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Wednesday, 19 May 2010


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According to Jared Diamond, this sort of thing happens all the time (e.g.). The question becomes one of elasticity: how overextended is civilization at this point? Can the lost resources be replaced, the lost paths be rerouted? Will dramatic political change absorb the resulting social shifts, or is systemic catastrophe the only way through?


And just think one caused by nature and one caused by man. Atleast it was BP and not the company that gave you the lifestyle you no longer have, but did when you were little. Just think of the world we are leaving behind.



So what you're telling me is that I read Collapse? I think you'd be the first historian to ever recommend a Diamond book ever.


When I was little, we didn't live in a mansion. I shared a small bedroom with my brother. You and Dad decided to wait to get wealthy until after I left the nest. I've never understood why, though, since I know you two love me the most.


I'm not recommending it, merely noting that this is an issue he discussed. I think what he did was bad history, in the sense that he focuses on cases of collapse but has no controls: no studies of situations where ecological disasters don't cause total cultural anhiliation. That was my point: like the flooding Yangzi or sinking Dutch farmlands, humans can adapt to these catastrophes, even normalize them, if they're not completely overextended. Or, take the Xin Dynasty, which was politically unstable and beset by floods, earthquakes, etc.: it fell, but Chinese civilization just went right on trucking, as they say.

Rich Puchalsky

"has no controls: no studies of situations where ecological disasters don't cause total cultural anhiliation"

Actually, I remember that the book spends a significant amount of time talking about Japan as a case of a small, vulnerable, highly populated and stressed ecosystem that nevertheless did not collapse.

That's not quite the same as talking about cases of ecological disaster that didn't cause civilization to fall. But it is a sort of control.

I don't really have much patience for the "Jared Diamond does bad history" bit. He's a more important historian than any other living person. He's probably the most important public intellectual in the world. That's something that historians just have to deal with, whether or not his work comes up to whatever the field's supposed standards are.

Rich Puchalsky

Also, people really should look into the concept of the Wexelblat disaster.


And lets not forget the recent earthquacks.


Rich, in case you didn't notice, I was engaging with his argument. There's no point in engaging with his arguments as though they were right, when they're not. And, as an historian, I don't give a damn what you do or don't have patience with, when my profession's standards are at issue.

Martin Wisse

Diamond only has value as a starting point, if you've never thought about the issues he talks about in his books, but he's unreliable, he's more wrong than right and he has the annoying tendency to assume he knows more on any given subject than the experts.

Rich Puchalsky

I don't know of anyone who has provided a convincing argument that Diamond is largely wrong about the main ideas in his books. Mostly, his detractors seem to claim that he got this or that factoid wrong. Which is the typical complaint of people who work in a specialized field about a generalist who is also writing popular works. He's not a historian: he's a geographer -- one who, by the way, helped to create the science of conservation biology -- and there is no particular reason to evaluate his work as if it consists of peer-reveiwed historical publications.


Actually, he's not really a geographer, either: he's a physiologist, I think, who got cross-appointed to geography. But he's using historical evidence (archeological, textual, cultural) to make historical judgements: how the hell is that not subject to review by historians? Why shouldn't he be held to the same standards of evidence and logic to which I hold my undergraduate and graduate history students?

Here are the more substantial academic reviews I was able to find in JSTOR and Ebsco:
* Current Anthropology, Volume 46, Supplement, December 2005, "Perspectives on Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" pp. 91 - 99)
* Hal Rothman, "Review: So Many Civilizations, So Few Pages: A Review Essay," Population and Development Review, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Sep., 2005), pp. 573-580

Both of them (the first one is actually a bunch of authors) applaud Diamond's reach and vision, but argue pretty convincingly that he's overreached and has substantial blind spots.

