Now you have done it, Jared Diamond
Race Without Color
Basing race on body chemistry makes no more sense than basing race on appearance–but at least you get to move the membership around.
by Jared DiamondFrom the November 1994 issue; published online November 1, 1994
In addition, other Europeans look much more like Swedes than like Nigerians, while other peoples of sub-Saharan Africa–except perhaps the Khoisan peoples of southern Africa–look much more like Nigerians than like Swedes. Yes, skin color does get darker in Europe toward the Mediterranean, but it is still lighter than the skin of sub-Saharan Africans. In Europe, very dark or curly hair becomes more common outside Scandinavia, but European hair is still not as tightly coiled as in Africa. Since it’s easy then to distinguish almost any native European from any native sub-Saharan African, we recognize Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans as distinct races, which we name for their skin colors: whites and blacks, respectively.
What could be more objective?
As it turns out, this seemingly unassailable reasoning is not objective. There are many different, equally valid procedures for defining races, and those different procedures yield very different classifications. One such procedure would group Italians and Greeks with most African blacks. It would classify Xhosas–the South African “black” group to which President Nelson Mandela belongs–with Swedes rather than Nigerians. Another equally valid procedure would place Swedes with Fulani (a Nigerian “black” group) and not with Italians, who would again be grouped with most other African blacks. Still another procedure would keep Swedes and Italians separate from all African blacks but would throw the Swedes and Italians into the same race as New Guineans and American Indians. Faced with such differing classifications, many anthropologists today conclude that one cannot recognize any human races at all.
If we were just arguing about races of nonhuman animals, essentially the same uncertainties of classification would arise. But the debates would remain polite and would never attract attention outside the halls of academia. Classification of humans is different “only” in that it shapes our views of other peoples, fosters our subconscious differentiation between “us” and “them,” and is invoked to justify political and socioeconomic discrimination. On this basis, many anthropologists therefore argue that even if one could classify humans into races, one should not.
To understand how such uncertainties in classification arise, let’s steer clear of humans for a moment and instead focus on warblers and lions, about which we can easily remain dispassionate. Biologists begin by classifying living creatures into species. A species is a group of populations whose individual members would, if given the opportunity, interbreed with individuals of other populations of that group. But they would not interbreed with individuals of other species that are similarly defined. Thus all human populations, no matter how different they look, belong to the same species because they do interbreed and have interbred whenever they have encountered each other. Gorillas and humans, however, belong to two different species because–to the best of our knowledge–they have never interbred despite their coexisting in close proximity for millions of years.
We know that different populations classified together in the human species are visibly different. The same proves true for most other animal and plant species as well, whenever biologists look carefully. For example, consider one of the most familiar species of bird in North America, the yellow-rumped warbler. Breeding males of eastern and western North America can be distinguished at a glance by their throat color: white in the east, yellow in the west. Hence they are classified into two different races, or subspecies (alternative words with identical meanings), termed the myrtle and Audubon races, respectively. The white-throated eastern birds differ from the yellow-throated western birds in other characteristics as well, such as in voice and habitat preference. But where the two races meet, in western Canada, white-throated birds do indeed interbreed with yellow-throated birds. That’s why we consider myrtle warblers and Audubon warblers as races of the same species rather than different species.
Racial classification of these birds is easy. Throat color, voice, and habitat preference all vary geographically in yellow-rumped warblers, but the variation of those three traits is “concordant”–that is, voice differences or habitat differences lead to the same racial classification as differences in throat color because the same populations that differ in throat color also differ in voice and habitat.
Racial classification of many other species, though, presents problems of concordance. For instance, a Pacific island bird species called the golden whistler varies from one island to the next. Some populations consist of big birds, some of small birds; some have black-winged males, others green-winged males; some have yellow-breasted females, others gray- breasted females; many other characteristics vary as well. But, unfortunately for humans like me who study these birds, those characteristics don’t vary concordantly. Islands with green-winged males can have either yellow-breasted or gray-breasted females, and green-winged males are big on some islands but small on other islands. As a result, if you classified golden whistlers into races based on single traits, you would get entirely different classifications depending on which trait you chose.
Classification of these birds also presents problems of “hierarchy.” Some of the golden whistler races recognized by ornithologists are wildly different from all the other races, but some are very similar to one another. They can therefore be grouped into a hierarchy of distinctness. You start by establishing the most distinct population as a race separate from all other populations. You then separate the most distinct of the remaining populations. You continue by grouping similar populations, and separating distinct populations or groups of populations as races or groups of races. The problem is that the extent to which you continue the racial classification is arbitrary, and it’s a decision about which taxonomists disagree passionately. Some taxonomists, the “splitters,” like to recognize many different races, partly for the egotistical motive of getting credit for having named a race. Other taxonomists, the “lumpers,” prefer to recognize few races. Which type of taxonomist you are is a matter of personal preference.
How does that variability of traits by which we classify races come about in the first place? Some traits vary because of natural selection: that is, one form of the trait is advantageous for survival in one area, another form in a different area. For example, northern hares and weasels develop white fur in the winter, but southern ones retain brown fur year-round. The white winter fur is selected in the north for camouflage against the snow, while any animal unfortunate enough to turn white in the snowless southern states would stand out from afar against the brown ground and would be picked off by predators.
Other traits vary geographically because of sexual selection, meaning that those traits serve as arbitrary signals by which individuals of one sex attract mates of the opposite sex while intimidating rivals. Adult male lions, for instance, have a mane, but lionesses and young males don’t. The adult male’s mane signals to lionesses that he is sexually mature, and signals to young male rivals that he is a dangerous and experienced adversary. The length and color of a lion’s mane vary among populations, being shorter and blacker in Indian lions than in African lions. Indian lions and lionesses evidently find short black manes sexy or intimidating; African lions don’t.
Finally, some geographically variable traits have no known effect on survival and are invisible to rivals and to prospective sex partners. They merely reflect mutations that happened to arise and spread in one area. They could equally well have arisen and spread elsewhere–they just didn’t.
Nothing that I’ve said about geographic variation in animals is likely to get me branded a racist. We don’t attribute higher IQ or social status to black-winged whistlers than to green-winged whistlers. But now let’s consider geographic variation in humans. We’ll start with invisible traits, about which it’s easy to remain dispassionate.
