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January 04, 2005

Red State Vikings Redux

Malcolm Gladwell, last mentioned here as the author of the New Yorker book review that spawned the great Norse fish-bone controversy of '04 has left a comment about the to-do in the responses to Red State Vikings.

I'm always happy when something i write stirs up some discussion. But let's be clear on a few things. This was a BOOK REVIEW. It's a representation of someone else's ideas, and in this case that someone else happens to be one of the world's foremost ecologists. Could i have dug into the fish quesiton? Sure. But my review wasn't about fish, and in Diamond's book the fish stuff takes up no more than a page, and if the fish stuff is fishy there's a hundred other, equally compelling, examples of his hypothesis in Collapse. Somehow I'd feel a lot more comfortable if even ONE of the commenters above had actually read the book. . .

Before I respond, I should point out that Malcolm has written two books of his own, Tipping Point and Blink, both of which look interesting enough to be worth your time. Check them out. I've already put a hold on Tipping Point at the library.

As far as the numerous other commentators go, both at my blog and at the others who posted about the review, certainly some fall into a reflexive partisanship, but many do not, either referring to web pages or commenting on various aspects of Diamond's work that they had read previously, either Guns, Germs and Steel or his essays at Nature.

It does not appear that they had much of a choice. According to Amazon, Collapse wasn't available to the general public until December 29th, a couple of days after the Norse fish bone debate erupted, so many commentators couldn't have put their hands on it to begin with--though Matt Yglesias managed to score a review copy.

Had they been able to, the initial reaction to the review might have been harsher. After all, only one page in the book dealt with the role of fish in the Norse diet, but twenty to twenty-five percent of the review, depending on how one parses it, sprang from that page.

That's one problem with dismissing the controversy. A good chunk of it was demonstrably about the fish. For whatever reason--for me it was the sheer oddity of the assertion that the Norse didn't consume fish--those who seized on it demonstrated that the argument itself was invalid, not to mention that it was misrepresented by the reviewer in the first place.

Given those errors, the obvious question is "Why should I trust the rest of the review?" That's why the fish question is important: not because of the degree to which it is germane to the rest of Diamond's book, but rather because the failure of that theme calls into question the validity of the essay itself.

Not having the book is one reason I tried to restrict myself to the issues raised in the review. When I did mention a position of Jared's, I referred to the web page it appeared on rather than the book. I was severely tempted not to at one point, when it became apparent to me that aside from the Greenland Norse, the only other culture used in the review as a historical example was that of the Easter Islanders.

Typically, as David Quammen's Song of The Dodo points out, species that confine themselves to an island are the ones least likely to survive changes in their environment.

This raises the question--Did the Easter Island and Norse cultures go extinct because their culture refused to adapt to changing environmental conditions, or did the residents of those islands vanish because the environmentally restricted resource pool available to them was not large enough to allow their cultures to adapt to environmental change?

Aside: In the case of the Greenland Norse, resource competition between their hunters and those of the Inuit culture they were competing with would have restricted that resource pool still further.

In order to fairly assess that question, I would have need to see Jared's book, first to see if he mentions The Song of The Dodo at all, as well as to see if he uses other island cultures as support for his arguments. Frankly, the more prominent they are, the less likely I would be to accept his thesis of cultural decay as opposed to the precarious nature of island biogeography, but since I couldn't lay my hands on his book, I left out that argument.

Also, it's not like the post was suffering from a lack of length at that point--though had it been I would have dealt with this passage first

In the summer, when the Norse should have been sending ships on lumber-gathering missions to Labrador, in order to relieve the pressure on their own forestlands, they instead sent boats and men to the coast to hunt for walrus. Walrus tusks, after all, had great trade value. In return for those tusks, the Norse were able to acquire, among other things, church bells, stained-glass windows, bronze candlesticks, Communion wine, linen, silk, silver, churchmenís robes, and jewelry to adorn their massive cathedral at Gardar, with its three-ton sandstone building blocks and eighty-foot bell tower. In the end, the Norse starved to death.

It's implied above that the Norse hunted walrus for their tusks only, much like today's elephant poachers, thus inviting the reader to direct the moral opprobrium generated by the latter at the former. It's an unworthy device, even were the charge true, but sadly the moral denunciation of those who lived in times prior to and totally different in nature from our own is epidemic in today's society--especially when the objects of such contempt can be portrayed as part of the Western tradition. After all, once the roots have been shown to be rotten, what must one conclude about the rest of the tree?

In fact, much like the sainted Inuit, the Greenland Norse hunted walrus as well as other seals not only for their tusks, but for their hide and meat as well. The walrus hide was used in making rope as well as for trade, and walrus blubber would have been rendered for oil.

There's also a case to be made that the decline of the Norse in Greenland wasn't so much environmental in nature as it was economical.

The documented downturn in European demand for Walrus Ivory in the fourteenth century, as a result of increasing Asian and African imports, would certainly have reduced Norwegian interest in her North Atlantic colony (Arneborg, 2000, 310). As the possession of Norway, thereby subservient to her and consequently heavily reliant upon her, Greenland could, very possibly, have been affected by such a decline in contact with Norway. Indeed, Keller argues that the decline in trade in luxury items resulted in a loss of prestige for the Norse hierarchy which fundamentally damaged their authority and led to the disintegration of society from the top-down (Keller, 1990). Although this conclusion is, almost certainly not a fair description of events, (the hierarchy neither relied on trade for their actual subsistence nor held the more marginal land), a theory that neglect by the parent power may have brought about the end of Norse Greenland cannot be ignored.

It makes as much sense as cultural stubborness in the face of a changing climate when it comes to explaining the decline of the Norse colonies in Greenland, especially as there's a historical example of colonial extinction due to its abandonment by the parent power close at hand.

What the economic explanation doesn't possess is the same sense of karmic payback Malcolm describes in his review. When it comes to the explanation of events, economic theories are the moral equivalent of "shit happens," rather than the more fashionable "shit happens because we're bad."

Thanks for stopping by, Malcolm. Hope to see you again.

Update: Still the fire burns, over at the ever reliable Matt's and at Marginal Revolution.

Final Update: If Diamond ever stumbles across this, he's bound to have a chuckle or two, as he appears in chapter after chapter of Quammen's Song of the Dodo, which I reread prior to starting Collapse.

From what I've read so far, I'm inclined to argue that Diamond suffers from an inaccurate review on the part of Gladstone, rather than having penned a jeremiad against the West. Still, the Norse fishbone thing is an attempt to prove a negative, something every scientist knows to be impossible.

Posted by Bigwig at January 4, 2005 01:47 PM | TrackBack
Postscript:
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Comments

Guilty as charged. I haven't read Collapse yet, although I have read Guns, Germs, and Steel and found it quite interesting.

But the comment that I posted

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The Norse died out in Greenland and some Liberal Pointy Head blames it on Christianity, 'cause Christianity is responsible for everything bad, isn't it? So what else is new?

What I really want to know is, where is that place you can catch arctic char with your bare hands?

"Greenland is a fishermanís dream: Diamond describes running into a Danish tourist in Greenland who had just caught two Arctic char in a shallow pool with her bare hands."

I'm booking a flight as soon as I post this....

was clearly tongue-in-cheek, and not intended to be a serious contribution to the discussion.

Mr. Gladwell needs to lighten up a bit.

Posted by: Captain Holly at January 5, 2005 12:21 PM

Bigwig,

I own a copy of Tipping Point if you'd like to borrow it. It's a facinating book that is well worth reading.

Posted by: John Branch at January 5, 2005 02:29 PM
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