New Diamond

Reference to Michael Hiteshew’s review of Guns, Germs and Steel.

Last week, I enjoyed reading Hiteshew’s remarks (Dec. 28) and they brought back memories of a book I also enjoyed. Diamond’s insights have seemed to me useful and interesting. I was less happy to wake up to an NPR interview with him this morning, as he complained about global warming and overpopulation. It seemed, well, more trite than I’d remembered. These days I (appropriately) trust my memory less and less. However, when a friend sent “Kicking the Habitat” by Francis Fukayama, a review of Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed this afternoon, I began to suspect a more politicized or at least transitory agenda.

I certainly don’t get much read – Lex is intimidating – but thought the review might prompt discussion so I could learn more about both Diamond and Fukayama.

The earlier Guns, with its emphasis upon inevitability, the toughness derived from living beside domesticated animals, the problems with homogeneity in a gene pool, etc. seemed an argument for tough and transparent opennness. Sure, he seems to be working awfully hard (as most of the reviewers on Amazon note with approval) at dismantling any importance given to race and, as observers on this site noted, to culture. But his arguments about the north/south and east/west axis were interesting. The fact that the American Indians did not share much in terms of plants and animals seemed an interesting argument for, well, globalization. And culture does arise in response to many things and surely the environmental conditions he described affect it. (Okay, the MacArthur prize might have idicated he wasn’t really into global business ventures.) Still, he described what seemed inevitable–the importance of guns, germs, and steel. And he said it in an interesting way. Indeed, it reminded me of Sowell discussing coast lines. However, the accusatory subtitle of the new book indicates the hectoring tone that came on with my alarm this morning. Of course, one might argue that it implies personal responsibility rather than fatalism, but Fukayama doesn’t seem to take it that way.

Fukayama observes:

While the individual stories are entertaining, a question remains as to how much light they shed on our current situation. Many of Mr. Diamond’s case studies involve societies situated in marginal parts of the globe, like Greenland or tiny Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, where societies rarely flourish under the best of circumstances. A more interesting choice of cases would have involved societies collapsing amid plenty — 20th-century Argentina comes to mind.

The first book wasn’t humble, it took a long range view. But I didn’t feel I was being brow-beaten nor that we were going on this interesting trek so he could make points. If his interview and this review are any indication, here he seems to choose interpretations he has tailoed to fit modern biases a bit too snugly.

Fukayama concludes:

Mr. Diamond seems to think that globalization and free trade increase the risk of global collapse because they create interdependencies and hence vulnerability. Yet a properly functioning global trading system should do precisely the opposite, by providing multiple sources of critical supplies, all flexibly mediated through a price mechanism. To the extent that there is a looming global food problem, it has less to do with environmental limits than with agricultural protectionism in rich countries — i.e., too little rather than too much free trade.

8 thoughts on “New Diamond”

  1. Gosh, I love Jared Diamond. I was so excited to see here that he has a new book out. I just Amazoned it and hopefully I’ll be back here soon and take part in the discussion!

  2. It sounds as if Diamond has fallen for the latest catastrophe du jour. There always has to be a catastrophe, you see, for political purposes.

    By the way, how did that Club of Roma’s predictions turn out? Billions starving by the 1990s, or something like that. Catastrophes are great if you put them far enough into the future so that most people conveniently forget about your predictions when they don’t come true.

    And if you can get politicians and the gullible to fall for it and press for your political agenda, all the better. The “truth” is secondary, or as a post-modernist might say: “not only is the truth irrelevant, but it doesn’t even exist.”

  3. I read Diamond’s Essay in the New York Times on New Years Day. Then, following a link from Marginal Revolution, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Diamond’s Book.

    At some point in this exercise an epiphany occured, Diamond was reincarnating the eco-catastrophies of the Club of Rome, Dennis Forrester and Paul Erlich. Julian Simon, zt’l, who is enshrined above, punked Erlich with his famous wager, and you should read, and rely on, Simon’s The Ultimate Resource. More recently, Danish Economist Bjorn Lomborg has advanced Simon’s case with his book: The Skeptical Environmentalist.

    What I saw of Diamond’s anecdotal evidence does nothing to lessen my suspicion that his book is fashionable eco-trash. Take the Vikings in Greenland. Diamond claims that they starved because they would not eat the abundent fish in the waters there around. Modern Scandanavians are famous for eating fermented herring, lutefisk and whale blubber. Are we to believe that this is a recently acquired tatse. Matt Ygelesias was skeptical and was able round up primary evidence casting doubt on this thesis in a few minutes of research using Google.

    The other anecdotes are not much better. The Maya “Classic Period,” as modern archeologists call it, did come to an end. The causation for the end of that period is not well documented nor well understood. It was not the end of Maya Civilization, Chichen Itza belongs to a later time, nor was it the end of the Maya People who have surrvived to this day in large numbers. Easter Island was a more complete catsatrophe, but even there we lack sufficent evidence to do more than conjecture. The ecological horror story told by Diamond is entertaining, but it is entirely circumstantial and conjectural.

    The claim that the Rawandan genocide was caused by ecological degradation simply enrages me. Are the Rawandans, sock puppets who have no moral agency? Were they simply bombs wired to go off at a certain temperature and pressure. It is one thing to organize political action or even to begin a revolutionary movement to redress an unjust distribution of property and power in a society. To hack a million men, women and children to death without descrimination or mercy is not a result of a cause but a willed act of the deepest evil. The next step in that type of argument would be to claim that the Holocaust was a result of the Great Depression. Germany was forced to conquer Europe, round up the Jews and slaughter them. The Nazis had no choice. Like I said, the argument enrages me.

    Overall, nothing I have seen about the book makes me want to read it.

  4. Thanks, Schwartz – I think you went to more labor and put more thought into this comment than I into the post.

    What strikes me is that he seems to see groups as committing a kind of communal sacrifice. That might well fit cultures today that see their cultures as meaningless and choose neither reproduction nor defense. That doesn’t, however, seem to be where he was going.

  5. Dear Ginny:

    Thanks. Just call me Bob or Robert.

    The interesting writer on the cultural/religious asspects of group suicide is pseudonymous Spengler. Read his most recent article Here and check the online colection Here.

    Diamond is a much more conventional and pedestrian thinker who is recycling old junk.

    P.S. I confounded Jay Forrester who was one of the founders of the Club of Rome, and his pupil Dennis Meadows who was the author of Limits to Growth.

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