The "Guns, Germs and Steel" author reveals how people in traditional tribal societies are just like us (except when they're really, really not)
Author David Carr Illustration Sam Falconer
WHEN YOU’RE TALKING to Jared Diamond, who wrote a book called Guns, Germs and Steel, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re in the midst of something elemental and important, even if you are having a tremendous amount of fun in the process.
Published in 1997, Guns attributes the evolution of modern society to the three titular factors. A worldwide bestseller, it also became a standard work in interdisciplinary studies in colleges and inspired a PBS series of the same name. Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, draws on decades of field research into tribal cultures in an attempt to understand why we make love and war, and how we raise our children and look after our elders—heavy stuff, in other words, but handled with a light, sometimes funny touch that shrinks the distance between us and our roots, and makes the profound questions confronting our civilization go down easier.
Born in Boston in 1937, Diamond got his start studying birds and teasing apart aspects of their behavior. While accruing significant expertise (and a few degrees) in physiology, biophysics, ornithology, geography, environmental history and anthropology at institutions like Harvard and Cambridge, he developed remarkable insights into other kinds of animals. His 1992 book, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, examined how the fate of Homo sapiens could be so radically different from that of the creature with which we share 96 percent of our genes. His Guns follow-up, Collapse, took a multidisciplinary look at why some societies flourish and others fail.
Hemispheres caught up with Diamond, fresh off a foray into the Sumatran jungle, to talk about the ways of our fellow featherless bipeds.
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HEMISPHERES: You’re just returning from some far-flung place, right?
DIAMOND: I’m coming back from Sumatra. I was doing a bird project. I’ve worked on birds in the New Guinea area for a long time, but it was my first time seeing and exploring Sumatra.
HEMISPHERES: So ornithology is your principal line of scientific inquiry these days?
DIAMOND: I wouldn’t say that. I’m interested in lots of things, some of which started out separately. So ornithology and evolutionary biology started out as a separate interest. Physiology, which is what I got my Ph.D. in, started out as a separate interest. Geography was a separate interest. But gradually the interests merged. What I do now could be called environmental history or comparative geography, which pulls together languages and geography and biology and birds.
HEMISPHERES: Whew, that’s a lot of stuff to keep track of. Still, you manage to pack much of it into The World Until Yesterday. There isn’t much birding in the book, but looking for birds drew you into some remarkable places.
DIAMOND: The bird became a career for me. I trained in physiology but ironically ended up better known for my work in evolutionary biology and birds. My take on human societies is partly derived from what I’ve learned studying birds.
HEMISPHERES: Well, men are all little roosters at heart, right? Sometimes I picture you looking at humans the same way you look at birds, through binoculars and at a distance, but this book is more personal than the others. You actually show up in the middle of it.
DIAMOND: Partly I’m standing back and partly I’m in the middle of it. In the chapter on danger, I write about an accident in which I nearly drowned. A green heron and a couple of terns flew overhead and I said to myself, “Oh, look, there goes a green heron.” This was right before I caught myself and said, “Jared, wake up, you may not be alive in a few minutes.”
HEMISPHERES: Still, that couldn’t have been the most dangerous situation you’ve found yourself in. After all, you’ve spent a lot of time in places that are pretty far removed from Western ideas of comfort and safety.
DIAMOND: Yes, there have been a fair number of times when I was uncertain whether I was going to be alive the next day. But I’ve learned how to anesthetize myself and continue plowing ahead as if I’m going to come out alive, even if it looks really bleak at the moment.
HEMISPHERES: That probably adds to what you call in the book “constructive paranoia,” which is fear that might help you stay alive.
DIAMOND: That’s true. This morning I took a shower, and the shower in our house does not have enough of those sticky strips to make it safe. One of my wife’s best friends, a woman in her 80s, just fell and broke her hip, and it’s not clear whether that’s going to mean the end of a happy lifetime. So now I am paranoid about slipping in showers.
HEMISPHERES: Done in by a bathtub— that would be a twist, given where you’ve been.
DIAMOND: Yes, it would be ironic if I were to end my career not by falling off a mountain in New Guinea, but by slipping in the shower.
HEMISPHERES: You could have easily perished in one of the tribal wars that you studied at close range for the book. Some of those passages are very disturbing.
