Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


From the Editors of Questioning Collapse: Requesting Full Disclosure and Correction of Factual Errors

A few weeks ago, Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, wrote aQuestioning Collapse Cover (rather negative) book review of Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire – a critique of his own book – for Nature… without mentioning that Questioning Collapse was, well, questioning Collapse. StinkyJournalism.org laid out this conflict of interest, starting a good ol’ fashion media ethics debate.

Today, the controversy comes to a head and the collected contributors of Questioning Collapse have formulated a response.


Requesting Full Disclosure and Correction of Factual Errors

By Patricia A. McAnany, Norman Yoffee, Joel Berglund, David Cahill, Frederick Errington, Deborah Gewertz, Terry Hunt, Timothy Murray, Kenneth Pomeranz, Christopher Taylor, Michael Wilcox, and Drexel Woodson.


The 18 February 2010 (Vol 463) issue of Nature contains a response to our recently published book entitled Questioning Collapse. Called “Two Views of Collapse,” it masquerades as an impartial book review in which the reviewer (Jared Diamond) alleges that the edited book contains serious errors of fact. This justifies his devaluation of our emphasis on human resilience and allows him to discount the importance of culture and history, including the facts of 18th-19th century colonialism. Throughout the “review”, Diamond fails to disclose that our book critically examines two of his publications: Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The lack of full disclosure brings forth troubling questions.

Readers of Nature expect a book review to include a description and evaluation of a book but not an author’s rebuttal to criticism of his own publications. We are disappointed that Nature would ask Jared Diamond to review our book. Nature is of course free to solicit an article by Diamond that considers the evidence presented in our book and/or to present new evidence.

We are further surprised that the editorial team at Nature allowed the review to be published in its current form with unsubstantiated allegations of “errors and implausible extremes.” Here, we take pains to correct, once again, the errors perpetrated by the “reviewer” that again repeat over-determined and simplistic theses regarding both societal “collapse” and current global inequities in power and wealth.


1. Greenland Norse died of starvation. Niels Lynnerup, in The Greenland Norse: A Biological and Archaeological Study(1988) produces no evidence of starvation and, in a phone conversation between chapter author Joel Berglund and Lynnerup on Feb 25, 2010, Lynnerup stated that he has no idea what Diamond could be referring to.

2. Chaco Canyon (in NM, USA) was heavily forested in the past and then deforested by Chacoans. In fact, wood for buildings and roof beams at Chaco was always imported into Chaco, from increasing distances as nearby forests became exhausted, as Michael Wilcox reported. Chaco was never in the midst of a lush coniferous forest but rather in a zone of dry, scrub vegetation in the form of scattered piñon and juniper trees. Remnants of this environment still exist on the mesas surrounding Chaco Canyon. (The date cited in the caption under the image of Casa Rinconada in Chaco, which accompanies the “review,” is incorrect by nine centuries.)

3. The conquest of Inca Peru was simply a matter of Spanish military might. David Cahill shows that when Spaniards came to Peru the Inca were engaged in a civil war as well as imperial expansion. Consequently, the Inca had many local enemies, some of whom were pleased to ally with Spaniards against the Inca. History is a little more complicated than Diamond’s assertion that “Europeans did conquer the world.”

4. There were two Papua New Guineans named Yali—the one with whom Diamond strolled on a beach in PNG and the Yali that Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington discuss. There are many Yalis in Papua New Guinea. Diamond describes his Yali as a remarkable local politician, someone who radiated charisma and energy. This description matches the famous Yali, who is well-known in literature on PNG as a famous, historically significant figure.

5. A roadside conversation with one Rwandan schoolteacher proves that Rwandan genocide was due to overpopulation and land shortages. Christopher Taylor—who lived in Rwanda and barely escaped the genocide with his family—argues that it is important to understand Rwandan history and culture rather than merely imposing a Malthusian construct upon this tragic history. Can anyone doubt that a deeper cultural understanding is needed to truly understand what happened in Rwanda and how to avoid it in the future?

6. Questioning Collapse presents “non-Western societies as virtuous and Western societies as evil-doers.” Virtue and evil are not the subjects of our book.

7. Questioning Collapse misrepresents situations in which “most of the population vanishes” and “everyone ends up dead.” The precise point of our book is that everyone didn’t “end up dead” in cases of “collapse” but that many survived (and even flourished) under changed political and cultural circumstances. The conflation of profound societal change with the notion of biological extinction is a persistent error that runs through much “collapse” scholarship and is particularly glaring in Jared Diamond’s publications.


We emphasize that Questioning Collapse presents ample archaeological and historical data that contextualize how societies moved through periods of crisis. The goal of our book is to provide students and lay persons alike with an understanding of historical processes that is based upon up-to-date research. Questioning Collapse is more than a critical evaluation of Diamond’s scholarship: it is about how we understand change in the past, how we grapple with the legacy of colonialism and with inequalities in the present, and how we can move forward productively and resiliently into the future.

Patricia A. McAnany, Norman Yoffee, Joel Berglund, David Cahill, Frederick Errington, Deborah Gewertz, Terry Hunt, Timothy Murray, Kenneth Pomeranz, Christopher Taylor, Michael Wilcox, and Drexel Woodson.

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