Gregg Easterbrook reviews Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and, in doing so, he gives a very good overview of Jared’s previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and how the two books are connected. Diamond argues that all variations in societies are not caused by the societies themselves, but by "differences in their environments." Some of this sort of thing is interesting, of course, but Easterbrook does a pretty good job in showing how problematic it is in the end. Just one paragraph:
Diamond’s analysis discounts culture and human thought as forces in history; culture, especially, is seen as a side effect of environment. The big problem with this view is explaining why China -- which around the year 1000 was significantly ahead of Europe in development, and possessed similar advantages in animals and plants -- fell behind. This happened, Diamond says, because China adopted a single-ruler society that banned change. True, but how did environment or animal husbandry dictate this? China’s embrace of a change-resistant society was a cultural phenomenon. During the same period China was adopting centrally regimented life, Europe was roiled by the idea of individualism. Individualism proved a potent force, a source of power, invention and motivation. Yet Diamond considers ideas to be nearly irrelevant, compared with microbes and prevailing winds. Supply the right environmental conditions, and inevitably there will be a factory manufacturing jet engines.