DIAMOND: There are lots of things about traditional warfare that come as a big surprise to all of us who are used to modern warfare, and they’re really upsetting when we learn about them. For example, there isn’t a distinction between combatants and noncombatants. I’ve had New Guineans who have been involved in tribal warfare tell me explicitly, “Of course we kill children, because those children may grow up into our enemy someday. If you don’t, how stupid can you be?”
HEMISPHERES: It’s a practical judgment.
DIAMOND: For us moderns in state society, we’ve spent our lives being told, “Thou shalt not kill,” and then we’re given a gun and we are told, “Kill that person.” My wife is a clinical psychologist, and among her patients are vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of those who have killed are torn up for the rest of their lives. In contrast, in traditional societies I have not personally encountered or heard of any example of someone who had difficulty in killing when the occasion called for it.
HEMISPHERES: You seem to admire the tribal people you write about.
DIAMOND: Many anthropologists idealize people in traditional societies, and want to deny that they are warlike or suggest we shouldn’t talk about it because it might lead to the warlike tribal people being treated badly by state governments. The truth is, the behavior of traditional people runs the whole gamut. For me, when I went down to New Guinea, my first naive sense was, “God, this is really exotic.” Then, as I got to know New Guineans and shared experiences with them, I came to feel they were people like me. They’re scared when I am and they cry when I do. But the more time I spent there, the more I realized there are some big differences. Those are some of the things that make it so fascinating to work with traditional people.
HEMISPHERES: But you learned things that you apply to modern life, which is much of what your book is about. For one thing, attachment parenting—keeping your child physically close—seems to work.
DIAMOND: When we brought home the first of our children from the hospital, we were so delighted that we put him in bed between us. Then he started breathing rapidly, so we called up the hospital; the nurse found out he was sleeping between us, and said, “For God’s sake, get him out of there and put him in a crib—he’s probably overheating.” But the fact is that almost all human beings over the past 6 million years have slept between their parents without overheating. If we were to do it again, my wife and I might ignore what the hospital nurse told us.
HEMISPHERES: In other ways, we shelter our children far beyond what the rest of the world does. In your book, you describe a mother who allowed her 2-year-old to play with a sharp knife and handed it back to him when he dropped it. There’s also a 5-year-old who walked off and joined another tribe, and a 10-year-old who worked with you for more than a month without even asking his parents.
DIAMOND: It would have astonished me if my son said at the age of 5 that he’s dissatisfied with me and he’s going to walk across Los Angeles and find some family he likes better. And we probably would not let our child play next to an open fire on the theory that he needs to learn a painful lesson about fire. Yes, some kids get burned and some kids have serious accidents, but the result by and large is that people grow up to be self-confident and responsible.
HEMISPHERES: Guns, Germs and Steel was a hugely popular book, but it drew sniper fire from your fellow academics for simplifying complicated scientific matters.
DIAMOND: Every day you can read a scientist complaining that the public doesn’t understand science, that the federal government doesn’t invest enough money in science and science education, but what it comes down to is that most scientists and academics just don’t want to do the things that would help the public understand science.
My professional training was on sodium transport in the gallbladder, and I wrote precise papers about sodium transport in the gallbladder that got read by the world’s five other experts on sodium transport in the gallbladder. But I’m interested in lots of other things besides gallbladder sodium transport. So when I started writing books about all these fascinating other things, I had to learn or go back to a style accessible to the general reader.
Unfortunately, an occupational hazard of being an academic who writes for the general public is that you’re going to get flak from other academics who’ve spent their whole lives being told to write in this precise fashion for the five experts in their field. A theme as big as the differences between traditional societies and modern societies deserves a book that is 100,000 pages long, but no one is going to read that.
New York Times columnist DAVID CARR has no gallbladder, so he probably won’t be reading Diamond’s treatise on sodium transport. That’s his excuse, anyway.
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Languages spoken: 12
Pulitzer Prizes won :1
Books authored: 9
New York Times bestsellers: 2
Copies sold of most popular title, Guns, Germs and Steel: 1.5 million
Miles that film crew traveled for Guns, Germs and Steel TV series: 285,000
Years of human civilization spanned in TV series : 13,000
Minutes in TV series: 163