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Just watched "Guns, Germs and Steel" on YouTube - implications to capitalism

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Clayton Posted: Sun, May 15 2011 4:12 AM

Here. It's long but it's worth it. I sense in Jared Diamond the same drive to seek the truth for truth's sake that you find in the writings of Mises or Hoppe. Truly refreshing coming from someone working in the anthropological field which is infested with hardline Marxists. I especially like the way he talks about inequality as something that is clearly and identifiably there and must have identifiable causes but without resorting to the Revolt Against Nature (egalitarianism) that usually comes with that observation.

I was struck by the contrast between the narrative of Guns, Germs and Steel regarding mankind's escape out of subsistence and the narrative usually given by economists which virtually identifies "capitalism" with the Industiral Revolution. But if we follow the Crusoe thought-experiment consistently, then the beginning of capitalism is much, much earlier, at least 13,000 years ago when the first grain storages were built and people began to cultivate plants and animals for storage over winter. Ants and chipmunks are natural capitalists, in this sense - they build up stocks of goods by deferring present consumption (so they can survive periods of scarcity).

Diamond's central thesis is that it is accidents of geography which have created huge imbalances in the wealth between various parts of the world and I think he's spot on. The plants and animals available to those living in the Levant (fertile crescent) and later spread to North Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe and Persia were more suitable to cultivation and storage without spoiling, making that first toe-hold on capitalism possible (he nowhere mentions capital theory, which is too bad). These developed first in this part of the world and spread from there around the Eurasian continent, as well as developing independently in China. People in other parts of the world only later developed a small amount of these capabilities, if at all. The contrast he makes between New Guinea and New York City is most striking.

To me, this more biological/anthropological approach simply reinforces and buttresses capital theory by laying it on the foundation of human biology and the Earth's geography. We don't need to appeal to mythical "capitalist classes" and "labor classes" to make sense of the very real and stark differences between the conditions in which people in different parts of the world live.

One last point that is not mentioned in this series from which it would greatly benefit is the rise of the State. Particularly striking is the clear absence of the Statist mentality among the people of New Guinea. State predation only becomes possible once there is something to steal, that is, after the process of capital accumulation has begun. So, we see the rise of original capitalism (storing of grain, cultivation of plants and animals, etc.) quickly followed by the rise of States which specialize in predating upon the accumulated capital of others. The rise of warfare and the importance of securing capital stocks also flows from this - the people of New Guinea have no use for swords since there's very little, if anything, to steal. Hence, they have no need for swords to be used in defense. Capital stocks are the target which motivated the industry of predation (the State) which gave birth to the offensive weapons used to this end. This, in turn, necessitates the development of weapons and technology to defend against predation.

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What do you think about the idea that harsh natural conditions, while initially a major deterrent to advancement, can later become major advantages?

Consider that certain native American tribes had developed the habit of climbing great heights on mountains and even climbing trees. These people were paid good wages to work on skyscraper construction. They had no fear of heights.

Also, did Arabs not benefit from survival skills in travelling long distances - which made them good merchants who could connect the Orient and the Occident?

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William replied on Sun, May 15 2011 10:36 AM

It's been awhile since I read him (like '99), but from what I remember I didn't buy the premise.  I am not a fan of "grand narratives", and I am not sure his central question makes sense, or at least enough to warrant such grand speculating.  I think the simplist and best answer is just population density, and the attraction of civilization, oh and the obvious fact that such interaction among people leads to stronger immune systems, as a rule of thumb at least- there is not much need to state anything more - certainly not why any specific area in the N Africa/ Eurasian landmass was "destined" to arise at such and such a point.

Other than that though, I am starting to wonder what the boundries, limits, and uses are with "biological" narratives in relation to the humanities and social sciences.

 

"I am not an ego along with other egos, but the sole ego: I am unique. Hence my wants too are unique, and my deeds; in short, everything about me is unique" Max Stirner
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Clayton replied on Sun, May 15 2011 11:56 AM

William:

It's been awhile since I read him (like '99), but from what I remember I didn't buy the premise.  I am not a fan of "grand narratives",

Well, there must be some explanation. Inhabitants of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Persia were so far advanced over the inhabitants of the Americas, many islands and, in some ways, Asia. We all started in the same place, at the same time (Africa, from primates). We're all the same species with roughly the same brain. So what explains it? I am persuaded by Diamond's theory of geographical accident. It's what's left when you eliminate all the "common mode" variables.

and I am not sure his central question makes sense, or at least enough to warrant such grand speculating.  I think the simplist and best answer is just population density, and the attraction of civilization, oh and the obvious fact that such interaction among people leads to stronger immune systems, as a rule of thumb at least- there is not much need to state anything more

*shrug - you seem overly dismissive.

- certainly not why any specific area in the N Africa/ Eurasian landmass was "destined" to arise at such and such a point.

Diamond nowhere speaks of destiny.

Other than that though, I am starting to wonder what the boundries, limits, and uses are with "biological" narratives in relation to the humanities and social sciences.

You seem to think there are no disciplines than the one you have an amateur interest in. Praxeology defines its boundaries around human behavior but human biology encompasses all of praxeology and more (the study "human behavior" is a subset of the study of the human body) and biology encompasses more than that.  Surely, you must concede that the shape of the human hand, the human eye, the human brain all play a role in why we behave this way rather than that way. How can such investigation not inform praxeology?

