Reviews of “Collapse”

I very much liked Jared Diamond’s Collapse, but as a non-specialist in the fields he writes about, I approached this work (like Guns Germs and Steel) with a bit of trepidation.

So I was pleased this morning to run across this collection of reviews from the latest issue of Current Anthropology.

Six reviews by subject matter experts give Diamond mixed marks.

The most interesting review, from my point of view, was from Peter DeMenocal and Ed Cook at Lamont-Doherty, who draw a nice parallel between Diamond’s thesis and the 1930s Dust Bowl in the U.S., where an unsustainable economic structure ran smack into a drought:

The U.S. Great Plains Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s illustrates how the convergence of socioeconomic and climatic vulnerabilities can lead to exceptional societal disruption given a relatively modest climatic anomaly. Several years of diminished rainfall in the northern Great Plains between 1933 and 1938 led to one of the most devastating and best-documented agricultural, economic, and social disasters in the history of the United States.

David Demeritt, from Kings College London, praises Collapse as “the kind of book that academic geographers have not attempted for several generations” in its sweeping analysis. “While specialists will doubtless quibble with the details of particular chapters,” he writes, “… it is difficult not to admire Diamond’s determination not to let conventional divisions of discipline and areal specialism stand in his way.”

Alf Hornburg of Lund University takes Diamond to task for being out of his element:

As so often happens, when a scholar with a background in natural science turns to human history, there is a disturbing silence on the role of specificities of culture and social structure in accounting for historical processes and events. (The 15-page index does not even include “culture” or “cultural.”) Diamond’s assumptions about failures in societal “decision-making” (p. 420) underestimate the role of power structures and irreconcilable conflicts of interest throughout human history. Ultimately, it is his notion of “societies” as a unit of analysis that is misguided.

Berkeley anthropologist Patrick Kirch, whose work on Easter Island and other island cultures Diamond drew on, gives him a passing grade:

Most important, he has managed to bring a disparate and formerly disconnected set of academic research studies together, to weave an interconnected whole, and to advance an argument that by understanding our past humanity just might influence our collective future. And he has done this in a book that is based on solid scientific research presented in an approachable style that is being read by tens of thousands of people. Some academics will not hesitate to critique Diamond for errors or misplaced emphasis on particular causal factors, and it is important that they set the record straight when this is warranted. But I credit him with boldly doing what too few of us in disciplinary boundaries, trying to connect the dots, and
inspiring broad public interest and debate around issues that are of the utmost urgency for the future of humanity and our planet.

The harshest criticism comes from Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist here in Albuquerque (who, ironically, I’ve never met, though I’m currently reading an interesting book he edited). Tainter, whose The Collapse of Complex Societies was the definitive work until Diamond came along, calls Diamond “naive.” “Progressivists,” Tainter writes, “see cultural complexity as something to which societies aspire.” Tainter has a very different take – “complexity as a response to problems.”

Complexity has great utility in problem solving, but it also has costs. The evolution of complexity is a benefit/cost relation. It is thus simplistic to write of complexity rising, or advancing, or declining. Societies develop the complexity that is needed to solve their problems and may abandon complexity that is no longer suitable.