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A Question of Blame When Societies Fall

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/25/science/25diam.html December 25, 2007 A Question of Blame When Societies Fall By GEORGE JOHNSON As I pulled out of Tucson
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 26, 2007
      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/25/science/25diam.html

      December 25, 2007

      A Question of Blame When Societies Fall

      By GEORGE JOHNSON

      As I pulled out of Tucson listening to an audiobook of Jared Diamond’s
      “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” the first of a
      procession of blue-and-yellow billboards pointed the way to Arizona’s
      strangest roadside attraction, “The Thing?”

      The come-ons were slicker and brighter than those I remembered from
      childhood trips out West. But the destination was the same: a curio store
      and gas station just off the highway at a remote whistle stop called
      Dragoon, Ariz.

      Dragoon is also home to an archaeological research center, the Amerind
      Foundation, where a group of archaeologists, cultural anthropologists and
      historians converged in the fall for a seminar, “Choices and Fates of Human
      Societies.”

      What the scientists held in common was a suspicion that in writing his two
      best-selling sagas of civilization — the other is “Guns, Germs and Steel” —
      Dr. Diamond washed over the details that make cultures unique to assemble a
      grand unified theory of history.

      “A big-picture man,” one participant called him. For anthropologists, who
      spend their lives reveling in minutiae — the specifics and contradictions
      of human culture — the words are not necessarily a compliment.

      “Everybody knows that the beauty of Diamond is that it’s simple,” said
      Patricia A. McAnany, an archaeologist at Boston University who organized
      the meeting with her colleague Norman Yoffee of the University of Michigan.
      “It’s accessible intellectually without having to really turn the wattage
      up too much.”

      Dr. Diamond’s many admirers would disagree. “Guns, Germs and Steel” won a
      Pulitzer Prize, and Dr. Diamond, a professor of geography at the University
      of California, Los Angeles, has received, among many honors, a National
      Medal of Science. It is his ability as a synthesizer and storyteller that
      makes his work so compelling.

      For an hour I had listened as he, or rather his narrator, described how the
      inhabitants of Easter Island had precipitated their own demise by cutting
      down all the palm trees — for, among other purposes, transporting those
      giant statues — and how the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon and the Maya might have
      committed similar “ecocide.”

      By the time I approached the turnoff for Amerind’s boulder-strewn campus,
      Dr. Diamond had moved on to the Vikings’ fate. But for the moment my mind
      was in the grip of “The Thing.”

      Detouring past the conference center, I parked in front of the old tourist
      trap, paid the $1 admission and followed a path of stenciled yellow
      footprints to a building out back. Inside a cinder-block coffin lay the
      subject of my quest, what appeared to be the mummified remains of a woman
      holding a mummified child.

      “The Thing” looked human, or maybe like pieces of human dolled up with
      papier-mâché. Either way, it seemed like a fitting symbol for the
      complaints I’d been hearing about Dr. Diamond: that through the wide-angle
      lenses of his books, people appear not as thinking agents motivated by
      dreams and desires, ideas and ideologies, but as pawns of their
      environment. As things.

      The backlash had been brewing since a symposium last year, “Exploring
      Scholarly and Best-Selling Accounts of Social Collapse and Colonial
      Encounters,” at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in
      San Jose, Calif. Although “Guns, Germs and Steel” has been celebrated as an
      antidote to racism — Western civilization prevails not because of inherent
      superiority, but geographical luck — some anthropologists saw it as
      excusing the excesses of the conquerors. If it wasn’t their genes that made
      them do it, it was their geography.

      “Diamond in effect argues that no one is to blame,” said Deborah B.
      Gewertz, an anthropologist at Amherst College. “The haves are not to be
      blamed for the condition of the have-nots.”

      Dr. Diamond anticipated this kind of reaction. In the epilogue to “Guns,
      Germs and Steel,” he acknowledged that human will was an important pivot in
      the turning of history, as were freak accidents and chaotic “butterfly
      effects,” in which tiny perturbations are amplified into cataclysms. But
      the accidents of geography — the availability of raw materials and crops, a
      hospitable climate, accessible trade routes and even the cartographical
      shapes of continents — step forth as prime movers.

      While “Guns, Germs, and Steel” explored the factors contributing to a
      society’s rise, “Collapse” tried to account for the downfalls. Here, human
      agency played a more prominent role. In case after case, Dr. Diamond
      described how a confluence of factors — fragile ecosystems, climatic
      change, hostile neighbors and, ultimately, bad decision making — cornered a
      society into inadvertently damaging or even destroying itself.

      In his haunting chapter about Easter Island, he weighed the data —
      radiocarbon dating, charcoal and pollen analysis and botanical and
      archaeological surveys — and concluded that the inhabitants had mined the
      forests to extinction, setting off a cataclysm. What, Dr. Diamond wondered
      in an often cited passage, was going through the mind of the Easter
      Islander who cut the last tree?

      But what was intended as a cautionary tale was taken by some readers as
      blaming the victims. Terry Hunt, an archaeologist at the University of
      Hawaii, came to the Amerind conference with a different story.
      Deforestation, he said, was caused not by people, but by predatory
      Polynesian rats, with the human population remaining stable until the
      introduction of European diseases.

