Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Diamond in the Rough

Below, I provide some comments on a recent article concerning an anthropology conference concerning the work of geographer Jared Diamond, author of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and "Collapse."

The New York Times / December 25, 2007

A Question of Blame When Societies Fall

By GEORGE JOHNSON


The author mixes travelogue with journalism, so you have to be patient.

As I pulled out of Tucson listening to an audiobook of Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," the first of a procession of blue-and-yellow billboards pointed the way to Arizona's strangest roadside attraction, "The Thing?"

The come-ons were slicker and brighter than those I remembered from childhood trips out West. But the destination was the same: a curio store and gas station just off the highway at a remote whistle stop called Dragoon, Ariz.

Dragoon is also home to an archaeological research center, the Amerind Foundation, where a group of archaeologists, cultural anthropologists and historians converged in the fall for a seminar, "Choices and Fates of Human Societies."


What the scientists held in common was a suspicion that in writing his two best-selling sagas of civilization -- the other is "Guns, Germs and Steel" -- Dr. Diamond washed over the details that make cultures unique to assemble a grand unified theory of history.

"Collapse" doesn't present a GUTH. On the other hand, "Guns, Germs and Steel" (GGS) gets a bit closer to that description. Even that theory isn't supposed to apply to industrialized societies.

"A big-picture man," one participant called him. For anthropologists, who spend their lives reveling in minutiae -- the specifics and contradictions of human culture -- the words are not necessarily a compliment.

This suggests that there are no "big-picture" anthropologists. But that's not true. For example, the late Karl Polanyi was a big-picture kind of guy.

"Everybody knows that the beauty of Diamond is that it's simple," said Patricia A. McAnany, an archaeologist at Boston University who organized the meeting with her colleague Norman Yoffee of the University of Michigan. "It's accessible intellectually without having to really turn the wattage up too much."

There are real problems with any assertion that begins with "everybody knows."

Dr. Diamond's many admirers would disagree. "Guns, Germs and Steel" won a Pulitzer Prize, and Dr. Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, has received, among many honors, a National Medal of Science. It is his ability as a synthesizer and storyteller that makes his work so compelling.

For an hour I had listened as he, or rather his narrator, described how the inhabitants of Easter Island had precipitated their own demise by cutting down all the palm trees -- for, among other purposes, transporting those giant statues -- and how the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon and the Maya might have committed similar "ecocide."

By the time I approached the turnoff for Amerind's boulder-strewn campus, Dr. Diamond had moved on to the Vikings' fate. But for the moment my mind was in the grip of "The Thing."

Detouring past the conference center, I parked in front of the old tourist trap, paid the $1 admission and followed a path of stenciled yellow footprints to a building out back. Inside a cinder-block coffin lay the subject of my quest, what appeared to be the mummified remains of a woman holding a mummified child.

"The Thing" looked human, or maybe like pieces of human dolled up with papier-mâché. Either way, it seemed like a fitting symbol for the complaints I'd been hearing about Dr. Diamond: that through the wide-angle lenses of his books, people appear not as thinking agents motivated by dreams and desires, ideas and ideologies, but as pawns of their environment. As things.


It's pretty clear in "Guns, Germs, and Steel" that people -- or at least groups of us -- are strivers. This sets up competition among societies. The geographic environment plays a crucial role in limiting and shaping the results of the competition. Diamond's emphasis is on the latter, of course, but that's because people are so unpredictable. After all, having so many "dreams and desires, ideas and ideologies" makes our actions pretty hard to predict.

In "Collapse," on the other hand, "dreams and desires, ideas and ideologies" can play a major role in causing collapse. See, for example, the material about the Vikings in Greenland.


The backlash had been brewing since a symposium last year, "Exploring Scholarly and Best-Selling Accounts of Social Collapse and Colonial Encounters," at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Jose, Calif. Although "Guns, Germs and Steel" has been celebrated as an antidote to racism -- Western civilization prevails not because of inherent superiority, but geographical luck -- some anthropologists saw it as excusing the excesses of the conquerors. If it wasn't their genes that made them do it, it was their geography.

