Friday, March 10, 2006

Jared Diamond, Please Call Your Office

In two bestselling books, UCLA professor Jared Diamond has argued that the success or failure of human societies has little to do with the innate characteristics of the peoples who comprise those societies but rather depends almost entirely on the environment in which they find themselves. Prof. Diamond built the foundation for this argument in Guns, Germs and Steel, in which he cited Europe’s impressive network of rivers, temperate climate and fauna as the real reasons underlying the success of European civilization. He consummated it in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by arguing that a communitarian environmentalism saves societies from their own greed. This won him instant acclaim from the academic Left, which despises the concept of natural selection the second someone applies it to modern humans (let’s not even mention sexual selection) and any notion of human progress. The two books have made Prof. Diamond quite wealthy, and have guaranteed him an ample income in speaking fees. However, one key morality tale in Prof. Diamond’s treatise is being seriously challenged. It turns out that the native inhabitants of Easter Island may not have sent their society hurtling into eco-collapse as long thought. According to research published by Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii, and Carl Lipo of California State University, in Science, the original Polynesian settlers of Easter Island arrived considerably later than commonly thought, and that the society didn’t collapse suddenly.

The researchers also dispute the claim that Easter Island's human inhabitants were responsible for their own demise. Instead, they think the culprits may have been Europeans, who brought disease and took islanders away as slaves, and rats, which quickly multiplied after arriving with the first Polynesian settlers.

"The collapse was really a function of European disease being introduced," Lipo said. "The story that's been told about these populations going crazy and creating their own demise may just be simply an artifact of [Christian] missionaries telling stories."

At a scientific meeting last year, Hunt presented evidence that the island's rat population spiked to 20 million from the years 1200 to 1300. Rats had no predators on the island other than humans and they would have made quick work of the island's palm seeds. After the trees were gone, the island's rat population dropped off to a mere one million.

Lipo thinks the story of Easter Island's civilization being responsible for its own demise might better reflect the psychological baggage of our own society than the archeological evidence.

"It fits our 20th century view of us as ecological monsters," Lipo said. "There's no doubt that we do terrible things ecologically, but we're passing that on to the past, which may not have actually been the case. To stick our plight onto them is unfair."

Of course, Prof. Diamond will say that he never claimed that environmental folly was the sole cause of every civilization he mentioned and that he can still cite other examples. But the reversal of thought on Easter Island’s history – much like the earlier reversal of thought regarding the violent nature of Mayan culture – should give pause to those hawking trendy theories that ignore the basic building blocks of any society: people.


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