AN INTERVIEW WITH JARED DIAMOND
Although he had been writing popular science articles for many years, Jared Diamond first came to the attention of the general reading public when his first trade book, The Third Chimpanzee, won Britain's Science Book Prize and the Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize in 1992. For this, and his hundred-plus popular articles in such magazines as Discover and Natural History, his nearly 500 peer-reviewed scientific papers, nine other technical books and monographs, and an overall brilliance at explaining evolutionary theory, he was awarded the Skeptics Society's Randi Award for the Skeptic of the Year of 1994.
Since he published his first paper in 1959, Diamond has averaged slightly more than one published paper per month (13.4 per annum), while leading 19 expeditions to New Guinea, maintaining positions as a Director of the World Wildlife Fund (USA), Research Associate in Ornithology and Mammalogy at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Research Associate in Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and, of course, his day job as a Professor of Physiology at the UCLA Medical School. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1979, the Amen can Philosophical Society in 1988, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1973.
Despite a torrid schedule, Diamond wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel, arguably one of the most important works ever penned on world history, and for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, Britain's Science Book Prize, and the Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Prize (not to mention sales to match, with a streak on the New York Times bestseller list of 75 weeks; and counting). Lecture invitations now pour in daily, as Diamond struggles (and manages) to find the time to raise his twin boys, together with his psychologist wife, Marie Cohen.
Softspoken and modest, slightly built but with an edge of ruggedness that comes from a cumulative four years in the jungles of New Guinea, Diamond graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in Biochemical Sciences (summa cum laude) and earned a Ph.D. in physiology at Cambridge University, England. His curriculum vitae of 50 pages includes 25 honors and awards, including a famed MacArthur Foundation "genius" Fellowship from 1985-1990.
We caught up with Diamond between an expedition to the Galapagos and a keynote address at the 600th anniversary of the University of Krakow, in Poland, as he revealed the most important experiences of his youth that shaped his personality and unique intellectual style leading to his ground-breaking theories on humans, history, and environments.
Skeptic: With all of our interviews we like to begin with some background in a Sullowayian analysis of family dynamics and life experiences that shape the scientists we encounter. Tell us a bit about your parents, your childhood, and what influenced your development and thinking.
Diamond: I was born in 1937, which means I had my early political and social views shaped by World War II. These were then reinforced by four years in Europe as a graduate student where I saw the residues of the war in different countries, and then marrying into a Polish family where I heard about their horrible wartime experiences.
Skeptic: You were born and raised in Boston?
Diamond: Brookline, actually, which is a suburb of Boston. I went to school there, then attended Harvard College, and didn't leave home until graduate school, when I went off to Cambridge, England for three years. I then did a post-doc in Germany for half a year, returned to Boston for four more years as a post-doc. Finally I left for good in 1966 when I came to UCLA, where I have been ever since. Of course, I also have an emotional connection to New Guinea, where, on and off over the past 35 years, I have spent a total of four years of my llfe--19 total trips, ranging from 45 days to five months.
Skeptic: What did your mother do?
Diamond. Mom ended up a homemaker, but she started out as a very talented musician and concert pianist She was born in 1906, in the days of silent movies, so Mom earned her income not only by performing at New York's Town Hall, but also by playing for silent movies. There was a standard leitmotif for the villain, and another for the hero or heroine, on top of which she would improvise according to the theme of the movie. She was also a good amateur linguist For example, Mom rescued me from flunking Latin at the Roxbury Latin School when I didn't realize that there was this thing called grammar. I just learned words for the first couple of weeks, until Morn sat down with me every night to train me in proper Latin grammar, which, incredibly she remembered from her own high school training 26 years before. Mom was amazing. I'll never forget a trip we took to Switzerland in 1950. Although Mom had taken only one year of German in high school, and had not spoken or studied it since, the moment we got off the plane in German-speaking Zurich, Mom promptly started speaking German to a person on the street. After she got married she earned a teaching credential and did some part time school teaching, along with raising my sister and me.
Skeptic: Your father was a practicing physician?
