Questioning Collapse

In an unfortunately-forgotten bit of 70s academic bloodsport, Marvin Harris and Marshall Sahlins battled it out in the pages of the New York Review of Books over the origin Aztec cannibalism: was it, as Harris argued, something Aztecs were driven to as a result of a protein deficiency? No, Sahlins answered, but even if it was all of the symbolism and institutions surrounding it would still have to be explained as a result of culture, not nutrition. Sahlins’s argument was devastatingly convincing because it explained two phenomenon with a single maneuver: Aztec cannibalism was a result of culture, not nutritional needs, just as Harris’s belief in it was motivated not by facts, but by his own (American) cultural tendency to see human behavior as shaped by biological factors.

A disagreement with similar contours is afoot today. The latest skirmish in the Jared Diamond wars deals not only with issues of scholarly accuracy, but also the cultural/personal motivation of the protagonists as well as the social effects of their arguments. The main protagonists are the authors of Questioning Collapse, an edited volume in which expert scholars take issue with Jared Diamond’s reading of their specialty topics: the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) specialist discusses Diamond’s use of the Rapa Nui data, the Incan specialist discusses Diamond on Pizzaro and Atahualpa, and so forth. The book is critical of Diamond, who has responded with a review in Nature that is none too friendly itself.

The Usual Denunciations are already issuing from Stinky Journalism.org, which mostly focus on how unethical it was for Diamond to write a review of a book that criticized his book without explicitly telling readers the book he was criticizing criticized him. You can check it out if you want, but I think its much more interesting to see how the back and forth between Questioning Collapse and Diamond exemplified some of the issues that played out twenty years earlier in the Sahlins/Harris debate. How do we tack between the social effects of our work and its accuracy? How can we address the cultural underpinnings that motivate an author’s writing without falling back into ad hominem attacks? How well does Collapse stand up to scholarly scrutiny? And how good a job does Questioning Collapse do of reaching out to Diamond’s popular audience? These questions are worth asking — even if you are a little burned out on the Jared Diamond wars.

In this piece I want to review Questioning Collapse through the lens of these issues. I’ll start by working backwards from Diamond’s review in Nature to the book itself. In the end, I find Questioning Collapse’s critique of Diamond extremely compelling, particularly for the way it highlights the theoretical difficulties of Diamond’s position. That said, however, Questioning Collapse’s (henceforth ‘QC’) authors often don’t do the readers any favors — as a piece of public anthropology I feel it has a long way to go.

Diamond’s piece is actually a review of two books, Questioning Collapse and The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age. In the event, however, only about 400 of its 1300 words focus on the later volume. In the review, Diamond pulls a classic Sahlins maneuver, arguing that the authors are driven by a tendentious preference for a “positive message about human behavior” is “laudable” but, unfortunately, does not mesh well with the facts. The result is a “naively optimistic redefinition” of the data which “inevitably forces one to distort history and to avoid trying to explain what really happened.” Indeed, Diamond even claims that although they take issue with his work the authors of QC “do not offer a substitute thesis” for facts which “cry out for explanation, even if one relabels them as something other than collapse”. Political correctness, it seems, blinds Questioning Collapse to The Facts. Or, as the subtitle of the review puts it, ‘realism’ (i.e. Diamond) must trump ‘positivity’ (i.e. QC).

In fact there are four themes in Questioning Collapse: that of resilience (as opposed to collage), of colonialism (‘empire expansion’), of the similarity of current environmental issues to the past, and that of what constitutes an adequate popular anthropology. Diamond deals mostly with the first two topics in his review, and I will skip the third here but I’ll address the rest as well as make a few points about the factual errors each side accuses the other of having.

Resilience versus collapse, or, seven million Mayans can’t be wrong

Is Diamond correct when he says QC’s feel-good agenda prevents it from seeing the truth about collapse? On this first major claim, I think Diamond and QC are talking past one another. At the broadest level, QC takes issue with the three key words in Collapse’s title: ‘collapse’, ’success’, and ‘choose’. What, specifically, counts as collapse? The authors of QC argue that there is more to societal continuity than Diamond’s focus on population size and social complexity. There are, they point out, millions of Mayan people alive today — how then can we say that Mayan culture has disappeared? They also point out that it is hard to tell where one society starts and another begins. Is agriculture in the Netherlands an example of ecological success once we think about the effects their importation of fodder has on countries like Brazil from which they import it? And ‘success’: how long does a society have to be around before it is officially considered to be one? In his excellent article in the QC McNeill points out that Diamond plays fast and loose with dates — the Greenland Norse, for instance, survived longer than all of the modern societies that Diamond lists as successes. And ‘choice’: many of the authors of the volume point out that societies are not people — different parts of them make different decisions for different reasons. Often times ‘choices’ are the emergent property of many individual decisions. And in a world where actions have unintended consequences, even selfish choices might end up being sustainable ones, and vice versa. It is for this reason that the authors tend to focus on ‘resilience’ rather than ‘collapse’ — on the way that populations change over time, but tend overall to endure.