Is there any serious scholar who believes that Europeans are made evil by their genetics? This seems a total straw-man argument.

"Diamond in effect argues that no one is to blame," said Deborah B. Gewertz, an anthropologist at Amherst College. "The haves are not to be blamed for the condition of the have-nots."

She here falls for the excessively-common error of confusing an explanation of an historical event with an excuse for it. Just because the victory of the Nazis over Poland can be explained easily does not mean that it was somehow justified. Similarly, just because the Europeans conquered most of the world does not mean that it was justified.

Dr. Diamond anticipated this kind of reaction. In the epilogue to "Guns, Germs and Steel," he acknowledged that human will was an important pivot in the turning of history, as were freak accidents and chaotic "butterfly effects," in which tiny perturbations are amplified into cataclysms. But the accidents of geography -- the availability of raw materials and crops, a hospitable climate, accessible trade routes and even the cartographical shapes of continents -- step forth as prime movers.

They're not "movers" as much as "shapers." In Diamond's theory, geographical creates barriers, which limit the movement of people, diseases, technology, etc.

While "Guns, Germs, and Steel" explored the factors contributing to a society's rise, "Collapse" tried to account for the downfalls. Here, human agency played a more prominent role. In case after case, Dr. Diamond described how a confluence of factors -- fragile ecosystems, climatic change, hostile neighbors and, ultimately, bad decision making -- cornered a society into inadvertently damaging or even destroying itself.

The main contrast (in terms of approach) between the two books is that "Collapse" does not really have a unifying theory. It's more of a matter of applying a laundry list of possible factors to ask questions about why different societies collapsed. It's more of an empiricist (inductive) exercise, while GGS seems a more balanced mixture of theory (deduction) and empirical research (induction).

The two books don't mesh with each other well at all. The anthropologists that this author describes should be much happier with the method of "Collapse" than with that of GGS. That, of course, does not mean that they automatically agree about the facts.


In his haunting chapter about Easter Island, he weighed the data -- radiocarbon dating, charcoal and pollen analysis and botanical and archaeological surveys -- and concluded that the inhabitants had mined the forests to extinction, setting off a cataclysm. What, Dr. Diamond wondered in an often cited passage, was going through the mind of the Easter Islander who cut the last tree?

But what was intended as a cautionary tale was taken by some readers as blaming the victims. Terry Hunt, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii, came to the Amerind conference with a different story. Deforestation, he said, was caused not by people, but by predatory Polynesian rats, with the human population remaining stable until the introduction of European diseases.

Dr. Diamond, he said, "shifts all of the burden to people and their stupidity rather than to a complex ecosystem where these things interact."


Good! A fact-based critique. That's what's needed. By the way, the role of European diseases fits well with the theory put forth in the GGS book.

Taken together, the two books struck Frederick K. Errington, an anthropologist at Trinity College in Hartford, as a "one-two punch." The haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise.

I think it's a mistake to read a moral argument into GGS. On the other hand, "Collapse" is inherently a moral book, since it's asking what we can do to avoid Collapse, i.e., what are the best things to do?

In addition, as noted, the two books do not really form a whole. They deal with different issues in different ways. One could easily agree with one of Diamond's "punches" while rejecting the other. To my mind, the main thing that unifies them is the identity of their author, not their content.


Dr. Errington and Dr. Gewertz, who are husband and wife, work in Papua New Guinea, a treasure trove of ethnic groups speaking more than 700 languages. Dr. Diamond has also spent time on the island, where he first went to study birds.

Dr. Gewertz still bristles as she recalls picking up "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and seeing that it had been framed around what was called "Yali's question."