Diamond: Dad was the Associate Chief of Staff of the Children's Hospital at Harvard Medical School. He trained pediatricians, and had a practice specializing in blood diseases, for which he also conducted research. In fact, up until about a decade or two ago, most of the heads of pediatrics departments in the United States trained under Dad, and lots more had worked with Dad in his research laboratory at Harvard. Today, when you are going to have a baby, they automatically do prenatal blood work on mother and father. The first laboratory to develop these techniques was Dad's. He was well known for having developed the technique called the Exchange Transfusion Procedure, used for saving babies with Rh incompatibilities. (These are babies whose fathers are Rh positive and the mother is Rh negative, so the mother may acquire antibodies from the first Rh positive baby, and then those antibodies cause problems for the second child.) Dad cured this problem by exchanging all the baby's blood at birth, and then taug ht others how to do it safely.
Skeptic: So he was an important man in his field.
Diamond: Louis K. Diamond is considered the founder of pediatric hematology and treatment of children's blood diseases in the United States, possibly the world. He just died, in fact, at the age of 97. Mom was 92.
Skeptic: So you have good longevity genes. Were your grandparents intellectuals, or in the medical field as well?
Diamond: My father's parents were from the town of Kishinev, outside of Odessa, Ukraine. I believe his father managed an apple orchard. Dad was born in 1902, shortly after which they came to New York where his father ran a cigar store. Mom's parents were from the border area between Poland and Lithuania, and she was the youngest of nine. They had moved to New York before Mom was born. Mom's father was a Jewish scholar and cantor, which meant that he did not contribute to the family economically.
Skeptic: Were your parents Orthodox?
Diamond: By the time I knew my parents, they were non-practicing.
Skeptic: Would you call yourself a secular Jew?
Diamond: I attend services on the peak Holy Days. My wife, Marie, whose father is Jewish and mother is Catholic, converted to Judaism. Our kids were Bar Mitzvahed (I was not), and they spent a year learning Hebrew.
Skeptic: How would you classify the relationship with your parents?
Diamond: I got along well with them. I was an older child, so Frank Sulloway would say that I was not born to rebel. It's true--I did not have deep rebellions. I did not go stomping out of the house. Intellectually, I had a close teaching relationship with my mother. Mom really loved teaching children, and she said that the happiest times of her life were when she was teaching my sister and me. I learned my English grammar from her. To enter private school, I had to take a competitive entrance exam, which involved mastering English grammar, which I was not getting in public school. So I would come home every day and Mom would sit down and teach me things like the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses and which one of those gets set off by commas. In 30 years I have not met a single graduate student who knows the difference!
Skeptic: So your mastery of many languages really stems from this relationship with your mother, and her natural teaching skills.
Diamond: In high school the languages that I took were Latin, Greek, and French. After my senior year and before going to Harvard, I studied German with my mother and some Latvian refugees. In my first year of college I began studying Spanish by myself. I took a course in Russian. In Europe I spent a summer in Finland and picked up Finnish well enough to chat with people. I also played around with Swedish and Serbo-Croatian. Then in New Guinea I picked up three more languages. And now I'm learning Italian.
Skeptic: You mentioned the influence of the war. Were your parents Roosevelt supporters through the 1930s?
Diamond: My parents told me that they voted for Roosevelt in every election except 1940, when they voted for Wendell Wilkie.
Skeptic: So your parents were politically liberal. Where would you classify yourself?
Diamond: My parents were relatively liberal, but not radically so. I would probably rank as relatively liberal, but I've had a lot of life experiences that have made me more conservative. I usually vote Democrat, but it also depends on the issues. Do I believe that government should use its resources to advance the interests of people? Yes, I do. Do I think that business alone and free enterprise will do enough to advance the interests of the people? I do not. So I guess that makes me liberal. If you asked my wife Marie, she would undoubtedly say that I am more conservative than she, but she was born in 1948 and her politics were shaped by the Vietnam War whereas mine were shaped by World War II.
Skeptic: Was it the hope of your father that you would follow his footsteps into medical research or practice?
