January 29, 2005


How the World Ends: a review of COLLAPSE: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. By Jared Diamond. (Gregg Easterbrook, NY Times Book Review)

EIGHT years ago Jared Diamond realized what is, for authors, increasingly a fantasy -- he published a serious, challenging and complex book that became a huge commercial success. ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' won a Pulitzer Prize, then sold a million copies, astonishing for a 480-page volume of archeological speculation on how the world reached its present ordering of nations. Now he has written a sequel, ''Collapse,'' which asks whether present nations can last. Taken together, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' and ''Collapse'' represent one of the most significant projects embarked upon by any intellectual of our generation. They are magnificent books: extraordinary in erudition and originality, compelling in their ability to relate the digitized pandemonium of the present to the hushed agrarian sunrises of the far past. I read both thinking what literature might be like if every author knew so much, wrote so clearly and formed arguments with such care. All of which makes the two books exasperating, because both come to conclusions that are probably wrong.

''Guns'' asked why the West is atop the food chain of nations. Its conclusion, that Western success was a coincidence driven by good luck, has proven extremely influential in academia, as the view is quintessentially postmodern. Now ''Collapse'' posits that the Western way of life is flirting with the sudden ruin that caused past societies like the Anasazi and the Mayans to vanish. Because this view, too, is exactly what postmodernism longs to hear, ''Collapse'' may prove influential as well. [...]

''[G]uns, Germs, and Steel'' is pure political correctness, and its P.C. quotient was a reason the book won praise. But the book must not be dismissed because it is P.C.: sometimes politically correct is, after all, correct. The flaws of the work are more subtle, and they set the stage for ''Collapse.'' One flaw was that Diamond argued mainly from the archaeological record -- a record that is a haphazard artifact of items that just happened to survive. We know precious little about what was going on in 11,000 B.C., and much of what we think we know is inferential. It may be decades or centuries until we understand human prehistory, if we ever do.

Diamond's analysis discounts culture and human thought as forces in history; culture, especially, is seen as a side effect of environment. The big problem with this view is explaining why China -- which around the year 1000 was significantly ahead of Europe in development, and possessed similar advantages in animals and plants -- fell behind. This happened, Diamond says, because China adopted a single-ruler society that banned change. True, but how did environment or animal husbandry dictate this? China's embrace of a change-resistant society was a cultural phenomenon. During the same period China was adopting centrally regimented life, Europe was roiled by the idea of individualism. Individualism proved a potent force, a source of power, invention and motivation. Yet Diamond considers ideas to bet environmental conditions, and inevitably there will be a factory manufacturing jet engines.

Many thinkers have attempted single-explanation theories for history. Such attempts hold innate appeal -- wouldn't it be great if there were a single explanation! -- but have a poor track record. My guess is that despite its conspicuous brilliance, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' will eventually be viewed as a drastic oversimplification. Its arguments come perilously close to determinism, and it is hard to believe that the world is as it is because it had to be that way.

Guns and Germs is even sillier, more determinist and more PC than Mr. Easterbrook can acknowledge, because PC in a way he agrees with as regards Darwinism. His entire thesis crumbles in the face of the fox.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 29, 2005 1:55 PM

which around the year 1000 was significantly ahead of Europe in development, and possessed similar advantages in animals and plants -- fell behind. --

They discovered opium....

Posted by: Sandy P at January 29, 2005 2:34 PM


The very notion that they were ahead then is silly anyway. Everything we are we knew by then--they knew none of it.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2005 3:12 PM

Guns Germs and Steel was a good read for me because I was relatively unfamiliar with what is known of early human existance. Also I respected Diamond for being up front in his 'political correctness.'

Yet, after finishing it, I felt that the book was about 400 pages too long. One of his map illustrations and a hundred words of text gave you all you needed. The book did well because you could explain its thesis in an 'elevator conversation' not because it was profound.

Posted by: JAB at January 29, 2005 5:19 PM

I had the misfortune to have read this piece of trash last week. Its errors are too manifold to mention. Diamond's conclusions are so far removed from his data that I even suspected at one point that he might have been intentionally concealing valid theses behind PC ranting.