Yali was a political leader and a member of a "cargo cult" that sprung up after World War II. By building ritualistic landing strips and control towers and wearing hand-carved wooden headsets, islanders hoped to summon the return of the packaged food, weapons, medicine, clothing and other gifts from the heavens that had been airdropped to troops fighting Japan.

One day Yali asked Dr. Diamond, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"

Thus began Dr. Diamond's tale about the combination of geographical factors that led to Europeans' colonizing Papua New Guinea rather than Papua New Guineans' colonizing Europe. "We think he gets Yali's question wrong," Dr. Gewertz said. "Yali was not asking about nifty Western stuff."


That's hard to tell from what Diamond quotes or from the emphasis of cargo cults on "cargo."

With more of the cargo their European visitors so clearly coveted, the islanders would have been able to trade with them as equals. Instead, they were subjugated.

What Yali was really asking, she suggested, was why Europeans had never treated them like fellow human beings. The responsibility and struggle of anthropology, Dr. Gewertz said, is to see the world through others' eyes.


Diamond's GGS book seems to assume that no-one is inherently better at treating other ethnic groups like fellow human beings. If we accept that assumption, Gewertz's interpretation of Yali's question has already been answered. If the Papuans had colonized Europe, in this view, they would not have treated the Europeans well.

Was it really the "colonists" that cargo cults were responding to? In my understanding, they were responding to the commodities that were dumped on them as part of World War II, which were part of the effort by the US to feed its troops and -- and as a side-benefit, to legitimate its side of the war with the locals. Sure, the US is a (neo)colonizing power, but it was different from the Dutch or the Japanese. And WW2 was not about US neo-colonialism as much as inter-imperialist rivalry. Until the US started supporting France in Indochina, the major U.S. strategy in the Pacific region was anti-colonialism, at least on the surface.


In "Collapse," Dr. Diamond proposed that a precipitating factor in the Rwanda genocide of 1994, in which hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered by Hutu compatriots, was Malthusian. The country had let its population outstrip its food supply.

Christopher C. Taylor, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, saw the tragedy through the other end of the telescope. One afternoon, he sat in the living room of Amerind's old mission-style lodge, which looks out onto the desolate beauty of the Little Dragoon mountains, calmly describing how he and his Tutsi fiancée had fled Rwanda just as the massacres began. Safely back in the United States, he studied the country's popular political cartoons, sensing that for many Rwandans, politics was tangled in a web of legends involving sacred kingship and fertility rites. The king, and by implication the president, was the conduit for imaana, a spiritual current symbolized by liquids like rain, rivers, milk, honey, semen and blood.

In times of droughts, floods, crop failures, infant mortality or other misfortunes, he might have to be sacrificed to spill his imaana back into the soil. "In order to understand the motives of the Rwandans, you have to understand the local symbolism and the local cosmology," Dr. Taylor said. "Because, after all, what Diamond is doing is imposing his own cosmology, his own symbolic system."


It seems that both Taylor and Diamond can be right on the explanation of the slaughter: demographic forces may have caused the starvation, which was then see in the terms that Taylor describes.

It's so typical of academics to set up the competitions among theories, asserting that their theory is better, while ignoring the possibility of synthesis. I guess academics have to strive to attain tenure, promotion, prestige, etc.


By the time I left Amerind, I realized that what I had witnessed was a clash of world views. Central to the "cosmology" of Dr. Diamond's tribe is a principle celebrated throughout the physical and biological sciences -- to understand is to simplify and seek patterns.

In an e-mail message, he said that progress in any field depends on syntheses and individual studies. "In both chemistry and physics, the need for both approaches has been recognized for a long time," he wrote. "One no longer finds specialists on molybdenum decrying the periodic table's sweeping superficiality, nor advocates of the periodic table scorning mere descriptive studies of individual elements."


This is right: we need to have a dialog between "big think" and "small think" rather than having another silly academic war. Theory and empirical research should work together, not clash.