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Clayton replied on Sun, May 15 2011 12:14 PM

Prateek Sanjay:

What do you think about the idea that harsh natural conditions, while initially a major deterrent to advancement, can later become major advantages?

I think there's some merit to it but I think caution is required. The white supremacy narrative argues that whites somehow developed higher intelligence than other races and that this, therefore, is what entitles white people to rules the world. It's a pretty ridiculous narrative if you have even the slightest knowledge of the history of the white race vis-a-vis other races even just 1,000 years ago. Three thousand years ago, North Europeans were a bunch of illiterate He-Men living in conditions barely advanced beyond hunter-gatherers while the Mesopotamians were doing arithmetic in base 60, reading, writing, sailing the oceans and trading with foreigners in distant lands.

So, what we're really talking about is comparative advantage - the fastest African runners run faster than the fastest white runners. But then, the fastest white runners still run a lot faster than the average African. It seems like an obvious point that the outliers of all populations can lie higher than the averages of all populations even while some averages and some outliers are higher than others but apparently this gets lost on people. In fact, I believe this is playing an important role in the integration of the West with the rest of the world into the emerging global political order. Western commoners (particularly Americans) tend to have a high opinion of themselves vis-a-vis the inhabitants of vast regions of the world outside the West. The average, upper-middle class American imagines himself richer and more sophisticated than the richest man in India, Africa or someplace like Afghanistan. The reality is that the elites in every part of the world are smarter and more devious than the commoners in every part of the world. I remember reading a quote to the effect that the elites of different regions have more in common with each other than they have in common with their local kinsmen and I think this is true.

Consider that certain native American tribes had developed the habit of climbing great heights on mountains and even climbing trees. These people were paid good wages to work on skyscraper construction. They had no fear of heights.

Also, did Arabs not benefit from survival skills in travelling long distances - which made them good merchants who could connect the Orient and the Occident?

There is no doubt that there are racial aptitudes.

If white people have an aptitude it is not intelligence, academics or the arts... but war. Look at the Vikings, their battle skills were legendary (full-disclosure: I'm 1/4 Norwegian).

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Jared Diamond is a finite-earther extremist. I remember the movie making some sense and leaving out the crazy stuff. But the book is all about how civilizations rise because they stumbed upon resources and fall because they aren't environmentalist enough and "use up" their resources. The idea that Europeans often had epidemics ravainging continents ahead of their invasions makes sense, but otherwise Diamonds "geographical determinism" is politically correct nonsense. http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson042305.html

"They all look upon progressing material improvement as upon a self-acting process." - Ludwig von Mises
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William replied on Sun, May 15 2011 1:11 PM

 

You seem to think there are no disciplines than the one you have an amateur interest in.

To be fair, not that I care that much about apologetics for myself.

a) econ is no where near one of my top hobbies

b) I have a degree in biology and work in med tech

c) I (like oh so many) started with a psych major

d) My history hobby horse out-weighs my econ / sociology one

Not that any of this makes me an expert, but it just isn't a fact I am approaching this with "econ" tunnel vision .  I just don't know if I buy that much into scientism.  The minute something falls into a "biology" catagory - it is no longer in the realm of the social sciences and is than left to the field of engineers, doctors, etc is what I am saying.  

When it comes to the social sciences the unique individual is the ontological atomic fact, and from there we talk about what can be said intersubjectively. I mean: Surely, you must concede that the shape of the human hand, the human eye, the human brain all play a role in why we behave this way rather than that way; in what context and why?

Well, there must be some explanation. Inhabitants of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Persia were so far advanced over the inhabitants of the Americas, many islands and, in some ways, Asia. 

Yes, volumes of people and the attraction of civ  (which very much plays into the "germ" part as well).   

This is where I may have missed / forgotten diamonds point (as I said it has been awhile): It is not specific inate resources in specific locations, once the "civilization ball" gets rolling you have to stop. Western Europe did not have any inherent advantage of "winning out" at the present due to any of this, it just happened to do so. These things are very complex stews with way too many variables to go much past that point.  The germ bit makes sense, to a degree - the rest not so much if I remember correctly.  

My basic disagreement is that after a certain point it does become historical accident - and one is taking the narrative way to far. Once you hit civilization you have to stop with that style of determinism.  After that we just have to study and look at anthropology or biology, and that is really it I think.  History isn't science, pure and simple - this gets even more true the more you forske it's ties to the social sciences and try and throw it in with the hard science.

"I am not an ego along with other egos, but the sole ego: I am unique. Hence my wants too are unique, and my deeds; in short, everything about me is unique" Max Stirner
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William replied on Sun, May 15 2011 1:59 PM

For the record:

ut if we follow the Crusoe thought-experiment consistently, then the beginning of capitalism is much, much earlier, at least 13,000 years ago when the first grain storages were built and people began to cultivate plants and animals for storage over winter. Ants and chipmunks are natural capitalists, in this sense

I think I agree with this, at least in some sense

 

Diamond's central thesis is that it is accidents of geography which have created huge imbalances in the wealth between various parts of the world and I think he's spot on. The plants and animals available to those living in the Levant (fertile crescent) and later spread to North Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe and Persia were more suitable to cultivation and storage without spoiling, making that first toe-hold on capitalism possible (he nowhere mentions capital theory, which is too bad).