      Dr. Diamond, he said, “shifts all of the burden to people and their
      stupidity rather than to a complex ecosystem where these things interact.”

      Taken together, the two books struck Frederick K. Errington, an
      anthropologist at Trinity College in Hartford, as a “one-two punch.” The
      haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the
      have-nots are responsible for their own demise.

      Dr. Errington and Dr. Gewertz, who are husband and wife, work in Papua New
      Guinea, a treasure trove of ethnic groups speaking more than 700 languages.
      Dr. Diamond has also spent time on the island, where he first went to study
      birds.

      Dr. Gewertz still bristles as she recalls picking up “Guns, Germs, and
      Steel” and seeing that it had been framed around what was called “Yali’s
      question.”

      Yali was a political leader and a member of a “cargo cult” that sprung up
      after World War II. By building ritualistic landing strips and control
      towers and wearing hand-carved wooden headsets, islanders hoped to summon
      the return of the packaged food, weapons, medicine, clothing and other
      gifts from the heavens that had been airdropped to troops fighting Japan.

      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.

      In “Collapse,” Dr. Diamond proposed that a precipitating factor in the
      Rwanda genocide of 1994, in which hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were
      slaughtered by Hutu compatriots, was Malthusian. The country had let its
      population outstrip its food supply.

      Christopher C. Taylor, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama at
      Birmingham, saw the tragedy through the other end of the telescope. One
      afternoon, he sat in the living room of Amerind’s old mission-style lodge,
      which looks out onto the desolate beauty of the Little Dragoon mountains,
      calmly describing how he and his Tutsi fiancée had fled Rwanda just as the
      massacres began. Safely back in the United States, he studied the country’s
      popular political cartoons, sensing that for many Rwandans, politics was
      tangled in a web of legends involving sacred kingship and fertility rites.
      The king, and by implication the president, was the conduit for imaana, a
      spiritual current symbolized by liquids like rain, rivers, milk, honey,
      semen and blood.

      In times of droughts, floods, crop failures, infant mortality or other
      misfortunes, he might have to be sacrificed to spill his imaana back into
      the soil.

      “In order to understand the motives of the Rwandans, you have to understand
      the local symbolism and the local cosmology,” Dr. Taylor said. “Because,
      after all, what Diamond is doing is imposing his own cosmology, his own
      symbolic system.”

      By the time I left Amerind, I realized that what I had witnessed was a
      clash of world views. Central to the “cosmology” of Dr. Diamond’s tribe is
      a principle celebrated throughout the physical and biological sciences — to
      understand is to simplify and seek patterns.

      In an e-mail message, he said that progress in any field depends on
      syntheses and individual studies. “In both chemistry and physics, the need
      for both approaches has been recognized for a long time,” he wrote. “One no
      longer finds specialists on molybdenum decrying the periodic table’s
      sweeping superficiality, nor advocates of the periodic table scorning mere
      descriptive studies of individual elements.”

      For the anthropologists, the exceptions were more important than the rules.
      Instead of seeking overarching laws, the call was to “contextualize,”
      “complexify,” “relativize,” “particularize” and even “problematize,” a word
      that in their dialect was given an oddly positive spin. At some moments,
      the seminar seemed less like a scientific meeting than a session of the
      Modern Language Association.

      But the anthropologists had a point. As Einstein put it, explanations
      should be as simple as possible — but no simpler. Is it realistic to hope,
      as Dr. Diamond did at the end of “Guns, Germs and Steel,” that “historical
      studies of human societies can be pursued as scientifically as studies of
      dinosaurs”?

      One afternoon I drove out to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, about 130
      miles northwest of Dragoon. Turning off North Arizona Boulevard near a
      Blockbuster Video store and KFC/Taco Bell, I saw the Great House, four
      stories high, loom into view. Abandoned over half a millennium ago by the
      Hohokam people, the earthen ruins have been incongruously protected from
      the elements by a steel roof on stilts designed in 1928 by Frederick Law
      Olmsted Jr.

      One suspects that the Hohokam were content to let the place melt. Depending
      on which eyeglasses you are wearing, Casa Grande is a story of
      environmental collapse or of adaptation and resilience. When conditions no
      longer favored centralization the people moved on, re-emerging as the
      O’odham tribes and a thriving casino industry.

      Abandonment as a strategy. Driving back on Interstate 10, past an umbilical
      cord of eastbound railroad container cars owned by Hanjin Shipping and the
      latest crests of urban sprawl, I tried to imagine the good people of Tucson
      or Phoenix bowing out with such grace.

      At the seminar, Dr. McAnany suggested that the very idea of societal
      collapse might be in the eye of the beholder. She was thinking of the Maya,
      whose stone ruins have become the Yucatan’s roadside attractions. But the
      descendants of the Maya live on. She recalled a field trip by local
      children to a site she was excavating in Belize: “This little girl looks up
      at me, and she has this beautiful little Maya face, and asks, ‘What
      happened to all the Maya? Why did they all die out?’”

      No one visits Stonehenge, she noted, and asks whatever happened to the
      English.
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