For the anthropologists, the exceptions were more important than the rules. Instead of seeking overarching laws, the call was to "contextualize," "complexify," "relativize," "particularize" and even "problematize," a word that in their dialect was given an oddly positive spin. At some moments, the seminar seemed less like a scientific meeting than a session of the Modern Language Association.

But the anthropologists had a point. As Einstein put it, explanations should be as simple as possible -- but no simpler. Is it realistic to hope, as Dr. Diamond did at the end of "Guns, Germs and Steel," that "historical studies of human societies can be pursued as scientifically as studies of dinosaurs"?


Probably not. But it's good to have some understanding of what went on, rather than rejecting theory altogether. The complaining anthropologists should develop an alternative theory. In my experience, the only way to beat a theory is with a better one.

One afternoon I drove out to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, about 130 miles northwest of Dragoon. Turning off North Arizona Boulevard near a Blockbuster Video store and KFC/Taco Bell, I saw the Great House, four stories high, loom into view. Abandoned over half a millennium ago by the Hohokam people, the earthen ruins have been incongruously protected from the elements by a steel roof on stilts designed in 1928 by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

One suspects that the Hohokam were content to let the place melt. Depending on which eyeglasses you are wearing, Casa Grande is a story of environmental collapse or of adaptation and resilience. When conditions no longer favored centralization the people moved on, re-emerging as the O'odham tribes and a thriving casino industry.

Abandonment as a strategy. Driving back on Interstate 10, past an umbilical cord of eastbound railroad container cars owned by Hanjin Shipping and the latest crests of urban sprawl, I tried to imagine the good people of Tucson or Phoenix bowing out with such grace.

At the seminar, Dr. McAnany suggested that the very idea of societal collapse might be in the eye of the beholder. She was thinking of the Maya, whose stone ruins have become the Yucatan's roadside attractions. But the descendants of the Maya live on. She recalled a field trip by local children to a site she was excavating in Belize: "This little girl looks up at me, and she has this beautiful little Maya face, and asks, 'What happened to all the Maya? Why did they all die out?'"

No one visits Stonehenge, she noted, and asks whatever happened to the English.


Sounds like a good line. But was it the English who built Stonehenge? A simple web-search says that "Theories about who built it have included the Druids, Greeks, Phoenicians..." And since it happened so long ago, there were no "English" at the time. The English had nothing to do with Stonehenge, so the question is silly. Even if it were valid, no-one would ask it, since the English gave us the language that's dominating the world (and passed the imperial sceptre to the U.S.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

January 1, 2008 / When Societies Fail (3 Letters to the NYT)

To the Editor:
Re "A Question of Blame When Societies Fall" (Dec. 25): The conference designed to discredit Jared Diamond highlights the worst of what goes on in contemporary academia. The organizers' failure to invite Mr. Diamond might be attributed to elementary rudeness were it not for a more damning explanation: they were afraid he would give the lie to their glib accusation that because his work is widely read, it must be oversimplified. These anthropologists' beef with Mr. Diamond clearly has less to do with the content of his thesis than with the fact that he tries to understand why things happen rather than writing a morality play conforming to their lefter-than-thou politics. -- Steven Pinker / Cambridge, Mass.


Diamond should have been invited (though we can't trust Pinker as a source saying that he wasn't). And I don't see why the folks at this conference were any more "left" than Diamond.

To the Editor:
What an odd, convoluted perspective displayed by those anthropologists who attack Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" for "excusing the excesses of the conquerors." The book attempts to account for why, after around 3000 B.C., western Eurasian societies became comparatively more economically, militarily and technologically advanced. It does not claim that they were also more ethically or morally advanced. Moreover, to take just one famous example, the Aztecs were engaging in "excesses" as conquerors before any European sails appeared on the horizon. -- Russ Weiss / Princeton, N.J.


right

To the Editor:
The words of the historians Will and Ariel Durant might offer consolation to Jared Diamond and the anthropologists who disagree with his theories. In "The Lessons of History," the Durants write: "History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances." -- Brad Bradford / Upper Arlington, Ohio


yes, but some theses do die. It's hard to argue that aliens helped the ancient Egyptians build those pyramids.

