Upheaval offers grandfatherly good advice

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

Jared Diamond’s Upheaval is No. 1 on Bill Gates’ latest summer reading list, and I largely agree with his assessment:

I’m a big fan of everything Jared has written, and his latest is no exception. The book explores how societies react during moments of crisis. He uses a series of fascinating case studies to show how nations managed existential challenges like civil war, foreign threats, and general malaise. It sounds a bit depressing, but I finished the book even more optimistic about our ability to solve problems than I started.

The case studies are indeed fascinating. The vague, do-gooder advice isn’t — which brings us to Paleo Retiree’s old piece on why Diamond writes what he writes:

Asked some fate-of-the-earth type question by the usual earnest-and-concerned, worshipful fan, Diamond revealed that he took up writing the big books for the popular audience when he became a parent. Up until the arrival of the kiddies, he’d focused on the kinds of small and tight questions that concern your everyday hardworking scientist. Now that the little ones were here, he knew that it was time for him to set aside academic disputes and start worrying about the future instead.

As far as I could tell, Diamond was admitting flat-out that, right from the outset, he intended his big books to be do-gooding “message” books.

So much for my other explanations for his apparent disingenuousness. He turns out to be a much simpler puzzle than I’d thought. He’d simply come down with what afflicts so many people when they have kids: a bad case of the Worthies. Where his big books go, his main concern hasn’t been to share his knowledge and his thinking. It’s “What shall we tell the children?” My conclusion: maybe Diamond’s books are best taken as morality fables for overgrown kids.

Steve Sailer calls it grandfatherly good advice:

Diamond begins with two success stories: 19th-century Japan and 20th-century Finland. Japan’s impressive response to the arrival of the American black ships in 1853 is well-known, but how Finland escaped being conquered and occupied by Stalin’s Soviet Union is less so. After fighting superbly when the Soviets invaded in 1939, postwar Finland had to humiliate itself by following the Soviet lead in its foreign policy. But Finland, unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, kept its domestic freedom.

Diamond identifies “a strong national identity” as a shared advantage possessed by both nations, with their unique languages and relative ethnic homogeneity. Diamond is impressed by the we’re-all-in-this-together patriotism of Finns and Japanese. As one of the last American intellectuals who can remember Pearl Harbor 78 years ago, he fears that contemporary Americans are losing the national solidarity of the mid–20th century.

On the other hand, history is less of Diamond’s strong suit than is geography. Thus, my favorite bit of the book is when Diamond pauses the political narratives to offer a Guns, Germs, and Steel-style explanation of why the soil of the Upper Midwest is so fertile:

Ice Age glaciers…repeatedly advanced and retreated over the landscape, grinding rocks and generating or exposing fresh soils.

So that explains why even the rainy parts of Texas aren’t great for farming: The glaciers seldom got that far south to pulverize the soil.

Because of North America’s tapering wedge shape, large volumes of ice forming in the broad expanse at high latitudes were funneled into a narrow band and became heavier glaciers as they advanced toward the lower latitudes.

In contrast, few parts of the tropical world were glaciated, and therefore have to rely on floods and volcanoes for good farmland.

Diamond’s most interesting book remains The Third Chimpanzee, probably because he had a magazine editor to quell his pedantic impulses. Also, Diamond has had a big influence on the conventional wisdom of the past quarter century, so his natural tropes are old news by now. Plus, he’s not naturally as forceful of a stylist as is, say, historian Paul Johnson. In this book, Diamond employs a casual prose style that won’t intimidate casual readers by conveying too many ideas per page, but it struck me as verbose.

Diamond is aware that his realism and ability to compare and contrast mark him as a potential crimethinker. For example, he made famous an aerial view of Hispaniola where you can see the national border between deforested, eroded Haiti and verdant Dominican Republic. In his 2005 book about ecological negligence, Collapse, he even dared suggest that the DR dictator Trujillo’s policy of welcoming white immigrants contributes to it being less dystopian than Haiti.


  1. Kirk says:

    No amount of facile prose can make up for the essential disingenuity of Diamond’s work. He is someone who believes what they want to, and Satan take the contrary–In other words, a typical leftist.