Many geographically variable human traits evolved by natural selection to adapt humans to particular climates or environments–just as the winter color of a hare or weasel did. Good examples are the mutations that people in tropical parts of the Old World evolved to help them survive malaria, the leading infectious disease of the old-world tropics. One such mutation is the sickle-cell gene, so-called because the red blood cells of people with that mutation tend to assume a sickle shape. People bearing the gene are more resistant to malaria than people without it. Not surprisingly, the gene is absent from northern Europe, where malaria is nonexistent, but it’s common in tropical Africa, where malaria is widespread. Up to 40 percent of Africans in such areas carry the sickle- cell gene. It’s also common in the malaria-ridden Arabian Peninsula and southern India, and rare or absent in the southernmost parts of South Africa, among the Xhosas, who live mostly beyond the tropical geographic range of malaria.
The geographic range of human malaria is much wider than the range of the sickle-cell gene. As it happens, other antimalarial genes take over the protective function of the sickle-cell gene in malarial Southeast Asia and New Guinea and in Italy, Greece, and other warm parts of the Mediterranean basin. Thus human races, if defined by antimalarial genes, would be very different from human races as traditionally defined by traits such as skin color. As classified by antimalarial genes (or their absence), Swedes are grouped with Xhosas but not with Italians or Greeks. Most other peoples usually viewed as African blacks are grouped with Arabia’s “whites” and are kept separate from the “black” Xhosas.
Antimalarial genes exemplify the many features of our body chemistry that vary geographically under the influence of natural selection. Another such feature is the enzyme lactase, which enables us to digest the milk sugar lactose. Infant humans, like infants of almost all other mammal species, possess lactase and drink milk. Until about 6,000 years ago most humans, like all other mammal species, lost the lactase enzyme on reaching the age of weaning. The obvious reason is that it was unnecessary–no human or other mammal drank milk as an adult. Beginning around 4000 B.C., however, fresh milk obtained from domestic mammals became a major food for adults of a few human populations. Natural selection caused individuals in these populations to retain lactase into adulthood. Among such peoples are northern and central Europeans, Arabians, north Indians, and several milk-drinking black African peoples, such as the Fulani of West Africa. Adult lactase is much less common in southern European populations and in most other African black populations, as well as in all populations of east Asians, aboriginal Australians, and American Indians.
Once again races defined by body chemistry don’t match races defined by skin color. Swedes belong with Fulani in the “lactase-positive race,” while most African “blacks,” Japanese, and American Indians belong in the “lactase-negative race.”
Not all the effects of natural selection are as invisible as lactase and sickle cells. Environmental pressures have also produced more noticeable differences among peoples, particularly in body shapes. Among the tallest and most long-limbed peoples in the world are the Nilotic peoples, such as the Dinkas, who live in the hot, dry areas of East Africa. At the opposite extreme in body shape are the Inuit, or Eskimo, who have compact bodies and relatively short arms and legs. The reasons have to do with heat loss. The greater the surface area of a warm body, the more body heat that’s lost, since heat loss is directly proportional to surface area. For people of a given weight, a long-limbed, tall shape maximizes surface area, while a compact, short-limbed shape minimizes it. Dinkas and Inuit have opposite problems of heat balance: the former usually need desperately to get rid of body heat, while the latter need desperately to conserve it. Thus natural selection molded their body shapes oppositely, based on their contrasting climates.
(In modern times, such considerations of body shape have become important to athletic performance as well as to heat loss. Tall basketball players, for example, have an obvious advantage over short ones, and slender, long-limbed tall players have an advantage over stout, short- limbed tall players. In the United States, it’s a familiar observation that African Americans are disproportionately represented among professional basketball players. Of course, a contributing reason has to do with their lack of socioeconomic opportunities. But part of the reason probably has to do with the prevalent body shapes of some black African groups as well. However, this example also illustrates the dangers in facile racial stereotyping. One can’t make the sweeping generalization that “whites can’t jump,” or that “blacks’ anatomy makes them better basketball players.” Only certain African peoples are notably tall and long-limbed; even those exceptional peoples are tall and long-limbed only on the average and vary individually.)
Other visible traits that vary geographically among humans evolved by means of sexual selection. We all know that we find some individuals of the opposite sex more attractive than other individuals. We also know that in sizing up sex appeal, we pay more attention to certain parts of a prospective sex partner’s body than to other parts. Men tend to be inordinately interested in women’s breasts and much less concerned with women’s toenails. Women, in turn, tend to be turned on by the shape of a man’s buttocks or the details of a man’s beard and body hair, if any, but not by the size of his feet.
But all those determinants of sex appeal vary geographically. Khoisan and Andaman Island women tend to have much larger buttocks than most other women. Nipple color and breast shape and size also vary geographically among women. European men are rather hairy by world standards, while Southeast Asian men tend to have very sparse beards and body hair.
What’s the function of these traits that differ so markedly between men and women? They certainly don’t aid survival: it’s not the case that orange nipples help Khoisan women escape lions, while darker nipples help European women survive cold winters. Instead, these varying traits play a crucial role in sexual selection. Women with very large buttocks are a turn-on, or at least acceptable, to Khoisan and Andaman men but look freakish to many men from other parts of the world. Bearded and hairy men readily find mates in Europe but fare worse in Southeast Asia. The geographic variation of these traits, however, is as arbitrary as the geographic variation in the color of a lion’s mane.
There is a third possible explanation for the function of geographically variable human traits, besides survival or sexual selection- -namely, no function at all. A good example is provided by fingerprints, whose complex pattern of arches, loops, and whorls is determined genetically. Fingerprints also vary geographically: for example, Europeans’ fingerprints tend to have many loops, while aboriginal Australians’ fingerprints tend to have many whorls.
If we classify human populations by their fingerprints, most Europeans and black Africans would sort out together in one race, Jews and some Indonesians in another, and aboriginal Australians in still another. But those geographic variations in fingerprint patterns possess no known function whatsoever. They play no role in survival: whorls aren’t especially suitable for grabbing kangaroos, nor do loops help bar mitzvah candidates hold on to the pointer for the Torah. They also play no role in sexual selection: while you’ve undoubtedly noticed whether your mate is bearded or has brown nipples, you surely haven’t the faintest idea whether his or her fingerprints have more loops than whorls. Instead it’s purely a matter of chance that whorls became common in aboriginal Australians, and loops among Jews. Our rhesus factor blood groups and numerous other human traits fall into the same category of genetic characteristics whose geographic variation serves no function.
You’ve probably been wondering when I was going to get back to skin color, eye color, and hair color and form. After all, those are the traits by which all of us members of the lay public, as well as traditional anthropologists, classify races. Does geographic variation in those traits function in survival, in sexual selection, or in nothing?
The usual view is that skin color varies geographically to enhance survival. Supposedly, people in sunny, tropical climates around the world have genetically dark skin, which is supposedly analogous to the temporary skin darkening of European whites in the summer. The supposed function of dark skin in sunny climates is for protection against skin cancer. Variations in eye color and hair form and color are also supposed to enhance survival under particular conditions, though no one has ever proposed a plausible hypothesis for how those variations might actually enhance survival.
