Tag Archives: Jared Diamond

Book: Questioning Collapse

Macanany Yoffee Questioning Collapse

Grandiose, obsessive, delusional criticisms of Jared Diamond.
390 pages, ★★

Questioning Collapse is a direct rebuttal to Jared Diamond’s epic anthropological book titled Collapse (I reviewed that book here). In the preface, Questioning Collapse aims to improve on Collapse by being optimistic and easy-to-read, while at the same time retaining academic credibility. It also claims to correct some of Jared Diamond’s professional “mistakes”.

Unfortunately, Questioning Collapse didn’t need to be written. Collapse was a rare display of academic content written in very readable prose, and absolutely no improvement was needed. Jared Diamond also made it explicitly clear when he was making speculations, and there was therefore no need to “correct his mistakes”! These authors tried too hard to overstep the legendary Jared Diamond and failed.

Questioning Collapse is an edited book (i.e. each auth). Like most edited books, the chapters don’t quite fit together. There’s no consistency from beginning to end and the different authors sometimes repeat each other unnecessarily. Questioning Collapse isn’t even a pleasure to read. Despite its wanting to be ‘optimistic’, it spends more time deriding Jared Diamond than building on Collapse.

I’d like to see this book re-written in a positive tone and re-titled, “Collapse: a follow-up study” or “Collapse: recent developments”.

What bothers me most is that the authors of Questioning Collapse put lengthy, illustrated biographies in highlighted boxes at the end of each chapter. Why? It seems that this book isn’t about improving on Collapse at all—it was just a platform for a dozen or so scientists less successful than Jared Diamond to try and boost their careers. ★★

Book: The Future Eaters

The Future Eaters

Australian history in three stages: Geology, Aboriginals, Europeans.
432 pages, ★

The Future Eaters is written in three parts: (1) the geological formation of the Australian continent; (2) the arrival of Aboriginals; and (3) the arrival of Europeans.

Part one is a geological history of the Australian continent. In short, Australia was a unique, vast, climatically stable continent. Australia had no ice ages, little climate change and no human influence, so its plants and animals evolved to be enormous and easy to catch, such as the moa (see picture below). Author Tim Flannery says that Australia’s impressive diversity of animal and plant species can be explained almost entirely by (a) millions of years of climatic stability; and (b) lack of humans.

Moa hunting
Moa (giant birds) prevalent in Australia before the arrival of humans 40,000 years ago.

Parts two and three talk about the Aboriginals and Europeans who arrived 40,000 and 300 years ago, respectively. These two parts are faster-paced and are by far the most interesting to read.

In terms of tone, The Future Eaters is hit-and-miss. Towards ancient Aboriginals, it’s sometimes flattering and sometimes accuses them of ecological recklessness. In some places, it’s wordy and long-winded, while in others, it’s extremely interesting and concise. I’ve summarised the three most interesting parts below.

1. Aboriginals loved fire. They burned forests to such an extent that early European explorers described Australia as the “land of fire”. Women and children started most of the fires. However, the medium-sized Aboriginal fires prevented the massive fires that would have occurred periodically anyway, and researchers predict that the result was no net increase in the annual acreage burned!

2. Australia’s animals have become smaller in the last 40,000 years. Aboriginals hunted the largest animals for food, and put an evolutionary pressure that selected for smaller, faster, and more nimble offspring. Kangaroos, koalas, lizards… everything except the wombat has shrunk considerably in size in the last 40,000 years. Even the Aboriginals themselves have shrunk by 9% since they arrived!

3. Terra nullius was a law that gave all “unused” land to the British. Because the first British settlers couldn’t recognise any “use” of the land (i.e. agriculture), they stole Aboriginal land claiming terra nullius as a justification. (The Aboriginals were of course using the land, but not for agriculture—as it was not required.) This law was only repealed in 1993 in Australia.

Author Tim Flannery is clearly a fan of Jared Diamond—he mentions him four times in this book.

“Jared Diamond is one of the world’s greatest living scientists” — Tim Flannery

I hope that Tim Flannery realises The Future Eaters is almost as information-rich as Collapse by Jared Diamond, which I reviewed two days ago. (Despite the title, I also found The Future Eaters less pessimistic than Collapse, which, taken together, earns these books the same 4 star rating.)

This book was extremely wordy in places but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in natural history, anthropology and Australia—or anyone in Australia who likes Jared Diamond. Keep reading The Future Eaters even when it seems slow. It’s worth it! 

Book: Collapse

Collapse

Highly educational but disappointingly pessimistic.
608 pages, ★★★

Author Jared Diamond is a genius. His books are so crammed with information that one reviewer humorously remarked:

“Jared Diamond” is suspected of actually being the pseudonym for a committee of experts.

