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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Jared Diamond's Collapse

I haven't read the book yet, and I don't have any desire to do so at this point. I loved "Guns, Germs, and Steel", but "Collapse" seems to be a fairly boring framing of the human situation in a Malthusian context. Here's where I got this notion:

Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, is neither “superb” (The New Statesman), “incisive” (The Washington Post), “magisterial” (BusinessWeek), nor “insightful and very important” (Boston Herald). It is, instead, a telling example of how a smart man can be terribly misled by a fixation on one big idea. In this case, Diamond, a biologist, is trying to apply biology’s master narrative to human societies...

As prophets go, Diamond certainly has impressive credentials. He is a polymath who speaks 12 languages, won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel, and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. He trained as a physiologist, is an expert ornithologist specializing in the birds of New Guinea, and is now a professor of physiology and geography at the University of California at Los Angeles...

Diamond adheres to the orthodox Malthusian claims that human population growth is exponential while “improvements in food production add rather than multiply; this breakthrough increases wheat yields by 25%, that breakthrough increases yields an additional 20%, etc.” But just looking at the history of the 20th century, it is very clear that increases in food production have been exponential too; in fact, food production has been increasing faster than human population growth. Since 1961 world grain production has tripled, while world population has doubled. Consequently, per capita global food production increased by 25 percent between 1961 and 2004, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

   [Reason: Under the Spell of Malthus: Biology doesn’t explain why societies collapse]

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