I disagree with, as I see it as more of an isolation issue

 

 

"I am not an ego along with other egos, but the sole ego: I am unique. Hence my wants too are unique, and my deeds; in short, everything about me is unique" Max Stirner
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Clayton replied on Sun, May 15 2011 2:04 PM

William:

 

You seem to think there are no disciplines than the one you have an amateur interest in.

To be fair, not that I care that much about apologetics for myself.

a) econ is no where near one of my top hobbies

b) I have a degree in biology and work in med tech

c) I (like oh so many) started with a psych major

d) My history hobby horse out-weighs my econ / sociology one

Not that any of this makes me an expert, but it just isn't a fact I am approaching this with "econ" tunnel vision .

OK - I've just noticed a tendency among some people on these forums to act like praxeology is the sum of all knowledge and science.

I just don't know if I buy that much into scientism.  The minute something falls into a "biology" catagory - it is no longer in the realm of the social sciences and is than left to the field of engineers, doctors, etc is what I am saying.  

Sure, I agree with that. However, the limits of what I can do and, therefore, the endeavors which I pursue (means) to satisfy my wants (ends) are, in part, dictated by what I am (biology). I wouldn't need an airplane if I could already fly, if you see what I mean. So, there is definitely an interaction between the "hard sciences" and social science.

When it comes to the social sciences the unique individual is the ontological atomic fact, and from there we talk about what can be said intersubjectively. I mean: Surely, you must concede that the shape of the human hand, the human eye, the human brain all play a role in why we behave this way rather than that way; in what context and why?

In the context of the physical world. I can't pick up 1 ton boulders with my bare hands simply because I'm not able to. Hence, if moving a 1-ton boulder is among my wants, I must employ some means other than direct use of my body. Hence, the division of labor is in part dictated by the physical/biological limits of what I am able to do with my body.

Well, there must be some explanation. Inhabitants of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Persia were so far advanced over the inhabitants of the Americas, many islands and, in some ways, Asia. 

Yes, volumes of people and the attraction of civ  (which very much plays into the "germ" part as well).  

I don't think population alone explains it. In fact, population increase must be the consequence of prior economic advancements so the question goes right back to how/why those advancements occurred in one part of the world but not another.

This is where I may have missed / forgotten diamonds point (as I said it has been awhile): It is not specific inate resources in specific locations, once the "civilization ball" gets rolling you have to stop. Western Europe did not have any inherent advantage of "winning out" at the present due to any of this, it just happened to do so. 

That's where I disagree. We couldn't even speak of "winning out" if humans had not spread out across the globe into isolated pockets. The Europeans confronting the South Americans for the first time were two completely isolated groups of humans separated by millenia of independent development. But Europeans had been going back and forth with the Persians, North Africans, etc. for millenia and there had been a massive exchange of technology (social and physical) between them, so nobody in this connected region was as far behind the state of the art as the South Americans were behind all of them. The South Americans were an entire "Age" behind (bronze vs. iron). But why had one group of humans gotten so far ahead of other groups of humans along independent paths of development? I think Diamond is right that geographical accident (endowment) explains the earlier rise of what I see as capitalism (Diamond doesn't but he doesn't seem to be particularly strong on economics, which is only typical). This endowment is not merely one of quantity but one of quality. Only a select few species of animal are suitable to domestication and among these, only a tiny number are suitable as draft animals. Almost all the species suitable for domestication and drafting were on the Eurasian continent. The grains on the Eurasian continent were more suitable for storage (the roots of capital) than the cultivated plants in other regions of the world, except the Americas which had maize.

These things are very complex stews with way too many variables to go much past that point.  The germ bit makes sense, to a degree - the rest not so much if I remember correctly.  

True, they are complex, but then, the point of any scientific analysis is to see if there are any truths which we can arrive at if we neglect/abstract away the complexities we know we cannot model/explain. Keynesian economics tries to model complexities which cannot be modeled. It's bad science. Good science acknowledges "this is way too complex to be modeled... however, we can still say A, B and C which are true of any system no matter how complex." For example, we can know from the 2nd law of thermodynamics that pollution is the inevitable byproduct of any economic activity, no matter how simple or complex. This law is physical and, therefore, prior to and above praxeological laws. Whether econonmic activity results in pollution or not is not a part of human choice or part of the means-ends framework, it stands above and outside these as a physical fact of the universe in which we exist.

We may not be able to explain many of the details but it may very well be possible to answer a few of the big questions of the history of the rise of humans if we can identify facts which stand outside and above the forces of human choice and culture. Diamond says in the video something to the effect that when Pizarro confronted the Inca in the 1530's, events were set in motion which were outside the control of any individual Spaniard or Incan. Smallpox would decimate the Inca whether anybody liked it or not. The Inca presented a wealthy, soft target to the Spaniards whose military technology was eons ahead of the technology the Inca possessed. Right or wrong, the Inca were going to be exploited.