I like to read his books slowly to catch his every last detail and jot it down. That, plus the university assignments I’ve been writing recently, explain why I’ve been slow to review books in the last month. I only did six in May!

I have more time to review books now, and I’ve even started reviewing fantasy novels on another blog. They’ll all be reposted here, too. The first and second fantasy reviews I wrote are already online on this blog.

Collapse complements Guns, Germs and Steel very well. Guns, Germs and Steel documents the rise of civilisations and explains their strengths. Why did Europe suddenly grow strong? Why did China stop developing? Why did Africa not colonise overseas territories, whereas many European countries did?

For the most part, Collapse discusses the rise, maintenance and fall of the following societies:

  • Montana
  • Easter Island
  • (3 islands)
  • Anasazi
  • Maya
  • Vikings
  • Greenland
  • Norse
  • (3 more islands and Japan)
  • Haiti/Dominican Republic comparison
  • Rwanda (just the ‘fall’ in this case)

Each story is fascinating and full of repeatable facts. Each chapter begins with Jared Diamond arriving on scene by aeroplane, describing his birds-eye view of the landscape and his first impressions of the country. Little emphasis is placed on the collapse of these societies—these chapters are more like comprehensive, condensed histories than a series of tragic endings. I enjoyed reading these chapters.

Chapters 12 and 13 are the most interesting. They attempt to explain the ongoing successes of China and Australia. I’m familiar with both countries and didn’t learn much here, but an outsider would find these chapters valuable resources. Both chapters are extremely fact-dense and concise.

Jared Diamond then describes four factors that spell a civilisation’s demise:

  1. Environmental degradation;
  2. Not being aware of environmental degradation;
  3. Doing nothing about environmental degradation;
  4. Short-term outlook (he calls it, ISEP, which stands for, “it’s someone else’s problem”).

The book becomes increasingly negative from this point on.

The ending to Collapse paints a very grim view of basically all human activity. Take this phrase, for example, from chapter 15, titled, “Roadmap to Failure”: “…we face a future with which we are unhappy, beset by more chronic terrorism, wars, disease outbreaks…”

…He’s wrong! Unhappiness, terrorism, war and disease outbreaks have all declined massively in the last 100 years. Collapse is for the most part a highly scientific book, but he overlooked the statistics at the end and concluded with negative, speculative spin. Chapter 15 sounds like it was written by the anti-consumerist warlord Naomi Klein. (Another book on my reading list, Questioning Collapse, attempts to address this issue.)

Just like the societies it describes, this book rose, maintained itself well, but collapsed tragically at the end. It’s needlessly negative. Read it, but don’t take its conclusions to heart. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys reading purely to learn

Book: Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs and Steel

Fascinating.
460 pages, ★★★★★

Guns, Germs and Steel does three things:

  • It counteracts the misconception that “since the fifteenth century, enlightened Europeans have colonised simplistic New World natives”. Author Jared Diamond demonstrates how stronger societies have colonised weaker societies for all of human history, not just in the last 500 years.
  • It counteracts the idea that “European society was advanced compared to the rest of the world because European people were more intelligent”. The author states that people worldwide are of roughly the same intelligence—so something else must have accounted for the developmental disparity among cultures pre-globalisation (i.e. before 1500).
  • It reasserts the idea that China is a unique place that tends to buck the trends of world history, usually to its own benefit.

Some notes I made on this book are listed below.

Why farm?

  • Nutrition decreases.
  • Risk of starvation decreases.
  • Settlements, villages and towns are built.
  • No need to carry babies when migrating, so birth rate increases.
  • Population increases.

Food production originated in four main places:

  1. Iran/Iraq
  2. Mexico/Andes
  3. China
  4. African Sahel

We domesticated plants that were:

  • Convenient
  • Available
  • Self-propagating
  • Easy to modify/breed selectively (this depends on their genetics)
  • Not sought after in huge numbers by animals (squirrels prevented us from cultivating acorns)

Humans first domesticated animals with the following characteristics:

  1. Herbivores—carnivores are too expensive to feed;
  2. Fast-growing;
  3. Safe—poses no threat to humans, even in large numbers;
  4. Timid—pose no threat to each other;
  5. Willing to breed in captivity—even today, cheetahs can’t be tamed for this reason;
  6. Have a social hierarchy that features subservience—they obey humans

Anna Karenina Principle: “all families are the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Author Jared Diamond applies this logic to animal domestication (all undomesticated animals, such as cheetahs, giraffes and llamas were unsuitable in varying ways).