----
Jim Devine / "Segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti." (Go your own way and let people talk.) -- Karl, paraphrasing Dante.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

"But it's good to have some understanding of what went on, rather than rejecting theory altogether. The complaining anthropologists should develop an alternative theory. In my experience, the only way to beat a theory is with a better one."

It takes a theory to beat a theory -- sounds like Republicans laying victory to the war of ideas. Please.

Guns Germs and Steel is a silly book that, like evolutionary psychology, appeals to economists among other groups as a simple way out. Theory building as bedtime story telling.

I've taught parts of it -- it's a useful summary of others' work on disease transfer, for instance -- but it's full of terrible stuff on human society, one example being the use of Hugh Thomas (!Lord of Swynnerton pop historian Thatcherite) as the primary source for the conquest of the Americas.

I don't know about this conference -- the article isn't very good, but if it pissed off an idiot like Steve Pinker it served a purpose -- but the general complaint about GGS is valid - good on some stuff we knew, awful on human society, does nothing to explain the years after 1500 -- which are the ones that led to the great differentiation in resource use by human societies after all.

There's always a lot of crocodiile tear in this discussion - oh, but GGS doesn't claim to talk about after 1500 boo hoo -- but the whole creepy Yali's question introduction (especially creepy, Diamond's inane right out of a 19th century scientific journal explanation of why "they" are smarter than "us") quite clearly signals that he wants to talk about the post-1500 world. Later internet discussion convinces me that this is also true of the TC series, but I have a delicate stomach.

I especially like Ross' letter -- hey it doesn't make any moral claims, and "they" were worse that "us" anyway! That's just the sort of stupid you get from hungover sophomores, fed right into the paper.

YouNotSneaky! said...

Between this, the stuff on airport security and Barkley's stuff you guys are putting up a lot of posts I agree with. It feels a bit strange.

"It's so typical of academics to set up the competitions among theories, asserting that their theory is better, while ignoring the possibility of synthesis."

I also wish people were more about seeking synthesis in economics as well. On all sides.

Econoclast said...

"Anonymous" (if that really is his/her name) quotes me: "It takes a theory to beat a theory" and says that it >sounds like Republicans laying victory to the war of ideas. Please.<

You have trouble understanding the use of metaphors ("beat")? I usually use the word "trump" there, but I try to vary my language to avoid boredom.

Otherwise, I appreciate your content-based critique of Diamond. The folks at the ant-Diamond conference don't seem to have gotten into that very much. BTW, it's clear that the entire GG&S book is based on secondary sources (not just Thomas). It's a work of synthesis and ideas, not original research. The original ideas appeared in an earlier article by Diamond.

As for Sneaky's agreement with my call for syntheses and that this call should apply to economics. Absolutely! In fact, you'll find that lefty economists such as myself do much more synthesizing then the mainstream neoclassicals or the so-called Austrians. They have to know the orthodox economics in order to get or keep jobs, while the orthocons can get away with intellectual laziness. In many cases, the lefties are more familiar with the basic principles of neoclassical economics than the neoclassicals are, since the latter often apply them in a knee-jerk way.

Jim D.

david said...

Your metaphor snark doesn't make any sense, guess I'm just dumb and all. In any case, the point is, calling for "new theories" to critique uncompelling reductions doesn't make much sense, unless you got a jones for theories.