In sum, QC argues that Diamond’s notion of collapse is too simple. Societies are not externally bounded and internally homogeneous. They do not make decisions like humans do. They change through time, making it difficult to identify when they change beyond recognition. Long-term trends are, they argue, mostly for continuity, which is why they use the term ‘resilience’ rather than collapse. Mayans are still around. Easter Islanders are still around — in fact, QC has little boxed-in sections highlighting contemporary descendants of supposedly-collapsed societies.

Diamond is not having any of it. He responds that “It makes no sense to me to redefine as heart-warmingly resilient a society in which everyone ends up dead, or in which most of the population vanishes, or that loses writing, state government and great art for centuries… Even when many people do survive and eventually reestablish a populous complex society, the initial decline is sufficiently important to warrant being honestly called a collapse and studied further.” Diamond’s model of collapse is that familiar to us from the video game Civilization by Sid Meier: civilizations all grow in one direction towards more and more complexity with bigger and bigger cities, and if they go down in size, you lose. The authors of QC have a more anthropological understanding of societies, insisting that they not internally homogeneous or externally bounded, that they persist in time, and that we must understand their ups and downs.

At heart, then, the resilience/collapse debate is a discussion of interpretation, not facts. Many readers will probably find Diamond’s civilization-or-bust definition of collapse compelling, and agree with him that ‘positivity’ leads QC’s authors to a tendentious interpretation of the facts. This is a pity since I think QC takes a principled and satisfying theoretical position on collapse. Still, one can see why popular readers might not be swayed.

It’s the Colonialism, Stupid

Diamond does remarkably less well when it comes to ‘empire expansion’. One of the most egregious howlers from Diamond’s review is his claim that “although the authors of Questioning Collapse may wish it were otherwise, students and laypersons alike know that Europeans did conquer the world” and that “the authors seem uncomfortable with the glaring fact that it is Europeans, not Native Australians or Americans or Africans, who have expanded over the globe in the past 500 years.” The kindest thing one can say about Diamond’s position here is that it is unintelligible, because the alternative options are that a) Diamond’s personal animus against the authors was so intense he could not understand the content of the book or b) he simply did not read the book he is reviewing.

As far as I can tell, Diamond believes the book argues the exact opposite of what it actually says. He appears to think that the authors of QC are arguing that the hand of European rule lay lightly on the colonized world, which never suffered population loss. QC doesn’t admit that there is such a thing as ‘empire expansion’? How about the ending of Michael Wilcox’s essay in the volume (one of my favorites):

Diamond’s tidy explanation of conquest and global poverty is not only factually incorrect; it gives us the sense that its origins lie somewhere out there, beyond the agency of the reader. The implication is that if conquests were situated long ago, somewhere else, then we are powerless over their contemporary manifestations. Conquests are never instantaneous, transformative, or all encompassing. They are enacted, reenacted, and rewritten for each succeeding generation. In this sense Diamond’s narrative of disappearance and marginalization is one of conquest’s most potent instruments. (p 138)

Does this sound like someone who didn’t get the memo that “Europeans did conquer the world”?

Diamond accuses QC of down-playing the role of colonialism in human history, and not offering an alternate explanation for the collapse of indigenous society, when in fact colonialism is their alternate explanation for the collapse of nonwestern societies. Wilcox writes “a more appropriate troika of destruction [than guns, germs, and steel] would be ‘lawyers, god, and money’”. Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo write that “ancient deforestation was not the cause of population collapse. If we are to apply a modern term to the tragedy of Rapa Nui, it is not ecocide but genocide.”

In sum, QC attempts to take the moral high-ground out from underneath Diamond when it comes to colonialism, arguing that he underplays the horrors of colonialism because his cultural blinkers prevent him from seeing the truth. Indeed, one of the major arguments of the book is that Diamond (and other social scientists) aid and abet on-going oppression of indigenous people. The proper response from Diamond — had he noticed — would have been to cast the authors of QC as a bunch of lefty radicals who have given up on Scientific Accuracy in the name of advocacy. Except of course he didn’t notice.

Some readers may find Wilcox’s invective overheated, and find the anti-colonial agenda of QC too ‘pc’ in their denunciation of the book’s social effects. That is why it is so gratifying that the volume also takes up the issue of accuracy and never lets go: Diamond is not just tendentious, he is also wrong. The fact that Diamond simply missed this major part of their argument really detracts from his credibility.

Fact Checking

Beyond these overarching themes there are a number of particular factual disputes between Diamond and the authors of QC. In his review, Diamond argues that the Yali he met and the Yali that Gewertz and Errington’s volume is about are different people; he argues against Wilcox that Chaco canyon was deforested; he argued against Berglund that the Greenland Norse died out, rather than emigrating; he argues against Taylor that ecology was a factor in the Rwandan genocide; and he argues against what he calls David Cahill’s “absurd rewriting” of the Spanish conquest of the Inca.