Therefore…

Why was Europe so advanced by the year 1500?

  1. Its East-West axis is easy to populate with humans, animals and crops. Most other continents have a North-South axis.
  2. Its native domesticable crops had a high protein content.
  3. Europe has no “severe ecological barriers” such as deserts, isthmi or impassable mountain ranges.
  4. Agriculture led to: food surplus, high population density, government, technology and the spread of germs. These all proved useful when conquering overseas territory.

There is still some debate as to whether idea diffusion (slow) or blueprint copying (quick) allowed for the spread of pyramidswheelsgunpowder and the atomic bomb.

There are no geniuses in history. Author Jared Diamond called statements such as “X invented Y in year Z” a “fallacy”. All great inventions (the example of the steam engine is detailed in this book) were built upon long chains of previous ideas that spanned long periods of time.

Both East and West are resistant to innovation. QWERTY keyboards were designed to slow typists down as not to jam old typewriters. Transistors were not adopted because of vested interests in vacuum tubes.

What makes societies welcome innovation?

  1. Labour shortage—search for technological solutions
  2. Patents reward innovation
  3. Technological training provides people with the means to innovate
  4. Capital investment structures invest in start-ups

What personality traits in a society make people welcome innovation?

  1. Individualism—personally, I question this one.
  2. Risk-taking behaviour
  3. Scientific outlook
  4. Tolerance of diverse views
  5. Religion must support technology—or it will not be adopted

States are inevitable in the long-run and arise from the following factors:

  1. Aristotle: “states are a natural condition of human society”. Too vague.
  2. Rosseau: “states are a social contract”. Not always true.
  3. Hydraulic theory: “complex systems (e.g. irrigation) require states to manage and maintain them”.

    Jared Diamond prefers number 3, Hydraulic theory, then suggests two more factors:
  4. Food production (1) requires division of labour, which needs to be decided; (2) creates a food surplus, which needs to be managed; and (3) gives some people sedentary jobs, which require being allocated in some way.
  5. Population expansion beyond a few hundred people makes most people strangers rather than friends. Large populations thus need some fraction of society to be responsible for maintaining social order. Author Jared Diamond suggests that any large population without a state would have quickly collapsed into anarchy (or formed a state).

Of bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states (human population groups in increasing order of size), only chiefdoms and states can justify kleptocracy.

Kleptocracy needs to (author says, “it is in the interests of a kleptocracy to…”):

  1. Disarm the populace and arm the ruling élite;
  2. Redistribute wealth in popular ways;
  3. Promote happiness;
  4. Promote an ideology or religion that justifies kleptocracy. The author notes that governance ideology can be as strong (or stronger) than technology in giving power to states. Mao’s China and the Mtetwa Chiefdom are two technologically-weak, ideologically-strong states.

What helped unify China?

  1. Large East-West rivers helped East-West expansion
  2. China is wider than it is tall (that’s the East-West thing again)
  3. No major deserts/mountain ranges/isthmi in the middle
  4. Graphic writing system allowed for the unification of different spoken dialects—the author doesn’t mention this in Guns, Germs and Steel but has mentioned it elsewhere.

Most amazingly, Taiwanese explorers colonised both Polynesia and Madagascar! Evidence includes:

  1. Ta-p’en-k’eng pottery & stone tools, originally from Taiwan, which reached Polynesian islands at different dates;
  2. Canoe design, which evolved from island to island.

Four crucial technologies for the advancement of society:

  1. Germs—endemic germs weaken any enemies upon contact;
  2. Metallurgycopper then bronze then iron;
  3. Military technology—including animals and military philosophy;
  4. Machinerywagons, ploughs;
  5. Wheelstransport, power;
  6. Seafaringships, navigation systems;
  7. Writing—allows for the last point, which is:
  8. Political organisation—allows for large projects via pooling of capital.

Back to the point about “there are no geniuses in history”, the author states that Alexander the Great, Augustus, Buddha, Christ, Lenin, Martin Luther King, Pachacuti, Mohammed, William the Conqueror, Shaka (and I’ll add Confucius, echoing Roger Ames’ example) weren’t single-handed geniuses. They just described/personified trend that was already underway. In other words, Confucius didn’t invent Confucianism!

What’s missing from this book is:

  • How crops shaped religion (rice: collective work; wheat: exaggerated gender differences; fish: superstition).

Jared Diamond’s conclusion:

  • History is a science;
  • Historians can predict large trends but not the minute details;
  • The three conclusions I wrote at the top of this post.

I recommend this book for everyone. A perfect sequel to this book is Collapse by the same author. My review of Collapse is also coming soon. ★★★★★