Diamond's Collapse in focus

10 minute read

The folks at Savage Minds are still whuppin' away on Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, in posts About Yali, On cargo and cults - and Yali's question, Diamond's argument about the haves and have-nots, Malaria in Africa and Asia, and more.

Meanwhile, Mikey Brass at the Palanthsci Yahoo group put me onto this review in Reason magazine of Diamond's new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. It's a refreshing review in its extremely critical voice -- although in this case from the opposite side of the spectrum from anthropology.

Inside Collapse

Before going to the review, I want to give a bit of the flavor of Collapse's thesis to show why somebody might find it problematic.

Collapse is about the “collapses” of certain ancient societies. Like Guns, Germs and Steel, it is an attempt to make sense of disparate events by tying them under a common theme. The theme in Guns, Germs and Steel is geography: some societies developed more quickly because of favorable opportunities for domestication, diffusion of knowledge, and relative lack of disease. </p>

In Collapse, the theme is bad decision-making. Some societies, when faced with ecological threats, either failed to recognize them or failed to take effective steps to prevent them. These societies collapsed, and if we aren't extremely careful, so will ours.

I haven't read Collapse yet, but Edge provides the text of a 2003 lecture by Diamond, titled "Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?" that reads as a precis of the book. I'm citing some parts of it because it gives a good impression of why a reasonable anthropologist might find reasons to disagree with Diamond's argument -- and disagree strongly at many points.

He starts the lecture with a conceit, which actually appears to constitute a theme:

As every teacher knows, though, if you have a good group of students, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their supposed teachers and challenging their assumptions. That's an experience that I've been through in the last couple of months, when for the first time in my academic career I gave a course to undergraduates, highly motivated UCLA undergraduates, on collapses of societies.

After this, the lecture has a definite tone: What will shock (sorry, challenge the assumptions) of UCLA undergraduates the most? First, there's this:

Surely the Easter Islanders, of all people, must have realized the consequences to them of destroying their own forest. It wasn't a subtle mistake.

After a less problematic account of the U.S. Forest Service, Diamond offers this nugget of wisdom:

The Classic Lowland Maya eventually succumbed to a drought around 800 A.D. There had been previous droughts in the Maya realm, but they could not draw on that prior experience, because although the Maya had some writing, it just preserved the conquests of kings and didn't record droughts. Maya droughts recur at intervals of 208 years, so the Maya in 800 A.D., when the big drought struck, did not and could not remember the drought of A.D. 592.

Of course, this has a modern-day parallel:

We, too, tend to forget things, and so for example Americans recently behave as if they've forgotten about the 1973 Gulf oil crisis. For a year or two after the crisis they avoided gas-guzzling vehicles, then quickly they forgot that knowledge, despite their having writing.

I suppose government regulations on maize economy would have solved the Maya's problems, too. Or maybe most American's weren't catastrophically affected by the oil crisis, so have no rational reason to fear its recurrence (which, speaking as someone who just bought a $50 tank of gas, it still could be a lot worse).

After this, Diamond warns us of the "disastrous consequences of reasoning by false analogy" (no, I can't make this stuff up):

An example of a society that suffered from disastrous consequences of reasoning by false analogy was the society of Norwegian Vikings who immigrated to Iceland beginning in the year AD 871. Their familiar homeland of Norway has heavy clay soils ground up by glaciers. Those soils are sufficiently heavy that, if the vegetation covering them is cut down, they are too heavy to be blown away. Unfortunately for the Viking colonists of Iceland, Icelandic soils are as light as talcum powder. They arose not through glacial grinding, but through winds carrying light ashes blown out in volcanic eruptions. The Vikings cleared the forests over those soils in order to create pasture for their animals. Unfortunately, the ash that was light enough for the wind to blow in was light enough for the wind to blow out again when the covering vegetation had been removed. Within a few generations of the Vikings' arriving in Iceland, half of Iceland's top soil had eroded into the ocean.

I guess after that mistake, the collapse of Icelandic society was inevitable.

Emerging as the real bad guys in Diamond's account are "irrational behaviors" like religion ...

Religious values are especially deeply held and hence frequent causes of disastrous behavior. For example, much of the deforestation of Easter Island had a religious motivation, to obtain logs to transport and erect the giant stone statues that were the basis of Easter Island religious cults.

... self-identity ...

In modern times a reason why Montanans have been so reluctant to solve the obvious problems now accumulating from mining, logging, and ranching in Montana is that these three industries were formerly the pillars of the Montana economy, and that they became bound up with the pioneer spirit and with Montanan self-identity.

... and "psychological denial":

For example, consider a narrow deep river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a long distance downstream. When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam's bursting, it's not surprising that fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases among residents increasingly close to the dam. Surprisingly, though, when one gets within a few miles of the dam, where fear of the dam's breaking is highest, as you then get closer to the dam the concern falls off to zero! That is, the people living immediately under the dam who are certain to be drowned in a dam burst profess unconcern. That is because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one's sanity while living immediately under the high dam is to deny the finite possibility that it could burst.

