Diamond, Jared (Mason) 1937-
DIAMOND, Jared (Mason) 1937-
PERSONAL: Born September 10, 1937, in Boston, MA; son of Louis K. and Flora K. Diamond; married Marie M. Cohen, 1982; children: twins. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1958; Cambridge University, Ph.D. (physiology), 1961.
CAREER: Physiologist, ecologist, and author, specializing in evolutionary biology, ecology, bird faunas of New Guinea and other southwest Pacific islands, and biological membranes. Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, MA, associate in biophysics, 1965-66; University of California Medical School, Los Angeles, associate professor of physiology, 1966-68, professor, 1968—. American Museum of Natural History, Department of Ornithology, research associate, 1973—; Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, research associate, 1985—. National Science Foundation, fellow, 1958-61, 1961-62; Trinity College, Cambridge, fellow in physiology, 1961-65; Harvard University Society of Fellows, junior fellow, 1962-65.
MEMBER: National Science Academy, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow), American Ornithologists Union (fellow), American Physiological Society, Biophysics Society, American Society of Naturalists, American Philosophical Society.
AWARDS, HONORS: Bowditch Prize, American Physiological Society, 1976; Kroc Foundation lecturer, Western Association of Physicians, 1978; Burr Award, National Geographic Society, 1979; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1985; Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 1992, and Science Book Prize, New Scientist(London, England), 1992, both for The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal; Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, and Japan's Cosmos Prize, both 1998, both for Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
(Editor, with Martin L. Cody) Ecology and Evolution of Communities, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1975.
(With Mary Lecroy) Birds of Karkar and Bagabag Islands, New Guinea, American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY), 1979.
(Editor, with Ted J. Case) Community Ecology, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1986.
The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992, published as The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, Hutchinson Radius (London, England), 1992.
Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1997.
Why Did Human History Unfold Differently on Different Continents for the Last 13,000 Years?, RAND Corp. (Santa Monica, CA), 2001.
Contributor to books, including D. Noble and C. A. R. Boyd's Evolutionary Physiology, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1993; contributor to Discover, Natural History, and Nature magazines. Author of more than three hundred research papers on physiology, ecology, and ornithology.
SIDELIGHTS: Physiologist, ecologist, and author Jared Diamond "is a polymath," declared anthropologist Mark Ridley in the Times Literary Supplement. Diamond has established himself as an expert in both bird ecology and membrane physiology, two technical specialties that are not related, according to Ridley, and has established a reputation for turning out top-quality research papers at such a rate that "some suspect he is really a committee." He is also a regular contributor of columns to the widely read magazines Natural History and Discover and of reviews to Nature. On the Edge Web site, Diamond commented: "I've set myself the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years. Why did history take such different evolutionary courses for peoples of different continents? This problem has fascinated me for a long time, but it's now ripe for a new synthesis because of recent advances in many fields seemingly remote from history, including molecular biology, plant and animal genetics and biogeography, archaeology, and linguistics."
Diamond assembled and extensively revised many of his short pieces to produce The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. The result, according to Ridley, was "an outstanding work of popular science which can not be recommended too highly." The book consists of five sections, the first dealing with human prehistory, the second with the biology of human nature—including human sexuality, which Diamond compares and contrasts with that of other primates, a section on such uniquely human traits as art, language, and addiction, a section on human destructiveness, and a finale in which contemporary human society is placed in the context of the past. Human beings, explains Diamond, share ninety-eight percent of their genetic endowment with chimpanzees; indeed to the uninformed observer, such as an extraterrestrial scientist, prehistoric human beings would have looked merely like a third species of chimpanzee. Diamond sets forth to show the ways in which the remaining two percent of a human's genetic endowment impelled the vast cultural difference between humanity and its ape relatives.
According to reviewer Phoebe-Lou Adams in the Atlantic, Diamond is not entirely successful in tracing human distinctiveness to that genetic two percent, but nevertheless "succeeds well in his intention to arouse intelligent concern for social and environmental reform." Among the book's other reviewers were several well-known writers on science—for example, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas who in the Los Angeles Times Book Review termed The Third Chimpanzee "wonderful," and praised Diamond especially for his efforts to lead readers toward conservation of the environment. Thomas found "intriguing" Diamond's discussion of human beings' unusual proclivity for having sex in private. Another critic, Lionel Tiger, also writing in the Atlantic, called Diamond "particularly enlightening on the subject of the biology of race." Race, Diamond asserts, evolved not for reasons of natural selection but for ones of sexual selection: within local populations, the traits that are now associated with the different races were chosen for their beauty. "Diamond has a clear sense of how to advance his evolutionary arguments through lively examples," explained Tiger. This reviewer, however, also expressed a few qualms: notably, that Diamond overemphasizes the novelty of some of his material and gives short shrift to the similar ideas of his predecessors. Tiger also thought that Diamond's view of human beings is less complex and "risk-taking" than a truly demanding reader would have hoped for. Nevertheless, concluded Tiger, Diamond's book "makes us take a searching look in the mirror that will be as unsettling to some as it will be enlightening to many."
