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Natural Experiments of History Paperback – March 7, 2011

3.9 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

A superb collection of eminently teachable essays bound together by a common methodological framework that connects it directly to cutting-edge theoretical and empirical research across the disciplines of anthropology, archeology, history, political science, and sociology. (John Coatsworth, Columbia University)

Natural Experiments of History reaches across a wide variety of disciplines, in ways that should be accessible to just about every educated reader. It is tied together not by topic or region but by the idea that we can make useful and insightful comparisons in ways that are not casual or sloppy, but actually contribute to our understanding of human life. (Jeffry Frieden, Harvard University)

Natural Experiments of History is a short book packed with huge ideas. Its collected essays advocate how controlled experiments can be applied to the messy realities of human history, politics, culture, economics and the environment. It demonstrates productive interdisciplinary collaborations but also reveals gulfs between different cultures of academia...All of the essays in Natural Experiments of History will trigger debate. (Jon Christensen Nature 2010-03-25)

This ambitious, at times challenging, book aspires to contribute new ways of historical thinking and historical research by drawing attention, on the one hand, to the similarities between science (including social sciences) and history, and on the other, by using social sciences methods, especially statistical analysis, to study history. The editors argue that though the difference between studies of nature and human history is obvious, there are clear overlaps. They can be viewed through studying comparative history or by conducting "natural experiments of history" and analyzing the "perturbations" and their causes (exogenous or endogenous) in the involved cases. The book offers a broad array of case studies to illustrate and explain the argument, ranging from nonliterate to contemporary societies and from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to Brazil, India, and tropical Africa. The comparative methods showcased are quite versatile, from two-way to multiple-way comparisons. All the case studies are interesting and help demonstrate how, via comparative study, one society's, region's, or country's situation is better displayed and explained by juxtaposing it with other, similar ones. A useful read in macro, global history. (Q. E. Wang Choice 2010-11-01)

Natural Experiments of History is a thought-provoking collection of essays that covers an impressive array of topics and would make an excellent text for a course on comparative studies of human history." (Thomas E. Currie Cliodynamics)

About the Author

Jared Diamond is Professor of Geography, University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Guns, Germs, and Steel.

James A. Robinson is Professor of Government, Harvard University.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; Reprint edition (April 15, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674060199
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674060197
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #417,979 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Don Hogle on January 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jared Diamond has written brilliant books (Guns, Germs and Steel; Collapse; The Third Chimpanzee among others) that triangulate data from an array of different fields to reach conclusions about our history on this planet. His belief in that methodology for understanding our species and our history is what is at the heart of this collection of essays, which he edited along with a colleague. Indeed, the book is a defense of those methodologies.

Some of the essays are more interesting than others: notable is the one which quantitatively correlates the extent of the slave trade in various African countries with the state of their modern-day economic development (or rather, the lack thereof.)

It's a bit of a dry read -- in some essays more than in others. But if this methodology for understanding our past interests you, it's worth the read.
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Format: Hardcover
I am a huge fan of Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel, and also enjoyed The Third Chimpanzee. Am eagerly awaiting the follow-up to Collapse.

This book is a collection of 7 essays, most of which are quite dry and academic. Definitely not as readable as the books I mentioned above.

Diamond co-wrote the prologue (which is mostly a summary of the book's contents) and afterword. He also authored (alone) one chapter, which is a comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Specifically, he examines why Haiti and the DR have turned out so differently, despite the fact that they share the same island. Much of this is discussed also in his book Collapse, but the chapter is still very interesting.

Another chapter (by Kirch) compares a few different Polynesian islands, to try and discover which variables led to different political histories. Some areas of the world discussed in other chapters are: West Africa, India, and the western US, among a couple of others. Some of these chapters are more interesting than others. None is probably as readable as Diamond's own.

This is definitely not a light read, and it is not something that most people will read cover to cover. An important book for the academic community perhaps, but not for the average reader (like me). Overall kind of boring.
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Format: Hardcover
How do you select what nonfiction book you want to read next? Perhaps the subject matter interests you, you enjoyed other books by the same author, or you heard through the grapevine that the book was well written. None of these paths should lead you to read Natural Experiments of History.

This collection of historical essays does not center around any particular topic. Instead it focuses on an historical method, comparative history, with the actual topics varying widely. The book really is designed for those interested in historical methods, which is a pretty narrow group I'd estimate.

If you chose this book (like me) because you enjoyed Jared Diamond's other popular history books, be aware that Diamond only wrote one chapter (excluding the introductory and conclusory material) and that Diamond's chapter is a condensed version of material that already appeared in his book Collapse.

If you heard good things about this book through the grapevine, then you might need a different grapevine in my opinion. I enjoyed the insights that the essays produced, especially the essays on the American frontier population booms and the long-lasting effects of the African slave trade, but in general the essays were dry and not easy to navigate.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Natural experiments in history is a fascinating set of essays looking at seven historical "experiments". Each chapter has a different author who presents the reader with a wealth of information of their subject of expertise. The writing styles vary, as expected, from author to author. Jared Diamond's chapter on the origin of the differences between Haiti and the Dominican republic, and on different Pacific Islands is the highlight of the book and I wondered why the entire book wasn't on these topics. The chapter on Politics and Banking was less stimulating to me. Of course, the real value of these lessons of history is their application today. We seem destined to repeat the mistakes over and over. I fully recommend this to anyone interested in reasons why societies rise and fall.
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This is an interesting book on theme of comparative analysis in historical studies. There are 7 chapters describing specific comparative studies; Patrick Kirch on the evolution of Polynesian societies, James Belich on frontier societies, Stephen Haber on the development of banking systems in selected Western Hemisphere nations, Jared Diamond on Haiti vs the Dominican Republic and Pacific island societies, Nathan Nunn on the long term effects of the African slave trade, Banerjee and Iyer on the long term consequences of Indian colonial land tenure systems, and Acemoglu et al on the effects of the Napoleonic conquest of parts of Germany. Most of these chapters are summaries of previously published research. There are essentially 2 major themes. One, exemplified in the chapters by Belich and Acemoglu et al,is an effort to find common underlying structures by use of comparisons. A second, and generally more robust theme, is use of comparisons is to identify contingent features that result in marked differences in present day outcomes. In his comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic and what led to the marked differences in present day economic status, for example, Diamond points to differences in geography and ecology but also to marked differences in the behavior of the 2 major 20th century dictators, Duvalier and Trujillo.

The chapters vary somewhat in quality. Chapters by Kirch and Belich are really brief summaries of a large body of prior work. They are interesting but insufficiently detailed though they have excellent bibliographies. The Nunn chapter is most interesting part of this book. Nunn uses a careful accounting of the regional distribution of the African slave trade to assess the long term effects of the slave trade on African economic development.
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