Alas, the evidence for natural selection of skin color dissolves under scrutiny. Among tropical peoples, anthropologists love to stress the dark skins of African blacks, people of the southern Indian peninsula, and New Guineans and love to forget the pale skins of Amazonian Indians and Southeast Asians living at the same latitudes. To wriggle out of those paradoxes, anthropologists then plead the excuse that Amazonian Indians and Southeast Asians may not have been living in their present locations long enough to evolve dark skins. However, the ancestors of fair-skinned Swedes arrived even more recently in Scandinavia, and aboriginal Tasmanians were black-skinned despite their ancestors’ having lived for at least the last 10,000 years at the latitude of Vladivostok.
Besides, when one takes into account cloud cover, peoples of equatorial West Africa and the New Guinea mountains actually receive no more ultraviolet radiation or hours of sunshine each year than do the Swiss. Compared with infectious diseases and other selective agents, skin cancer has been utterly trivial as a cause of death in human history, even for modern white settlers in the tropics. This objection is so obvious to believers in natural selection of skin color that they have proposed at least seven other supposed survival functions of skin color, without reaching agreement. Those other supposed functions include protection against rickets, frostbite, folic acid deficiency, beryllium poisoning, overheating, and overcooling. The diversity of these contradictory theories makes clear how far we are from understanding the survival value (if any) of skin color.
It wouldn’t surprise me if dark skins do eventually prove to offer some advantage in tropical climates, but I expect the advantage to turn out to be a slight one that is easily overridden. But there’s an overwhelming importance to skin, eye, and hair color that is obvious to all of us–sexual selection. Before we can reach a condition of intimacy permitting us to assess the beauty of a prospective sex partner’s hidden physical attractions, we first have to pass muster for skin, eyes, and hair.
We all know how those highly visible “beauty traits” guide our choice of sex partners. Even the briefest personal ad in a newspaper mentions the advertiser’s skin color, and the color of skin that he or she seeks in a partner. Skin color, of course, is also of overwhelming importance in our social prejudices. If you’re a black African American trying to raise your children in white U.S. society, rickets and overheating are the least of the problems that might be solved by your skin color. Eye color and hair form and color, while not so overwhelmingly important as skin color, also play an obvious role in our sexual and social preferences. Just ask yourself why hair dyes, hair curlers, and hair straighteners enjoy such wide sales. You can bet that it’s not to improve our chances of surviving grizzly bear attacks and other risks endemic to the North American continent.
Nearly 125 years ago Charles Darwin himself, the discoverer of natural selection, dismissed its role as an explanation of geographic variation in human beauty traits. Everything that we have learned since then only reinforces Darwin’s view.
We can now return to our original questions: Are human racial classifications that are based on different traits concordant with one another? What is the hierarchical relation among recognized races? What is the function of racially variable traits? What, really, are the traditional human races?
Regarding concordance, we could have classified races based on any number of geographically variable traits. The resulting classifications would not be at all concordant. Depending on whether we classified ourselves by antimalarial genes, lactase, fingerprints, or skin color, we could place Swedes in the same race as either Xhosas, Fulani, the Ainu of Japan, or Italians.
Regarding hierarchy, traditional classifications that emphasize skin color face unresolvable ambiguities. Anthropology textbooks often recognize five major races: “whites,” “African blacks,” “Mongoloids,” “aboriginal Australians,” and “Khoisans,” each in turn divided into various numbers of sub-races. But there is no agreement on the number and delineation of the sub-races, or even of the major races. Are all five of the major races equally distinctive? Are Nigerians really less different from Xhosas than aboriginal Australians are from both? Should we recognize 3 or 15 sub-races of Mongoloids? These questions have remained unresolved because skin color and other traditional racial criteria are difficult to formulate mathematically.
A method that could in principle overcome these problems is to base racial classification on a combination of as many geographically variable genes as possible. Within the past decade, some biologists have shown renewed interest in developing a hierarchical classification of human populations–hierarchical not in the sense that it identifies superior and inferior races but in the sense of grouping and separating populations based on mathematical measures of genetic distinctness. While the biologists still haven’t reached agreement, some of their studies suggest that human genetic diversity may be greatest in Africa. If so, the primary races of humanity may consist of several African races, plus one race to encompass all peoples of all other continents. Swedes, New Guineans, Japanese, and Navajo would then belong to the same primary race; the Khoisans of southern Africa would constitute another primary race by themselves; and African “blacks” and Pygmies would be divided among several other primary races.
As regards the function of all those traits that are useful for classifying human races, some serve to enhance survival, some to enhance sexual selection, while some serve no function at all. The traits we traditionally use are ones subject to sexual selection, which is not really surprising. These traits are not only visible at a distance but also highly variable; that’s why they became the ones used throughout recorded history to make quick judgments about people. Racial classification didn’t come from science but from the body’s signals for differentiating attractive from unattractive sex partners, and for differentiating friend from foe.
Such snap judgments didn’t threaten our existence back when people were armed only with spears and surrounded by others who looked mostly like themselves. In the modern world, though, we are armed with guns and plutonium, and we live our lives surrounded by people who are much more varied in appearance. The last thing we need now is to continue codifying all those different appearances into an arbitrary system of racial classification.
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“The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race”
by Jared Diamond, Prof. UCLA School of Medicine
Discover-May 1987, pp. 64-66
To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self-image. Astronomy taught
us that our Earth isn’t the center of the universe but merely one of billions of heavenly
bodies. From biology we learned that we weren’t specially created by God but evolved
along with millions of other species. Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred
belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In
particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our
most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we
have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the
disease and despotism,that curse our existence.
At first, the evidence against this revisionist interpretation will strike twentieth
century Americans as irrefutable. We’re better off in almost every respect than people of
the Middle Ages who in turn had it easier than cavemen, who in turn were better off than
apes. Just count our advantages. We enjoy the most abundant and varied foods, the best
tools and material goods, some of the longest and healthiest lives, in history. Most of us
are safe from starvation and predators. We get our energy from oil and machines, not
from our sweat. What neo-Luddite among us would trade his life for that of a medieval
peasant, a caveman, or an ape?
For most of our history we supported ourselves by hunting and gathering: we
hunted wild animals and foraged for wild plants. It’s a life that philosophers have
traditionally regarded as nasty, brutish, and short. Since no food is grown and little is
stored, there is (in this view) no respite from the struggle that starts anew each day to find
wild foods and avoid starving. Our escape from this misery was facilitated only 10,000
years ago, when in different parts of the world people began to domesticate plants and
animals. The agricultural revolution gradually spread until today it’s nearly universal and
few tribes of hunter-gatherers survive.