One of the more damning lines I saw was from Gregg Easterbrook -- not my favorite reviewer, by a long shot, but sometimes right -- that "Diamond's analysis discounts culture and human thought as forces in history; culture, especially, is seen as a side effect of environment." This extended discussion ends on a great note: "No one visits Stonehenge, she noted, and asks whatever happened to the English." There's also a long review in LRB by an economist, who gives a good look at what's wrong with Diamond's arguments from that perspective.

I've not actually been able to find any full-bore reviews by academic historians, I suspect because it's a trade publication (and they are rarely reviewed in the journals) and because it's primarily situated in anthropology and geography (both of which are rarely reviewed in history journals). Anthropologists, by the way, don't like Diamond much, either.

This is not about 'factoids': a work of synthesis isn't good just by virtue of going outside normal disciplinary boundaries and conventions; it's only good if it succeeds in making an argument that can't be made by conventional means, and doing so without distorting the evidence and logic of the material.

Rich Puchalsky

I really have to figure out how to use my equivocal connection with Umass to get access to JSTOR going. Thanks for the references, but I don't think I can access them right now.

I refuse to waste any of my life reading anything by Easterbrook seriously. He's progressed from cluelessness to active global warming denial. He's a hack, and you can gain nothing from a hack being "sometimes right", because too much effort needs to go into seeing how they are trying to fool you. My brief exposure to Savage Minds makes it clear that they don't speak for anthropology in general, nor does the "Vengeance is Mine" controversy really impeach Diamond's major works. I'll read the LRB piece.

But in general what I'm concerned with is what you refer to as reach and vision. Were people really making Diamond's arguments before he did? Maybe someone was, somewhere. But I certainly don't know who they were, as a general reader interested in these topics. I don't think that those arguments were being made by conventional means, not by anyone who was being heard. And I remain unconvinced that Diamond was "distorting the evidence and logic of the material"; most of the claims that I've seen that say he was use the old trick of overstating his claims in order to make fun of them, as when they say that he says that *everything* must come down to geography. Well, no, but if you ignore all the disclaimers in his books, you can read him as saying something like that.

Rich Puchalsky

All right, I read the LRB piece. It's not that bad, but the objections are pretty much what I expected. Here's a quote:

"At one point he claims that ‘all of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology,’ to which I felt like shouting in exasperation that perhaps at some times, in some places, a few of the unintended consequences of our existing technology have been beneficial. Reading Diamond you would think our ancestors should all have remained hunter-gatherers in Africa, co-evolving with the native flora and fauna, and roaming the wilds in search of wild berries and the occasional piece of meat."

Look at that first sentence. He's disputing a statement with another one that is fully consistent with it! It could be perfectly true that all of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology *and* that a few of the unintended consequences of our existing technology have been beneficial. Diamond is being taken to task for ... what? Not writing everything that the critic wants him to write?

And it's totally untrue that Diamond's books give the impression that he thinks we should have remained hunter-gatherers. That's just standard low-grade environmentalist baiting.

What the LRB piece comes down to is a claim that instead of writing the book that he wrote, Diamond should have written another book, one which dismisses pessimism about environmental damage in favor of the magic of the marketplace -- as long as that marketplace is corrected for environmental externalities. And, of course, that book has already been written, many times. Facile optimism and technocratic certainty that we have nothing to worry about just weren't very convincing, or as well supported as Diamond's book was.



I had a longish comment drafted yesterday, but it was eaten by IE, so I'll try and reconstruct the relevant bits of it now.

Tim Burke had a post back in the day responding to the Savage Minds debate, where he largely agreed with your response (it's not Burke's most accessible piece; by contrast, this piece on GG&S is both generous and encapsulates much of the response I've witnessed from historians to Diamond - more on that below). The much bigger problem Anthropologists have had with Diamond had to with an article that he published in the New York Times on violent conflicts in Papua New Guinea, that seemed to violate the ethical standards of Anthropology, while claiming the protections of journalism, but not really thinking through the ethical concerns of that profession either (DeLong nicely brought some of that debate in front of the pay wall).