Ridley, in the Times Literary Supplement, praised Diamond in particular for his ability to synthesize and digest a great deal of diverse material; he enjoyed the anecdotes of Diamond's New Guinea experiences, as did primatologist Frans B. M. de Waal in the New York Times Book Review, and lauded Diamond's topic selection, expressing gratitude for discussions of the origins of Indo-European language, of agriculture, and of genocide. "Every page is thick with examples, usually unfamiliar ones," commented Ridley. De Waal, for his part, applauded Diamond's treatment of linguistic diversity and called The Third Chimpanzee "written with great wit" and "a pleasure to read," even if he also found some "rather implausible scenarios" in Diamond's evaluation of the relationship between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. Even these "farfetched theses" according to de Waal, have positive value, however, for they force the reader to think imaginatively about human evolution and human destiny.
Another science writer, Roger Lewin, offering his opinion in the Washington Post Book World, singled out Diamond's discussion of language in The Third Chimpanzee. Lewin termed the chapter "Bridges to Human Language" "glorious" for its material on Creole, pidgin, and nonhuman communication systems. Lewin praised Diamond, in addition, for two theoretical views that counterbalance each other nicely: Diamond refuses to see the development of agriculture and industrialism as a march of progress, but he also refuses to see the prehistoric hunter-gatherer way of life as a golden age. Likewise, Michael Kenward in the New Scientist—the same journal which awarded The Third Chimpanzee its Science Book Prize—enjoyed Diamond's vision of hunter-gatherer societies; "I like books that bash perceived wisdom," Kenward said. Kenward was among the critics disapproving of Diamond's literary style; he compared it to that of a scientific paper, with the exception that "big words" had been excised. Several commentators had a far different view, expressed in its most extreme form by Lewin, who concluded: "No one writes about these things better than Diamond." And Steve Jones, in the London Review of Books, called The Third Chimpanzee "literate, informative and impassioned." Jones, like Thomas, especially approved of Diamond's writings on human sexuality and like Tiger, found that Diamond's view of the evolutionary basis of human behavior is "less startling than the author makes out." Lewin declared that The Third Chimpanzee is "composed with erudition and elegance" and that it offers "some of the best popular writing on human biology and prehistory."
In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies Diamond's ambitions take him even further into the realm of the social sciences. In this book, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, Diamond seeks to explain how, because of the commodities mentioned in the title, the peoples of Europe and Asia were able to conquer those of the Americas, Africa, and Australia. His thesis is not that Europeans and Asians are inherently superior, but that an accident of geography made it possible for them to develop advanced weaponry, immunity to disease, and social structures that enabled them to gain control over other continents. The Eurasian land mass, he points out, was the source of many more domesticable plants than the rest of the world, and Eurasia's east-west orientation—Africa and the Americas being oriented north-south—made it easy for these plants to spread to areas with similar climates. This gave rise to agriculture, which in turn gave rise to dense and settled populations. Technology and, in time, armaments production, flourished in these societies, as did centralized government. Eurasia also had a larger number of domesticable animals; living in proximity to animals and to each other allowed Eurasians to be exposed to and eventually to become immune to numerous diseases. These diseases were unknown in many parts of the world until European explorers arrived, and so a combination of microbes and military might helped the Europeans subdue native populations in the Americas and elsewhere. As New Statesman contributor Roz Kaveney put it: "Cortes and Pizarro thought of themselves as all-conquering heroes, but mostly they were just carriers of smallpox, measles and whooping cough."
Newsweek reviewer Sharon Begley, noting that the arguments in Guns, Germs, and Steel are based on a long-neglected concept known as geographic determinism, declared that "Diamond's attempt to explain the past is one of the boldest in generations. If he's right, then pride in the power and the glories of European civilization should be tempered with a little humility: were it not for cowpox, history might have been very different." Begley found Diamond's explanations inadequate in some areas; for instance, she pointed out, "geographic predestination does not explain why Europe subjugated China for years, even though China was the most advanced nation in the world by 1400."
