January 3, 2005

Jared Diamond didn't used to be so boring


Jared Diamond has a new book out called Collapse about societies that have collapsed due to environmental disasters such as deforestation. It's a useful topic, but in the large scheme of things, a minor one, which is why Diamond spends so much time on famously trivial edge-of-the-world cultures like the Vikings in Greenland and the Polynesians on Easter Island. But Diamond is so good at getting publicity that the fact that ecology has little to do with the reason most societies collapse will likely be overlooked. The main reason you don't see many Carthaginians or Aztecs or members of other collapsed civilizations around these days is they got beat in war, as Edmund Creasy's famous 1851 book "Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World" makes clear.

Diamond wasn't always so pompously dull. Over a decade ago, Jared Diamond wrote a fascinating book called The Third Chimpanzee that collected his Discover columns and other articles. It didn't make too much of a splash, perhaps because it was politically incorrect in a lot of places, so then he wrote a much duller book entitled Guns, Germs, and Steel, which purported to once and for all Disprove Racism, and he has been a fixture as a speaker at the higher priced sort of conferences ever since.

Although, as far as I can tell, he only lectures, never debates. I've never heard of him ever allowing himself to be dragged into a debate. I met him after he gave a speech at Mike Milken's big annual confab. We were chatting nicely until I asked him a tough question about what he didn't mention in his Guns, Germs, and Steel -- Wouldn't different agricultural environments select for different hereditary traits in locals? -- I went on to mention how James Q. Wilson's The Marriage Problem has a couple of chapters on how tropical agriculture in West Africa affects family structures. And, thus, wouldn't the kind of man that would have the most surviving children be different in an agricultural environment where he doesn't need to work too much to support them than in an agricultural environment where he does?

Now, Diamond has spent a lot of time birdwatching in New Guinea, so he knows all about what tropical agriculture selects for. And he has no intention of touching that tar-baby with a ten-foot pole. So, he grabbed his stuff and literally dog-trotted at about 5 mph out of the auditorium!

Jared Diamond wasn't always such a tedious phony. GC over at GNXP.com has uncovered an early Jared Diamond article in prestigious Nature about a hilariously politically incorrect topic. Personally, I don't have any first-hand experience with the topic, so I couldn't give you my opinion on the validity of Diamond's findings on racial differences in testicle sizes, but Diamond seems pretty fascinated by the question.

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has more on Collapse.

Steve Sailer's homepage and blog is iSteve.com

No comments: