I have to admit that I am ambivalent about the value of Jared Diamond's books, particularly his bestseller, Collapse. On the one hand, he has applied a consistent and clear model to a variety of case studies, bringing to light a number of interesting findings. I wish I could write a comprehensive comparative work like this, something that the general public would read. On the other hand, Diamond is guilty of some serious empirical errors and omissions. So I read with interest the new book:
McAnany, Patricia A. and Norman Yoffee (editors)
2010 Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Collapse. Cambridge University Press, New York.
As I see it, the essays in this explicitly Diamond-bashing work make 3 main points:
(1) Diamond made some serious errors. The Easter Island case is particularly noteworthy for a case where the actual data contradict Diamond's information and interpretation. (I can't seem to get Joe Tainter's quip, about about the creature who cut down the last tree on Easter Island, out of my mind.)
(2) Ancient societies were resilient, and they didn't choose to fail. Well, some ancient societies were resilient, and others were less so. This is an important issue, but the essays in Questioning Collapse don't discuss the methods needed to address it, nor do they explore the variation among societies. Given all the hype surrounding the concept of resilience in some quarters, I am surprised at the lack of progress in applying it to ancient societies in a rigorous fashion.
(3) Collapse is a bad thing, and it is demeaning to descendant populations to say that their ancestors collapsed. We should say other things about past societies, or emphasize other kinds of changes, anything to avoid labeling a people (or their ancestors, or descendants) as "collapsers." Well, I disagree strongly with this notion. When millions of people die, and their political system ceases to function, and their cities are abandoned, and their culture loses much of its content, why not say that they collapsed? How can this possibly be insulting to their descendants? This theme of the book baffles me, and I think it detracts from the force of the critique.
Questioning Collapse was recently reviewed by Krista Lewis in Science (22 Jan 2010, page 413-414). Her review focused on themes #1 and 3 above. This is fine, I guess, although I must question her statement:
"Who is to say," asks Lewis, "that the Maya abandoning their monumental Classic period religious centers was a collapse rather than a political and social shift that was a good decision at the time?"
Wow, what a decision. This is as bad as Diamond asking, "How societies choose to fail or succeed." I can't imagine that the deaths of millions of people, with massive political and cultural disruption, was any kind of "decision at the time." Lewis clearly sympathizes with the Diamond-bashing of Questioning Collapse, but it is possible to be critical of Diamond without making silly pronouncements like this. (And speaking of demeaning statements, one could argue that Lewis's statement here is far more demeaning to the Maya people than is Diamond's discussion of the Maya collapse).
Here is my advice to Diamond-bashers. Drop the notion that collapse is demeaning. Collapse happens. Deal with it. Provide better data. Provide better models. And, when you have your act together, publish in places and venues that will be read by people other than academics.
A final comment. If you want to really piss off a group of academics, publish a book in a field that is not your own, applying a simple and elegant model that explains all kinds of disparate facts that the specialists in that field haven't managed to tie together. This was the fate of Edwin Luttwak's The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, which Romanists dumped all over in spite of the fact that it really illuminated many aspects of Roman imperialism (and Aztec and other imperialisms, for that matter). And I think this phenomenon may be responsible for some of the reaction of archaeologists and others to the books of Jared Diamond. Boy, I sure wish I had written those books.
Final note: There is a website on the book, Questioning Collapse.