I’ve gotten a decent way into Collapse without feeling the impule to add anything to the criticism I laid without reading the book. At the end of the seventh chapter (on Greenland at its peak) I felt I had enough negative thoughts to merit a post. Although I haven’t yet gotten to the chapter where the Inuit appear in Greenland, Diamond has already said that they play a significant role in the collapse of Norse Greenland civilization (he even explicitly says that without them it would not have happened). He has repeatedly noted the failure of the Norse to imitate the Inuit, who managed to survive the lean years that drove the Norse off. Diamond considers the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity to be responsible for this. To be fair, he also often pairs Christianity with Europeanness or Eurocentrism, indicating that Christianity bound them to continental Europe with its high living standards and gave them an aversion toward being at all like the Inuit. I think in order for that to make any sense he would have to argue that in a counterfactual in which they adhered to their traditional Norse religion they would have been more amenable to Inuit culture. He offers no such argument. It almost seems as if he’s lumping all non-Christian, or at least non-monotheist, religions together as sufficiently similar to him that they would seem similar to their adherents. I really don’t think that would be the case. At least by some standards the Hindu religion might seem “pagan”, but I think Hindu civilization is just as proud of its religion and resistant to imitation of even a conquering monotheism (whether the Muslim Moguls or Christian British) as any faith to its west. I would say the same about the Zoroastrians except that they were rather effectively smashed and driven to India to become Parsis. More importantly, it seems to me, the Vikings were primarily a settled agricultural people (though they were forced to rely to a significant extent on hunting) whereas the Inuit were hunter-gatherers still in the Stone Age. Presumably, like the failed Vinland colonists, the Greenlanders always had the option of sailing back where they came from when things got too rough, so they weren’t in the same position as many of the Polynesians Diamond discusses earlier.
William Weir has referred to Normandy as the battle which determined whether England would be part of Greater Scandinavia (“Iceland, Greenland, the Orkneys, and Dublin, as well as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden”) or drawn closer to mainstream European (especially French) civilization. At that time some Scandinavian kings had become Christian, but they were viewed by some as still a pagan people of “the heathen North” separate from European Christian civilization. Keep this in mind when Diamond says the Greenlanders were “more European than Europeans” (his comment about the Britishness of Australia does remind me of Mencius Moldbug on Rhodesia). All his examples for how Greenlanders followed the fashions of Europe are things like changes in burial styles tracking those of Norway. But Greenland was a colony of Norway, and that presumably would have done so even if none of the Norse had converted to Christianity and they remained a distinct Greater Scandinavia. I’m not going to assert that the conversion changed nothing, Roderick Long makes a plausible case that it helped lead to the end of Iceland’s anarcho-capitalism.
One major puzzle about the Greenlanders is the apparent lack of fish in their diet, which Diamond attributes to a strong food taboo like the well known religious probitions on pork or beef (he also analogizes it to American distaste for horse or frog-meat, but Americans are an exceptionally highly-fed people and even then still contain rednecks that would each such food). That seems very odd as all the Viking peoples that the Greenlanders came from and stayed connected with were cuckoo for cod (as are present day Greenlanders). Diamond gives good arguments against other explanations, but his own about Erik the Red or someone else getting bad food poisoning and then insisting no one eat fish is just not convincing to me. It seemed difficult enough to order Norse colonists around, especially to end their traditional ways, that I doubt Erik could have pull that off. It is certainly doubtful that his own taste could dictate to the bishop sent by the King of Norway and other elites and/or newcomers. I admit that I can offer no good explanation either, but I just think Diamond’s is really weak. He often seems on quite shaky ground when speculating what people of the past were thinking. He says despite how implausible it seems to us today we should really imagine what went through the heads of Easter Islanders and they chopped down the last trees, when as I discuss in the first link of this post, it apparently due to rats who didn’t give it any thought at all. He imagines (obviously as an allegory for our time) that ancients may have thought technological advancement would save their collapsing civilization. One doesn’t have to go as far as Greg Clark to acknowledge that periods before the Industrial Revolution were seriously different in the pace of technological advancement so that it is doubtful such ancient people would have thought of it. As Diamond himself attests, they instead hoped their gods would save them, and when that didn’t happen they went after the priests and divine kings they had relied on.