Denial? Could it be that people who decide to live under a dam are people who don't have an irrational fear of engineering disasters? Who do you think expresses a greater fear of flying: people who fly on business every week, or people who have never flown?

Of course, the irony of much of this is completely unrecognized by Diamond. Someone who disagrees with his priorities is "irrational," guilty of "short-term thinking" and in "psychological denial."

He doesn't report at the end on the reaction of his UCLA undergraduates.

The review

The Reason review is by author Ronald Bailey, who has written recent books bullish on biotech and bearish on global warming. You can imagine he is skeptical of Diamond's story:

Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, is neither "superb" (The New Statesman), "incisive" (The Washington Post), "magisterial" (BusinessWeek), nor "insightful and very important" (Boston Herald). It is, instead, a telling example of how a smart man can be terribly misled by a fixation on one big idea.

On the Maya, Bailey points out a contradiction between Diamond's argument and the archaeology, which -- although I am far from a Maya archaeologist -- is what I thought, also:

When Diamond discusses the "collapse" of the Mayan civilization in Central America around 900 A.D., he hauls out the standard Malthusian explanation: "It appears to me that one strand consisted of population growth outstripping available resources: a dilemma similar to one foreseen by Thomas Malthus in 1798." This population/resource imbalance led to civilization-destroying warfare, which Diamond declares is "not surprising when one reflects that at least 5,000,000 people...were crammed into an area smaller than the state of Colorado." Before nodding your head in sage agreement with this analysis, keep in mind that Colorado itself is today crammed with 4.5 million people whose standards of living are vastly more luxurious than those of 10th-century Mayan nobles and peasants.
Anthropologist Lisa Lucero of New Mexico State University at Las Cruces told USA Today that she disagrees with Diamond's analysis of the "collapse" of the Mayan civilization: "There's no evidence for massive violence and massive disease among the classic Maya." She believes the evidence indicates that the Mayans simply moved on because of widespread drought.

On the subject of wrong archaeological insights, Benny Peiser of Liverpool John Moores University has a paper that presents a fuller story of the Easter Island "collapse". Here's part of the abstract:

According to Diamond, the people of Easter Island destroyed their forest, degraded the island's topsoil, wiped out their plants and drove their animals to extinction. As a result of this selfinflicted [sic] environmental devastation, its complex society collapsed, descending into civil war, cannibalism and self-destruction. While his theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island's self-destruction: an actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui's indigenous populace and its culture. Diamond, however, ignores and fails to address the true reasons behind Rapa Nui's collapse. Why has he turned the victims of cultural and physical extermination into the perpetrators of their own demise? This paper is a first attempt to address this disquieting quandary. It describes the foundation of Diamond's environmental revisionism and explains why it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.

The paper is freely available as a PDF. Other counter-arguments to Diamond's archaeology and social anthropology will likely emerge also.

The theme of Bailey's review is that Diamond ignores the ways that greater economic diversity, political freedom, and freedom of thought make societies stronger and more resistant to collapse. As he puts it:

As ecology teaches us, the simplest ecosystems are often the most fragile. Similarly, our modern globally interconnected economy that can draw upon a wide array of resources is far more stable and robust than either the fragile pre-modern or the marginally modern societies cited by Diamond.

This contrast is marked in Diamond's comparison of "overcrowded" Haiti and the neighboring, wealthier, Dominican Republic:

This simplistic analysis doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Diamond overlooks an even more "overpopulated" island right next door, Puerto Rico. Its population density is almost twice that of Haiti, at 1,120 people per square mile. By 1900 Puerto Rico's primary forests had been reduced to 1 percent of their original extent, and in 1953 its secondary forests covered only 6 percent of the island. Today 32 percent of Puerto Rico is forested, and the island's per capita GDP is $16,800 per year.
Why is Puerto Rico so much better off than its neighbors? In a word, institutions. Diamond vaguely recognizes the importance of social and political institutions, but his analysis doesn't go much deeper than arguing that Haitian dictators have been more rapacious than Dominican dictators. In fact, the last two centuries have shown that the more a country adheres to the rule of law, protects private property, reduces bureaucratic corruption, nurtures a free press, permits free markets, engages in trade, and allows democratic politics, the less likely it is to suffer from the Malthusian horrors of plagues, famines, and civil wars. What Haiti and Rwanda have in common is not just dense populations but shattered social and political institutions. What the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Puerto Rico have in common are not only dense populations, but adequately effective social and political institutions.

It's a good review, that puts the critical issues at the front and cuts broadly. I especially like the passage about farmers and parasites.

No doubt there is much that is good in Diamond's book. My impression, for example, is that he does stress the importance of political representation in decision-making and other aspects of freer societies that Bailey wants more attention to.

But the parts that are bad are just wrong. The peril of false analogy is that sometimes history doesn't repeat itself, because it really is different this time. Perhaps we're not living in such a lucky time, but even if not, I doubt we need another Jeremiad based on faulty social and archaeological arguments.