virus: Fwd: A man for all cultures

Wade T. Smith (
Tue, 25 May 1999 23:39:31 -0400

A man for all cultures

Jared M. Diamond: No ordinary bird

By Karin Jegalian, Globe Correspondent, 05/24/99

Jared Diamond says he has an answer to the ''most interesting and difficult question of human history'': why did Europeans conquer Native Americans, Australians, and sub-Saharan Africans and not the reverse?

Why, for example, did a Spanish conquistador named Pizarro and his band of 168 men arrive in Peru in 1532 and capture Incan Emperor Atahuallpa, killing many of his 80,000 soldiers? Why didn't Emperor Atahuallpa show up in Madrid and capture King Charles I instead?

''Historians have refused to give us the answers,'' Diamond says. ''And
most people, if you ask them why, will say, `Er, uh, I'm sorry, you know. This is politically incorrect and I hate to say it, but let's face it - Eurasians have a higher IQ; they've got more of a work ethic.' ''

He calls such explanations racist and ridiculous. Diamond, a biologist by training, faced this historical question armed with a lifetime's accumulation of knowledge about such diverse fields as molecular biology, anthropology, plant genetics, and linguistics and presented his answer in the book ''Guns, Germs, and Steel,'' a bestseller that won the Pulitzer prize for nonfiction last year.

The title of the book refers to the three immediate reasons why, for example, Eurasians and not Native Americans now dominate North America: military might, contagious diseases, and better technology.

But Diamond strives for deeper explanations than that. He argues that Eurasians acquired guns, germs, and steel not as a result of better brains and a more enterprising spirit but ultimately because they were lucky to have been born where they were.

Factors like geography, the availability of plants and animals amenable to domestication, and even the east-to-west orientation of the European-Asian continent account for why Europeans and Asians got a head start on agriculture and why their descendants now dominate the world politically.

Diamond, 61, has worked as a physiologist and ecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles for 33 years. He returned to Boston, where he was born and educated, to preach his book's thesis earlier this month. A crowd of 960 people attended the lecture, sponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and gave his talk a standing ovation.

In an interview, Diamond called the book his greatest accomplishment
''because I see [it] as destroying the intellectual underpinnings of

When colleagues are asked about Diamond and his ideas, they just about gush. Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist and Pulitzer-prize winning author, introduced Diamond at the lecture as ''a polymath about whom superlatives roll easily off the tongue.''

Says Peter Alden, an author and naturalist based in Concord, ''I personally would consider him about the smartest guy in the world. He's making life on this planet clearer.'' Alden served on the committee that asked Diamond to give this year's lecture in memory of Roger Tory Peterson, the naturalist, artist, and bird-lover who, most famously, wrote and illustrated ''A Field Guide to the Birds.''

Diamond, who grew up in Brookline, attributes much of his present success to his education at the John D. Runkle School in Brookline, at Roxbury Latin School, and at Harvard. ''I was lucky also to have a mother who taught me interesting, precise writing,'' he says.

Diamond's mother was a teacher, as well as a pianist who improvised accompaniments for silent movies. She helped Diamond with Latin lessons as well as his weekly compositions at Roxbury Latin.

His father was a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School who helped establish the American Red Cross blood bank program after World War II.

Now, his parents and younger sister live in Los Angeles, where Diamond lives with his wife, a clinical psychologist and colleague at UCLA Medical School, and their twin 12-year-old sons.

Throughout his education, Diamond strove for breadth. At Roxbury Latin, he took no science electives, because, he says, ''I knew that I would be doing science for the rest of my life.'' With relish, he remembers the school's history courses and taking Latin for five years, plus Greek for three years - including one Greek class where he was the only student.

The summer of his freshman year at Harvard, Diamond started doing lab research in physiology, a field he's stayed in ever since. He obtained a Ph.D. in the subject from Cambridge University in England and passed through the Max Planck Institute in Munich and Harvard again before settling down as a physiology professor at UCLA.

But he insisted that the university sign a contract permitting him to spend much of his time studying birds. At age seven, Diamond developed a passion for birds, stimulated by two Runkle School teachers, he says.

While in college at Harvard, he even went birdwatching with Roger Tory Peterson, in whose honor Diamond gave his lecture. Now, Diamond estimates that he devotes about a third of his work to birds.

Birds were what drew him to New Guinea, for the first time in 1964, when he was still a Junior Fellow at Harvard. Since then, he has led 17 expeditions to the island, which he always refers to as ''my beloved New Guinea.''

''Emotionally I spend all my time in New Guinea,'' he says. ''I studied
bird behavior, bird ecology, bird evolution, bird colonization, bird conservation, bird song, bird this, bird that.''