Diamond: Yes, it was the hope of my father and the hope of my mother and, initially, mine. Again, Frank Sulloway would say that since I was a firstborn I identified with my parents and that I would want to be a doctor like my father. In fact, when I was growing up people would ask me what I wanted to do, and I always said I wanted to be a doctor. And in college I was a premed my last three years. My biggest effort to rebel did not consist of getting a fast car, but switching my major to astronomy! But then, in 1955, I concluded that astronomy was not a way to earn a living, so I switched to pre-med. I was doing research throughout my senior year, and I realized then that was what I wanted to do, not medical practice. My plan was to train for research, and to do that, I discovered that I would be better off with a Ph.D. instead of an M.D. For years after, my father would tell me, "if you ever want to go back to get your medical degree, I will support you."
Skeptic: So for your dad the Ph.D. was really a secondary degree.
Diamond: Yes, but that was based on his experience, which was correct for his lifetime. Before Sputnik, a career as a research scientist in the United States was risky. And research scientists were people who were independently wealthy. So Dad's attitude was perfectly correct for 1954.
Skeptic: Your dissertation and Ph.D. were in physiology and, in fact, most of your scientific papers are in physiology.
Diamond: Actually, about half of my scientific papers are in physiology, and many of the others are in ecology. I have never had any formal training in ecology, but I took it up as a second career in the 1960s. I have roughly 200 papers in physiology, and about 120 in ecology and evolution, and the rest are in other fields.
Skeptic: How do you produce so many papers, not to mention all your popular articles, essays, and books?
Diamond: When my twin boys were born, I was very concerned about how this would affect my productivity, but, in fact, I am now even more productive because I learned to be more efficient. A friend told me the secret about writing efficiency.
Skeptic: Do tell!
Diamond: About 20 years ago the ecologist Bob May explained to me that when you are writing, you are actually trying to do two completely different things simultaneously--getting the ideas down in an organized fashion, and writing well-crafted sentences and nice prose. I used to try to do both at the same time, but May told me to break it up into two stages. The first is what I call a scribble draft, where I quickly scribble down as fast as possible the ideas I want to convey not worrying about the sentence structure or prose quality. Then I take my scribble draft, which is on unlined yellow paper written with a mechanical pencil, and edit it. Sometimes the sentences and paragraphs are good enough to need only light editing; other times they need complete rewriting. In the final stage I dictate the entire article and have it transcribed by my secretary.
Skeptic: Now wait a minute. Mr. Science himself does not have a computer?
Diamond: I believe that I'm much more productive without one!
Skeptic: Let's go back to 1966 when you started at UCLA and were doing your research in physiology. How did you get interested in ecology, ornithology, and the natives of New Guinea?
Diamond: This has a fairly complicated history going back to my childhood. When I was about nine years old, I became a bird watcher. Some amateur bird watchers are really good, and they start publishing in high school. I was not one of these. Then in 1962, when I returned after four years of graduate school to become a post-doc, I was facing a severe career problem. I had been at this wonderful high school where I was expected to study to become a medical scientist, but there I mostly studied Latin and Greek, and I dearly loved history. At Harvard, the pre-med requirements were minimal, so I took Russian, astronomy, music composition and oral epic poetry, and I loved it all. When I went to Cambridge, England, there were no course requirements whatsoever for the Ph.D., so with this freedom I was able to pursue a number of different interests. Since I really loved history, read German, enjoyed classical music, and am Jewish, I naturally was interested in what happened in Germany in World War II.
You know, there are times when something happens that changes your life in an instant. In 1962 I went to an organ recital of Bach in Cambridge. The atmosphere was beautiful. We were in this magnificent college chapel, dim light, and in the course of that hour I realized that I could not spend the rest of my life doing only physiology. It is not that when I returned to Boston I set myself the goal to have a second career, but in retrospect I see that what I was doing was looking around for other things to do. I even tried to set up a second career in music performance!
During this time I had read a lot about the colonization of Polynesia, about pre-Columbian pottery in the New World, and about field ecology. In this latter field I re-met my college classmate John Terborgh, later to become one of the world's leading field ecologists, and he and I cooked up projects to go to Peru, and then New Guinea, which we did. Since John then staked out Peru for himself, I wanted to go somewhere different, so I headed back to New Guinea, which had come to my attention through my dad and Ernst Mayr, who had co-authored a paper shortly after Ernst came to Harvard. And then Carlton Gajdusek, the great virologist who had trained under my father, had been to New Guinea, so both he and Ernst really prepared me for my first trip there, and I've been going ever since. Compared to New Guinea, the rest of the world is dull.