It's not that GGR is based on secondary sources. It's that the synthesis and ideas themselves are not particularly new -- and that sources like Thomas are next to worthless in developing a synthesis. The conquest literature, which is largely what Diamond's book is relevant to (as the whole disease vector stuff doesn't have nearly as much to say about the Asia/Europe divergence, or the Africa divergence), is very very rich, and Diamond doesn't really seem to know it. One of the irritating things about the attention that GGR gets is that right-thinking people are led to believe he's come up with something amazing, when they could have done better, and saved themselves lots of pages, and even better saved themselves that repugnant Yali's questions bs, by reading a secondhand Alfred Crosby they could have picked up at any decent used bookstore for 2 bucks.

Econoclast said...

David writes: >Your metaphor snark doesn't make any sense, guess I'm just dumb and all. In any case, the point is, calling for "new theories" to critique uncompelling reductions doesn't make much sense, unless you got a jones for theories.<

I have a "jones" for understanding what's happening (and what happened) in the world. For that, you need some sort of theory, always assuming that any theory is preliminary, subject to criticism, replacement, etc. Just listing one fact after another and avoiding all theory is just a way to embrace boredom and to eschew any kind of insight.

BTW, I don't think we have to see Diamond's GGR as "reductive." It doesn't seem like a totally complete theory that explains absolutely everything. It can be interpreted as reductive, but then again _any_ theory can be seen in this way. (Even the "postmodern" theory that everything determines everything else in an overdetermined muddle can be made into a "grand unified theory of everything.")

Of course, for any specific (concrete) case, we'd have to bring in overdetermination, adding to and subtracting from Diamond's broader theory. That doesn't mean that Diamond's theory would fare well empirically, but it would be a way of getting some preliminary insights, some questions to ask of the empirical world.

>It's not that GGR is based on secondary sources. It's that the synthesis and ideas themselves are not particularly new -- and that sources like Thomas are next to worthless in developing a synthesis. The conquest literature, which is largely what Diamond's book is relevant to (as the whole disease vector stuff doesn't have nearly as much to say about the Asia/Europe divergence, or the Africa divergence), is very very rich, and Diamond doesn't really seem to know it.<

The disease vector stuff has a lot to do with it. It's the European diseases that more-than decimated out the population of the New World rather than vice-versa. That gave the Euros a one-up, which in turn allowed them to profit from and expand the deviations of power between them and the locals.

If Diamond doesn't know the literature on the subject, that's an important and substantive criticism.

>One of the irritating things about the attention that GGR gets is that right-thinking people are led to believe he's come up with something amazing, when they could have done better, and saved themselves lots of pages, and even better saved themselves that repugnant Yali's questions bs, by reading a secondhand Alfred Crosby they could have picked up at any decent used bookstore for 2 bucks.<

what book by Crosby?

BTW, I don't care about Diamond's personality or how much attention he gets. It's a fun book to read and it gives some new insights to me. But it's clear that it's based on secondary sources (including V. Gordon Childe, one of my favorites). It's not an anthro textbook, but at least it gets people interested in the stuff. It might be part of a good anthro course, which would also include substantive critiques.

JD

david said...

The disease vector stuff not so relevant to the Asia/Europe divides (and much less so to Africa than the New World) is what I meant. The Conquest of the New World via disease is an old, oft-told story.

Hey, I'm theory all the way down. But you don't need to come up with a big theory to see reduction in Diamond's geographic determinism, especially seeing how it skips over the last 500 years, which were the ones were most of the divides widened so substantially. Asking a bunch of anthropologists (who would be very amused to be called empiricists, since they spend so much of their lives being called hyper-theorists (often for good reason)) to get together to try to work up a counter-theory to something that's laughably weak on its description (and theory) of human culture doesn't really make much sense. A less polite way of saying I disagree -- Diamond's a geographical determinist when push comes to shove, and that's where the reduction chafes.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Crosby

Columbian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism were the ones that typically get taught.

If you want to see what's useful about empiricism when studying this disease stuff, Philip Curtin is hard to beat: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_D._Curtin

Man does Wikipedia make this easier.

walt said...