Alas, I have concluded that the book's concessions to reality are accidental, and that the writer is really as blind and irrational as his conclusions imply.

For example, we read that Japan acted rightly is persecuting Christianity and in butchering missionaries and converts. Then this approval is extended to its insane conclusion that Japan and Japanese culture has been "successful." We might wonder what Diamond's definition of a failed culture might be, but he tells us. Silly me, the Norse colonists in Greenland were such, he writes, because they spent too much tiume building churches and weren't as good at living under the icecap as the Eskimos who died out only sligthly later in the same little ice age.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 29, 2005 5:24 PM

Lou -

Yes, not only that, but Diamond blames some Norse cultural rigidity or another as being responsible for the fact that they starved to death amidst plenty of seafood. Most other reviewers found that highly implausible.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at January 29, 2005 6:25 PM

"But Science lays claim to a special status as a wholly impartial, rational and incorruptible system, independent of human influence, revealing certain immutable "truths' about the world around us."

What utter rubbish. If the concept of "PC" is going to be raised, then what we witness here is humanities PC about science. And did you have the gall to spell "science" with a capital "s"?

The humanities, as distinguished from science, tends to insufficiently favor the use of tools that PROMOTE less partiality, greater rationallity, and reduced human bias. To think of this in terms of the "WHOLLY impartial, rational, and INcorruptible" sends a scientifically oriented person into near-guffaws(we're browbeaten by the use of those pesky "error estimates" ya'know!!)

I suppose the significant issue, the relevant concept, is captured by the word .... "irony." Science has found a way to rather FORMALLY, RITUALISTICLY deal with error, bias, and variability. Consequently it has developed tools to impressively reduce the influence of error, bias, and variability. But the PC-oriented such as yourself then caricature this as "...Science(sic) lays claim to a SPECIAL status as a WHOLLY impartial, rational and incorruptible system, independent of human influence..."

The humanities, by contrast, largely ignore these elements which increase fallibility. The irony is that science, in acknowledging its vulnerability to error, bias, and variability is able to so effectively reduce their effects(but DEFINITELY NOT eliminate them) while BS'ers like you largely ignore them and wallow in such increased speculation.

Posted by: LarryH at January 30, 2005 7:13 AM

I thought Michael Levin did a admirable review of "Guns" for the American Renaissance, itself taking darwinism where no liberal dare to tred.

Posted by: Brent Anderson at January 30, 2005 3:08 PM

I thought GG&S was an excellent book and remain perplexed why people froth over it. I did not get the idea that the book's argument invalidated culture or that it was overly deterministic after I read it. What it does is lay out a few themes that explains long term history:
1) Eurasia had a better mix of crops for agriculture than the Americas
2) Eurasia's geography allowed for a quicker spread of agriculture than the America's
3) Eurasia had more useful animals with traits that allowed them to be domesticated than did the Americas
4) For various reasons due to disease pools, the population of Eurasia had better immune systems which enabled them to survive encounters with non-Eurasian populations that exchanged diseases between the groups.
5) Europe's geography was more conducive to allowing independent states than other parts of the world; this plethora of independent states prevented social calcification

The fourth thesis illustrates how Europe was able to preserve cultural advantages that would be suppressed elsewhere, and that political diversity went a long way to help form European culture. The fact that much of Europe was unified by a single regime, Rome, for so long shows that this was not deterministic in a way that things "must" develop to the way they are now.

I haven't seen any one actually challenge any of these main points. Instead, I'm reading quibbles about some of his examples. Easterbrook is simply being stupid when he mentions China, because Diamond specifically mentions that China is prone to be a unitary state because it lacks the islands and pennisulas which fosters independent states. Europe has plenty of those. Diamond let's it be known that China had cultural elements that were both expansionary and isolationist just as Europe did. The difference is that in China all it took was one ruler to shut the whole thing down and thus ossify the entire culture. Because Europe had many states, no one person or decision or could off the entire continent from outside influence or expansion. If the Pope says the New World is to be divided between Spain and Portugal, then England and France will colonize it anyway.