From the progressivist perspective on which I was brought
up to ask “Why did almost all our hunter-gatherer ancestors adopt
agriculture?” is silly. Of course they adopted it because agriculture
is an efficient way to get more food for less work. Planted crops
yield far more tons per acre than roots and berries. Just imagine a
band of savages, exhausted from searching for nuts or chasing wild
animals, suddenly gazing for the first time at a fruit-laden orchard
or a pasture full of sheep. How many milliseconds do you think it
would take them to appreciate the advantages of agriculture?
The progressivist party line sometimes even goes so far as to
credit agriculture with the remarkable flowering of art that has taken
place over the past few thousand years. Since crops can be stored,
and since it takes less time to pick food from a garden than to find it in the wild,
agriculture gave us free time that hunter-gatherers never had. Thus it was agriculture that
enabled us to build the Parthenon and compose the B-minor Mass.
While the case for the progressivist view seems overwhelming, it’s hard to prove.
How do you show that the lives of people 10,000 years ago got better when they
abandoned hunting and gathering for farming? Until recently, archaeologists had to resort
to indirect tests, whose results (surprisingly) failed to support the progressivist view.
Here’s one example of an indirect test: Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really
worse off than farmers? Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of socalled
primitive people, like the Kalahari Bushmen, continue to support themselves that
way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and
work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each
week to obtaining food is only twelve to nineteen hours for one group of Bushmen,
fourteen hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked
why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should
we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”
While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the
mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more
protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study, the Bushmen’s average daily
food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and ninety-three
grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people
of their size. It’s almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat seventy-five or so wild
plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their
families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.
So the lives of at least the surviving hunter-gatherers aren’t nasty and brutish,
even though farmers have pushed them into some of the world’s worst real estate. But
modem huntergatherer societies that have rubbed shoulders with farming societies for
thousands of years don’t tell us about conditions before the agricultural revolution. The
progressivist view is really making a claim about the distant past: that the lives of
primitive people improved when they switched from gathering to farming.
Archaeologists can date that switch by distinguishing remains of wild plants and animals
from those of domesticated ones in prehistoric garbage dumps.
How can one deduce the health of the prehistoric garbage makers, and thereby
directly test the progressivist view? That question has become answerable only in recent
years, in .part through the newly emerging techniques of paleopathology, the study of
signs of disease in the remains of ancient peoples.
In some lucky situations, the paleopathologist has almost as much material to
study as a pathologist today. For example, archaeologists in the Chilean deserts founds
well preserved’ mummies whose medical conditions at time of death could be determined
by autopsy (Discover, October). And feces of long-dead Indians who lived in dry caves in
Nevada remain sufficiently well preserved to be examined for hookworm and other
Usually the only human remains available for study are skeletons, but they permit
a surprising number of deductions. To begin with, a skeleton reveals its owner’s sex,
weight, and approximate age. In the few cases where there are many skeletons, one can
construct mortality tables like the ones life insurance companies use to calculate expected
life span and risk of death at any given age. Paleopathologists can also calculate growth
rates by measuring bones of people of different ages, examine teeth for enamel defects
(signs of childhood malnutrition), and recognize scars left on bones by anemia,
tuberculosis, leprosy, and other diseases.
One straightforward example of what paleopathologists have learned from
skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show
that the average height of hunter-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a
generous 5’9″ for men, 5’5″ for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height
crashed, and by 3000 B.C. had reached a low of 5’3″ for men ,5′ for women. By classical
times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still
not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.
Another example of paleopathology at work is the study of Indian skeletons from
burial mounds in the lllinois and Ohio river valleys. At Dickson Mounds, located near the
confluence of the Spoon and lllinois rivers, archaeologists have excavated some 800
skeletons that paint a picture of the health changes that occurred when a hunter-gatherer
culture gave way to intensive maize farming around A.D. 1150. Studies by George
Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of Massachusetts show these
early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to the huntergatherers
who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly fifty percent increase in enamel
defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia
(evidenced by a bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a threefold rise in bone
lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions
of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. “Life expectancy at birth in
the preagricultural community was about twenty-six years,” says Armelagos, “but in the
postagricultural community it was nineteen years. So these episodes of nutritional stress
and infectious disease were seriously affecting their ability to survive.”
The evidence suggests that the Indians at Dickson Mounds, like many other
primitive peoples, took up farming not by choice but from necessity in order to feed their
constantly growing numbers. ” I don’t think most hunter-gatherers farmed until they
had to, and when they switched to farming they traded quality for quantity.” says Mark
Cohen of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, co-editor, with Armelagos, of
one of the seminal books in the field, Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture.
“When I first started making that argument ten years ago, not many people agreed with
me. Now it’s become a respectable, albeit controversial, side of the debate.”
There are at least three sets of reasons to explain the findings that agriculture was
bad for health. First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained
most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at
the cost of poor nutrition. (Today just three high-carbohydrate plants–wheat, rice, and
corn–provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is
deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.) Second, because of
dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop
failed. Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in
crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led
to the spread of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was
crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg
argument, because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.) Epidemics couldn’t
take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp.
Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic
plague the appearance of large cities.
Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring
another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no
stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they
live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no
kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a
farming population could a healthy, nonproducing elite set itself above the disease-ridden
masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae c.1500 B.C. suggest that royals enjoyed
a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and
had better teeth (on average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean
mummies from c. A.D. 1000, the elite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold
hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.
Similar contrasts in nutrition and health persist on a global scale today. To people
in rich countries like the U.S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and
gathering. But Americans are an elite, dependent on oil and minerals that must often be
imported from countries with poorer health and nutrition. If one could choose between
being a peasant farmer in Ethiopia or a Bushman gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you
think would be the better choice?
Farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes, as well. Freed from
the need to transport their babies during a nomadic existence, and under pressure to
produce more hands to till the fields, farming women tended to have more frequent
pregnancies than their hunter-gatherer counterparts– with consequent drains on their
health. Among the Chilean mummies, for example, more women than men had bone
lesions from infectious disease.
Women in agricultural societies were sometimes made beasts of burden. In New
guinea farming communities today, I often see women staggering under loads of
vegetables and firewood while the men walk empty-handed. Once while on a field
trip there studying birds, I offered to pay some villagers to carry supplies from an
airstrip to my mountain camp. The heaviest item was a 11 O-pound bag of rice, which I
lashed to a pole and assigned a team of four men to shoulder together. When I eventually
caught up with the villagers, the men were carrying light loads, while one small woman
weighing less than the bag of rice was bent under it, supporting its weight by a cord
across her temples.
