January 19, 2006 | Graham

Those who do not understand the present are bound to misinterpret the past

In his 2004 Massey Lecture (rebroadcast on Australian radio this summer by the ABC) historian Ronald Wright argues that because we can understand what went wrong in past civilisations we can learn their lessons and not repeat them in the present.
In the excerpt I heard he was particularly glowing of the work done on Easter Island, by his pal Jared Diamond.
Diamond has been comprehensively shown to be wrong on Easter Island by Benny Pieser. This doesn’t stop him from using his imagined scenario for Easter Island as a way of lampooning modern theories that he holds to be incorrect.
When Diamond gave a lecture in Brisbane last year he related the story of how he asks his classes to nominate what the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island said. According to Diamond there were a limited number of responses. “Science will find an alternative technology.” “God gave me the right to do it.” “It’s my property, I’ll do with it what I want.” “Market forces will look after us.”
No-one apparently says “How come this is the last tree when I can see lots more.” They should, because apparently trees never disappeared from Easter Island.
Now, I’m not going to hold a brief for religion on this matter, but we do know from some fairly rigorous and contemporary experimental data that societies which honour private property and science, and allow individuals to make their own decisions as often as possible (the market) do better on the environmental front than those that don’t.
So, while it is trite to say that “Those who fail to learn history’s lessons are destined to repeat its mistakes,” if you don’t understand how human societies operate, then you are never going to understand history. Especially if you are dealing with the architectural and detrital remnants of it alone.
Reading current prejudices back onto the past and then extrapolating what you have thereby “discovered” onto the present is at best intellectual stupidity, and at worst intellectual fraud.

Posted by Graham at 10:38 pm | Comments (5) |
Filed under: Environment


  1. A few years back Diamond’s arguments were mesmerising many but I found his scholarship thin on the ground on a number of fronts. The lack of critical thinking especially among the natural scientists that appeared to endorse and celebrate Diamond’s prophecies and re-juggling of history and anthropology – proved to be a cue for me to dig deeper. And so I did.
    May I recommend a few review essays:
    William H. McNeill, “History Upside Down,” NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, May 15,
    1997 and his exchange with Diamond in the June 26, 1997 issues of the same
    James Blaunt’s review in GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW vol. 89, no. 3(July 1999), 391-408
    Gale Stokes, “The Fates of Human Societies: A Review of Recent Macrohistories,” AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW vol. 106 (April 2001), 508-25
    ** as well as Jennifer Marohasy’s piece post posted on OLO on Friday, 4 November 2005 titled
    “Jared Diamond’s gated community of the mind”
    Link : http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=64

    Comment by Vic Hart — January 22, 2006 @ 9:29 pm

  2. These two sites
    2. http://www.dabase.net/coop+tol.htm
    sum up the world situation in a unique fashion. They effectively argue that our adolescent anti-“culture” of competitive individualism has brought the entire world to the brink of both cultural & ecological meltdown.
    They also argue that we have not learned a damn thing from history, especially of the last hundred years, and that our collective history has been going downhill in an ever darkening spiral especially in the past 50 years.
    And that if we dont somehow find the wherewithall to change the historically generated patterns and momentums currently being dramatised on the world stage then we might very well destroy oureslves and render the planet inhabitable.
    And yes the answer is religious in its broadest and deepest and all inclusive universal sense.

    Comment by John — January 23, 2006 @ 5:18 pm

  3. The last word of the second paragraph should have been unihabitable.

    Comment by John — January 23, 2006 @ 5:21 pm

  4. Here’s and extract from the Wikipedia article on Easter Island.
    “Peiser too does frequently ignore scientific fact that would contradict his theories (for example, he entirely glosses over the proven fact, borne out by archaeological evidence, that some sort of massive ecosystem degradation did come about as a consequence of Polynesian settlement, instead claiming it was not so, though this stands at complete odds with what is known about the ecological consequences of the Polynesian expansion – see also Henderson Island).”
    I certainly lack the expertise to arbitrate in this case, but maybe you do to Graham. I suspect Diamond has overstated his case, but it does seem, even from Peiser, that large trees were wiped out even if smaller ones remained – not really a wise action under the circumstances, and quite possibly responsible for a drastic fall in the population. The fact that things got even worse after Europeans arrived does not negate Diamond’s central point, although he probably should have been less hyperbolic about it.

    Comment by Stephen L — January 25, 2006 @ 9:02 pm

  5. Stephen, while Wikipedia is an interesting resource, you can’t describe it as being definitive. I use it extensively as a quick primer, but I’ve frequently found it inaccurate, particularly in areas of contention where one side or the other has a vested interest in winning an argument. It’s probably a major triumph that Peiser got in there at all. However, Wikipedia does not deny that there were trees on Easter Island when Europeans arrived and casts doubt on the supposed catastrophe.

    Comment by Graham Young — January 26, 2006 @ 12:17 am

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