The idea that one's environment helps form culture is not new and was not invented by Diamond. The same idea can be found in Herodotus where he explains why Greeks are free while Persians are slaves.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at January 31, 2005 11:42 AM

Oops, I'm sure people will find the typo when I said 4th thesis, I meant 5th.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at January 31, 2005 11:44 AM


The whole thing is nonsense--it supposes domesticability was a pre-existing trait.

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2005 12:21 PM

Diamond's whole Thesis is doctored to blunt
or altogether avoid the cold hard implications
of Darwininism as it relates to human populations.

Posted by: J.H. at January 31, 2005 12:38 PM


Our favorite aspect of Darwinism--no decent person can accept the implications.

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2005 1:13 PM

I read Diamond's Essay in the New York Times on New Years Day. Then, following a link from Marginal Revolution, I read Malcolm Gladwell's review of Diamond's Book.

At some point in this exercise an epiphany occured, Diamond was reincarnating the eco-catastrophies of the Jay Forrester, the Club of Rome, Dennis Meadows and the Limits to Growth, and Paul Erlich. Julian Simon, zt'l, punked Erlich with his famous wager, and you should read, and rely on,
Simon's The Ultimate Resource. More recently, Danish Economist Bjorn Lomborg has advanced Simon's case with his book: The Skeptical Environmentalist.

What I saw of Diamond's anecdotal evidence does nothing to lessen my suspicion that his book is fashionable eco-trash. Take the Vikings in Greenland. Diamond claims that they starved because they would not eat the abundent fish in the waters there around. Modern Scandanavians are famous for eating fermented herring, lutefisk and whale blubber. Are we to believe that this is a recently acquired tatse. Matt Ygelesias was skeptical and was able round up primary evidence casting doubt on this thesis in a few minutes of research using Google.

The other anecdotes are not much better. The Maya "Classic Period," as modern archeologists call it, did come to an end. The causation for the end of that period is not well documented nor well understood. It was not the end of Maya Civilization, Chichen Itza belongs to a later time, nor was it the end of the Maya People who have surrvived to this day in large numbers. Easter Island was a more complete catsatrophe, but even there we lack sufficent evidence to do more than conjecture. The ecological horror story told by Diamond is entertaining, but it is entirely circumstantial and conjectural.

The claim that the Rawandan genocide was caused by ecological degradation simply enrages me. Are the Rawandans, sock puppets who have no moral agency? Were they simply bombs wired to go off at a certain temperature and pressure. It is one thing to organize political action or even to begin a revolutionary movement to redress an unjust distribution of property and power in a society. To hack a million men, women and children to death without descrimination or mercy is not a result of a cause but a willed act of the deepest evil. The next step in that type of argument would be to claim that the Holocaust was a result of the Great Depression. Germany was forced to conquer Europe, round up the Jews and slaughter them. The Nazis had no choice. Like I said, the argument enrages me.

Overall, nothing I have seen about the book makes me want to read it.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 1, 2005 3:59 AM

Darwinism has no particular implications for human societies, which are not rigidly selected.

One thing that makes cultures collapse quickly is ramification. The impact of Europeans on Polynesians must have been roughly similar in different island groups, but the Hawaiian society collapsed more rapidly and more completely than any of the others.

This, in my opinion, was because it was the biggest, richest, most sophisticated and most coherent.

Take away one brick and the whole thing falls. When Keopuolani declared the permanency of free eating, and nothing bad happened, there was no longer any reason to believe in anything.

This is the phenomenon faced by the Orrins of the world. They cannot face Darwinism because they have ramified antidarwinism, quite unnecessarily, into the linchpin of their whole structure.

If darwinism applies to societies, the orrinites are doomed.

Luckily for them, it doesn't and they will probably stagger ahead, becoming of less and less consequence, but never quite disappearing, maybe even becoming more numerous though less significant.

After all, there must be more Millerites today than in Miller's day by at least an order of magnitude. But nobody pays any attention to them.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 1, 2005 8:44 PM

Darwinism doesn't apply to homo sapiens at all, does it? After all, everything we do is intelligent design not natural selection.

Posted by: oj at February 1, 2005 8:48 PM