George Johnson has a very confused critique of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” in today’s Science Times. It begins inauspiciously, as he acknowledges that his first exposure to “Collapse” consisted of listening to the first chapter of the audiobook while driving from the airport to an academic colloquium on the book near Tucson. I know reporters are busy people, but is it too much to expect someone to read the book before he attends the conference? Then we get a weird interlude in which he visits a kitschy souvenir store advertising something called “The Thing”. This turns out to be the mummified remains of an Indian woman and child. Then he gives us a far-fetched interpretive reach:
“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.
If these really are the complaints he’s been hearing about Diamond, they seem like weird complaints. That first chapter of “Collapse”, about the Easter Islanders denuding their own island of palm trees in an irrational beggar-thy-neighbor competition to build larger stone moabs, hardly characterizes the islanders as “things”. “Things” don’t have status competitions.
Johnson goes on to explain the critique a bit better: Diamond is accused by some anthropologists of giving undue weight to environmental and geographical factors in determining the long-arc paths of human history, rather than cultural or volitional, human-determined factors. One Deborah Gewertz, of Amherst, complains that in Diamond, “The haves are not to be blamed for the condition of the have-nots.” Which pretty much tells you where she’s coming from. But then Johnson moves seamlessly on to Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii, who contests Diamond’s account of the fall of Easter Island:
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.”
Okay, wait a minute. A second ago, Diamond was blamed for putting all the blame on environmental factors, rather than on human decisions. Now, he’s blamed for putting all the blame on human decisions, rather than on environmental factors. This critique, it might be noted, is no more accurate than the first one. One of the major factors Diamond finds determining civilizational sustainability on Pacific islands in “Collapse” is the distance of the island from the “dust plume” blowing off the Asian mainland, which replenishes island topsoil. Easter Island was especially vulnerable because it’s the furthest island from the Asian dust plume. This “shifts all the burden to people” rather than “a complex ecosystem”? Really?
What is this, other than a bunch of people whining, for different reasons, about an academic whose book is more famous and successful than their own?
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