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.
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.
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.