Choosing Success
Jared Diamond says societies have options.


Jared Diamond, author of the bestselling Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, has been dazzling colleagues with his expertise in a wide range of subjects for decades. For the past few years, he’s been dazzling the general public as well. And now the new PBS series based on his previous book, the Pultizer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, should bring him an even broader audience when it begins airing July 11.

Diamond, currently a UCLA geography professor, was for more than 30 years a professor of physiology at UCLA’s medical school, with specialized research in the evolutionary process of snake digestion. You can see an echo of this in his description of Collapse: “Its plan resembles a boa constrictor that has swallowed two very large sheep,” with one long section about (so-far un-collapsed) Montana, and another about the disasters of Easter Island, Norse Greenland, and other vanished societies.

His books draw upon knowledge of seemingly unconnected topics, such as (to name just a few) the domestication of animals, the development of the Indo-European family of languages, the primitive tribes of New Guinea, the reason for menopause, the history of Japan, the origins of horsemanship, the latitude-related features of climate, and the unfortunate ecological consequences of humans’ encountering previously uninhabited worlds. Collapse may sound depressing, but Diamond cautions that not all societies fail and that in any case all of them have a choice.

Guns, Germs and Steel sprang from a simple question Diamond was asked a quarter-century ago by a New Guinean friend (Diamond is also an ornithologist, specializing in the birds of New Guinea): Why did Europeans and Asians conquer the indigenous peoples of Africa, the New World, Australia, and the South Pacific instead of the reverse? A key part of the answer, Diamond argues, was the availability of large, domestic-able animals in Eurasia and the lack of them (with minor exceptions such as the South American llama) elsewhere, with vital effects on the development–or not–of civilization.

Perhaps because of his background in hard science, Diamond is reticent about how all this affects his political views. “Gosh, I don’t think there’s any easy way to sum them up,” he said amiably, during an interview at his UCLA office, when he’d just started work on Collapse. “On some things I would rate as conservative; probably on most things I would rate as reasonable liberal.” However, as a naturalist he scoffs at the crunchy-granola notion that what’s natural is therefore good.

“Genocide is natural! Rape is natural!” he exclaims in response. “No, what’s natural is not necessarily good–often it’s repulsive. One of the most important functions of human society, and the driving force behind most political institutions, is to prevent humans from doing what comes naturally.”

But a point he emphasizes in Guns, Germs and Steel is that, “contrary to what white racists believe,” advanced societies didn’t develop because of innate genetic ability but because of their luck of the draw in biogeography. On the other hand, he undermines the tender-hearted conventional wisdom that aboriginal peoples are ecological saints.

“Every human colonization of a land mass formerly lacking humans has been followed by a wave of extinction of large animals,” Diamond writes in Collapse, a point he’s made in his other books. The problem isn’t that American Indians or New Zealand Maoris were particularly bad managers, but that, like us, they were human–and thus prone to wiping out strange species before settling into a new environment.

Humans have also had a habit of exterminating other humans ever since Cain and Abel. It’s impossible to take the currently fashionable notion of a “people of color” brotherhood seriously after reading Diamond; his chapters on the globally genocidal history of the human race in The Third Chimpanzee, his first and in some ways most accessible book, are devastating.

The Norse were unable to sustain their Greenland settlement partly because they refused to hunt seals like the local Inuit, whom they dismissed as “skraelings,” or wretches. “If you regard people as wretches,” Diamond noted dryly, “you are not likely to learn from them.”

“Having been born in 1937, I grew up with the view that the Nazis were unique,” he told me. “And yes, the efficiency of [the Holocaust] was unique, but the effort was totally mundane. All the groups I work with in New Guinea, they’ve got their own stories of what they did to someone else.” Diamond has found the remote island so dangerous that he won’t let his twin teenage sons accompany him on expeditions. His stock response to their requests to go? “Once you learn to be really careful. Maybe when you’re 42 years old.”

As a longtime Los Angeles resident, Diamond worries that problems like traffic congestion and overcrowded public schools have increased so gradually that people have gotten used to them, a phenomenon he describes in Collapse as “creeping normalcy.” Worse, the rich often remove themselves from the problems of ordinary citizens by living in gated communities and sending their children to expensive private schools.

“A blueprint for disaster in any society is when the elite are capable of insulating themselves,” Diamond says. Still, there are signs of hope, particularly on the environmental front.

“A few years ago Home Depot realized it would be in their best interest to phase out wood from old-growth forests,” he adds. “That was a big surprise to me. The Chevron oil fields in Papua New Guinea are managed more rigorously than any national park I’ve ever been in–Chevron figured out it could make more money in the long run by adhering to rigorous environmental standards. Choice is certainly not a delusion.”

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.