Other commentators raised other questions; for example, in the New Leader Thomas M. Disch wrote that while he was sympathetic to Diamond's ideas, he was not completely convinced by Diamond's reasoning. To account for his uncertainty, Disch cited new archeological evidence that the Americas may have been inhabited 1,000 years earlier than Diamond and other scientists believe. "This impacts his argument concerning the extinction of larger mammals by the first Asians to colonize the Americas, and their consequent unavailability for domestication," Disch observed. "Such new findings raise doubts about Diamond's conclusions." M. E. Sharpe, writing in Challenge, questioned the importance placed by Diamond on Eurasia's east-west orientation and other continents' north-south orientation; there are many more important factors that determine how differences in civilization evolve, Sharpe contended. That reviewer also took Diamond to task for paying scant attention to the role of capitalism in global development: "Columbus, after all, came to the Americas looking for a route to the West Indies. His voyage was not taken on a whim or because of an axis but because European merchants were engaged in an increasingly profitable trade with eastern and southern Asia and were feverishly looking for an easier and cheaper way to get there." National Review critic Steven Sailer took issue with Diamond's dismissal of the possibility that genetic differences among ethnic groups might explain much about world history. "Diamond appears to confuse the concepts of genetic superiorities (plural) and genetic supremacy (singular)," Sailer asserted. "The former are circumstance-specific. . . . In contrast, genetic supremacy is the dangerous fantasy that one group is everything."
Still, several reviewers, even some who voiced reservations, found much to admire in Guns, Germs, and Steel. In the New York Times Book Review, James Shreeve commented that Diamond's "multilayered analysis . . . should be consumed with a grain of salt. Its sheer depth compels him to wear the hats of anthropologist, archeologist, plant geneticist, epidemiologist, and social, military and technological historian. . . . Each of these disciplines into which he delves to further his argument is rife with uncertainties, differing interpretations and opposing viewpoints. A closer examination of them would have only strengthened an already formidable work." Kaveney noted that other scholars have put forth theories similar to Diamond's, and that Diamond has had to simplify complicated arguments. However, she added: "What Diamond offers is a look behind the glamour of history . . . behind the empires and the gold are the peasants, and behind the peasants are the ox, the chicken and the wheat stalk. This has the strength of all the best books, it makes us see things afresh." And Disch concluded that Guns, Germs, and Steel "is one long crescendo of inductive logic, and deserves the attention of anyone concerned with the history of mankind at its most fundamental level. It is an epochal work. Diamond has written a summary of human history that can be accounted, for the time being, as Darwinian in its authority."
In his introduction to a talk given by Diamond and subsequently published as Why Did Human History Unfold Differently on Different Continents for the Last 13,000 Years?, John Brockman commented that one of the biggest questions Diamond deals with is "how to turn the study of history into a science." Brockman noted that in his theories concerning human development and the rise of civilization, Diamond combines history and biology and, in the process, questions long-held race-based theories surrounding human development—theories in which one group of people believes certain other groups of people are not capable of being educated and are thus different and less than human. "Most people are explicitly racists," Brockman quoted Diamond as saying. "In parts of the world—so called educated, so-called western society—we've learned that it is not polite to be racist, and so often we don't express racist views, but nevertheless I've given lectures on this subject, and members of the National Academy of Sciences come up to me afterwards and say, but native Australians, they're so primitive. Racism is one of the big issues in the world today." Brockman commented that Diamond believes the primary reason so many people resort to racist explanations of the rise of global civilization is because they have no other explanation and that, until a convincing answer is provided to the question of why history took the course it did, people will continue to see racism as the answer.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Diamond, Jared, Why Did Human History Unfold Differently on Different Continents for the Last 13,000 Years?, RAND Corp. (Santa Monica, CA), 2001.
Atlantic, May, 1992, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, p. 128.
Challenge, March-April, 1998, M. E. Sharpe, review of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, p. 118.
Economist (U.S.), July 19, 1997, review of Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 84.
London Review of Books, September 10, 1992, Steve Jones, review of The Third Chimpanzee, p. 17.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 22, 1992, p. 4; November 8, 1992, p. 9.
National Review, May 19, 1997, Steven Sailer, review of Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 51.
New Leader, March 10, 1997, Thomas M. Disch, review of Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 18.
New Scientist, May 23, 1992, Michael Kenward, review of The Third Chimpanzee, pp. 39-40.
New Statesman, August 22, 1997, Roz Kaveney, review of Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 48.
Newsweek, June 16, 1997, Sharon Begley, review of Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 47.
New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1992, Frans B. M. de Waal, review of The Third Chimpanzee, p. 10; June 15, 1997, James Shreeve, review of Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Population and Development Review, December, 1997, Garret Hardin, review of Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 889.
Publishers Weekly, January 13, 1997, review of Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 60.
Times Literary Supplement, August 2, 1991, Mark Ridley, review of The Third Chimpanzee, pp. 3-4.
Washington Post Book World, April 19, 1992, Roger Lewin, review of The Third Chimpanzee, pp. 3-4.
Edge, http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ (July 26, 2004). "Jared Diamond."*