My basic disagreement is that after a certain point it does become historical accident - and one is taking the narrative way to far. Once you hit civilization you have to stop with that style of determinism.  After that we just have to study and look at anthropology or biology, and that is really it I think.  History isn't science, pure and simple - this gets even more true the more you forske it's ties to the social sciences and try and throw it in with the hard science.

Hmm, I'm inclined to disagree with the assertion that history isn't science. History isn't a natural science, for sure, and you cannot treat the study of a living, breathing, thinking, conniving, manipulative, deceptive, obfuscatory human being like you treat the study of a neutron or a galaxy. Nevertheless, history does concern the study of the past through the artifacts which are available to us in the present just like any other science. The difference is that the artifacts which are available to us in the study of human history can be (and often are) intentionally misleading, so you have to factor in the additional complexity of intentionality and the desire to conceal motives, aggrandize oneself, belittle or demonize one's enemies, and so on. I think of history more like a forensic science but still a science.

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William replied on Sun, May 15 2011 2:25 PM

That's where I disagree. We couldn't even speak of "winning out" if humans had not spread out across the globe into isolated pockets. The Europeans confronting the South Americans for the first time were two completely isolated groups of humans separated by millenia of independent development. But Europeans had been going back and forth with the Persians, North Africans, etc. for millenia and there had been a massive exchange of technology (social and physical) between them, so nobody in this connected region was as far behind the state of the art as the South Americans were behind all of them

Ok here is where probably my main issue with Diamond would be, if I remember him correctly:

What I am saying is that at a certain point, between All of Eurasia and N Africa there was no good way to predict that one location was inherently "better" - there was a lot of frickin "luck" involved.  the best we could say would be something like "ahh the UK was "smart" to use there island for an isolationist policy and build up a navy" but the geography does not neccesitate te UK's actions.  Geography and resources only matter up to a certain point, once humans start utilizing them, we have to switch gears.

But yes any Eurasian / N African country had an inherent advantage in war, conquering, and ability to hold land over anyone else in the world by the year 1492(and much much earlier).  I don't argue that point.  

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I sense in Jared Diamond the same drive to seek the truth for truth's sake that you find in the writings of Mises or Hoppe.

All of his work revolves around one manifest theme.  Divesting all historical outcomes of sociogical explanations.  When you hear the things he says about contemporary conditions, what he is doing and the ultimate absurdity of his grand theory become more readily apparent.  It's more like his drive is to create his own theory brand than anything pertaining to truth.  Things would have been better left to old fashioned common sense: the gifted have more to work with.  So, all else equal they will get on top.  No need to try making a mountain out of a molehill.

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William replied on Sun, May 22 2011 11:42 PM

I think I agree with Caley on this.  Though I think even here the word "gifted" can only be used as a type of "matter of fact statement" in a "what is, is" situation....that is gifted is what is on top, and what is on top is gifted, and this is only dependent on perspectives.

"I am not an ego along with other egos, but the sole ego: I am unique. Hence my wants too are unique, and my deeds; in short, everything about me is unique" Max Stirner
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A friend of mine asked me a couple days ago if I had read any of Diamond's stuff and if I had any opinions on it.  That reminded me I had been planning to watch this documentary.  (Which you can find on ThePirateBay, as well as at that link on youtube).

I did enjoy the film and overall I agree with Clayton here.  I think Diamond is mostly correct in his assessment, and I'm not even so sure he actually goes against what William says here.  I didn't really get the impression that Diamond was too focused on his geography theory so much so that he lost sight of "luck" or the fact that once you reach a certain point other factors become more important.  In fact, in the book, Diamond actually points out specific examples of how some of those political structures retarded growth and development...he suggested that political homogeneity in China led to stagnation, particularly because there were no external competitors that might have forced the nation to reverse mistaken policies.

On Wikipedia:

In a later article, Diamond notes that circa 1500, during the Ming Dynasty, China's naval superiority over what Europeans could field was terminated by a single political decision, the hai jin ("ocean forbidden"); in a Europe fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms and nation-states, no such authority existed. Similarly Japan learned about guns from Portuguese explorers in 1543 and by 1600 had the world's best guns; but as these threatened the power of the Samurai class, it restricted and finally banned their production. Diamond concludes that such bans could be imposed only in politically unified and isolated nations, such as Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate. He also says that India, on the other hand, may have been too fragmented for a monumental rise in power similar to Europe's.[7]

Sounds pretty good to me...and is well beyond what I would expect from an academic...let alone a scientist.

And that negative review that claims Diamond's theory is a neat "politically correct" account of history is nothing but useless bashing and non sequitur.  The entire first half does nothing but list examples of how the fortunes of different cultures have changed over time (most specifically in the last couple hundred years) without a change in environment....Which of course has virtually nothing to do with the point Diamond makes in the book or his overall theory.  The reviewer obviously didn't even read that book, but it does seem as though he read Collapse, which fortunately is the one he was reviewing.  I can see how someone of an obvious capitalist persuasion would be inclined to automatically dismiss Diamond and his theory (like EmperorNero does above), but if one would actually read the book or at least watch the documentary, they would understand virtually nothing about Diamond's theory of geographic determinism in Guns, Germs, and Steel goes against a free-market capitalist understanding of the world.

