Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Blame and Collapse

Posted by A. at 7:49 PM
Free will is a funny thing. It's the one thing, above all else, that people want to have both ways. We want it to justify our choices when we do something right, and then we want it to go away when we screw up and need to blame something else. Jared Diamond pisses off a lot of folks for seemingly doing the exact opposite of this, and puncturing both myths. First, in Guns Germs, and Steel he shows in detail why most of the progress and material gain of Western societies, at the expense of indigenous peoples, had very little to do with ingenuity and very much to do with environment and geography. It wasn't the superiority of its genes, its culture, or its institutions. Then in Collapse, he showed how societies can't simply shift the blame when they make key mistakes. If Guns, Germs and Steel was an "antidote to racism", then Collapse was an antidote to blind determinism. So it's no surprise to find Diamond a subject of controversy in tuesday's New York Times, in an article describing a conference just held by the Amerind Foundation, entitled "Choices and Fates of Human Societies".

The conference was apparently organized around the premise that Diamond "washed over the details that make cultures unique to assemble a grand unified theory of history." And that the message of Diamond's work is that "the haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise."

Whuh? Considering the kind of flack Diamond has taken over the years, calling him a colonialism apologist is a little like calling Milton Friedman a communist. In fact, the entire impetus for Collapse seems to have been to show how people in the developed world (such as present day Montana) are right now 'responsible for their own demise', and may perhaps take most of the planet with them. The entire argument was that the modern day developed world is no different than any societies that have come and gone before. We're not special, we're not any more favored to survive despite doing everything that caused earlier civilizations to fail. (In fact, the "haves" of today have even less of an excuse since we have the entire tapestry of history as our guide.) While some societies might start off with more material wealth than others (whether it be because of the access to domesticatable crops and livestock or living in latitudes that are best for growing.), ultimately all are equally subject to the same laws of ecology, economics, and thermodynamics. There is no magic wand. If you make decisions that don't take these laws into account, you will probably not be around long to complain about it.

Talk at the conference was of "instead of seeking overarching laws" to "'contextualize,' 'complexify,' 'relativize,' 'particularize' and even 'problematize,' a word that in their dialect was given an oddly positive spin". (It's too bad the post-modern essay generator disappeared. You could have a lot of fun with that.) Overall it struck the reporter as "less like a scientific meeting than a session of the Modern Language Association."

So, pretty sad. I think there's something to be said for Feynman's adage that reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.


Anonymous JB Dryden said...

For once I agree with you. I think Diamond's books are extremely pertinent and very relevant in today's society and help to explain a lot of cultural differences. I think it's sad that there are people who look at what he's done as unfounded.

12/27/2007 06:15:00 AM  
Anonymous ssakamoto said...

This bothered me:

"One day Yali asked Dr. Diamond, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

Thus began Dr. Diamond’s tale about the combination of geographical factors that led to Europeans’ colonizing Papua New Guinea rather than Papua New Guineans’ colonizing Europe.

“We think he gets Yali’s question wrong,” Dr. Gewertz said. “Yali was not asking about nifty Western stuff.”

With more of the cargo their European visitors so clearly coveted, the islanders would have been able to trade with them as equals. Instead, they were subjugated.

What Yali was really asking, she suggested, was why Europeans had never treated them like fellow human beings. The responsibility and struggle of anthropology, Dr. Gewertz said, is to see the world through others’ eyes."

Regardless of the meaning of Yuri's question, the question that Diamond sets out to answer is "Why did the West have more stuff?" and that's what his book is about. It's such a bizarre attempt at obfuscation to claim the book's argument's are invalid because Yuri wanted to know why his people were being subjugated.

12/27/2007 09:23:00 AM  
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