Skeptic: Was this first trip a productive one for you, scientifically?
Diamond: Oh, yes. This was serious. We applied for grants, but everybody rejected us because John and I had no qualifications whatsoever. Finally, the American Philosophical Society--God bless them--gave us $2,000. We applied to study the nesting success of New Guinea birds. So we went but couldn't find any nests! Instead, John studied birds in fruit and flowering trees, and I got interested in altitudinal replacement of birds in the New Guinea highlands--how bird species replace each other at different altitudes. We got two published papers out of it.
Skeptic: So your physiology research is your bread and butter that allows you to do all this other research, which is your true passion.
Diamond: Indeed, and what could compare to doing research in New Guinea? The country and the people are just so interesting.
Skeptic: Let us talk about that. Why is that so interesting, compared to, say, European history, or global world history?
Diamond: Oh, European and global history are interesting, and my book Guns, Germs, and Steel is a world history. it is that, as a place to be, there is something extra special about New Guinea--the intense beauty of being in a jungle, or on top of mountain to hear the dawn chorus of the birds. And at night the sky is so clear above the cloud banks. It's intense, in that the consequences of mistakes cannot be retrieved.
Skeptic: You mean in terms of physical danger?
Diamond: Yes. Life is more on the edge. There is a very narrow margin. You cannot make mistakes, because they can cost you for the rest of your life, if your life continues. And the New Guineans themselves are just such intriguing people. There are a thousand different languages, and they are still living in a radically different way.
Skeptic: Is there also the romantic feeling that you are in touch with what humanity might have been like thousands of years ago?
Diamond: Yes, although anthropologists warn us not to look at such indigenous people as a perfect replica of our ancestors, since they are different in many ways. But there are some things about New Guinea life today that are more like life 13,000 years ago, such as living on the edge of danger and uncertainty, or the importance of the oral tradition across generations, or the intense knowledge of the natural environment.
Skeptic: Speaking of that, is it true that native peoples of New Guinea identify species in the same way as a western-trained scientist? And if so, is this evidence that these species actually exist in nature and are not just socially-constructed categories?
Diamond: Ernst Mayr originally made that point, and I have observed this as well in the hundred or so New Guinea languages that I have studied. In every one of the hundred, people have names of the local birds down to the species classification. And the species taxa that they recognize match those of our western taxa. There are a few discrepancies, but for the most part they are identifying the same species that we are.
Skeptic: Guns, Germs, and Steel is dedicated to your New Guinea friends, and your passion and love for this country and these people are abundantly clear. It is almost as if this is a whole different life for you.
Diamond: That's true. I feel half New Guinean. Much of my outlook on howl live is shaped by what I have learned from my New Guinean friends, such as thinking about risks.
Skeptic: If it is true for New Guineans today, it must have been true for most peoples before 13,000 years ago. The basic premise of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists is that we have to consider the fact that 99.9% of human history took place in this Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation, or EEA. Do we need to consider the EEA?
Diamond: You certainly have to consider it. Having considered it, however, you may decide to reject it for a particular question. I am open-minded about the legacies of our five million years of separate existence from the other primates. For example, I am presently writing a paper on the difference between reading and direct personal experience and oral transmission in their effects on our outlooks. A lot of the time, we are in a rational mode in which we make use of our reading. When I'm in the laboratory designing an experiment, I am using reason, not gut reaction, and that comes from years of education. But there are decisions that we make based more on knowledge learned from personal experience.
Skeptic: Your point here is that culture and experience shape the way we think as much as the EEA?
Diamond: Of course it is both, but I believe we use gut instinct more than we like to think we do.
Skeptic: Are you arguing that we make our decisions more on gut levels and feelings and then justify them with intellectual arguments?
Diamond: Some decisions. I am not saying that all of us make decisions as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did 30,000 years ago. Instead, I think there is a significant role for these gut level reactions that are based on personal experience and not on rational analysis. Reading began a mere 5,400 years ago. That's the last 1% of human history. We have not reprogrammed ourselves. Reading has not gotten deep inside us.
