My brother and I went to this event at the Royal Society last night, because we had both read Diamond’s previous book Guns, Germs and Steel, and enjoyed it (although neither of us finished it, but hey). The lecture was introduced by the President of Royal Society, who seemed a nice chap, but one hell-bent on relieving himself of his entire store of Diamond-related anecdotes, most of which involved bird-watching. Then Diamond himself got up, and was revealed to be the aging Amish whom I had previously thought had been brought along as an exhibit. He had a strange voice which swooped around in the lower registers. As visiting Americans often do at these events, he heaped praise upon Europe and Britain for a time until we all felt suitably smug, and then launched into the main subject of the talk.

The evening made me cross. The (potentially enormously interesting) subject of societies failing or succeeding was almost entirely approached in environmental terms. The admittedly heartbreaking tale of the Easter Islanders deforesting their entire island before descending into cannibalism should have been one example, not cause for a diatribe on social responsibility. We were told about the lack of health-care in the States, arch remarks were made about Bush and Kyoto – non sequiturs abounded. I am not by any means sure that rich people living in gated communities is going to cause the collapse of society. In between there were interesting things about the Norse communities in Greenland and the Mayans, but these were never linked into an overarching theme that I could detect.

I wanted to ask during the question session how he accounted for the socially irresponsible Roman Empire lasting 1000 years, but my tentative hand was ignored. The questions were hilarious, though. Everyone had brought along an axe to grind on the Diamond. This reached a marvellous zenith when he was asked what he thought about Third World Debt. There was also a fellow who stood up and made a speech about epistemology and eventually had to be shut up by the President.

I will not be buying Jared Diamond’s new book.