Diamond calls the most spectacular accomplishment of his birding career his rediscovery of the Golden-fronted Bowerbird in a remote mountain range in New Guinea; the bird was previously known only from four specimens found in a Paris feather shop in the late 19th century.

Though Diamond went to New Guinea to study birds, the exposure to the island's people sparked his interest in anthropology. He began thinking about broad questions of human history, which led to ''Guns, Germs, and Steel.'' He unabashedly calls the book a ''Peterson Field Guide to human societies,'' which in fewer than 500 pages traces 13,000 years of world history.

Anthropologists believe that agriculture was invented fewer than 10 times on earth. Diamond argues that Eurasia got a head start because the Fertile Crescent and China supported many domesticable plants and animals, unlike for example, Australia.

''If you're an Australian aborigine that had not a single domesticable
animal and only one domesticable plant, of course you're not going to end up as a farmer or herder because there's nothing to farm or herd,'' he says.

For example, kangaroos can't be fenced in. Cheetahs won't breed in captivity. Zebras can't be tamed. But cattle, horses, and water buffalo can. Only 14 species of mammals are large, easily grown in captivity, tractable, and docile; 13 of these are native to Eurasia. The last is the llama of the Andes.

Diamond outlines a similar imbalance in the distribution of the world's wild plants - particularly cereal grasses - that can be farmed.

With the invention of agriculture came denser populations, food surpluses, and a sedentary way of life. In turn, food surpluses led to specialized occupations; denser populations encouraged social organization and the creation of complex political systems, and staying in one place made the development of heavy tools worthwhile. Political cohesiveness and technology gave these cultures an advantage when they confronted others.

Still, the connection between agriculture and political power may seen tenuous; agriculture likely was never invented in western Europe, yet western European countries colonized much of the world in the last five centuries.

That leads to what Diamond called during his lecture ''the most surprising single discovery'' in his book: the importance of the orientations of the continents. Eurasia is longest east to west, whereas the Americas and Africa are longest north to south.

Consequently, day length and climate tend to be similar in nearby regions on Eurasia, while they can change drastically over short distances in America or Africa.

Crops and animals can spread relatively easily east to west but not north to south. So, agriculture - wheat and cattle, for example - spread throughout Europe once domesticated in the Middle East.

In contrast, Native American crops and animals tended to stay in confined regions. The llama was never led out of the Andes. Sunflowers, domesticated in North America, never got to Mexico. Turkeys, domesticated in Mexico, never reached the Andes.

The ''germs'' that Eurasians carried with them wherever they moved apparently derived from herding.

Many of the epidemic diseases common to Eurasia and lethal to people in places like the Americas - measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, flu, whooping cough - are caused by microbes related to those found in domesticated animals.

Eurasians exposed to these diseases for long periods of time developed some immunity to them, but the microbes decimated populations that were not used to them.

To critics who say that his emphasis on the role of the environment in human history discounts the importance of ideas and of the human spirit, Diamond answers, ''Everything is a product of human creativity, but human creativity is constrained by the environment.''

He adds, ''I do believe that over long times and large areas, differences in the environment really were responsible for differences in human history.''

Events on the small scale - like how the stock market fares this week - certainly have no connection with agriculture in

the Fertile Crescent, the area in the Middle East where agriculture was invented. ''But the fact that the largest stock markets in the world are in the United States and Europe has everything to do with the Fertile Crescent of 8500 B.C.,'' he says.

Since 1991, Diamond has also written two other books - ''The Third Chimpanzee'' and ''Why Is Sex Fun?'' He says that he did not start out intending to become a writer of popular books. ''I did not have a plan. Initially it didn't occur to me that I could be anything other than a physiologist,'' he says. ''The thing that changed my perspective, in some ways radicalized me, was that in 1987 my wife and I had twins, our first and last children.''

The year 2030, when tropical rain forests may be completely destroyed, and 2050, when accessible fossil fuels may be exhausted, no longer seemed remote, he says.

For many years, Diamond has advised the governments of New Guinea and other South Pacific islands on the establishment of nature reserves. He also serves on the board of directors of the World Wildlife Fund, but he regards writing as the strongest tool he has against environmental devastation.

He says his next book will address the issue directly. ''At the moment the question I find most interesting and important is why in the past did some human societies collapse and others not collapse and what are the practical lessons for our times? That's a big question with big implications: what makes a society fragile?''

The book will survey what is known about cultures like the Maya of the Yucatan, the Anasazi of the U.S. southwest, and the people of Easter Island - cultures that destroyed themselves by destroying their environments.

Diamond is used to being asked whether he's hopeful about avoiding such fates on a global scale. ''It really is up for grabs,'' he says. But he holds out hope for this reason: the cultures that destroyed themselves did not know the histories of other doomed societies.

This story ran on page C01 of the Boston Globe on 05/24/99. Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.