 

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My Buddy replied on Sat, Jun 18 2011 5:21 PM

He is correct to a point. Geography, natural resources, etc definitely make a difference. However, it is not the largest factor by any means. Europe actually WAS united by the Roman Empire, which was then conquered by a variety of hunter-gatherer invaders (suspiciously labelled as an "exception") and fell apart because of corruption/inflation (something unaccounted for by the "geographical" explanation). This also fails to account for the success on the smaller scale. Why did Britain, which was united in practical terms by the 14th century and officially by the 18th, succeed over its neighbors despite being quite similar in nature to Japan? Don't give me that "competition between neighbors" explanation, either; Japan was not much more isolated then Britain, what with its exposure to the various Korean kingdoms, China, etc. How did the Ottoman Empire, which was extremely poor in terms of geographical area/resources, overcome the far richer and powerful nations of Europe in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries? What made Venice, a city built on a swamp in Italy, an incredibly powerful nation during the Medieval ages, and then decline up through to the unification of Italy? How did the Islamic Caliphate, formed by the unification of various tribes in the desert, utterly crush first the very powerful and rich Sassanid and Byzantine Empires, and then proceed to take all of North Africa and defeat the Visigoths in Spain?

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Great summation My Buddy

Look, if one can concede that at the time of say, the Sassanid Empire there is no way to predict that the West (which may be a near useless  and dangerously misleading Enlightenment term) was going to inevitably succecede perhaps Mr Diamond has some point.  I can't really say, as I said I am no expert on the dude I read him 1 1/2 times 12 years ago.  I would go even further saying no betting man in his right mind would pick "the West" to win out until maybe as late as the 18th century (though I would perhaps concede the 15th with some arm twisting).

There is no need to use empty, counter productive and useless slogans as "making history more scientific".  Just concede that in these affairs "what happened, happened" and leave it at that and once again I may be more in agreement than disagreement witht the overall theory as I recognize it.  There are a plethora of just as valid ways things could have turned out.

Anyway rant over, and my little one day splurge is done, the account is being imploded, peace out

-William

"As in a kaleidoscope, the constellation of forces operating in the system as a whole is ever changing." - Ludwig Lachmann

"When A Man Dies A World Goes Out of Existence"  - GLS Shackle

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Clayton replied on Sat, Jun 18 2011 9:25 PM

Well, Diamond chooses two key focus points to guide his inquiry in the documentary. The first is a Papua New Guinean man asking him how come white people's ships have "so much cargo" (stuff, wealth) and the ships of Papua New Guineans have so little. Clearly, this fact has nothing to do with the history of ideas or a horse-race between cultures. The second is the confrontation between the Incans and Pizarro, who defeated the entire Incan empire with just a few hundred men. He also investigates the confrontation of South African settlers with the natives there - conflicts whose outcome for the natives was very similar to the fate of native Americans at the hands of European settlers of North America.

Diamond sees the Middle East and West as having much more in common with one another than with Africans, Americans and Islanders who would later be raped, colonized and subjugated by Europeans. So, Diamond isn't even addressing the question of why the Romans were powerful for a while and then the Ottomans and then the British and now the Americans. All of these extravagantly powerful empires were light-years ahead of their contemporaries in the Americas, the African heartland and Islands and I think Diamond really has nailed down why. He doesn't say it this way, but I think his thesis can be said this way: the process of capitalization began earlier than anywhere in the Levant and then spread to the European, Persian, Indian, and North African regions. Asia, later, underwent a similar process but was isolated by geography from the other parts of the Eurasian continent and had slightly less favorable breeds of plants and animals to work with. The peoples of the Americas also underwent this process but with an even less favorable endowment of plant and animal breeds. Islanders like Papua New Guineans never underwent the process and remained - until modern times - almost completely tribal.

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My Buddy replied on Sat, Jun 18 2011 10:46 PM

Again, he answers things broadly to some measure of success, but fails to distinguish success on a smaller scale. His points extend to Papua New Guinea and the Incan Empire (though one could argue that Pizzarro was lucky to have arrived in the middle of internal struggles amongst the Inca and could have lost, resulting in the Inca using the stolen Spanish technology to try and catch up), but they aren't quite reliable enough to count on.

 

The real hole in his armour is the Roman Empire. Barbarian tribes from Central Asia with no resources to speak of and hunter-gatherer lifestyles triumph over a nation with an incredibly superior advantage in geographical location, resources, and manpower (Thanks to an agricultural lifestyle which results in a larger population, as he so kindly laid out). The only conceivable reason that the geographical explanation provides for the fall of the Romans would be the "centralization" issue that China had, but that falls flat for two glaring reasons; first, the Roman Empire, unlike China, always was surrounded by reasonably strong enemies that were a constant threat, like the Picts, Sassanids, Parthians, Scythians, Goths, Berbers, etc. Second, if you use this clause as an excuse for Rome's fall, you also demonstrate that any nation in Europe could have united the continent as Rome did, resulting in the same problems as China, resulting in Europe having absolutely no substantial advantage over China and the results being left to chance and the strength of the leaders of nations (which would imply the correctness of the dreaded Great Man theory). QED.

