Debunking Diamond

These guys at the Commons Blog have read Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, so I don’t have to. I thought Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel was good, but it stopped just when things were getting interesting. Sure, the people from the Eurasian temperate climate zone were pre-loaded to take over the world. But, then, why not China? And why did Western Europe surge ahead? And why then did America? Diamond’s explanation of stuff from the Stone Age, and about the settlement of the Pacific islands, was very good. But his application to the last few hundred years did not add much to my understanding. So, I was dubious about his new one, which reviews suggested was “timely” in a bad way. Everything I’d read about the sequel made it sound like it was rather conventional ecological apocalyptic fear-mongering. Sounds like I was right, based on the post I linked to. Check out the detailed debunking if this stuff interests you.

11 thoughts on “Debunking Diamond”

  1. “Why the US and not Latin America?” is one of the great questions that he fails to address. Many South American nations were as wealthy as European ones before World War I. What happened?

  2. Lex, I’ve read Guns, Germs and Steel, and liked it as well. However, it seems to me that Diamond does not want to take his research to the end because he does not want to admit that there might be something special about American indeed. The companion TV series on PBS is, unfortunately, useless. The book stands on its own as a terrific piece of work, even if it does try to avoid the touchy subject of the current American hegemony.

  3. John, I agree that he did not want to focus in too ####### the last few centuries of economic takeoff because it would start to get “un-PC”. Bruce, the book does have merit, and I learned a lot from it. I would put American hegemony in the larger domain of Anglosphere exceptionalism — which leads me to Lindenin’s one-word summmary. The problem with one word summaries is they require multi-word explanations, which takes you back where you were. Anyway, my one word summary would be, not culture, but “law”. Iberian law was Roman law, while the English brought their common law with them. This had political and economic and cultural ramifications. This is a set of interwoven chicken-and-the-egg problems. But if I had to pick a one word summary, I’d go with English law versus Continental law. But, to add one more “but”, one of the key lessons of Alan Macfarlane’s two-volume masterwork The Riddle of the Modern World and The Making of the Modern World, is that there is no monocausality, there is a thick cable of many strands of causality woven together over centuries which make a country or a community what it is.

  4. Lex,

    My take on Guns largely dovetails with yours. Still, I think that, while culture may define the inter-Core differences (if I may use Dr. Barnett’s terminology), it doesn’t seem to serve quite so well when it comes to demonstrating why the European portion of the great Eurasian landmass became the Core to the rest of the world’s Gap. In some ways, though, it speaks more highly of Diamond that he seemed to gloss over the “where in Eurasia” question, as opposed to trying to shove an answer down our throats; by that time, I, for one, had had enough of his New Guinean tribesmen, which was where I thought most of the more PC-aspects of the book came into play.

  5. Yep, culture. The Chinese just missed by that much before the Europeans started their explosive period of exploration and imperalism. The voyages of Admiral Ho

    carried them to the east coast of Africa. Just a little bit more and they could have preempted the motivation of the Europeans to seek them out. However as the article relates –

    “On the return trip in 1433 Cheng Ho is believed to have died; others state that he died in 1435 after the return to China. Nonetheless, the era of exploration for China was soon over as the following emperors prohibited trade and even the construction of ocean-going vessels.”

    Chinese culture as practice by the royal court was insular, believing themselves superior to all others on the planet, and hostile to the merchant class. The rest, as they say, is history.

  6. I think the best explanation for why Europe took off instead of China is that northern Europe was at the time on the ass-end of the earth. In order to get luxury goods like silk, porcelain and spices they had to trade over vast distances. By contrast, China produced most of its luxury goods internally and could import spices from the relatively close south pacific.

    The technological and organizational challenges of long distances trading led to the development in northwestern Europe of the institutions of capitalism such as the joint stock company, the independent bank, insurance companies, abstract property, contract law etc. Once these institutions were in place, they could also be used to support industrial production.

    The political fragmentation of Europe prevented any one political entity from strangling off the rising power of the commercial classes. In China, periodic flowerings of trade and technology were always eventually suppressed as threats to the status quo. In Europe, there was always little pockets of commercial freedom, Venice, Holland, England, America where centralized powers could not reach. As one pocket fell prey to politics, the action shifted to another.

    If luxury goods had been more easily available and political power more centralized, Europe probably would have never taken off.

  7. IIRC in >Guns> Diamond did suggest some possible reasons for Europe rather than Chinese global dominance. Primarily that geography and relatively lower agricultural core productivity promoted multiple states, which then competed militarily and economically.
    I’m not sure if Diamond made this point: in addition to competing European states, there were were nearby states of rival civilisations esp. Ottoman Turkey, whereas China eclipsed it’s neighbours.

    I’m not sure if Diamond made the point that also, competing states probably enhaced likelyhood of relative liberty: no central ruler to enforce conformity; need to balance church, merchants, lords etc; value of innovation for a commercial, agricultural or military edge.
    Consider what a handicap for Europe it would have been if the Habsburgs had managed conquer France and England, and subsequently enforce a Counter-Reformation imperium over the continent.
    Plus, competing states with relatively autonomous internal groups and traditions of law and liberty beyond the rulers whim, made it less like for the state to become the sort of military and/or bureaucratic kleptocracy that emerged in Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal and Manchu empires.

    I’m inclined to agree with those who argue Diamond under-values cultural factors. But I think they work in complex interaction with both bio/geo factors, and contingency.

  8. The book was published late 2004, and on 1/1/05 the NYTimes ran an op-ed by Diamond. Ginny posted on that one. I added a comment to that post calling Diamond’s book “fashionable eco-trash.”

    Since than I have read (but cannot find) a longish article explaining that the Easter Islanders were not participants in an eco-catastrophe, but were victims of European contact which brought diseases and slavery.

    My opinion of Diamond is unaltered.

  9. The Easter Islanders certainly made their own disaster (though it wasn’t the last to befall them).  From Wikipedia:

    Modern Easter Island has virtually no trees. The island once possessed a forest of palms and it has generally been thought that native Easter Islanders deforested the island in the process of erecting their statues (which were rolled over logs from the quarry to their raising sites), along with the construction of fishing boats and buildings. Also important was the introduction of the Polynesian rat which ate the palm’s seeds. However, given the island’s southern latitude, the climatic effects of the Little Ice Age (about 1650 to 1850) may have contributed to deforestation and other changes. The disappearance of the island’s trees seems to coincide with a decline of the Easter Island civilization around the 14th-15 century AD. Midden contents show a sudden drop in quantities of fish and bird bones as the islanders lost the means to construct fishing vessels and the birds lost their nesting sites. Soil erosion due to lack of trees may have damaged some farms. Sediment samples document that up to half of the native plants had become extinct by then and that the vegetation of the island was drastically altered. Chickens and rats became leading items of diet and there are (not unequivocally accepted) hints at cannibalism occurring, based on human remains associated with cooking sites, especially in caves.

    All of this occurred well before the first European arrived in 1722.

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