Skeptic: In my book How We Believe I argue that most people come to their religious beliefs for reasons that have nothing to do with intellectual arguments; but as westerners living in an age of science we have to justify them with reasons. This is what gives rise to the so-called "creation scientists" and "intelligent design theorists," and such organizations as Reasons to Believe.
Diamond: I would be sympathetic to that interpretation.
Skeptic: Let's look at a specific issue--rape. There is a new book that claims that rape is not about power, but about sex, and that men rape because in the EEA that was the only way some were able to forward their genes into the next generation.
Diamond: I have not read that book, but, in general, to ask if a behavior is 90% or 10% genetic is asking for trouble because we're not going to get the answer. I am just back from the Galapagos, and while hiking we came across an albatross colony. Our biologist guide explained to us that male albatrosses gang up on and rape female albatrosses. Now, it's true, rape has been documented in a large number of animal species, so to argue that rape would suddenly startup again in humans for entirely different reasons seems unlikely. One might expect that there is some carryover legacy in humans for the cause of rape. At the same time, humans are far more complicated in their cognition, so other factors come in to play. So, yes, rape for humans may involve sexual power struggles, or aggression, or pure nastiness. I think the biggest reason that this area is so controversial is the mistakenly drawn inference that if a behavior has a biological cause, it somehow justifies the behavior. In The Third Chimpanzee I wrote about this failure of people to distinguish between explanation and justification. It is important to understand why nasty things go on in human behavior, so that we can use that understanding to prevent their happening.
To me the evidence is overwhelming that different animal societies are constructed in different ways, and that we should study why different animals have different societies--why some are social and some solitary, why some pair-bond and some don't. I recognize that sociobiology can be misused, but if animal societies can be studied profitably, and if humans are social animals, then we can profit from studying human social behavior in this way. Do I say that we are hopeless automatons of five million years of evolution? No, of course I do not. Or on the contrary do I say that we have shucked off five million years of our evolutionary heritage? No, of course I do not.
Skeptic: In Ullica Segestralle's book, Defenders of the Truth, she argues that what is going on at a deeper level in the sociobiology wars is to what extent adaptationist arguments should be used in evolutionary thinking, with one side arguing that most human behaviors should be explained in terms of their adaptive significance in the EEA, and the other extreme arguing that it is impossible to infer adaptive significance in modem behavior because we are so far removed from the EEA.
Diamond: I take it for granted that, of course, we should ask about the possible adaptive significance of behavior. Can adaptationism be exaggerated? Sure. But adaptation is at the heart of biology. If you do not at least look for an adaptive explanation, you should leave biology and go be a geologist.
Skeptic: Another hot topic in evolutionary biology is inevitability versus contingency--if we were to rewind the timeline and play it back again, would life turn out largely the way it did, or would life be radically different? This question also has great significance for the SETI people, since they depend on the assumption that the origin of life will inevitably lead, at least in some places, to intelligent life capable of communicating beyond their planet (or else why bother searching?).
Diamond: I go back and forth on this. On the one hand we can learn from the history of our planet--there was a big brained creature that did evolve. On the other hand, that almost didn't happen. If an extraterrestrial had visited Earth five million years ago, it would have concluded, "There is no sign of any big brained creatures or space rockets on the horizon, and the chance of intelligence evolving is extremely low." Even if it does happen, any society that has the technology to send and receive radio signals is also going to have the technology to destroy itself.
Skeptic: Or perhaps we would be destroyed by aliens. You wrote an essay about this--"Alone in a Crowded Universe"--where you argued that the track record on Earth of what happens when humans encounter other intelligent species (like apes and dolphins), or one civilization encountering another civilization, is grim.
Diamond: We can predict with 99.9% certainty that an encounter between aliens and us would be disastrous. On Earth, what humans did to animals and other humans, without exception, has been murderous. We cut off their hands and heads, enslave them, rape them, kill them, and cook and eat them. About 20 years ago some SETI people sent spacecraft with plaques announcing not only that we exist, but where to find us. I consider this to be the single stupidest, most dangerous act ever committed in human history!
