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I think Collapse is better than Guns, Germs and Steel. It is about the end of isolated settlements, and the path which lead them to their demise.

And I think it should be mentioned that Guns, Germs and Steel is rather extreme in suggesting an 'geological determinism.' [1] While his arguments are generally quite good, there is simply quite a bit more happening. A nice book to balance this is Ian Morris, Why the West Rules--For Now.

[1] Jarred Diamond actually warns of this determinism fallacy, but the book certainly left me with the impression that such a determinism exists.




GGS is the kind of book that makes academics despair [1]. I remember a Geography lecturer once relating how Diamond had been given honorary membership of some geographical society or other, and was giving an acceptance talk. It was a cause of supreme embarrassment for most of the people in the room; Diamond didn't seem to realise that he was addressing many senior academics who had spent most of their careers exploring why his ideas are unsound.

[1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-4959.2008.... (paywall)


Do you have any specific criticisms in mind? That abstract implies that the paper doesn't actually argue with anything in GGS itself. Rather, "environmental determinism" sounds like it's a dirty word in their niche of academia, and they need to yell at GGS because it might be contaminated.

One way to phrase the distinction is that no one really expects huge empires in Antarctica, so everyone admits there's some role to the environment. GGS talks about more complicated effects that the environment has, without saying anything about the outcome being deterministic. It argues that the odds were somewhat higher of Europe invading North America than vice-versa, and doesn't even try to quantify by how much.


With the disclaimer that I've watched the documentary and haven't read the book, the reasoning seemed faulty and unsound to me. It was definitely too deterministic and did not really go into non-environmental factors. For example, it boiled down the state of development of Papua New Guinea civilizations to the primary source of starch being palm trees vs grains, or something to that effect. It feels like picking one contributing factor and focusing on it at the expense of everything else.


I didn't see the documentary, but the book does build a single case, but it's mostly saying "please consider the many, many complex effects of the environment" rather than "don't consider other things."


I thought Diamond's comparison of Europe and China was especially weak. He wrote it off as that China had an emperor, and thus a single point of failure. He didn't do enough to explain why Europe did not become an empire, or to explain why China's immense bureaucracy did not avoid such a single point of failure.


I remembered he did explain why Europe failed to become a united empire - geography.

According to the book, the reason China has a large stable empire was because of China's geography, which was mostly flat and well-connected by the Yangtze and the Yellow river. With few geographical segments, this led to the people being less likely to form 'tribes' and more likely to be united culturally.

This is in contrast to Europe, which has a large impassible mountain range in the middle, and lots of peninsulas and small rivers, forming natural boundaries. This led to Europe being more diverse culturally.


But Europe has at one point been a united empire. Doesn't that imply that pure geography is not the cause?


Geography is the reason why Europe did not remain united long.


I think the reason Diamond's books are so popular and influencial is because academics do a poor job of relating to the public the consequences of their discoveries. By building on the latest scientific findings and filling in some gaps with speculative theories Diamond is able to astound readers with insights that the general public rarely hears. Even if the theories aren't the most accepted by academics the fact that the ideas are being discussed in a publicly digestible way is beneficial.


Btw, I noticed that Diamond has another book out, for all of you who are interested in his work.




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