A Question of Blame When Societies Fall
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 Diamonds
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the first of a
procession of blue-and-yellow billboards pointed the way to Arizonas
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 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
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 its simple, said
Patricia A. McAnany, an archaeologist at Boston University who organized
the meeting with her colleague Norman Yoffee of the University of Michigan.
Its accessible intellectually without having to really turn the wattage
up too much.
Dr. Diamonds 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 Amerinds 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 Id 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 wasnt 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
societys 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
Dr. Gewertz still bristles as she recalls picking up Guns, Germs, and
Steel and seeing that it had been framed around what was called Yalis
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. Diamonds 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 Yalis 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
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 Amerinds 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 countrys
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
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
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. Diamonds 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 tables
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
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
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
Oodham 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 Yucatans 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