None of Diamond’s factual claims are very convincing. Which Yali was which does not matter, because Gewertz and Errington’s merely use the conversation with Yali as a set piece to raise a series of other claims about colonialism in Papua New Guinea, none of which Diamond addresses. Diamond offers as evidence that overpopulation was a factors for genocide in Rwanda a school teacher’s assertion that “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.” Which seems to me to be an argument about inequality rather than population pressure — if it is not just a statement about shoes. Wilcox provides two citations to back up his claim that Chaco canyon was forested, while Diamond never cites his sources in the review or in Collapse, and so it is impossible to verify his claims. This also makes his claim that there is archaeological evidence of the death of the Greenland Norse impossible to verify. His claim that David Cahill’s paper is an “absurd rewriting” of Incan-Spanish relations seems to miss Cahill’s careful and, as far as I can tell, uncontroversial point that conquerors often keep local systems of social stratification intact and install themselves on top of them.

Now, it is surely unfair to ask a 1300 word review to exhaustively respond to all of the criticisms made in a 375 page book. Still, one can’t help but notice that the authors of QC make serious claims that throw Diamond’s entire reading of societal collapse into question, and Diamond’s response is to ignore the forest and call out a few trees. When people like Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo argue that Diamond’s claims about Rapa Nui are fundamentally mistaken, you expect such big-issue claims to merit a response.

Of course, Questioning Collapse was not perfect either

That said, the authors of QC do not always make it easy for readers to be swayed to their point of view. The editors claim that “participants committed themselves to setting aside abstruse academic prose and cumbersome in-text references in favor of a more user-friendly text.” Really? Can we blame Diamond for not lingering carefully over, for instance, Cahill’s prose when it contains sentences like this:

It encoded all the familiar generic facts of colonial conquests as seen by Europeans: the mutual incomprehension and marveling at the mirror-image alterities; the chasm between New World and Old World epistemologies, “true” rational knowledge against heathen superstition; clever Castilian against dullard Inca; true believers versus the unevangelized barbarians, at best seen as promising neophytes; asymmetrical technologies manifest in the flash of steel and the thrust of lance against bronze close-combat weapons, slingshot, cotton armor and buckler; European initiative against the kind of unquestioning obeisance associated with “oriental despotism.”

I am guessing the average reader will quit long before they get to the part of the sentence where they miss the Wittfogel reference. While several of the authors write clearly and passionately, on the whole Diamond still wins the contest for clear prose. In fact, many of the essays employ all the apparatus of scholarly prevarication: introductory sections reflecting on what it means to write for a popular audience, wider theoretical issues of contextualization, and so forth. You must wade through all this to get to the point where they actually talk about why they think Diamond is wrong.

Or you may not. One of the strangest things about this otherwise very ballsy collection is that many — maybe even most — of the articles do not actually quote Jared Diamond. Sometimes I think the authors are so immersed in the topic that they forget to leave signposts to the reader about what they are doing. Joel Berglund’s piece, for instance, appears to be a valuable detailed commentary on Diamond’s chapters on Norse Greenland, but only if you put the two books next to one another. For many readers it will seem like a tour of various facts about Norse Greenland which mentions Diamond at the start. Cahill’s paper often takes aim at “standard colonial tropes” of “indegnous dullards who ‘didn’t know what hit them’” or views in which “Andean civilization… becomes a kind of ‘unenlightened’ primitive polity”. The positions he put in scare quotes are certainly worth criticizing — but are they Diamonds? A close reading — and actual citation — of Diamond’s argument would have made the essay stronger, especially since Cahill’s data so obviously gainsays the claims Diamond actually does make. The best pieces — Hunt and Lipo’s and Wilcox’s, McNeil’s, and so forth — are very strong (disclosure: I share a department with Hunt) and other pieces could have profited by being as tightly written.

Above all, a central argument of QC is that the world is ‘complex’ and it would be better if popular audiences did not need to have it ’simplified’. As Thomas Hylland Eriksen reminds us, however, this simply will not fly. Public anthropology is, I’ve argued, the bar at the conference — when people tell you straight up and without hedging what they think is really going on in their papers. It is in the nature of the game to “dare to be reductive”. I think QC would have done better to explore how to reduce effectively, rather than lament the fact that such a move was necessary — or attempt to avoid making it at all.

Taking the fight to the streets?

Regardless of what you think about the particulars of Questioning Collapse, it establishes once and for all that mainstream academic authors consider Diamond’s work to be problematic. Coming from a major major press (Cambridge) with a roster of quality specialists, Questioning Collapse is undoubtedly Ivory Tower. If anything, it could have let down its hair a bit more. If only there were some way to reach a popular audience… to take the fight to the streets… in like… say… a blog…? Luckily, they have one, although it has not been updated regularly.

