Collapsing reviews

Nature this week gave Jared Diamond the chance to review two books about archaeology and “collapse” – The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age (which he liked), and Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire (which he didn’t like).

Diamond’s book, Collapse, has been a target of criticism by anthropologists since it was released. I noted some of these critiques in 2005. So it’s interesting to see how Diamond responds to McAnany and Yoffee’s Questioning Collapse. Much comes down to how different people define “collapse”.

It makes no sense to me to redefine as heart-warmingly resilient a society in which everyone ends up dead, or in which most of the population vanishes, or that loses writing, state government and great art for centuries. As Questioning Collapse shows, that naively optimistic redefinition inevitably forces one to distort history and to avoid trying to explain what really happened. Even when many people do survive and eventually reestablish a populous complex society, the initial decline is sufficiently important to warrant being honestly called a collapse and studied further. We today, who face similar problems and could face similar fates, will not be consoled by the thought that our grandchildren might exhibit resilience.

Well, a society is sure to lose its monumental architecture and indigenous writing systems when everybody dies, but it might lose them for other reasons. If people tire of a bloodthirsty death cult (like Congress), should we mourn its demise? When archaeologists can document a “collapse” of residential, agricultural, or ceremonial systems, the demographic impact might well have been bad, but it’s rarely obviously so. And the connection between these “collapses” and political, economic, or ecological conditions – connections that are essential to Diamond’s thesis about collapse – tend to resist simplistic causal explanations.

I looked at Savage Minds, hoping they’d picked up on this sentence from Diamond’s review:

Another essay describes a New Guinean man named Yali, giving a lengthy reinterpretation of his views about the European colonization of New Guinea in the light of the experiences of another man with the same name not realizing that the two Yalis were different people, 40 years apart in age and with dissimilar life stories and opinions.

Diamond himself doesn’t explain the significance of his point: “Yali’s question” (“Why do you whites have so much cargo?”) appears a central organizing element of Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel. It’s an underlying agenda that isn’t transparent to most readers of the review.

I think that the reality is somewhere in between. Human societies have failed for all kinds of reasons. Many of these I would be hard-pressed to describe as “tragic” – much of the cultural production in complex societies comes from elites, most of which have been oppressive. Starvation, subfertility, and disease have been depressingly common, but I don’t think most such “collapses” could have been prevented by better decision-making.

UPDATE (2010-03-04): Frequent Diamond watchdog Stinky Journalism is on the story.


Diamond J. 2010. Two views of collapse. Nature 463:880-881. doi:10.1038/463880a