Recommendation: Nope

Where to read: This isn’t even substantial enough to be good beach reading

Read with: The Americano cocktail – poorly conceived, weaker than expected and comprised mostly of air

In brief: This is a thought bubble of a book and I’m blaming Bill Gates for my decision to buy it. Almost everything about it irritates me to my core.

Jared Diamond made his name as a “public intellectual” with the Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel. Now a classic of “Big History”, it put forward the idea that the success of Eurasian civilisations in dominating the globe could be explained, at least in part, by geography. He followed up on the geography/ecological explanation of history with Collapse, which linked civilisation collapse to unsustainable patterns of behaviour, particularly the over-exploitation of natural resources.* Upheaval continues this pattern of macro-history, except that Diamond has traded in geographical explanations for psychology/anthropology. Suffice to say it does not work.

In essence, Diamond proposes that factors which influence individual recovery from crises or tragedies, like the ability to admit there is a problem or having a supportive personal network, can also be applied to nations in crisis. It’s an interesting concept, but the applicability of already hazy concepts like, for instance, “ego strength” to the equally hazy “national identity” is barely explained, let alone convincingly demonstrated. This becomes a constant theme – much assertion and little analysis. He might be right but you’d never know it.

There are also massive gaps in the foundations of Diamond’s argument. The concept of a “nation”, for instance, is relatively recent, by no means uncontentious and completely unexamined. There is no consideration of group or collective action (if he’s read Olson there’s no sign of it). Even “crisis” is defined loosely and applied opportunistically in the case studies he uses.

Like much of Diamond’s work, it could also have done with a good edit. In fairness, if the publisher had gone through and cut out all the repetition they wouldn’t have had much book left at the end. And yet, as I have said on many occasions to students of mine, “restating your argument three times per page ain’t gunna make it true”. Diamond has a tendency to grab onto factoids he finds particularly interesting and repeat them ad nauseam. One is left with the admittedly adorable image of a very excitable and credulous goldfish with a shiny new ornament in its bowl.

More broadly, Upheaval fits into a category of books I find particularly annoying – the “I’m not a historian but I have amazing insights I simply must share with the world” part of the bookshop. It may be that I’m more aware of this in the context of history than I would be in science or economics, for instance, but it seems like every man and his gosh darn dog has a crack at some sweeping historical theory at some point. I understand that history feels more approachable than, for instance, economics or physics but good historical work takes time and training.

There is, of course, an undoubted place for non-academic historians in the field of historical non-fiction. While I don’t really go in for Peter FitzSimons, Alison Weir, Peter Ackroyd and the like, they write popular history which sells out the wazoo and contributes to historical literacy. Even of the books on this site, Fortress Israel is a creditable work from an investigative journalist, Ghost Wars is fantastic and The Radium Girls plays beautifully with historical fact and novelistic sensibility. The problems arise when non-historians refuse to engage with the discipline in any serious way.

As Anand Giridharadas at the New York Times notes, Upheaval is riddled with the kinds of sloppy errors a rudimentary fact-check should have caught. I can’t speak for other chapters, but the section on Australia is …. interesting. The sad thing is that the list of papers and materials included in the back (no footnotes of course) includes very some solid work by reputable historians and none of appears to have penetrated. Any serious engagement with Stuart Macintyre, for instance, would have headed off some particularly asinine commentary on ANZAC Day.**

More seriously, Diamond does not appear alive to the fact that “my mate told me” isn’t really sufficient evidence for a (very) broad causative theory. Time and time again he avoids engaging with normal research methodologies, archival research for instance, in favour of “I had a Japanese research assistant and she said…” or “I lived in the country for a while in 1960-something and now it’s totally different”.

Even the selection of case “studies” is lazy. His previous books adopted the methodology to good effect but here Diamond uses six/seven examples from recent (the last hundred years) crises in countries he is personally familiar with to demonstrate the effect of 13 different factors without any mention of other variables. From an evidential perspective, it is the epitome of phoning it in. If I’d written an essay this unsupported by evidence and displaying this little critical thought in undergrad, one of my lecturers would have called to check I was feeling ok.

Upheaval is, to be fair, far from the only deeply irritating example of this genre. Steven Pinker’s practically unreadable The Better Angels of Our Nature, for example, asserts that violence has declined in human societies on the basis of questionable statistical modelling and:

the failure to genuinely engage with historical methodologies; the unquestioning use of dubious sources; the tendency to exaggerate the violence of the past in order to contrast it with the supposed peacefulness of the modern era; the creation of a number of straw men, which Pinker then goes on to debunk; and its extraordinarily Western-centric, not to say Whiggish, view of the world.***

Pinker should probably get some credit for creating interest in a topic which previously didn’t get much attention but when you have the platform Pinker or Diamond has, a bit of rigour doesn’t seem too much to ask for.

In all honesty, I got about 150 pages into Better Angels and decided life was too short. I will say the same of Upheaval. At one point, Diamond comes right out and says that quantitative research into his crisis recovery thesis was too hard and will need to be conducted by others further down the track. I’ll pay serious attention if that work is done but this book alone does not deserve time in your life or a place on your shelf.

* From memory – it’s been a while since I read it. Note that many of his conclusions have been challenged.

** And don’t even get me started on the bloody wine recommendations…

*** M.S. Micale and P. Dwyer, ‘History, Violence and Steven Pinker’, Historical Reflections, vol. 44, no. 1, 2018, 4-5.

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