did they fail? could they choose?

Download Did They Fail? Could They Choose?

Post on 25-Dec-2016




1 download

Embed Size (px)



    www.sciencemag.org SCIENCE VOL 327 22 JANUARY 2010 413



    IT: C














    Questioning Collapse: Human Resil-

    ience, Ecological Vulnerability, and

    the Aftermath of Empire began as

    a conference session at the 2006

    annual meetings of the

    American Anthropological

    Association, where schol-

    ars came together to discuss

    the massive popular appeal

    of Jared Diamonds Guns,

    Germs, and Steel and Col-

    lapse ( 1, 2). Their discussion

    ex panded and developed

    into a volume that brings

    together archaeologists, cul-

    tural anthropologists, and

    historians to reanalyze and

    reinterpret Diamonds case

    studies and conclusions.

    In many cases the authors, all prominent

    scholars in the time periods, areas, and top-

    ics they write about, are able to identify and

    correct an array of errors in Diamonds data.

    Questioning Collapse, however, is not a col-

    lection of indignant scholars dwelling on fac-

    tual inaccuracies or Diamond-bashing. The

    volume presents lively debate, critique, and

    engagement not only with Diamonds the-

    ses but, more importantly, directly with the

    serious issues he raises and the roles serious

    scholars should take. The authors contribute

    positively to critical public discussions about

    understanding what the past has to offer us as

    we move toward an increasingly global, envi-

    ronmentally fragile future. Their chapters

    were written for the wider public rather than

    being narrowly focused at specialists and yet

    also have much of value for professionals in

    the authors disciplines.

    The studies in Questioning Collapse

    make clear that environment is not the only

    issue that societies must deal with in order to

    make civilizations sustainable. None of the

    authors disagree with Diamonds claim that

    understanding past human-environment inter-

    actions is important to our future. But they

    do caution that we need to make certain that

    studies and arguments are very carefully con-

    structed, methodologically rigorous, and con-

    scious of all possible nuances and facets of

    the issue. The contributors show how this can

    be done for the societies they study, and they

    explain the implications of Diamonds trou-

    bling propensity to overlook the real and pow-

    erful infl uences of cultural ideologies on the

    paths that civilizations take.

    Diamond conjures a sense

    of crisis, defi ning collapse in

    dramatic ways that ignore how

    societies also choose to be

    resilient, to adapt and change

    in ways that can even include

    abandoning places in favor

    of new settlements or strate-

    gies that better fi t their envi-

    ronmental, economic, reli-

    gious, or other cultural needs.

    Who is to say that a society

    such as Norse Greenland,

    which existed for 450 years,

    was a failure because its inhabitants eventu-

    ally decided for a variety of reasons that life

    could be better elsewhere? Or that the Maya

    abandoning their monumen-

    tal Classic period religious

    centers was a collapse rather

    than a political and social

    shift that was a good decision

    at the time?

    Notably, the authors pay

    attention to the living descen-

    dents of the supposedly

    failed, collapsed societies that

    Diamond profiles. The vol-

    ume does something largely

    long missing (at least in lit-

    erature easily accessible to

    the public), which is to reject

    historical amnesia by bridg-

    ing the gap between ancient

    lost societies and the cul-

    tural inheritors of these tradi-

    tions who are still among us.

    Several chapters highlight the

    continued existence of com-

    munities such as native Eas-

    ter Islanders, the Maya of Central America,

    Native North Americans, and Aboriginal

    Australians and what they have to say about

    their supposed disappearances. These peo-

    ple have not in fact vanished, but what have

    been obscured by narratives such as Dia-

    monds (and, admittedly, by archaeological

    and popular romanticism) are their cultural

    histories and perspectives. One nice feature

    of the book is the inclusion of short profi les of

    living individuals from the areas in question,

    whose words and faces represent the human

    reality of their diverse perspectives.

    Diamond intended Collapse as an envi-

    ronmental wake-up call but missed the crucial

    fact, clearly argued in this volume, that pro-

    posed solutions to our global environmental

    problems cannot succeed without grappling

    with the complex issues of history, coloniza-

    tion, and social injustice that have brought

    us to our current state of fragility and cri-

    ses. Several chapters raise the bitter truth that

    many societies do not have the entirely free

    choice about how they deal with their envi-

    ronment that Diamond assumes. Especially

    today, societies are increasingly constrained

    by being interlaced into complex global

    social and economic networks. Who are we,

    from our positions of power and infl uence, to

    suggest that the people of Papua New Guinea,

    for example, should forbid logging or mining

    on their land when the alternatives available

    to them also will not sustain or improve their

    lives and those of their children?

    We cannot ease our current global envi-

    ronmental crises without understanding their

    complex histories and equitably address-

    ing the socioeconomic problems that create

    and sustain them, and that cannot be done

    without many diffi cult shifts in perspective,

    including about how we defi ne and assign

    blame for societal collapse. Stepping into

    someone elses shoes is easy to recommend,

    but the actual shedding of subconscious cul-

    tural ideas about what constitutes common

    sense and practicality in order to do so is

    much more diffi cult. Even more challeng-

    ing may be the creation and maintenance

    Did They Fail? Could They Choose?


    Krista Lewis

    The reviewer is at the Department of Sociology and Anthro-pology, University of Arkansas, Little Rock, AR 72204, USA. E-mail: kxlewis@ualr.edu

    Questioning Collapse

    Human Resilience,

    Ecological Vulnerability,

    and the Aftermath of Empire

    Patricia A. McAnany and

    Norman Yoffee, Eds.

    Cambridge University Press,

    Cambridge, 2010. 390 pp. $90,

    55. ISBN 9780521515726.

    Paper, $29.99, 17.99.

    ISBN 9780521733663.

    Icons of collapse. Moai left standing close to the quarry at Rano Raraku, Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

    Published by AAAS
















    n M

    ay 1

    4, 2










    d fr




    22 JANUARY 2010 VOL 327 SCIENCE www.sciencemag.org 414

    of socioeconomic systems that value those

    diverse perspectives, share control and inter-

    pretation of heritage, and (most important of

    all) alleviate problems of social justice. How-

    ever, such actions are not entirely impossible,

    and the suggestions the authors of Question-

    ing Collapse make about how we can move

    in those directions are valuable contributions

    to the effort.


    1. J. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human

    Societies (Norton, New York, 1987).

    2. J. Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or

    Succeed (Viking, New York, 2005); reviewed in ( 3).

    3. T. Flannery, Science 307, 45 (2005).

    Does the brain have a sex? Until

    recently, most investigators consid-

    ered this question a silly onethe

    answer was no. But advances in neurosci-

    ence, behavioral genetics, and technology

    especially magnetic resonance imaging and

    positron emission tomographyhave cast

    this query in a different light. With increas-

    ing confi dence, scholars and commentators

    have cataloged putative differences between

    male and female brains. These presumed

    differences have panicked

    gender-conscious par-

    ents, prompted redesigned

    schools, and provided

    entrepreneurs with sub-

    stantial profi ts.

    Amid a rising din of

    claims and counterclaims

    concerning this topic,

    Lise Eliot offers a work of

    serious and highly persua-

    sive scholarship. A neuro-

    scientist at the Rosalind

    Franklin University of Medicine and Sci-

    ence, Eliot focuses on a question that lies at

    the heart of the male-female brain debate:

    Why do boys and girls perform differently

    on certain cognitive tasks? Arguing that

    environmental factors are more infl uential

    than intrinsic ones, she repudiates claims

    made by several popularizers of sex differ-

    Unsexing the Brain


    A. Scott Henderson

    The reviewer is in the Department of Educat


View more >