Saturday, May 11, 2019

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis I

I'm reading this latest book from Jared Diamond. As in Collapse, he includes several case studies, but this time the main topic is modern national crises rather than an assortment of local population crises from various eras. He also includes a personal crisis in order to provide a concrete example of how they manifest themselves in individuals and how individuals deal with them. Diamond is an affecting writer and a good storyteller, which makes him pleasant to read, though I don't consider him particularly scientific in the terms that I prefer. I haven't read his best-known book, Guns, Germs and Steel, which describes the development of modern civilization as an accident of geography and the spread of ideas through cultural means. Diamond is a traditional humanist academic and does not appear to subscribe to the deterministic theories of human nature that dominate on this blog. For example, as far as I know, he completely ignores the works of Robert Plomin and David Reich, which I think are important. Nor is there any hint that Diamond is aware of works on the cognitive limitations of humans, such as those of Daniel Kahneman and Robert Sapolsky. Diamond's writing style seems like a cross between the Bible and the case study method used at Harvard Business School. In every instance, events involve a group of people with specific characteristics and the problems that they are forced to confront. The analysis includes looking at the decision-making processes of each group and how their decisions worked or didn't work. In Diamond's framework, the inherent competence of the group making a decision has nothing to do with its genetic background. To be fair, genetics are not always relevant in such cases, but, if you look at humans over periods of thousands of years, I think that there is evidence that they do have an impact. This constitutes my chief criticism of Diamond's methodology, because, indirectly, he is denying the existence of natural selection insofar as it pertains to humans.

The personal crisis recounted by Diamond is the difficulty that he encountered in graduate school. Although he had been a whiz student as an undergraduate at Harvard, when he moved on to Cambridge in England to pursue a Ph.D. in physiology, he soon discovered that he was dismal at setting up lab experiments and almost dropped out. He became so demoralized that he considered quitting and getting a job translating at the U.N. in Switzerland. However, he consulted his father, who recommended that he try physiology for one more semester, and he managed to overcome his deficiencies and went on to complete his Ph.D. Diamond produces lists of factors related to outcomes of personal and national crises, and this sets the stage for the remainder of the book.

As far as I've read, he discusses Finland's war with the U.S.S.R. from 1939 to 1944. It is an excellent piece of historical work and goes into some detail about Finnish culture and the strategies that the Finns adopted. Finland is unique in character in matters related to language, ethnic uniformity and its close proximity to Russia. As Diamond describes it, the Finns took completely pragmatic positions and aligned either with Nazi Germany or the U.S.S.R. when necessary. They have an extremely strong sense of national identity and will do whatever it takes to succeed as a country. Thus, even though they were ruined economically by World War II, they stuck together, and now they have a vibrant economy and are in better shape than most other European countries, with a high standard of living. Although, as in Collapse, Diamond richly describes the circumstances, I am doubtful that he will arrive at useful conclusions, since each situation is different, and it isn't necessarily possible to extrapolate from one to another. For this reason, reading Diamond is like reading history, and I find it hard to see what he does as having scientific relevance, other than in the generic sense that if a group sticks together and acts rationally for the benefit of all its members, they will have a better chance of surviving collectively than they would otherwise. This is E.O. Wilson 101. Nevertheless, there are chapters on several other countries, including the U.S., which should make for interesting reading, and I'll comment on the remainder of the book as I make my way through it.

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