It seems to me QC’s blog could serve two purposes. First, it would also be an excellent place to begin a long and exceedingly detailed analysis of some of the particular factual claims Diamond makes — particularly those in the Nature review. This is the sort of intellectual spadework that publishers are not keen on, which should be made available to the public, and works well in small sub-essay size units which can be clearly written and do not take forever to read. Blog posts, in other words.

Second, Questioning Collapse is relatively expensive (US$30) and formally written — not ideal for spreading the word. The website could become a great location for remixed versions of the articles: piece available for download as teaching resources, or for the casual reader, where the authors cut right to the chase, free and open access, for anyone who is interested in reading them.

Conclusion

In sum, QC excels in empirical accuracy, not public outreach. While I find their arguments persuasive — in most cases, completely persuasive — I think they could have done a better job reaching a broader audience. There is a danger that their accounts of the social effects of Diamond’s work, and his personal/cultural motivations for writing could turn into ad hominem, which would be a shame. Because Diamond is a public figure, the proper course would be to be even more scrupulous in adhering to standards of professionalism and impartiality than a scholar normally would, even though the impulse is (I imagine) to go in rather the other dimension. From my point of view, the central issue has got to be the empirical adequacy of his claims.

As for Diamond, the impression I get of him is of a scholar who increasingly refuses to adhere to the best practices of the university, and who can get away with it because of the power and influence that comes from being in the public eye. Of course, there is nothing wrong with going AWOL from the academy if one wants to become a free-floating intellectual. But Diamond is not Carlos Castaneda, and his audience gives him credence because of his situation within the academy and his role as a translator of technical discourse. It is easy to become complacent when you’re, you know, an ultra-rich Pulitzer Prize-winning author (or so I imagine!). But one must resist the temptation to relax one’s standards. Both lay readers and his colleagues deserve better work than we see in Nature review.

In the seventies, Sahlins and Harris didn’t have the Internet to fall back on. Today, we are blessed with a means of communication that allow incensed scholars to argue endlessly in front of the entire planet! Now that the book is published, I look forward to seeing the authors of Questioning Collapse – and perhaps even Diamond himself? — move these issues forward.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

30 thoughts on “Questioning Collapse

  1. Good show, Rex. I’m going to read “collapse” for “collage” in paragraph 6, although I like the image of a collage. (And is $30 really that expensive for a book in Hawaii?)

  2. It makes no sense to me to redefine as heart-warmingly resilient a society in which everyone ends up dead, or in which most of the population vanishes, or that loses writing, state government and great art for centuries…

    One of my least favorite rhetorical tactics is to make a fascist argument without identifying it as such with the plan to counterargue “See! They do hyperbole, not science!” to any and every non-politically oriented critique made by those who point it out.

  3. This is a very nice analysis of the books and the debate. Although I am sympathetic to most of Questioning Collapse, I find that the political arguments (e.g., claiming that to speak of collapse in reference to an ancient society is demeaning to descendant populations) get in the way of the scientific arguments, making the overall critique much less effective than it could have been. I am glad you made the point that this is an academic work for an academic audience (in tone and style), given that the book itself claims to be for a general audience.

    There is a bit more discussion at:

    http://publishingarchaeology.blogspot.com/2010/02/jared-diamond-yay-or-nay.html

  4. “Aztec cannibalism was a result of culture, not nutritional needs, just as Harris’s belief in it was motivated not by facts, but by his own (American) cultural tendency to see human behavior as shaped by biological factors.”

    While I agree with the rest of the article, and have the same issues with Diamond’s simplistic narratives in either Guns, Germs, Steel; his thesis on the selective aspects of the Middle Passage on Africans shipped to the Americas and salt retention, and others, I don’t think that this is a fair to paint Harris with the same brush. Diamond is an ornithologist playing anthropologist.

    Culture is not separate from nature, it is a part of our evolution as a species. Culture has a direct impact on our biological evolution, and our biology had a direct effect on culture. You’ve kind of tossed away over 50 years of cultural ecology here, in a purely idealizational version of the culture concept. Culture is what mediates the expression of our biological drives.
    I’m not familiar with that argument between Sahlins and Harris, but from what you’ve said, it seem that Harris over stepped a material explanation, however in most of what his wrote, he never said that materialist explanations were the be all and end all of theory, just that we could not forget that we were a physical species, in a physical environment and that we had to meet basic needs of survival, which is probably the major driver of culture change. The facts derived from biology and physical anthropology do not cease to be true in different situations.

    It’s like love. Poetry and music is a cultural manifestation of a feeling, which is rooted in biology. It can be seen from various angles all representing different aspects of the same thing. You can put a person in a CAT or PED scanner and observe the real-time biological brain activity of love. You can read a poem. You can feel it. All are equally validly representative of what you would call love, and not could exist without the other.