 

Again, I am not saying that he is entirely wrong. The geographical explanation is at least somewhat correct, unlike the theory it is attempting to combat, the biological explanation (which is, frankly, outright retarded and a bit of an easy target). Really, the truth is a mixture of this and the Great Man theory, which merges to create an answer; looking at the world at the dawn of man and predicting how technology and wealth would spread, one would be able to make practically no correct predictions barring those that precluded people in certain locations from becoming powerful (like those living in the middle of deserts, or those in extremely isolated locations).

 

Some more food for thought; he also ignores that a lot of Europe's dominance stemmed from either Great Men or luck, especially on three seperate occasions. First, had Persia conquered Greece successfully under the rule of Xerxes, they would never have been wiped out by Alexander the Great. This, in turn, would lead to a united Persian front when the Roman Empire arose (though it might never arise if the Greeks were thoroughly conquered), unlike the divided and weakened Greek nations that fought it instead. Persia could have spread its power throughout Europe and led to its own culture being predominant rather than those of Greece and Rome. Second, Alexander the Great could have failed to conquer Persia, leading to a somewhat diluted version of the first option (European colonization and advance would have at least been paused had there been a powerful Persian empire in place and no Byzantines). Third, the Ottomans could have taken Vienna and dispersed through Europe, which would have put a quick end to many European nations' aspirations at foreign empires, forcing them to pay more attention to home.

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John James replied on Sun, Jun 19 2011 12:14 AM

This ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated, so basically I can sum it up by saying that while I think Diamond's conclusions are in some ways inchoate and fatally flawed, I think it is also a mistake to interpret his theory as virtually debunked by specific examples of specific societies and how they fell.  I draw a distinction between his geographic determinism theory presented in Guns, Germs, and Steel and his "5 factors of failure" checklist presented in Collapse

I think the latter is where the majority of his mistakes are made.  However, I think "My Buddy" is conflating the two and seeing an issue where there isn't one: "[Diamond] answers things broadly to some measure of success, but fails to distinguish success on a smaller scale."  I actually think Clayton addressed that point before it was even posted: "Diamond isn't even addressing the question of why the Romans were powerful for a while and then the Ottomans and then the British and now the Americans.  All of these extravagantly powerful empires were light-years ahead of their contemporaries in the Americas, the African heartland and Islands and I think Diamond really has nailed down why."

That is the point.  Guns doesn't attempt to explain the micro reasons Rome could fall to barbarian tribes from Central Asia.  And the fact that that happened does not discredit his theory, but My Buddy is implying it does, even if just in part.

 

My Buddy:
He is correct to a point. Geography, natural resources, etc definitely make a difference. However, it is not the largest factor by any means.

In the context of what the book was most focused on, I think it is.

 

Europe actually WAS united by the Roman Empire, which was then conquered by a variety of hunter-gatherer invaders (suspiciously labeled as an "exception") and fell apart because of corruption/inflation (something unaccounted for by the "geographical" explanation). This also fails to account for the success on the smaller scale. Why did Britain, which was united in practical terms by the 14th century and officially by the 18th, succeed over its neighbors despite being quite similar in nature to Japan?...

This and all the other questions you raise sound exactly like that review posted earlier in this thread, which I was talking about in my last post.  I think in the context of Guns, Germs, and Steel  Diamond isn't so far off.  It is when he set out to answer a new question of why societies and civilizations fail...that's when he runs into the shortsightedness and ignorance you speak of. 

With Guns, he is mostly concerned with developments from prehistory up to about AD 1500, and pays no real attention to the questions of what it is specifically within societies that makes them prosper and falter.  His primary focus is on accounting for the relative differences between societies around the world throughout history.  In other words, with the first book, he was taking more of a macro look...whereas with Collapse he attempts to answer questions on a more micro level, within individual societies over time, as opposed to an assessment of human civilization on a world scale.

And while he decidedly does a good job of weaving together the multiple disciplines required to build such an all-inclusive theory in Guns (history, geography, anthropology, ecology, genetics, archeology, and botany, to name a few), when the content of the question leads farther into the realm of economics, I'm afraid Diamond is simply ill-equipped to answer the questions he's asking.  Of course there were factors of economics involved in his original determinism theory—as economics is virtually everywhere—but in prehistoric times these factors were not all that complex, as without much capital to speak of, there wasn't much capitalism able to take place. And even though his study is taken all the way up to the beginnings of the mercantilist period, the questions of economics are never fully applied to any one civilization, but are more kept to a relativist approach, simply pointing to one society's advancements over others.

Collapse

It is only when Diamond attempts to look on a micro scale and explain why societies collapse that he goes off base...and even there he gets so close, yet remains so far away.  He offers a 5 point checklist of factors that can contribute to a societal collapse...over-working the environment, climate change, failure of a supportive neighbor, bad relations/war with neighbor, and political/economic factors...what he calls "how people react to the first 4 factors."

It's remarkable how he is able to identify the problems, yet so easily misattribute their roots.  A great example is here in this lecture...Diamond talks about how his undergraduate students would ask him the question: "Why on Earth would these societies do all these dumb things?  Why did they cut down all their trees?  What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say, and why did the chiefs allow this?"  See the problem here?  Why is the assumption that the elites are wise all-knowing leaders who just fell down on the job?  Why is the question not "why would the chiefs order this to be done?  And "why would the people go along with it?"