    Assuming our civilization manages to survive the assault by the disciples of Gramsci, Diamond and his ilk will be studied in coming generations as self-deluded cargo-cultist liars. It’s amazing the penetration his ilk have managed, when all you have to do to refute their theories is look around yourself to observe the effect of them in our cities and towns. Look at San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle–There are the fruits of the left, and their policies.

    We’re going to be generations cleaning up after these diabolical fools. Diamond is merely one of their more successful cheerleaders.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    Bill Gates is likewise overrated.

    There. I said it.

  3. Magus says:

    He’s a liar, and wrong about almost every major thesis he expounds. He’s a classic example of propaganda and publicity making someone out to be an ‘expert’ when theyre an idiot or a fool or both.

  4. Graham says:

    I’m always slightly troubled when someone like Gates again demonstrates that he thinks society, government, history or the future can be encapsulated by the idea of “solving” “problems”.

  5. Kirk says:

    Gates is an example of the problems we have with technocrats in general; they’ve got no real idea of how the world works outside their limited mechanistic view of things.

    Bill Gates has been very successful in an industry predicated upon the idea that action “A” pretty much results in result “B”. He’s never had to deal with the fact that people and the real world don’t function like that, or with anything near the worldview he’s internalized. He thinks that if he just explains to people how shitting in the street is bad, then they’ll stop doing it, and conform to his expectations. Reality? Most of his initiatives are going to founder on the sheer cussedness of human behavior. Look at how the whole anti-vaccination thing took hold, and how prevalent it is, even in theoretically First-World nations. It’s nuts–And, entirely human. The Bill Gates of this world do not know how to account for these factors, nor do they understand that they’re even a probable outcome of things.

  6. Alrenous says:

    Gates was distinctly more based before DoJ noticed he was behind on his ‘voluntary’ contributions and threatened to antitrust Microsoft.

    Bending the knee seems to have bent his mind beyond the breaking point.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    Technocrats are all about solving problems. Unfortunately for the rest of us, they also define the problems they deem worthy of solving. And the side effects of their solutions create problems for the rest of us.

    Everyone is looking out for himself. It’s human nature. I can accept that, but I wish they’d at least be honest about it. Public altruism is virtue signaling. It’s a sham.

    A couple of decades back during that antitrust business, Objectivists were trying to make a hero out of Bill Gates. They thought of him as some sort of innovative, courageous and hard put-upon industrialist out of an Ayn Rand novel. But I worked in software R&D and I knew better. Technocrats are not Ayn Rand heroes. They’re Ayn Rand villains.

    The Peikovistas suffer the willful naivete of fanaticism. I could excuse the stereotypical thinking (it’s a heuristic, after all) if only they could apply the stereotypes more accurately. Put the right label on.

  8. Bruce says:

    Alrenous, yes, can’t mention the Clintons taking a half-billion from Microsoft’s competitors to sic the Justice Department on Microsoft and, oops, break the dot-com boom too often. Especially since Mueller did the coverup for the Clintons.

  9. Paul from Canada says:

    To be fair to Gates, as a technocrat, he DOES know things about, and is competent in his own areas of expertise, and has some informed understanding of science and technology etc.

    Recently he has been criticizing so called “green energy” of late,and on that subject he seems quite sound.

  10. Harry Jones says:

    Know-how is power, and it’s dangerous for power to be concentrated in the hands of a very few. From which it follows that it’s dangerous for know-how to be concentrated in the minds of a very few.

    Bill Gates and others like him actually know far less about software than most presume. What they know an awful lot about is the software business. They have the big picture.

    It’s dangerous for knowledge of the big picture to be concentrated in the hands of a very few.

    I find it useful to divide humanity into four classes:

    1. Those who know the big picture and therefore rule.

    2. Those who would like to know the big picture but struggle to acquire all the pieces of the puzzle.

    3. Those who think they know the big picture but are mistaken. Sub-types: conspiracy theorists, ideologues/true believers.

    4. Those who don’t care about the big picture. The ancient Greeks had a word for them.

  11. Sam J. says:

    “…3. Those who think they know the big picture but are mistaken. Sub-types: conspiracy theorists, ideologues/true believers…”

    You forgot 5 and 6

    5. Those that think they know the big picture but ignore things like building 7 that on 9-11 fell the same speed as a rock dropped in air, meaning the buildings only support was air, while razzing at the people who notice this and other inexplicable events that do not conform to reality.

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