As for the claim that agriculture encouraged the flowering of art by providing us
with leisure time, modem hunter-gathers have at least as much free time as do farmers.
The whole emphasis on leisure time as a critical factor seems to me misguided. Gorillas
have had ample free time to build their own Parthenon, had they wanted to. While postagricultural
technological advances did make new art forms possible and preservation of
art easier, great paintings and sculptures were already being produced by hunter-gatherers
15,000 years ago, and were still being produced as recently as the last century by such
hunter-gatherers as some Inuit and the Indians of the Pacific Northwest.
Thus with the advent of agriculture an elite became better off but most people
became worse off. Instead of swallowing the progressivist party line that we chose
agriculture because it was good for us, we must ask how we got trapped by it despite its
One answer boils down to the adage “Might makes right.” Farming could support
many more people than hunting, albeit with a poorer quality of life. (Population densities
of hunter gatherers are rarely over one person per ten square miles, while farmers average
100 time that.) Partly, this is because a field planted entirely in edible crops lets one feed
far more mouths than a forest with scattered edible plants. Partly, too, it’s because
nomadic hunter-gatherers have to keep their children spaced at four-year intervals by
extended nursing and other means, since a mother must carry her toddler until it’s old
enough to keep up with the adults. Because farm women don’t have that burden, they can
and often do bear a child every two years.
As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages,
bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps toward
agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth. Some bands chose the former solution,
unable to anticipate the evils of farming, and seduced by the transient abundance they
enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased food production. Such bands
outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that chose to remain hunter-gatherers,
because a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter. It’s not that
hunter-gatherers abandoned their life style, but that those sensible enough not to abandon
it were forced out of all areas except the ones farmer didn’t want.
At this point it’s instructive to recall the common complaint that archaeology is a
luxury, concerned with the remote past, and offering no lessons for the present.
Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which
we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting
population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with
starvation, warfare, and tyranny.
Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest lasting lifestyle in
human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has
tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who
had visited us from outer space where trying to explain human history to his fellow
spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a twenty-four hour clock on
which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. It the history of the human
race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We
lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day,from midnight through dawn,
noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p.m., we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight
approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will
we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering
facade and that have so far eluded us?
|Born||Jared Mason Diamond
September 10, 1937 (age 74)
|Institutions||University of California, Los Angeles|
|Alma mater||Harvard College
|Notable awards||Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science (1997)
Royal Society Prize for Science Books (1992, 1998 & 2006)
Pulitzer Prize (1998)
National Medal of Science (1999)
Jared Mason Diamond (born September 10, 1937) is an American scientist and author whose work draws from a variety of fields. He is currently Professor of Geography and Physiology at UCLA. He is best known for his award-winning popular science books The Third Chimpanzee, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
Diamond was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a Bessarabian Jewish family. His father was the physician Louis K. Diamond, and his mother the teacher, musician, and linguist Flora Kaplan. He attended the Roxbury Latin School, earning his A.B. from Harvard College in 1958, and his Ph.D. in physiology and membrane biophysics from the University of Cambridge in 1961.
After graduating from Cambridge, he returned to Harvard as a Junior Fellow until 1965, and, in 1968, became Professor of Physiology at UCLA Medical School. While in his twenties, he also developed a second, parallel, career in the ornithology of New Guinea, and has since undertaken numerous research projects in New Guinea and nearby islands. In his fifties, Diamond gradually developed a third career in environmental history, and became Professor of Geography at UCLA, his current position. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Westfield State University in 2009.
He is married to Marie Diamond (née Marie Nabel Cohen), granddaughter of Polish politician Edward Werner, and has two adult sons named Josh and Max Diamond. In 1999, he was awarded the National Medal of Science. His sister Susan Diamond writes for the Los Angeles Times. Her debut novel, What Goes Around, was published in 2007.
Jared Diamond also has an aptitude for languages.
As well as scholarly books and articles in the fields of ecology and ornithology, Diamond is the author of a number of popular science books, which are known for combining sources from a variety of fields other than those he has formally studied. Diamond has been called a polymath because of his diverse work.
The first of these, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991), examined human evolution and its relevance to the modern world, incorporating insights from anthropology, evolutionary biology, genetics, ecology, and linguistics. It was well-received by critics, and won the 1992 Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 1997, he followed this up with Why is Sex Fun?, which focused in on the evolution of human sexuality, again borrowing from anthropology, ecology, and evolutionary biology.
His third and best known popular science book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, was published in 1997. In it, Diamond seeks to explain Eurasian hegemony throughout history. Using evidence from ecology, archaeology, genetics, linguistics, and various historical case studies, he argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies do not reflect cultural or racial differences, but rather originate in environmental differences powerfully amplified by various positive feedback loops.
As a result, the geography of the Eurasian landmass gave its human inhabitants an inherent advantage over the societies on other continents, which they were able to dominate or conquer. Although certain examples in the book, and its alleged environmental determinism, have been criticised, it became a best-seller, and received numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, an Aventis Prize for Science Books (Diamond’s second), and the 1997 Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science. A television documentary based on the book was produced by the National Geographic Society in 2005.
Diamond’s next book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), examined a range of past civilizations in an attempt to identify why they either collapsed or succeeded, and considers what contemporary societies can learn from these historical examples. As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, he argues against traditional historical explanations for the failure of past societies, and instead focuses on ecological factors. Among the societies he considers are the Norse and Inuit of Greenland, the Maya, the Anasazi, the indigenous people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Japan, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and modern Montana.
While not as successful as Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse was again both critically acclaimed and subject to accusations of environmental determinism and specific inaccuracies. “Collapse” was the third book written by Diamond that was nominated for Royal Society Prize for Science Books (previously known as the Rhône-Poulenc and Aventis Prize) but this time he did not win the prize, losing out to David Bodanis‘s Electric Universe.
 Selected publications
- 1972 Avifauna of the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea, Publications of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, No. 12, Cambridge, Mass., pp. 438.
- 1975 M. L. Cody and J. M. Diamond, eds. Ecology and Evolution of Communities. Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
- 1979 J. M. Diamond and M. LeCroy. Birds of Karkar and Bagabag Islands, New Guinea. Bull. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist. 164:469–531
- 1984 J. M. Diamond. The Avifaunas of Rennell and Bellona Islands. The Natural History of Rennell Islands, British Solomon Islands 8:127–168
- 1986 J. M. Diamond and T. J. Case. eds. Community Ecology. Harper and Row, New York
- 1986 B. Beehler, T. Pratt, D. Zimmerman, H. Bell, B. Finch, J. M. Diamond, and J. Coe. Birds of New Guinea. Princeton University Press,Princeton
- 1992 The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, ISBN 0-060-98403-1
- 1997 Why is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality, ISBN 0-465-03127-7
- 1997 Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-06131-0
- 2001 The Birds of Northern Melanesia: Speciation, Ecology, & Biogeography (with Ernst Mayr), ISBN 0-195-14170-9
- 2003 Guns, Germs, and Steel Reader’s Companion, ISBN 1-586-63863-7.
