Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Sting of Laughter

A couple of years back, when Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" came out, I was tempted to pick up a copy. For some reason I never got around to it, but I was reminded of my interest in the book with the recent arrival of Diamond's latest work, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." This book too seemed to be worth a read and I was once again considering checking Diamond out. And then I read this review of "Collapse" (subscribers only) by Victor Davis Hanson in the April 11th National Review:

In contrast to this broad historical picture, most of Diamond's examples are slanted: They involve fragile, mostly isolated or island landscapes that witnessed colonists, renegades, or adventurers who sought in their greed or ignorance to put too many people in the wrong place. Modern Montana cattlemen and miners, like Norsemen and Mayan big men of the past, are easy targets; Diamond breezily disparages them through comparisons to "modern American CEOs" and caricatured chauvinists who proclaim "the unconscious message, 'We are Europeans, we are Christians.'" When the reader begins to suspect that these light, anecdotal impressions are either irrelevant to larger historical questions or themselves internally inconsistent, Diamond coughs out a necessary qualifier: "I am not claiming," "On the other hand," and "Nor am I . . ."

The main problem, however, with this book is that Diamond's well-meaning, environmentally correct storytelling cannot impart any coherent lesson of why in fact societies fail. Environmental degradation, climate change, hostilities, political and cultural failures, and trade are cited as the roots of collapse, but are used so interchangeably that we never learn to what degree mismanagement of nature or of people brings on doom. As a result, when Diamond ventures into systematic analysis of historical questions that he knows nothing about, he has a predictable propensity to say things that are not simply wrong but hilarious.


"...not simply wrong but hilarious." Ouch. Considering that VDH doesn't seem to be the kind of man easily prone to fits of hilarity, I can't imagine a more scathing indictment of what purports to be a serious, scholarly work than those five words.

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