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General Discussions => Skepticism / Science Talk => Topic started by: Quetzalcoatl on February 14, 2020, 06:53:19 PM

Title: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: Quetzalcoatl on February 14, 2020, 06:53:19 PM
In previous threads I became aware that Jared Diamond's theories are apparently very controversial in some academic fields. This was news to me. I know that his writings have received awards, and I have seen credible sources recommend his writings without hesitation.

So let's discuss Jared Diamond's theories, books, and writings here. Are they solid or not? Should I read them? Would I be educated or misled if I read them? Who are is supporters, and who are his detractors?
Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: jds22 on February 14, 2020, 09:51:58 PM
I'm a fan of Jared Diamond and wasn't aware of any controversies either.
I will be following this thread with an open mind.

Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: Rai on February 14, 2020, 11:10:24 PM
They have very little merit and are not based on actual history.

I already posted a bunch of links in the other thread which highlight what problems actual historians and anthropologists have with the writings of Diamond. Much of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse have been extensively criticized and the The World Until Yesterday was laughed off by most experts.

It is not to say that everything he writes is completely wrong. But his methodology is very sloppy and biased and some of his examples, most notably everything he ever wrote about Easter Island are complete nonsense, and his grand theory of geographic determinism isn't really supported by anyone in either fields of history or anthropology.


Even if you don't believe me, you should maybe consider anthropologists who, unlike the biologist Jared Diamond, know what they are talking about:

One (http://www.columbia.edu/~saw2156/HunterBlatherer.pdf)
Two (https://www.livinganthropologically.com/archaeology/guns-germs-and-steel-jared-diamond/)
Three (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10455752.2013.846490)
Four (https://savageminds.org/2012/01/22/from-the-archives-savage-minds-vs-jared-diamond/)
Five (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/08/03/guns-germs-and-steel-reconsidered)

On top of that r/AskHistorians also has some fantastic Diamond material like this (https://old.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/8nr7xd/thoughts_on_guns_germs_and_steel_by_jared_diamond/), this (https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/6meq1k/a_detailed_rebuttalalternative_to_the_one_that/dk6htc0/) and this. (https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/2mkcc3/how_do_modern_historians_and_history/) They even have a dedicated FAQ section (https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/wiki/historians_views#wiki_historians.27_views_of_jared_diamond.27s_.22guns.2C_germs.2C_and_steel.22) to how wrong he is.

Here are a few more articles:
The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond – review (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jan/09/history-society)
Collapse of the Easter Island ecocide theory: to what extent does opinion influence research? (https://medium.com/realkm-magazine/collapse-of-the-easter-island-ecocide-theory-to-what-extent-does-opinion-influence-research-a87fc2ed2b96)

A great example of what a hack he is is a series of three articles. The first  (http://www.marklynas.org/2011/09/the-myth-of-easter-islands-ecocide/)criticized him for getting the history of Easter Island completely wrong. The second is his response where he prissily re-states his incorrect opinion until he gets slapped down by actual experts  (http://www.marklynas.org/2011/10/the-easter-island-ecocide-never-happened-response-to-jared-diamond/).
Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: Desert Fox on February 15, 2020, 06:06:08 AM
Is the idea that diseases brought to the Americas causing millions of native deaths controversial?
I don't know if that came from him and in fact suspect that it is much older than his writings. 
Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: Quetzalcoatl on February 15, 2020, 06:18:05 AM
The death of native Americans from diseases has been known for a long, long time, and that knowledge did not originate with him. I don't think he has even claimed credit for it either.
Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: Desert Fox on February 15, 2020, 06:41:32 AM
I was following some of the links provided by Rai

One of them addressed that actually. Not in great detail but does address it. As with many things, it is complicated. We need to look at every chapter of what occurred between European invaders and native civilizations.

I kind of already knew this with some Mayan  kingdoms surviving against the Spanish almost a couple of centuries.
Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: Sawyer on February 15, 2020, 10:02:51 AM
I still like Jared Diamond, but I think my basic rule about publishing popular books holds true here.  When someone keeps writing the same "big picture" book over and over again, you shouldn't put too much stock in their expertise or the overarching narrative that they present.

It's also really hard to separate a purely scientific critique of his work from people with their own agenda.  One of those Lynas pieces cites some climate deniers, and it's pretty clear why they would want to undermine any book that talks about ecological problems leading to societal collapse.  Regardless of whether it gets Easter Island wrong or overemphasizes some archaeological speculation, I would highly recommend the book Collapse for clear illustrations of how often a Tragedy of the Commons emerges during environmental crises.  This was probably the book that convinced me modest tax penalties and efficient light bulbs are not going to magically solve climate change.  Diamond does a really good job of showing respect towards the individualist approach to environmentalism (he lives in anti-government haven Montana), while still exploring how it's incapable of overcoming global warming.
Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: arthwollipot on February 16, 2020, 07:52:19 PM
I've read Guns Germs and Steel once and know nothing else about him. I enjoyed the book.
Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: Ah.hell on February 18, 2020, 02:36:09 PM
I've read Guns Germs and Steel once and know nothing else about him. I enjoyed the book.
That's pretty much all you need.  I've read a few of his books and they're all basically the same, so he is a bit of a hack.

At best, his ideas are a somewhat compelling just so story. 

I skimmed a few of Rai's links and it seems the core of the dislike for Diamond is his "environmental determinism" and his lack emphasizing how important the Europeans choice to conquer the world was along with an aside of and his he gets some of the details wrong.  I don't find that overly compelling a criticism.   Rai is welcome to clarify if I misunderstood or mischaracterized the criticism.

It's also really hard to separate a purely scientific critique of his work from people with their own agenda. 
This is basically my opinion. 
Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: lonely moa on February 23, 2020, 04:06:41 AM
"The Third Chimpanzee" is a great read.  I think it is his first effort for the lay audience.  I also think his essay entitled "The worst mistake in the history of the human race" is very insightful.

I have read all his popular books at least once (still on the bookshelf), but beware, they are tomes that are long and require some attention. 

I am quite impressed with his love for languages.  Somewhere in his writing he describes a campfire in New Guinea where everyone around the fire, mostly native New Guineans, related how many languages they spoke.  I recall that no one spoke less than five.
Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: Drunken Idaho on March 20, 2020, 11:53:03 PM
He seems like a better-researched Malcolm Gladwell, to me.

Gladwell's books (I've only read Tipping Point and Blink) put forth some interesting ideas, but I thought that he advocates his own conclusions as "the right answer" when they're often no more than conjecture.

I've only read Guns Germs and Steel by Diamond, but the book is openly a rebuttal to the idea that racial differences had a significant say in societal development. I think the data presented supported his overall point very well.
Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: Tatyana on March 21, 2020, 09:33:09 AM
The merits of a book like guns, germs and steel is that his hypothesis dismantles many racist claims.
Title: Re: What are the merits of the theories of Jared Diamond?
Post by: lonely moa on March 21, 2020, 02:34:01 PM
The merits of a book like guns, germs and steel is that his hypothesis dismantles many racist claims.

Good luck has a lot to say for itself.