    There’s another good example by Steve Hagen, scientist and Zen priest, when he talks about trying to locate consciousness. When you smell a flower, where is the smell? Is it in the flower, the nose, the brain, where? If any of those were removed there would be no smell. A honey bee’s genetics are affected by a flowers and vica versa, so is the smell also a bee, and also the sun, etc…
    These division are just cultural constructs.

  5. Obviously those claiming to be the “direct descendants of Pocahontas” are wondering if (African) Olduvai Gorge’s ‘Lucy’ remains are directly related in some way to their historical icon. If ‘Lucy’ was ascended from Aztecs but discarded in Euro-African environs because less-evolved hominids than homo sapiens, does that mean that the Lucy hominids could have been cannibals or cannibalized? Aztecs live in the restricted environment of Central America so that cannibalism seems to be a natural reaction to overcrowding, as an extreme form of backbiting?

  6. Aztecs live in the restricted environment of Central America so that cannibalism seems to be a natural reaction to overcrowding, as an extreme form of backbiting?

    Aztecs live in Mexico.

  7. You are completely and totally correct Marcia. The natural reaction to living in a place with extensive forest cover is not to clear the forest, but to kill and eat those you live with. Good show!

  8. “although the authors of Questioning Collapse may wish it were otherwise, students and laypersons alike know that Europeans did conquer the world”

    “the authors seem uncomfortable with the glaring fact that it is Europeans, not Native Australians or Americans or Africans, who have expanded over the globe in the past 500 years.” -Diamond in Nature

    I think maybe you misread these passages. To accuse the QC authors of downplaying the impact of colonialism would indeed be bizarre. But Diamond merely says they seem uncomfortable with the facts of colonialism, not that they deny them.

    The implication may simply be that the QC authors in their advocacy are so anxious to paint colonialists as villains and indigenous people as heroes, that they will tend to downplay the negative effects societies’ own “decisions” (yes, I know this is an extreme oversimplification) can have on their long-term sustainability. In contrast, Diamond sees himself as perfectly capable of separating moral judgments of peoples and cultures from an objective search for the facts of “what really happened”. And for Diamond the “successes” and “failures” of societies show us first of all a common humanity that, for all its creativty and adaptability, sometimes gets in the way of society-level ecological sustainability. He is out primarily to explain, not to judge.

    You can still disagree with Diamond of course (and maybe on many of the facts you should), but this is at least a coherent reading of his argument.

  9. “The implication may simply be that the QC authors in their advocacy are so anxious to paint colonialists as villains and indigenous people as heroes,”

    I think this happens too often these days when scholars pick sides on a meta discipline level, rather than on a personal level. In the most extreme version of this, you have cultural objects like the website Zero Anthropology, which paints this simplistic good/evil dichotomy on one end, and then on the other you have the far right ranters protesting in the streets, who see the dichotomy reverse. Either way, it is the same thing. A mirror image is still the same image, and a product of the same extremely dualistic mind.

    These narratives and discourses, render invisible so much that we have learned about the reality of the the junctures of cultural contact. Anna Tsing, I think rightly, calls these points of Friction. Points of culture change. Many native groups in South American, for example, have done well in coopting a discourse of environmentalism, that is not their own, but taken from Northern environmentalist, in order to gain greater leverage and agency for their one survival.
    As Otner reminds us, everyone has their own projects and plans, and agency is really just a matter of who gets to implement more of their projects, over the plans and projects of others. Within American politics, there are so many interests and projects, that relative winners and losers are inevitable. Perhaps a proper ethics, would be own that maximized the most integral vision of how people play out culturally derived schemes.

    Conflict is inevitable, but it can be managed.

    The other issue here is one of historical narrative. In produce a narrative you have to have a beginning, a middle and end. You have to include some and not others. You have to pick some places and not others. In making choices, you shape the narrative, and any lessons or moral power that it has.

    If you begin the narrative 250 years ago, then it was Europeans that took over the world. You could probably go back another 50 years or so, but then you bump up against the Ottoman Empire, which almost defeated the Hapsburg Empire in 1683 in the Middle of Europe. If they lost that battle, we’d all probably be speaking Turkish, or Arabic today. That story isn’t included.

    In fact the fastest growth of an Empire by the sword was spread by Muslim armies, that decimated much of the world, and much of Europe. There’s a lot of anger in the Islamic world today, largely because people want that power back.

    So where do we start the story? Perhaps we begin with the Romans that plundered Barbarian Europe for resources and slaves, and we could paint the narrative as a European resistance to Roman Imperial aggression, only to fall into a time of plague and darkness; finally to emerge from the ashes renewed and triumphant.

    So now we’ve got when you begin and end a narrative, and who you include, now there’s scale. For example, you can begin the story of US expansion into the Pacific, after Hawaii, with the forced opening of Japan to trade. Then the US is evil and Japan is an innocent victim.
    We usually do that because we have a cultural bias towards the history of states on states. That and it is really hard to visualize entire populations of millions, or armies of million on a battle field. We create the mental image in our minds of archetypes fighting, with clear anthropomorphized boundaries and interests.
    There is no reason to begin the story there, because the isolation of Japan happened only 250 years earlier, and it was the end of a 1000 years of almost constant warfare. Was all that killing and conquering ok because it was Japanese killing Japanese? There was not unified language in the country until about 100 years ago, and it was literally chosen by the central government in Tokyo.

    Maybe they were human beings killing other human beings, and the groups fighting for greater project agency in that case is no different than any other. The rest might just be a matter of scale and language.

  10. “It makes no sense to me to redefine as heart-warmingly resilient a society in which everyone ends up dead, or in which most of the population vanishes, or that loses writing, state government and great art for centuries…

    One of my least favorite rhetorical tactics is to make a fascist argument without identifying it as such with the plan to counterargue “See! They do hyperbole, not science!” to any and every non-politically oriented critique made by those who point it out.”

    I’m sorry, but I don’t quite understand this. Would you mind elaborating?

  11. His statement reads as fascist apologetics. The author is an intelligent man so I assume that he realizes this. Is it a stretch to suggest that he is consciously baiting would-be critiques in the hope that he can reply, “My analysis, politically conservative? That’s unscientific and/or ad hominem. I never said I was and I know myself, it is you who are trying to politically color everything!”

  12. “My analysis, politically conservative? That’s unscientific and/or ad hominem. I never said I was and I know myself, it is you who are trying to politically color everything!”

    He would be right to reply that way. I think we see a typical “two cultures” conflict here: Diamond is a natural sicenctist and wants to meticulously build up his factual case before drawing any morals (if that is to be done at all). The typical humanist, and many anthropologists, naturally look at the data presented as already value-laden and look for the author’s hidden ideological bias first of all.

    Of course both perspectives have vuale. It’s ultimately not possible to collect and present data in a fully objective and disinterested way. But those who don’t even try, who for example jump straight to political condemnation of opponents, lose a lot of credibility in my eyes.

    Too often you see social scientist labeling any “hard” scientists who dare tro intrude on their academic turf as right-wing and reactionary. There is often a fear that once something (colonialism, sex differences, violence etc etc.) is explained or declared “natural” it is therefore also excused or even endorsed. This is a well-known error known as the naturalistic fallacy.

    Ironically, many of the natural scientists who have suffered such criticism are themselves on the left politically. But they realize that if they set out consciously to describe a world that will completely justify their political beliefs, their science will be hopelessly biased and of questionable value.

    Diamond does have an agenda in Collapse: He wants to raise awareness of the risks of climate change and fragile environments, and the necessity of drawing lessons from the past. For this purpose he is interested in our common human predicament, not in assigining blame or praise. I don’t see how that can be construed as fascist, unless anyone who “blames” indigenous societies for anything bad that happens to them is a fascist. But then Diamond “blames” Australians and Americans too. And in any case this unwarranted jump from explanation to morals is just another example of the naturalistic fallacy.

    @Rick: Very thoughtful comments. I realize I need to update myself on these perspectives on culture change and conflict. Thanks for the Tsing and Otner references.

  13. “There is often a fear that once something (colonialism, sex differences, violence etc etc.) is explained or declared “natural” it is therefore also excused or even endorsed. This is a well-known error known as the naturalistic fallacy.”

    I don’t know about the other social sciences, in how they are educated about their own history, but from my limited experience in other disciplines, I think anthropologists are unique in the degree of self-reflexive deprecation. I mean, we came up with the race concept, and 19th century cultural evolution theories, and phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny, and all of the things that lead to eugenics, etc… We are taught our history over and over again, and taught of mistakes to not repeat. I think this sensitizes us to a theoretical bias. Ideas are rejected wholesale if they are seen as recapitulated past mistakes in any way.

    Everything becomes a slippery slope. If you even note raw data that shows the way that any particular group was in any way complicit in colonial schemes, then from that will come past evils of the discipline, and therefore one should hide it for the greater good. This simply is no longer science, and really not even a very good humanities practice.
    So, we tend to stay in a kind of child like innocence that denies a basic universal truth: Every human being is simultaneously capable of the greatest evil of history, and the greatest good. There is no monopoly on either trait.

    This reminds me of a section of Chambers (1985) Applied Anthropology. It begins with a conversation between two applied anthropologists. One asks the other what the most important thing for new applied anthros. to do, and the other tells him that they need to, “overcome their innocence.”

    When asked what he means he says, “When we talk about the history of our profession, we often describe it as though our predecessors had simply invented their particular interests and the way they went about their work. the truth is that they were generally following the public concerns of their time. We can’t really understand why they got interested in particular problems unless we pay attention to the larger social context out of which those problems evolved.”

    I think it should also be pointed out that the term Fascist references a particular kind of economic system of government control of corporations. What is being referenced isn’t really fascist.