Some historians may have dismissed Diamond out of hand as a popularizer (read: hack), but I would say most would argue that what he's done has been valuable for encouraging people to think about broad historical questions, even if we might approach them differently. I don't know if anyone has proffered Diamond's particular synthesis before (I'm not deeply familiar with global histories), but the elements of it are all pretty shop-worn and familiar to most historians. So to answer your question, Diamond isn't much of an innovator, at least in this area, but his is a very effective public intellectual, and history needs more of those working on it's behalf.

So the question is what are the problems with Diamond's synthesis and are they the sort of things that come down to academic quibbles or do they have real negative consequences for the sort of narrative that Diamond's trying to put across. Zunguzungu thinks the latter, arguing that the sort of people who would defend biological racism at this point aren't likely to be convinced by rational arguments and that Diamond's materialist arguments actually play into a kind of culturalist racism. I don't think I agree, both in that there is a great deal of soft racism or racialism out there among people who respond well to rational arguments when they encounter them (though I think that arguments of the kind presented here are both more accurate and more effective) and that, while Diamond does tend to reinscribe racial categories, I don't think his arguments particularly lend themselves to a culturalist/racial pathology argument. In other words, while I think that Diamond gets at a decidedly partial truth, I don't think that it's a dangerously partial one. I don't think that reading Diamond would keep anyone from grappling with Braudel, should they have a mind to, and if they got seduced by Andre Gunder Frank, that wouldn't be Diamond's fault.

All that said, if someone come to me as a historian and asks what we collectively think of GG&S, as someone did just yesterday, I would/did pass along to them the common critiques that we have: that he pretty much ignores culture or treats it as instrumental rather than dynamic; that rather than a single history of differentiation and unevenness, we tend to see a movement of centers of political, economic and scientific developments over time as different ideas or institutions were taken up and developed in different areas; that there's less of a race to the finish and more of an ebb and flow. Someone who writes about history doesn't get to be exempt from historians' critiques, especially because there are important things that you can miss at the level of synthesis if you don't fully understand the work that's gone into producing a historical study in the first place.

Rich Puchalsky

Species counts of domesticable animals are familiar to most historians? Well, OK. I'll note in passing that I don't think whoever wrote that zunguzungu post seems to have read the book, in that "you are left with a theory about history that wants to use internal social factors to explain everything about a society and external factors to explain nothing" appears to be exactly wrong as a characterization of Diamond's views, and that Diamond certainly does spend a lot of time describing people from different areas interacting with each other.

But to get to the main point -- "he pretty much ignores culture or treats it as instrumental rather than dynamic" fails as a criticism of GG&S. For one thing, it's just bad reading. Diamond gives disclaimers, over and over in GG&S, that cultural factors are important but that he's going to ignore them. Why does he have to do this? Because he can't write a book that's about everything. That's where my original lack of patience that I referred to starts to come back. Why is Diamond a good popular writer? In part because he can set out what his idea is and then write about it. If he's writing about China, he doesn't feel that he has to go into a long, scholarly digression about various theories about why China didn't industrialize -- although if I remember rightly he does mention their existence. He does not have to spend half the book talking about culture when the book is not about culture.

Yes, I would guess that professional historians tend to see a movement of different centers etc. rather than a single history of differentiation and unevenness. Why? Because they are specialists. Their job is, usually, to dig into a particular area and learn lots of details about it. So of course they see a detailed, nuanced view of everything historical. That's a good thing, if you're writing scholarly papers. It's not a good thing if you're trying to communicate a new view of history to the public, which is really what GG&S did.


Rich, if you send me an email address (you can find mine on my blog), I'll send you the PDFs.

I don't think it'll matter, though, because you've apparently already decided that Diamond's raising of issues matters more than whether he was right about those issues. Most of us aren't hostile to 'popularizers' so much as we are hostile to 'manglers' whose popular and entertaining errors then haunt our work for a generation (or more, if the errors get embedded into non-specialist narratives). You've also forgotten that historians -- those of us with real jobs, anyway, not R1 sinecures -- spend a great deal of their time and energy 'popularizing' history in semester-sized chunks.

