[extropy-chat] Collapse, by Jared Diamond

Hal Finney hal at finney.org
Sat Mar 11 19:35:56 UTC 2006

A few weeks ago we had some discussion of the book Collapse, by Jared
Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel.  Diamond discusses a number
of cases of failed social systems, identifying resource exhaustion
as a common theme, with possible implications for our own ecological
challenges.  One of his examples is Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui, where
a civilization arose that created phenomenal sculptures of giant heads
that dot the island, only to collapse.  It is particularly puzzling
because half of the heads were apparently abandoned in mid construction
in the quarries.

The conventional explanation, as cited by Diamond, is of resource
exhaustion in the form of deforestation.  A few researchers have
challenged that view, and now there is a new report in Science which
turns the Easter Island chronology on its head.  The article requires
a subscription but here is a news report about it:

> The first settlers on Easter Island didn't arrive until 1200 AD, up to
> 800 years later than previously thought, a new study suggests...
> The finding challenges the widely held notion that Easter Island's
> civilization experienced a sudden collapse after centuries of slow
> growth. If correct, the finding would mean that the island's irreversible
> deforestation and construction of its famous Moai statues began almost
> immediately after Polynesian settlers first set foot on the island.
> ...
> Crucial to the conventional account of events on Easter Island is the
> time when settlers first arrived. If colonization didn't begin until
> 1200 AD, then the island's population wouldn't have had time to swell
> to tens of thousands of people.
> "You don't have this Garden of Eden period for 400 to 800 years," Hunt
> said in an accompanying Science article. "Instead, [humans] have an
> immediate impact."
> Also, the few thousand people Europeans encountered when they first
> arrived on Easter Island might not have been the remnants of a once great
> and populous civilization as widely believed. The researchers think a few
> thousand people might have been all the island was ever able to support.
> "There may not have actually been any collapse," Lipo told
> LiveScience. "With only 500 years, there's no reason to believe there
> had to have been a huge [population] growth."
> Europeans and rats to blame
> The researchers also dispute the claim that Easter Island's human
> inhabitants were responsible for their own demise. Instead, they think the
> culprits may have been Europeans, who brought disease and took islanders
> away as slaves, and rats, which quickly multiplied after arriving with
> the first Polynesian settlers.
> "The collapse was really a function of European disease being introduced,"
> Lipo said. "The story that's been told about these populations going
> crazy and creating their own demise may just be simply an artifact of
> [Christian] missionaries telling stories."
> At a scientific meeting last year, Hunt presented evidence that the
> island's rat population spiked to 20 million from the years 1200 to
> 1300. Rats had no predators on the island other than humans and they
> would have made quick work of the island's palm seeds. After the trees
> were gone, the island's rat population dropped off to a mere one million.
> Lipo thinks the story of Easter Island's civilization being responsible
> for its own demise might better reflect the psychological baggage of
> our own society than the archeological evidence.
> "It fits our 20th century view of us as ecological monsters," Lipo
> said. "There's no doubt that we do terrible things ecologically, but
> we're passing that on to the past, which may not have actually been the
> case. To stick our plight onto them is unfair."

This last point is interesting.  We do have a tendency to interpret the
world in the context of "stories", and science is not immune to this.
Right now the story is popular of man as the "ecological monster"
described here, and interpretations of the past in that context
are common.  Another example is the supposed extermination of large
American mammals by the actions of humans, while other evidence blaming
climate change is downplayed because it doesn't fit the story.  (Actually,
climate change is a major new story - I've even heard it applied to Mars -
so I'll bet we will see this extermination history reinterpreted.)

It's easy to see the influence of these stories when we look at
scientific history.  The racism and jingoism of European culture had a
strong influence on sociological analyses of "primitive" cultures in the
19th century, and we easily scorn the limited vision of those scientists.
But in some ways we are not free of this tendency today.

It is good to see this self-consciousness of story-driven interpretations
as described in this article.  I wonder if they made it into the Nature
report.  Becoming conscious of these kinds of bias is the first step in
being able to compensate for them in scientific reasoning.


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