  14. Diamond does have an agenda in Collapse: He wants to raise awareness of the risks of climate change and fragile environments, and the necessity of drawing lessons from the past. For this purpose he is interested in our common human predicament, not in assigining blame or praise. I don’t see how that can be construed as fascist…

    I am not asserting that his interest in our common human (and other species, too!) predicament of ecological change. I am asserting that his tone and his metrics—”[i]t makes no sense to me to redefine as heart-warmingly resilient a society in which everyone ends up dead, or in which most of the population vanishes, or that loses writing, state government and great art for centuries…”—have an odor of übermensch about them.

    Whatever the case, anyone trying to compare social and/or cultural complexity is going to run into an issue of why the attributes they choose to focus on count more than do others.

    I think it should also be pointed out that the term Fascist references a particular kind of economic system of government control of corporations.

    Not to sharp-shoot, but that is properly fascism. Franco’s Spain was an example of fascism at work; U.S. investment there was of a capitalist nature.

  15. “I am asserting that his tone and his metrics—”[i]t makes no sense to me to redefine as heart-warmingly resilient a society in which everyone ends up dead, or in which most of the population vanishes, or that loses writing, state government and great art for centuries…”—have an odor of übermensch about them.”

    I will concede that Diamond’s writing often reveals a fascination with “high culture” (as in Matthew Arnold’s old conception) and advanced technologies.

    But even a cultural relativist can agree that the loss of large parts of a population, writing, government and art is a cultural “failure” – if it was experienced as such by the affected people themselves. I suspect that in most cases it will be, and that these are cultural “goods” not given up lightly or voluntarily. The value of writing for keeping records of transactions or for ritual purposes can be affirmed without necessarily accepting all the claims to profound effects of literacy that Jack Goody made, for example. But these are ultimately empirical questions.

    In his earlier “Guns, Germs and Steel” Diamond argued that stae governments have arisen in various parts of the world under conditions of intensive food production yielding a surplus. In densely populated areas, states will tend to win out over smaller groupings not because they are inherently better or even the preferred organization of most individuals, but because larger units tend to assimilate or conquer smaller ones by the force of military and techological specialization, and sheer numbers. Specialized artists and architects are also a feature of centralized states with a food surplus.

    However our views on culture may differ from Diamond’s, I don’t think it’s appropriate to use words like “fascist” and “übermensch” with their obvious political connotations. If you do, how can you ever except to have an enlightened debate with someone coming from a different persepctive?

  16. However our views on culture may differ from Diamond’s, I don’t think it’s appropriate to use words like “fascist” and “übermensch” with their obvious political connotations. If you do, how can you ever except to have an enlightened debate with someone coming from a different persepctive?

    When did we start talking about Foucault? But I digress…

    I could use ‘superman’ instead but I do think this passage fits the concept either way. I’m offering an analysis, not trying to do name calling. I realize that words carry a political weight. I don’t think that fact should stop people from owning up to what they are, though. I am perfectly willing to engage in an enlightened debate with a fascist (or anyone else). I don’t buy fascism but I have met and interacted with sincere fascists who act with all good intention.

  17. Fascism is an extreme, right-wing, minority position today. I’m sorry that I accused you of name-calling, but the idea that Diamond is a fascist seems so absurd and unlikely to me that I never realized you could mean that seriously. The only plausible similarity between Diamond’s theses and fascism I can see, is a similar view of societies as essensialized entities that act in unison, as a totalitarian collective. Class struggles, plurality and indvidual dissenters then slip under the radar.

    But clearly this is a conscious, methodological choice of groups as the level of analysis. In the later chapters of Collapse Diamond switches attention to individuals and politics by discussing the tragedy of the commons, greedy elites, power struggles, clinging to cherished values that have become counterproductive, and ”groupthink” as reasons behind what appears on a higher level as bad collective decisions.

    Nowhere in GGS or Collapse do I find any endorsements of totalitarianism or racism. Diamond’s preferred methods of advancing sustainable practices are education, grassroots engagement and government regulation of businesses. You’re going to have a hard time convincing me he is a fascist.

    [By the way, how do you make those nice indented quotes?]

  18. If it helps supply a frame of reference I also tend to think of Madonna and Bill Clinton as fascists. Seriously.

    [By the way, how do you make those nice indented quotes?]

    Enclose the text you would like indent in the blockquote tag.

  19. If it helps supply a frame of reference I also tend to think of Madonna and Bill Clinton as fascists. Seriously.

    You use a non-standard, wide definition of fascism then. Amost like you’re asking to be misunderstood. If you had cleared that up earlier I could have spared a couple of posts.

  20. I actually consider the essays that my students passed in to me last week to be a holocaust. Seriously.

  21. You use a non-standard, wide definition of fascism then. Amost like you’re asking to be misunderstood.

    What part of fascism ≠ fascist did I fail to explain in my earlier post? And doesn’t anyone read bell hooks anymore?

