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Book Review: Two"Diamonds" in the Not-so-Rough

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posted on Apr, 11 2005 @ 11:00 AM
Note: This was originally posted in a different forum; I'm putting it here since this is where most people supposedly look to book reviews.

Here're two books you need on your shelf if you like cultural anthropology.

“Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond (1999)

“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” by Jared Diamond (2004)

“If you know the past, you can predict the future.” That’s the belief of just about every historian and anthropologist, and it’s the reason that both studies are so fascinating to me. Almost everyone is interested in the past – not just the dry dates and names of the battles, but the underlying reasons why a society evolved and whether it lived or died.

And Jared Diamond explains this more successfully – at least to the lay audience – than anyone else. Diamond won the Pulitzer in 1999 with “Guns”, and I suppose it deserved it, being extremely well-written, fascinating, and just a bit too politically correct for me. He asks why Eurasians conquered the world, rather than the other way around, and pins his entire thesis on geographical and floral/faunal influences.

Diamond never mentions that some cultures could be responsible for whether a country ends up as sixteenth-century Spain rather than Sixteenth-century Aztec or Inca. The former, of course, being outnumbered a thousand-to-one by the latter two, overthrew and enslaved them both with hardly working up a sweat.

Yet the fact that Diamond doesn’t even want to consider such a contributing factor doesn’t mean that the book isn’t a good one that deserves to be on your bookshelf – it just means you have a chance to disagree. Diamond discusses why Eurasia had the most large-seed grasses gave them a five-thousand-year jumpstart on the cultures of Africa and the Americas, and it makes great sense. The book is full of examples, and most of it backs up Diamond’s thesis. And the stuff you disagree with will just give you a lot more to think and argue about with your friends.

And given that “Guns” was on the Times best-seller list for a long time and garnered the Pulitzer Prize, you’ll have a lot of people to discuss it with.

“Collapse”, which just came out, defines societal collapse, and discusses the causes of it. He makes a great case for what made the Maya, Anasazi, and Greenland Norse societies fell apart and disappeared, and it is usually an environmental change. In the case of the Maya, most agree that they brought it upon themselves by their slash-and-burn agriculture and unchecked growth. But it’s not easy to blame the Anasazi for the great 13th-century droughts in what’s now Arizona and New Mexico; and you can’t blame the Norse for the little ice age which doomed their Greenland colonies in the late 13th century.

Equally interesting is how Diamond is able to extrapolate and make such a case for the societies and cultures that are today on the possibility of collapse: some Pacific island cultures, and, surprisingly, the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. I actually consider “Collapse” the better of the two, but Diamond still tends to take a bit too much for granted, and some of his descriptions of underlying causes are a bit too simple. Nonetheless, it’s a great complement to “Guns” and both of these books will give you some great insights into why we’re on Earth are who and what we are. I recommend them highly.

[edit on 11-4-2005 by Off_The_Street]

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