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.
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.