I think this is a perfect microcosm for Diamond's overall problem in his assessment...while he does have other methodological issues, such as looking only at slanted examples of fragile, mostly isolated or island landscapes that witnessed colonists, renegades, or adventurers who sought in their greed or ignorance to put too many people in the wrong place...his major problem is more one of chronology and cause and effect.  He is "putting the cart before the horse", as they say.

A couple minutes later in that same lecture, as he tries to answer the question posed by his students, he actually says that one of the reasons groups can make bad decisions is that they fail to see the problem growing around them...because it creeps up slowly.  He even uses Leonard Read's "how to cook a frog" analogy.  Not kidding.  He uses a libertarian economist's analogy for the creeping infringement by the state as a way to describe how people don't see the problems growing around them...while he blames the fall of societies on mishandling of the fragile environment.  The irony is almost palpable.

How Societies Choose to Fail

Diamond's assessment more or less is that people over-exploit their environment, and that causes problems which manifest in hostilities with neighboring societies as well as within, which leads to a collapse.  He refuses to acknowledge (I think in his historic and economic ignorance) the reasonings behind these things.  It's a lot like the way Keynesians explain economic changes: "A recession happens when, for whatever reason, a large part of the private sector tries to increase its cash reserves at the same time."  Diamond does the same thing.  He doesn't really answer the question his students ask him...the why or how people could and would do these things that are so detrimental.  He only sort of answers it...he starts in the middle, never really getting to a true cause...instead more pointing to a symptom in the chain of events (again like most Leftist arguments).  Kind of like saying: "The reason for the house burning down is quite obvious.  It burned down because it caught fire."  It's ambiguousness like this that the author of the review actually touches on:

"The main problem, however, with [Collapse] is that Diamond’s well-meaning, environmentally correct storytelling cannot impart any coherent lesson of why in fact societies fail.  Environmental degradation, climate change, hostilities, political and cultural failures, and trade are cited as the roots of collapse, but are used so interchangeably that we never learn to what degree mismanagement of nature or of people brings on doom. As a result, when Diamond ventures into systematic analysis of historical questions that he knows nothing about, he has a predictable propensity to say things that are not simply wrong but hilarious."

What's so funny, ironic, and sad at the same time, is that Diamond actually does touch on the answer, but misses it completely.  One of the reasons he points to to answer "why/how" is a mismatch between short-term interests of "the elite" and the long-term interests of the entire society.  Which of course, is by and large a great explanation...the only problem is, Diamond, like most academics, (at least in part) defines "the elite" as "modern American CEOs", which he actually uses as a comparison in his book to the Norsemen of the past who caused the collapse of their societies through their greed and zeal in conquering other societies...while portraying them as, what the reviewer calls, "caricatured chauvinists who proclam “the unconscious message, ‘We are Europeans, we are Christians.’”

Diamond makes almost no connection to the true source of elite power...the State.  Because of course it was no doubt ancient versions of modern CEOs that were in charge of depleting stores of resources on small islands and isolated areas in order to erect monuments to gods and rulers.  It had absolutely nothing to do with the chiefs of those societies who actually held all the power in commanding their people.  No, it was the merchants, with all their greed and short-sightedness, with focus only for the short-term "gains" to be had by constructing scores of 100-ton statues.

Next, after using the global warming farce as an example of people not recognizing a problem because of its slow-growing nature, he carries on into answering another question of how even when people see a problem, they don't act...using as an example mining companies, who through (apparently) a severe lack of regulation—who didn't see this coming?—found that they "could make a lot of money" by dumping toxic waste into rivers and streams.  But he's not done.  In another confounding display of irony, he launches directly into explaining "the tragedy of the commons"—which he actually defines as "a lack of privatization" which in turn makes it difficult to have an agreement as to how a resource will be harvested—and he uses it as another example of the exact same problem: people seeing a problem and doing nothing about it.  So just to be clear, it's a "lack of regulation" that leads to the pollution and debilitation of communally-held property, but it's the fact that property is communally held that leads to detrimental exploitation of resources.  Are you seeing why this so funny yet so sad at the same time?  Obviously the lack of privitization is what allows the pollution just as it allows for resource depletion.  Just as someone would care how resources are harvested if he owned the property, he would also care what condition the property is in...particularly if it were a valuable resource (like a lake or river).

Once again the root cause is not only staring him in the face, he's actually making out with it and he still doesn't see it.  Here again he steps over the arsonist lying on the ground with a torch and lighter-fluid in his hands, so he can get a better look at the charred remains of the house that burned down.  And now we get to hear his eureka proclamation about how the house caught fire because it wasn't fireproof.

