

Last: "Your concern about civility is well recieved and noted. But I always thought of writing a place where one is unapologetic and brutally truthful. (Also, confidence is important to create a convincing argument when writing) Conversations, however, are meant to be more polite and, to be sure, if Ehrlich and I would have a discussion about this, I wouldn't be so nasty."

I am not concerned with civility but charitability. You can be as nasty as Nietzsche and I wouldn't mind--so long as your remain charitable (Nietzsche often misses the mark here.). Being charitable to opponents means interpreting their arguments in the best way possible. This doesn't mean being nice or compromising one's position or making timid claims, but arguing against the best argument you can make of the other's views. This is the only way to be "brutally truthful" since it is only when one gives the utmost consideration to another's arguments that one really sees what they are saying. Being uncharitable, which is what I warned against, means putting a softer face on the other's argument, and this is--more or less--what I was concerned about in your original posting. It is uncharitable to infer from a dustjacket quote, combined with views gleaned elsewhere, the thrust of Ehrlich's arguments about GGS. Why? Because we have absolutely no idea what Ehrlich thinks of GGS other than that horribly vague quote about Diamond providing great lessons for the future. This is why I thought your conclusion about Ehrlich's reading of GGS was misplaced, and that the appropriate conclusion pertained to a juxtaposition of Ehrlich's ideas and Diamond's ideas; NOT a comparison of Ehrlich's reading of GGS and GGS itself. When you get down to it my point is terribly modest, and this is why I wondered if maybe I just misread what you were trying to do in your original post. I've said to myself recently, "David is really just describing conflict between two competing views, and this doesn't necessarily pertain to what Ehrlich thinks about GGS as a book, but how Ehlich's arguments would stack up against the arguments from GGS." This is what I think that you were really doing, and this I find acceptable. If, however, you sought to criticize Ehrlich's reading of GGS (which really is what you write: "I have the feeling Ehrlich only pays attention to the facts that he likes and ignores the rest" certainly is about Ehrlich's reading of GGS.), then I think this is out of bounds for the reasons I've said before.

This is probably going to strike you as an unimportant or even obsessive point, but I think it's important to be clear about what exactly is going on in our writing. I think that these comments have helped clear up some confusion about what exactly you meant when you orginally posted (at least it has for me), which is a good thing. Even if you still don't agree with me on whatever issue, maybe your position is even stronger for the slings and arrows I've thrown at the original post.

I enjoy you blog, by the way. I read it a lot (and at weird hours).

David said...

Thanks, it's always nice to meet a fan. And I agree with you a lot--I think we were arguing from the same point--and I was about to leave it at that.

But then I strolled by Cafe Hayek and noticed Don put up this post (

Seems Diamond is concerned about population growth just as Ehrlich is! That only raises more questions. I'm much farther in the book now (240 pages) and must reassert my initial claim that Diamond's theory requires acknowledging people in greater concentration adapt to their environment better. More people mean more invention (I'm on the invention chapter now). So why is he concerned about population in his newest book?

Obviously, I haven't read it but if it's anything like the other Malthusian concerns I've read (and I've read a lot of them, including Ehrlich), it's that we've reached the apex of human progress. People simply can't adapt beyond this point in any fundamental way, thus we're screwed if we keep reproducing. Didn't believe it when I first heard it, still don't believe it now. But because GGS focuses on the past and that pattern and because his theories about future go well with Ehrlich (as well as other factor's we've discussed), I'm begining to see why GGS is liked by both neo-Malthusians and libertarians. Still, I have yet to encounter any distinctly Malthusians themes.