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He asks us to include whole new ranges of geographical and other knowledge in our attempts to explain why civilization throve here and withered there.
Now, that doesn't mean that his work is error-free, or that his conclusions are completely correct. And in Guns, Germs, and Steel he is careful to point out that his thesis does not replace history and does not explain everything.
Rather he is merely asserting that certain physical conditions must be met before a great civilization can arise. These conditions don't guarantee the rise of a civilization and they don't, except in the broadest sense, determine the form that civilization will take.
Guns, Germs, and Steel was a great book.
Unfortunately, Jared Diamond is also a true believer in the religion of environmentalism, an apocalyptic belief system in which humans always seem to foul not only their own nest, but the nests of every other creature.
So he followed up Guns, Germs, and Steel with his testamentary book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
The subtitle suggested a discussion of the many ways that individual nations and empires, or the broader civilizations they may represent, make choices that determine the duration, resilience and dominance of their culture and of their polity.
But the book is not that at all. Instead, it's a bit of a screed limited solely to discussion of the ecological mistakes that can lead a society to defeat itself.
Alas, this is almost a trivial topic, unless you're a True Believer. Why? Most societies, cultures and polities fail, when they fail, for reasons having nothing at all to do with ecological mistakes.
It is true that some societies have collapsed because of ecological disasters, but most of these are not human induced. And over the vast sweep of history, the persistence of this or that culture rarely has anything at all to do with how they treat their local environment.
Even Jared Diamond's own examples are actually proof of the opposite of what he believes they prove.
For instance, in Collapse he talks about the fact that the statue-building Easter Island culture "ended" when their misuse of the fragile ecosystem of their tiny island eliminated the surpluses that gave them time to build their statues.
But what he fails to recognize is that the people did not die out. The statue-building culture continued with only one difference: They stopped building statues.
That culture was not replaced by another one; new people did not come in and drive out the old; there was no genetic discontinuity. In other words, all that happened was that they adapted to environmental change – just as cultures everywhere adapt to environmental change.
There was no "collapse," just change. This is precisely the area of history that Guns, Germs, and Steel did not address.
The inexplicable thing about Easter Island is not that they stopped building statues – it's that they ever started. Because they never had enough surpluses to make the building of stone monuments an obvious thing to do.
I've found that most criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel are either nit-picking that doesn't undermine his thesis, or straw-man arguments that attack Diamond for saying things that he does not say.
However, Collapse, being a religious tract, is wide open for serious criticism at almost every level, mostly because Diamond's philosophy is faith-based: He starts from the premise that human beings foul things up, and then proceeds to provide only the information that will support that premise.
In other words, he's doing exactly what Creationists and Intelligent Designists do: He bears witness to the faith through which he filters all his data, and thinks he has proven something.
It doesn't mean he's wrong; it just means he hasn't actually said anything scholarly or scientific.
Which brings me to the interesting but imperfect anti-book Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire (ed. McAnanay & Yoffee).
The book consists of a series of essays refuting, or trying to refute, the examples that Diamond uses in Collapse.
Some of the essays are closely reasoned critiques or scientific corrections that leave Diamond's arguments – never very strong – in tatters.
The articles on Easter Island, the Andean Indians and Mesopotamia, for instance, make it obvious that the religion of environmentalism is hopelessly inadequate as an explanation of human history – unless you know nothing about that history, or are willing to overlook all the inconvenient truths that don't bear out the eco-apocalyptic theme.
Other essays, however, are by believers in competing religions; Michael Wilcox's answer to Diamond's assertions about the collapse of Southwest Indian cultures is more petulant than scholarly.
Wilcox has a couple of valid points, but mostly he makes equally specious claims about the continuity of Indian cultures and the rectitude of Native American claims to ownership of all artifacts found in "their" territory, even though all genuine evidence indicates that the artifacts have nothing to do with the tribes that happened to occupy the ground when Europeans came.
When two faith-based groups argue over points of doctrine, those of us who care about the actual scholarship must politely close the door and let them have their little quarrels.
Truth is so elusive and complicated. So are individual human beings. Jared Diamond made a valuable contribution to our present way of thinking about the past with Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I still recommend it – and the way of thinking it represents – as part of the basic education of anyone who wants to go into history, fiction or any related story-telling art.
But often the author of a Great Book goes on to write books of a very different caliber. Just as Stephen Pinker went on from the fascinating and valuable Language Instinct to write books of absurd overclaiming about the science of mind, which fall completely over the line into faith rather than science, so also Jared Diamond went from his Great Book to a heartfelt diatribe about his passionate faith.
And yet the critics of both are often just as guilty of letting their own unprovable beliefs take the place of scientific or scholarly reasoning in their counter-arguments.
No one is immune to having core beliefs influence the way they reason about the world. Everyone has undiscovered beliefs that they don't even know they have because it does not occur to them that anyone could believe otherwise.
But when you claim that you're writing scholarly or scientific works, the value of your work will depend, not just on the beliefs of others that you challenge, but also your willingness to question or doubt your own conclusions.
Diamond and Pinker both adhere to that standard in the Great Books; both plummet from that standard to obvious ignorance of their own biases in subsequent works.
I do not doubt their sincerity; I merely question the value of those later works as science or scholarship. Both fall into the error of overclaiming; both commit the scientific crime of treating as proven that which has not even been tested....continued on page 3