Diamond in the rough

But if you've decided Diamond is a typical anti-capitalist Leftist academic, prepare to be surprised again.  Right after this, again in the same lecture, he mentions how until 8 years prior, his view of big businesses was they were nothing but evil institutions that trash the environment and have no conscience or care for anything but the bottom line and are essentially the enemy.  Sounds about on par with what you'd expect.  But he tells a story of how he was sent out on consulting work for Chevron in the oil fields of Papua New Guinea.  While working there he discovered that the Big Oil company's oil fields were "managed environmentally more rigorously than any national park that [he'd] ever been in."  He mentioned how endagered plants and animals are more abundant inside the borders of Chevron property than outside them.  After seeing this and scores of other examples across the globe of private businesses actually taking not only a concern for the environment and local peoples, but actually providing an even better existence than where their presence is not felt, he realized that because businesses care about the bottom line, they do, more often than not, end up doing things that benefit the environment.  Part of the reason for this is because it is actually more cost effective to be clean and cautious, than to have to clean up billions of dollars worth of toxic mess.  He said it also makes financial sense because image and reputation play a large role in profitability...and that it is therefore the consumer that largely determines a company's behavior.

The guy is just one surprise after another.  He goes on to say "a blueprint for disaster is when the elite—those in political power in a society—are capable of insulating themselves from the consequences of their actions...so that they don't feel the bad impacts that they are responsible for".  Seriously that could have just as easily come from the mouth of Lew Rockwell himself.

Honestly after hearing more of this guy talk I'm more and more convinced that Clayton's sense about Diamond was correct...he's really just seeking some truth, at least for the most part, and doesn't have a problem going where his investigations lead him.  I think the flaws in his reasoning are more the result of simple ignorance and a lack of exposure and education in sound economics and political theory, as opposed to some closed-minded bias or quest to demonize Western culture and capitalism.

Based on the way it seems Diamond takes in evidence and considers it, and is willing to change his view based upon it, I really wouldn't be surprised that if someone sent him enough Rothbard, Block, and Hoppe, he'd end up being ancap.

 

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TANSTAAFL replied on Mon, Jun 20 2011 4:49 PM

This book was interesting. But you should also read Collapse if you want to understand where Diamond is coming from. As has been mentioned the guy is a chicken little of resource depletion. Maybe it was just my interpretation, but after reading Diamond I was left with the distinct impression that he thinks it was lack of a strong enough central government that was the underlying problem.

Two things I did find interesting  were his theories on crop development and domestication of animals and the link to disease. What he does really well is illustrate the basis for comparative advantage resulting from random distribution of starting resources.

Other than that it is readily apparent that Diamond is economically ignorant.  I would say his most glaring mistake is not addressing trade in his work.

Although I can't recall many at the moment, I distinctly remember a number of questions he raised in my mind while reading his books. One of them being...there always were central governments and despite the existence of government people still cut down all their trees, why do you think a different or 'better' government could find 'success?'

 

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Clayton replied on Mon, Jun 20 2011 7:29 PM

 

No doubt Diamond is a statist. I just found this documentary to be quite eye-opening and filled with interesting and challenging facts about human history that are relevant to explaining the fact of global wealth disparity without either dismissing it as unimportant (typical conservative response) or blaming the free market (typical liberal response). It's an important question simply because the masses of people think it's an important question. Just look at the Soviet Union... seven decades of absolute statism fully justified on the basis of wealth disparity... it's an important question and that makes answering it in a responsible manner important.

The role of the State in creating wealth disparity within cultures is not addressed by Diamond (at least, not in this documentary) and I'm fairly confident that his statist bent would prevent him from correctly diagnosing the problem.

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John James replied on Mon, Jun 20 2011 10:11 PM

Clayton:
No doubt Diamond is a statist.

I'm not so sure about that.  If you can't be bothered to read my latest post, (I know it's long), at least read the "Diamond in the rough" section at the end.

 

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I don't buy into geographical determinism. Jared Diamond is one of these social scientists who tries to play around with history when he isn't probably trained in it. Now sometimes there are non-historians who actually do good historical work but the general rule is that these amateurs make up fanciful tales, use hearsay or gossip in order to construct history. I have not fully read Diamond but from what I have read he puts too much emphasis on geography. I also recall some reviews I read on his book which call into question some of his claims. I don't have them in front of me but I for some reason am recalling something about how the construction of the plow existed in China but wasn't utilized to the degree it was in Europe. Also I'm recalling how the Chinese constructed water clocks  and how they were more accurate them the mechanical pieces in Europe. This was a few months ago so I am a bit hazy. 

'Men do not change, they unmask themselves' - Germaine de Stael

 

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Clayton replied on Mon, Jun 20 2011 10:38 PM

@John James: I read your entire post and I agree with what you've said... you yourself closed by saying that if he were exposed to some good Austrian materials, he might just become an anti-statist. I was surprised by how open-minded Diamond is (in the documentary) since your typical academic is pretty heavily steeped in Marxist dogma.

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Clayton:
...you yourself closed by saying that if he were exposed to some good Austrian materials, he might just become an anti-statist.

That's a bit of a harsh way to put it I think.  For all we know he may very well be a minarchist...But based on the way he talks, I doubt he's that far along...but even in his case I'm not sure I go so far as to label him a "statist"...and I definitely would be averse to doing so with a minarchist, even if it could be considered technically correct by definition.

 

I was surprised by how open-minded Diamond is (in the documentary) since your typical academic is pretty heavily steeped in Marxist dogma.

Likewise.

 

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