Rich Puchalsky

My Email address is rpuchalsky 1 at gmail dot com.

I do have a strong presumption that Diamond is right, actually. Why shouldn't I? That doesn't mean that I'm not willing to consider opposing arguments. It does mean that I find his arguments compelling and I haven't seen anything that really attacks them in a way that I think damages them. Specifically, I don't see what "popular and entertaining error" he's supposed to have made that's going to haunt the work of historians for a generation. That culture and historical contingency in general are totally unimportant? But he never said that.

I also don't see the point of the semester-to-book comparison. First of all, most history courses don't try to present a general theory of world history, as Diamond has. They focus on particular times and places. And then they have a whole semester to go over the material, commonly requiring their students to read many books. You can't say that the opportunity to cover detail is the same.


Yes, I would guess that professional historians tend to see a movement of different centers etc. rather than a single history of differentiation and unevenness. Why? Because they are specialists.

No, not because we're specialists. First of all, historians work at many different levels of specialization, and historians produce works of synthesis too (if you want to see how great historians do it, read Ferdinand Braudel or E. J. Hobsbawm, or, if you want something written with a popular audience in mind, try historical anthropologist Sidney Mintz). The reason why our grand narratives look one way and ones produced by a sociologist like Immanual Wallerstein look another is that we are trained not to do history backwards, to recognize that the present isn't given in the past and that while all of human history has in built to whatever moment this happens to be, that it could also have have built to an infinite number of other moments.

There are plenty of things wrong with the disciplinary culture of history that make it nigh unto impossible for most of us to be popularizers. Most prominent is our near physiological inability to avoid nuance and equivocation. Again, this is not so much about specialization as the way that we are trained to critically evaluate evidence and construct narratives that leave in as much of the honest messiness of human experience as it will bear.

No one expects a history of everything; that's a strawman. It's entirely possible to pick a global topic and say, I'm writing a history of, for example, physical environment and it's effect on different societies (and, yeah, anyone who teaches the first half of a history survey deals with domestication of animals) and then say that while the history of technology is important it's not my main concern. However, if one chooses to do this, the further into the iron age one travels the less this will make any kind of sense and by the time one reaches the industrial era it will render one's narrative essentially fictional. Similarly you don't have to give big long footnotes where you note all of the other possible books your reader might wish to examine, including those you think are an interesting kind of bullshit, much as we might like those footnotes. If, however, you want to claim that your theory has special explanatory power, rather than just being another way to pass the time, then it just makes sense to explain what it is that other theories are lacking.

Look, I think I've been pretty clear that I think there are planty of good things about Diamond. If you're still upset the I/we think that there are reasonable criticizisms to be made, then you're not objecting to the nature of the criticism, you're saying that you don't want to have to think any differently about the subject. Think of it this way: you not infrequently bring up science fiction books here. If memory serves, there are any number of them that you like, which you think do entertaining or interesting things, but which you would also recognize as possessing flaws or as being subject to criticism of one kind or another. For another reader those agreed upon flaws might tip the balance into "I didn't like it." It's the same thing here. Historians aren't collectively casting Diamond into the ninth pit of hell, we're just saying there are some weak spots in his argument. For some, those weak spots are significant enough that they don't like the book or even that they wouldn't recommend reading it. If you've thought about those criticisms and still enjoy the book, what's the problem?

Rich Puchalsky

I'm not objecting to any criticism of Diamond; this particular thread began with Ahist's claim that because he didn't include a certain type of controls, what Diamond had written was in a sense bad history. I think that goes beyond the usual "This book has flaws, and for me they were enough so that I didn't like it" because Ahist is calling on the full force of disciplinary standards to say the book was bad. I'm not really objecting to your characterization of the book, although I do still think that you're citing common arguments against it (e.g. "he pretty much ignores culture") that would make it impossible for any similar book to be written.

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