- 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Books. ISBN 1-586-63863-7.
- 2006 [re-release] The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-060-84550-3.
- 2010 Natural Experiments of History (with James A. Robinson). ISBN 0674035577 ISBN 978-0674035577
- Island Biogeography and the Design of Natural Reserves (1976), in Robert M. May’s Theoretical Ecology: Principles and Applications, Blackwell Scientific Publications, pp. 163–186.
- Ethnic differences. Variation in human testis size. (April 1986) Nature 320(6062):488–489 PubMed.
- The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race (May 1987) Discover pp. 64–66
- Japanese Roots (June 1998) Discover
- Curse and Blessing of the Ghetto (March 1991) Discover, pp. 60–66
- Race Without Color (November 1994) Discover
- The Curse of QWERTY (April 1997) Discover
- Kinship With The Stars (May 1997) Discover
- Japanese Roots (June 1998) Discover
- What’s Your Consumption Factor? (January 2, 2008) The New York Times
- Vengeance is Ours (April 2008) The New Yorker
- Diamond, Jared (2011). “Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?”. In John Brockman. Culture: leading scientists explore civilizations, art, networks, reputation, and the on-line revolution. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0062023131.
- Editorial board, Skeptic Magazine, a publication of The Skeptics Society
- Member, the American Philosophical Society
- Member, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- Member, the National Academy of Sciences
- US regional director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF/World Wildlife Fund)
 Awards and honors
- 1961–1965 Prize Fellowship in Physiology, Trinity College, Cambridge, England
- 1968–1971 Lederle Medical Faculty Award
- 1972 Distinguished Teaching Award, UCLA Medical Class
- 1973 Distinguished Teaching Award, UCLA Medical Class
- 1975 Distinguished Achievement Award, American Gastroenterological Association
- 1976 Kaiser Permanente/Golden Apple Teaching Award
- 1976 Nathaniel Bowditch Prize, American Physiological Society
- 1978 American Ornithologists Union, elected fellow
- 1979 Franklin L. Burr Award, National Geographic Society
- 1985 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant
- 1989 Archie Carr Medal
- 1990 MacArthur Foundation Fellow
- 1992 Tanner Lecturer, University of Utah and many other endowed lectureships
- 1992 Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books for The Third Chimphanzee
- 1992 Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize
- 1993 Zoological Society of San Diego Conservation Medal
- 1994 Skeptics Society, Randi Award
- 1995 Honorary doctor of literature, Sejong University, Korea
- 1996 Faculty Research Lecturer, UCLA
- 1997 Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Prize for Guns, Germs and Steel
- 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Guns, Germs and Steel
- 1998 Elliott Coues Award, American Ornithologists’ Union
- 1998 California Book Awards, Gold Medal in nonfiction for Guns, Germs and Steel
- 1998 Aventis Prize for Science Books for Guns, Germs and Steel
- 1998 International Cosmos Prize
- 1999 Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction
- 1999 National Medal of Science
- 2001 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement
- 2002 Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science
- 2006 Royal Society Prize for Science Books for Collapse
- 2006 Dickson Prize in Science
- 2008 Ph.D. Honoris Causa at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
 See also
- ^ a b “The Prize Winner, 1998″. Expo-Cosmos. Retrieved 2009-05-18.
- ^ National Science Foundation – The President’s National Medal of Science
- ^ Susan J Diamond: Official Site
- ^ Whitton, Felix (2 February 2009). “Jared Diamond”. Conservation Today.org. Retrieved 2009-09-25.[dead link]
- ^ papers
- ^ NPR talk show
- ^ http://www.abc.net.au/animals/human_stars.htm
- ^ “Rapa Nui déjà vu”. The Economist. 8 October 2009.
- ^ a b c d e f “Prize for Science Books previous winners and shortlists”. Royal Society. Retrieved 2009-05-18.
- ^ a b http://www.latimes.com/extras/bookprizes/winners_byaward.html#science “Los Angeles Times Festival of Books – Book Prizes – Winners by Award (science)”. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-05-18.
- ^ McAnany, P.A. & Yoffee, N. (Eds) (2010). Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire. Cambridge University Press.
- ^ “Natural Experiments of History – Jared Diamond, James A. Robinson”. Harvard University Press. Retrieved 18 September 2010.
 External links
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Jared Diamond|
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Jared Diamond|
- Diamond’s page at the UCLA Department of Geography
- UCLA Spotlight – Jared Diamond
- Edge – Jared Diamond
 Lectures and talks
- Why societies collapse at TED, 2003
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, April 2007
- The Evolution of Religions at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California
- PBS – Guns, Germs and Steel (with full transcripts)
- Hammer Conversation with Jared Diamond and John Long, March 16 2010
- Interview with Charlie Rose
- Interview with New Books in History
Man vs nature
Jonathon Porritt appreciates Jared Diamond’s timely reminder of our destructive instincts, Collapse
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
by Jared Diamond
400pp, Allen Lane, £20
As no other phenomenon in living memory, the Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami have reminded people of the raw power of natural forces at work. There was nothing “man-made” about this particular disaster, though it may well be that the overwhelming scale of its impact was exacerbated by the way in which we have developed some of the worst-affected coastal areas.
In Collapse, Jared Diamond uses that elemental power of nature as his background, but fills his foreground with an astonishing cavalcade of different peoples and cultures from across the planet. They are linked by Diamond’s inquiry into what caused some of these societies (such as the Mayan civilisation or the people of Easter Island) to collapse, while others facing similar challenges managed to survive.
He admits to having started out on this inquiry assuming it would prove to be straightforward abuse of their physical environment that precipitated their demise. In other words, serial ecocide. It turned out to be a lot more complex, with several equally influential factors involved, such as climate change, the presence of hostile neighbours, any involvement in trade, and a host of different response mechanisms on the part of those facing potential collapse. Each collapse or near-collapse throws up a different balance of those key factors.
Diamond is at pains to stress the objectivity he has brought to bear on a sequence of collapse scenarios that often continue to generate serious controversy, and for the most part (until the final chapter) leaves it up to the reader to draw down any conclusions from these scenarios that may be relevant to our own societies today. This pursuit of objectivity drives him into a depth of detail that on several occasions clearly impedes the narrative line he is seeking to develop. There is only so much about the middens on Easter Island or the soil structures of Greenland that one needs to know to embrace a particular collapse hypothesis.