  22. What part of fascism ≠ fascist did I fail to explain in my earlier post? And doesn’t anyone read bell hooks anymore?

    I haven’t seen any explanation of fascism from you. It’s a word everybody seems to use in their own way, so I suggest avoiding the term alltogether unless you define it precisely from the outset.

    Never heard of Bell Hooks before. I’m not much into Madonna either; I didn’t know she was considered a social thinker at all, much less a fascist one. But Hooks plays the same game you do by using words like “white supremacist” in that essay. Evidently, as long as she’s a postmodernist and has established who will be heroes and villains in her analysis, she can get away with strong characterisations of individuals who may be unwittingly reproducing subtle elements of the majority culture.

    And such strong words and self-righteousness come from a perspective that has grave problems with the rigour and testability of its claims. I usually don’t bother with postmodernism, and nothing in that essay made me change my mind.

  23. Webster: 1 often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition

    Wikipedia: The word fascist is sometimes used to denigrate people, institutions, or groups that would not describe themselves as ideologically fascist, and that may not fall within the formal definition of the word. As a political epithet, the word fascist has been applied mainly to a broad range of people and groups on the extreme right, but also to groups on the far left and at points in between. It has also been applied to people of many religious faiths, particularly fundamentalist groups. The individual, institution, or group(s) called fascist often find the use of the term in this way to be highly offensive and inappropriate.

  24. I haven’t seen any explanation of fascism from you.

    I am unclear as to whether you are reading the words I am writing down. As I have already attempted to point out to you, fascism and fascist are two related but distinct terms. And I have in fact given an indication of my operational definition of the former. It shouldn’t take a close reading of this thread to pick up that I indicate my agreement with Rick’s gloss of “a particular kind of economic system of government control of corporations.” In addition, I alluded to Franco’s Spain as an example of fascism in practice.

    My operational definition of a fascist is one with an anti-egalitarian, pro-authoritarian ideology who advocates the subordination of individual to group rights while simultaneously maneuvering to increase his/her own individual power. This is, I believe, in line with the portion of the OED’s definition of the term reading “a person having Fascist sympathies or convictions; (loosely) a person of right-wing authoritarian views.” Please note, however, that my original comment did not refer to Dr. Diamond as a fascist but rather asserted that his argument was such.

    I retract my assertion that Diamond’s text reading ”[i]t makes no sense to me to redefine as heart-warmingly resilient a society in which everyone ends up dead, or in which most of the population vanishes, or that loses writing, state government and great art for centuries…” is a fascist argument. I reformulate my critique as the following—Diamond’s text reading ”[i]t makes no sense to me to redefine as heart-warmingly resilient a society in which everyone ends up dead, or in which most of the population vanishes, or that loses writing, state government and great art for centuries…” is indicative, via the metrics chosen, of an anti-egalitarian, pro-authoritarian philosophy as well as, via its mildly derisive tone regarding dead and/or disappeared social groupings, of a Nietzschean sensibility.

    And no, bell hooks doesn’t really do testable hypotheses. But if you can convince me that Jared Diamond has rendered the question of what defines ‘art’ susceptible to unproblematic statistical testing then I will gladly send all of my John Coltrane records out with the rest of trash for the weekly pickup tomorrow.

  25. To be honest it might save a bit of bother to say that in the quote Diamond implies he is a subscriber to a unilineal model of societal evolution, and thus is open to the usual critiques of that model.

    Of course it would be even better if all were simply to read both books before jumping to conclusions based on selective quotes. Diamond’s chapter 9 (esp. the ‘bottom up, top down’ section) might be relevant to help you decide whether or not he subscribes to a anti-egalitarian, pro-authoritarian philosophy for example.

  26. To be honest it might save a bit of bother to say that in the quote Diamond implies he is a subscriber to a unilineal model of societal evolution, and thus is open to the usual critiques of that model.

    And to be honest that is the conversation I am much more interested in having. I find the effort to study social and cultural complexity honestly fascinating and completely worthwhile but also generally rife with errors (particularly the failure to differentiate culture and society and what Darwin meant by evolution and what Leslie White meant by evolution).

    Diamond seems an affable fellow. He certainly seemed to have a sense of humor when he appeared on The Colbert Report, at least. Apart from what I may think of his chosen theoretical framework I just don’t think he is a very good ethnologist. YMMV.

  27. Hi there,

    I was looking for some criticism on Diamond ‘s book Collapse… and then I found this blog. Hurray!

    Did you read the review on Collapse by Richard Smith? You can find it here: http://climateandcapitalism.com/?p=21

    There is also a short article on Diamond, concerning his determinism. I don’t know if he really is an ecological determinist, but he resembles one. http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/hickel010210.html

    I’ m consciouss that both articles are written by leftists, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting.

    Last but not least, another critical review: http://www.lindenwood.edu/jigs/docs/volume1Issue1/bookReviews/151-153.pdf
    I presume the writer is also more left-orientated.

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