Jared Diamond has really set the cat among the pigeons. Not only is he not a historian, but he has really irked academics by writing history books that sell like hot cakes.
First, he wrote a book (Guns Germs & Steel) which suggested that inequalities in material conditions among nations were solely the result of geography (a popular notion, the alternative being to suggest that Europeans are smarter than others). This, he followed with a book that suggested that societal failures (collapses) were primarily the result of human choices. For some this was an annoying contradiction: which is it, Diamond, nature or nurture? Human or environment? Do we have agency, or are we hapless victims of our geography?
But beyond this large-scale critique, there have been a slew of more detailed critiques of both of his books, and indeed also of his most recent: The World Until Yesterday, in which he discusses tribal, non-state societies, the way humanity has lived for most of its 200,000 years as a species.
Perhaps the most stinging critique comes from Norman Yoffee and Patricia A. McAnany’s edited volume, Questioning Collapse (CUP, 2010). In it, a group of academics have mightily exerted themselves to rip Diamond a new one. Apparently outraged by his interpretations, they make the point that he has got it wrong, on several counts. Different essays attack his vision of Easter Island’s demise (it was the rats!), the Norse failure in Greenland (it’s not failure if they make it for more than 400 years), the disappearance of Chaco’s civilization, etc.
In fairness, while this seems like academic bullying, or like mean-spirited envy of Diamond’s success, there are good essays here, which do raise interesting questions. If you can get over the sense that there’s a concerted academic effort to bitch-slap an outsider for presuming to know about someone else’s specialty, there is much to be gained by reading them. For example Michael Wilcox writes a fascinating rebuttal of Diamonds account Chaco Canyon’s failure, based on overpopulation and deforestation, using archaeological data. As one of three Native American archeologists working in American universities, Wilcox makes the point that Diamond’s narrative of the failures of Native American stewardship of their environment supported colonial claims to their land. Just as earlier Spanish ideology about, for instance, Aztec blood sacrifice and cannibalism, supported Conquistador claims to the New World.
While Diamond lays the blame for the “failures” of Chaco at the feet of its inhabitants–their collapse being caused by over-stressing a fragile ecosystem which buckled when climate change added to human pressure. While there may have been droughts and environmental factors that caused difficulty, Chaco, and the southwest in general, like all other (western) societies, had a political life. This political life was subject to upheavals. The point being that just as historians do not reduce the story of the West to a hapless reaction to the weather, we should not see the welfare of native societies as totally dependent on environmental factors. Ideological “events” in other words could just as easily have prompted large scale movements out of the canyon, as people reacted to political events.
But Diamond continues to show up in college syllabi. Why? Because, as even McAnany and Yoffee point out, he has managed to put together lots of good ideas in one place, and actually interest the general population in big ticket historical ideas. While historians may disagree with the stories he tells, none of them tell stories that anyone beyond their specialty actually reads. So kudos to Diamond for making it viral.