The diversity of the case studies he uses (both past and present) is extraordinary. Ranging from the highlands of New Guinea to the Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, from Greenland and Iceland to Rwanda and the Maya, from Haiti and the Dominican Republic to the US southwest and China – with many an additional stop-off in between. His starting point and most lovingly elaborated case study is Easter Island (“the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources”), which he invites the reader to see as a “metaphor, a worst-case scenario for what may lie ahead of us in our own future”.
How could this particular collapse have happened? Or, as one of his own students put it, what do you suppose the islander who cut down the last tree on Easter Island said to himself as he was doing it? Given that in this instance there was no extreme shift in the island’s climate at that time and no hostile invaders, why would any group of people commit “ecocide” in such a dramatic fashion?
He advances potential explanations to that question (in relation to all the different collapses and near-collapses that he explores) in the final third of the book. And several of these explanations have direct relevance to our own ecological crisis: a failure to anticipate future consequences; an inability to read trends or see behind the phenomenon of “creeping normalcy”, with things getting just a little bit worse each year than the year before but not bad enough for anyone to notice; the disproportionate power of detached elites, particularly when they condone or even positively promote what he describes as “rational bad behaviour” on the part of those who manage or use natural resources.
For those interested in the role of big business (either as “saints” or as “sinners” in the pursuit of more sustainable ways of creating wealth), Diamond devotes a whole chapter to examining the behaviour of oil, mining and forestry companies around the world. Their recurring and often egregious “bad behaviour” can indeed be interpreted as “rational”, inasmuch as governments have consistently failed to proscribe such behaviour (either through legislation or by forcing companies to pay a proper price for the use of the natural world), while the majority of consumers would appear to be relatively indifferent to the environmental damage done in pursuit of their cornucopian fantasies.
But Diamond reserves his most insightful analysis for the more “irrational” reasons why we are not as yet responding to the scale and urgency of today’s converging environmental problems. The often irreconcilable clash between the pursuit of short-term gratification and the defence of future generations’ long-term interests features prominently in many of his collapse case studies – the concept of “intergenerational justice” was clearly no more compelling to some of these long-gone societies than it is for us today. What’s more, the greater the level of change required (to a society’s core values), the easier it becomes to lapse into systematic and falsely reassuring denial.
Here Diamond finally nails his colours to the mast. Anticipating a wide range of rebuttals to his central hypothesis (that the kind of collapse experienced by many cultures and civilisations in the past could easily happen to modern-day societies), he reminds people that we are already witnessing the conditions for collapse in a number of different countries: “Just as in the past, countries that are environmentally stressed, overpopulated, or both, become at risk of getting politically stressed, and of their governments collapsing. When people are desperate, undernourished and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost. They fight each other over land. They kill each other. They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism.”
Interestingly, however, Diamond chooses not to conclude his arguments on that apocalyptic note. Reverting to the inference of his subtitle (“how societies choose to fail or survive”), he briefly reviews the intriguing history of the Netherlands, the country with the highest level of environmental awareness and membership of environmental organisations anywhere in the world. One-fifth of the total land mass of the Netherlands is below sea level, reclaimed from the sea over centuries, and protected by a complex system of dykes and pumping operations. These reclaimed lands are called “polders”, and the Dutch have a clear sense of themselves as “all down in the polders together – we’ve learned throughout history that we’re all living in the same polder, and that our survival depends on each other’s survival”. This is a country that has chosen to avoid collapse through a combination of solidarity and smart engineering.
The title for Diamond’s final chapter, “The World as a Polder”, is premised on his optimistic instinct that even as the threat of ecological meltdown seems to get greater by the year, so too does our awareness of our interdependence and the need for unprecedented solidarity if we are to secure any kind of sustainable future. Diamond may well see in the extraordinary response of the rich world to those countries shattered by the Indian Ocean tsunami precisely the kind of empathy and engagement on which our ability to avoid ecological collapse will surely depend.
· Jonathon Porritt is chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission and programme director of Forum for the Future
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Review: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
User Review – G-nice – Goodreads
Beware when a book so perfectly aligns with its elites’ thinking. This eco-green book about stupid humans and how their environmental destructions leads to collapse of cultures is rather embarrassing … Read full review
Review: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
User Review – Renee Pinkston – Goodreads
Jared Diamond has been on my list for a while. His works, because of my studies were things that I personally felt were “required” for me to read. To this date, I have only read two of his works and … Read full review
Editorial Review – Reed Business Information(c) 2005
Adult/High School-This powerful call to action should be read by all high school students. Diamond eloquently and persuasively describes the environmental and social problems that led to the collapse of previous civilizations and threaten us today. The book’s organization makes researching particular regions or types of damage accessible. Unfamiliar words are defined, and mention of a place or issue that has been described in greater detail elsewhere includes relevant page numbers. Students may become impatient with the folksy Montana fishing stories in part one, but once the fascinating account of the vanished civilizations begins, readers are taken on an extraordinary journey. Using the Mayan empire, Easter Island, the Anasazi, and other examples, the author shows how a combination of environmental factors such as habitat destruction, the loss of biodiversity, and degradation of the soil caused complex, flourishing societies to suddenly disintegrate. Modern societies are divided into those that have begun to collapse, such as Rwanda and Haiti; those whose conservation policies have helped to avert disaster, such as Iceland and Japan; and those currently dealing with massive problems, such as Australia and China. Diamond is a cautious optimist. Some of his most compelling stories show how two groups of people sharing the same land, such as the Norse and Inuit in Greenland, can end up in completely different situations depending on how they address their problems. The solutions discussed are of vital importance: how societies respond to environmental degradation will determine how teens will live their adult lives. As Diamond points out, in a collapsing civilization, being rich just means being the last to starve. Black-and-white photos are included.-Kathy Tewell, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Other editions – View all
agriculture American Anasazi animals archaeological archaeologists arrival Australia Balaguer became Bitterroot Bitterroot Valley bones canoes cause century Chaco Canyon Chapter China climate change coast collapse colony companies costs countries cows crops damage decades decline deforestation developed Dominican Republic drought Easter Island economy environment environmental problems European export farmers farms fertility fish fjords forest Gardar Greenland Norse growing growth Guinea Haiti Haitians Hence Henderson highlands human hunting Hutu Iceland impacts increased industry Inuit irrigation Japan killed land largest livestock living logging Mangareva Maya middens miles million mining modern Montana native Native Americans North Norway overseas past societies Pitcairn plant Polynesian population production rain Rano Raraku Ravalli County remains result rivers Rwanda seal settlers sheep ships soil erosion species statues stone survive Tikopia timber tion trade trees Tutsi Valley vegetation Vikings Vinland Western Settlement wood
Page vii- I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command…
Page vii- Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed: And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Page 524- Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Page 158- Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations ; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown.