I've seen a couple of go-arounds of anthropologists against Diamond now, and their response seems to say more about anthropologists than it does about Diamond. They (or at least the ones that have commented on Diamond) seem strongly committed to blaming the West for everything bad that's ever happened to anyone outside the West.

coberly said...

"Guns, Germs and Steel" won a Pulitzer Prize, and Dr. Diamond,"

and Paul Gigot got a Pulitzer, too.

as for the rats and the last tree, you don't have to cut the last tree. once you have killed the forest ecosystem, the last tree will die all by itself.

Diamond wrote an easy reader. And anyone who doesn't like it is free to write an answer to it.
Of course, they'd have to actually write it, not just gripe in the faculty lounge.

And I lost track of who was arguing what in all this, but all the big ideas sounded kinda old and not much help.

Econoclast said...

I've been away for a few days and haven't had the time to respond.

David says: >The disease vector stuff not so relevant to the Asia/Europe divides (and much less so to Africa than the New World) is what I meant. The Conquest of the New World via disease is an old, oft-told story. <

I know that the biz about the diseases killing the "New World" populations is quite old. Though I could easily be wrong on this, I think what's new is that
Diamond saw the northern Eurasian landmass (including N. Africa) as a unified ecology, in which diseases could easily spread and cultures could easily compete. Though he really has nothing new about explaining why some people in Eurasia (the Europeans) beat others (China), his theory says that some group would develop in this ecology who (1) would largely be immune to large numbers of diseases and (2) would have organizational and technological prowess, at
least temporarily. With less unified ecologies in the "New World," there was less room for any population developing immunity to large numbers of diseases and having organizational & technological supremacy. The Aztecs and the Incas did pretty well at taking over other cultures and exploiting them, but they then didn't have to worry much about invasions by anyone and weren't ready for those damn Euros.

>Hey, I'm theory all the way down. But you don't need to come up with a big theory to see reduction in Diamond's geographic determinism, especially seeing how it skips over the last 500 years, which were the ones were most of the
divides widened so substantially.<

I've noticed that "reductionism" and "determinism" are often in the eye of the beholder. _Any_ theory can be interpreted in a reductionist and determinist
way. Or that theory could be interpreted as one crucial part of an overdetermined story. I don't see anything wrong with giving Diamond some benefit of the doubt and seeing his theory as one part of a more complete story. In fact, if indeed he is a reductionist and determinist, my "benefit of the doubt" takes him down a few notches into the realm of humility. That's a good thing.

The theory is only about how (western) Eurasia gained the initial advantage 500 years ago (which largely has allowed a west Eurasian accumulation of advantages until recently). That's why the last 500 years were left out of Diamond's GG&S story.

>Asking a bunch of anthropologists ... to get together to try to work up a
counter-theory to something that's laughably weak on its description (and theory) of human culture doesn't really make much sense. A less polite way of saying I disagree -- Diamond's a geographical determinist when push comes to shove, and that's where the reduction chafes.<

As far as I can tell, Diamond's theory is not supposed to be a work of cultural anthropology. Further, there's nothing that says that all anthropology has to be cultural in its focus. I noticed that GG&S basically leaves culture out of the story. Instead, it's a theory of competing ethnic organizations within geographical frameworks.

I worry about theories of "why Western Europe won" that put culture at the center. For example, I remember a book by C. Northcoate Parkinson (East and
West
, I believe) that in essence argued that the "West" won because its culture was better. Diamond's story rejects that.

(BTW, no-one should expect a bunch of fractious anthropologists -- who normally fight each other with as much force as they fight Diamond -- to unite to do anything. If the field is like others, it would be like herding cats.)

Coberly writes: >as for the rats and the last tree, you don't have to cut the last tree. once you have killed the forest ecosystem, the last tree will die all by itself.<

Yeah, but Diamond's question is a dramatic way of saying "what were they thinking when the folks on Easter Island cut the tree down, pushing the forest system past the tipping point?"
Jim Devine