Page 158- The world’s great mistress on the Egyptian plain”; but architecture, sculpture, and painting, all the arts which embellish life, had flourished in this overgrown forest; orators, warriors, and statesmen, beauty, ambition, and glory, had lived and passed away, and none knew that such things had been, or could tell of their past existence. Books, the records of knowledge, are silent on this theme.
Page 158- It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long on her voyage, or what caused her destruction; her lost people to be traced only by some fancied resemblance in the construction of the vessel, and, perhaps, never to be known at all.
Page 158- In the romance of the world’s history nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate, and lost; discovered by accident, overgrown with trees for miles around, and without even a name to distinguish it.
Page 114- What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”?
Page 81- These stone images at first caused us to be struck with astonishment because we could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of any thick timber for making machines, as well as strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images.
From Google Scholar
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JACK WARD THOMAS, JERRY F FRANKLIN, JOHN GORDON, K NORMAN JOHNSON – 2006 – Conservation Biology
In “Collapse,” Jared Diamond shows how societies destroy themselves.
by Malcolm Gladwell January 3, 2005
A thousand years ago, a group of Vikings led by Erik the Red set sail from Norway for the vast Arctic landmass west of Scandinavia which came to be known as Greenland. It was largely uninhabitable—a forbidding expanse of snow and ice. But along the southwestern coast there were two deep fjords protected from the harsh winds and saltwater spray of the North Atlantic Ocean, and as the Norse sailed upriver they saw grassy slopes flowering with buttercups, dandelions, and bluebells, and thick forests of willow and birch and alder. Two colonies were formed, three hundred miles apart, known as the Eastern and Western Settlements. The Norse raised sheep, goats, and cattle. They turned the grassy slopes into pastureland. They hunted seal and caribou. They built a string of parish churches and a magnificent cathedral, the remains of which are still standing. They traded actively with mainland Europe, and tithed regularly to the Roman Catholic Church. The Norse colonies in Greenland were law-abiding, economically viable, fully integrated communities, numbering at their peak five thousand people. They lasted for four hundred and fifty years—and then they vanished.
The story of the Eastern and Western Settlements of Greenland is told in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (Viking; $29.95). Diamond teaches geography at U.C.L.A. and is well known for his best-seller “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. In “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Diamond looked at environmental and structural factors to explain why Western societies came to dominate the world. In “Collapse,” he continues that approach, only this time he looks at history’s losers—like the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the Mayans, and the modern-day Rwandans. We live in an era preoccupied with the way that ideology and culture and politics and economics help shape the course of history. But Diamond isn’t particularly interested in any of those things—or, at least, he’s interested in them only insofar as they bear on what to him is the far more important question, which is a society’s relationship to its climate and geography and resources and neighbors. “Collapse” is a book about the most prosaic elements of the earth’s ecosystem—soil, trees, and water—because societies fail, in Diamond’s view, when they mismanage those environmental factors.
There was nothing wrong with the social organization of the Greenland settlements. The Norse built a functioning reproduction of the predominant northern-European civic model of the time—devout, structured, and reasonably orderly. In 1408, right before the end, records from the Eastern Settlement dutifully report that Thorstein Olafsson married Sigrid Bjornsdotter in Hvalsey Church on September 14th of that year, with Brand Halldorstson, Thord Jorundarson, Thorbjorn Bardarson, and Jon Jonsson as witnesses, following the proclamation of the wedding banns on three consecutive Sundays.
The problem with the settlements, Diamond argues, was that the Norse thought that Greenland really was green; they treated it as if it were the verdant farmland of southern Norway. They cleared the land to create meadows for their cows, and to grow hay to feed their livestock through the long winter. They chopped down the forests for fuel, and for the construction of wooden objects. To make houses warm enough for the winter, they built their homes out of six-foot-thick slabs of turf, which meant that a typical home consumed about ten acres of grassland.
But Greenland’s ecosystem was too fragile to withstand that kind of pressure. The short, cool growing season meant that plants developed slowly, which in turn meant that topsoil layers were shallow and lacking in soil constituents, like organic humus and clay, that hold moisture and keep soil resilient in the face of strong winds. “The sequence of soil erosion in Greenland begins with cutting or burning the cover of trees and shrubs, which are more effective at holding soil than is grass,” he writes. “With the trees and shrubs gone, livestock, especially sheep and goats, graze down the grass, which regenerates only slowly in Greenland’s climate. Once the grass cover is broken and the soil is exposed, soil is carried away especially by the strong winds, and also by pounding from occasionally heavy rains, to the point where the topsoil can be removed for a distance of miles from an entire valley.” Without adequate pastureland, the summer hay yields shrank; without adequate supplies of hay, keeping livestock through the long winter got harder. And, without adequate supplies of wood, getting fuel for the winter became increasingly difficult.
The Norse needed to reduce their reliance on livestock—particularly cows, which consumed an enormous amount of agricultural resources. But cows were a sign of high status; to northern Europeans, beef was a prized food. They needed to copy the Inuit practice of burning seal blubber for heat and light in the winter, and to learn from the Inuit the difficult art of hunting ringed seals, which were the most reliably plentiful source of food available in the winter. But the Norse had contempt for the Inuit—they called them skraelings, “wretches”—and preferred to practice their own brand of European agriculture. In the summer, when the Norse should have been sending ships on lumber-gathering missions to Labrador, in order to relieve the pressure on their own forestlands, they instead sent boats and men to the coast to hunt for walrus. Walrus tusks, after all, had great trade value. In return for those tusks, the Norse were able to acquire, among other things, church bells, stained-glass windows, bronze candlesticks, Communion wine, linen, silk, silver, churchmen’s robes, and jewelry to adorn their massive cathedral at Gardar, with its three-ton sandstone building blocks and eighty-foot bell tower. In the end, the Norse starved to death.
How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
- Quill Award: Nominee
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel examines the downfall of some of history’s greatest civilizations
In his million-copy bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world. Now in this brilliant companion volume, Diamond probes the other side of the equation: What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?
As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. Moving from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe. Environmental damage, climate change, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of these societies, but other societies found solutions and persisted. Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana.
Brilliant, illuminating, and immensely absorbing, Collapse is destined to take its place as one of the essential books of our time, raising the urgent question: How can our world best avoid committing ecological suicide?