Skeptic: On the inevitability question, let's look at the Great Leap Forward 30,000 years ago, when Neanderthals went extinct and Homo sapiens culture exploded. If we were to rewind the timeline and play it back, this time with our lineage going extinct and Neanderthals surviving, would Neanderthals have continued evolving into something similar to what we are today?
Diamond: Surely not. Everything we know about Neanderthals tells us that their rate of shift in that direction was almost undetectable. That is, Neanderthal tools and other cultural artifacts showed almost no progressive change over 100,000 years. Their rate of innovation was vanishingly slow. I realize that there are some pro-Neanderthal revisionists who argue for this or that artifact showing such change, but I think the evidence overwhelmingly points to the conclusion that had Neanderthals survived and we gone extinct, they would not be living any differently than they did for the previous 100,000 years. I think that the primary reason for the Great Leap Forward was the development of language, and that we are the only species to have made that anatomical shift; this shift was subtle and complex enough that I think it highly unlikely it would happen again.
Skeptic: In Guns, Germs and Steel you argue that the geographical arrangement of domesticable plants and animals determined the long-term development of civilizations around the world, with those having this handful of plants and animals getting a head start over everyone else. What would happen if we rewound the timeline and removed those particular species? Would the development of culture and civilization have stopped 13,000 years ago? Without large-scale agriculture there can be no large civilizations, without which there can be no division of labor, economies of scale, mass production, and guns, germs, and steel!
Diamond: Here I would argue for inevitability. There were 14 big mammals that were domesticated, plus quite a number of smaller ones. As for plants, the number that are domesticable are several hundred. Some are more productive than others, but there are a lot of usable plants. It seems very unlikely to me than an accident would have wiped out those particular 14 species of big mammals out of the 4,000 available. In the case of plants there were even more domesticable species. There were several species of wheat, for example, so even if one was not domesticated the other would have been. Same with peas. There was a close relative to peas that was not domesticated because it was not needed. If there were no big-seeded cereals in certain areas, then people there domesticated small-seeded cereals. Even in North America, where there were far fewer domesticable species, they did not just stay hunter-gatherers. They made the transition to agriculture and civilization, but they did so more slowly. They developed to wns and villages, writing, metallurgy, and even mass production of bronze-tools, but they did so about 5,000 years later than in Eurasia.
Skeptic: In other words, there was a certain inevitability to the transition. But to what was it due? Population pressures? Intelligence?
Diamond: The transition was due to a concatenation of factors, including improved human hunting skills that led to larger populations, reducing large animal populations, making the hunter-gatherer lifestyle less rewarding, and leading to the gradual improvement of human technology. The proof that it was inevitable was that it happened nine different times independently in nine different places. If it hadn't happened in the Fertile Crescent 10,500 years ago, it would have happened elsewhere, as, in fact, it did happen in China 9,500 years ago.
Skeptic: Guns, Germs, and Steel has been on the New York Times bestseller list 75 weeks. That is almost unheard of for science books, putting your book into the rarefied air of Hawking's and Sagan's books. This must have taken you by surprise. To what do you attribute this?
Diamond: One has dreams of becoming a bestselling author, of course, but I was taken by surprise. As to why, I think winning the Pulitzer prize helped, but mostly I think it was word of mouth. I also got a boost when it came out that President Clinton read it on vacation. In fact, when I met him at the White House presentation of the National Science Medal, he made a little joke about how he had helped my sales!
Skeptic: Your next book is on the history of the destruction of the environment. Will this be your legacy--a warning to humanity about what history tells us with regard to our self-destructiveness?
Diamond: It started out as an account of past societies that destroyed themselves by destroying their resource base. But to make this meaningful I also had to write about those societies that were destroyed for other reasons, or that did not destroy themselves at all, in order to tease apart the variables that led to a certain outcome but not another.
Skeptic: It sounds like you are using the comparative method again, as you did in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Diamond: Yes, this one will use the comparative method even more because I can quantify historical outcomes and make very specific comparisons, for example, about the level of deforestation.
Skeptic: So you will be doing hypothesis testing and treating history as a science, as you have done before.
Diamond: Correct. Here I have a dependent variable--degree of deforestation--that is dependent on a number of independent variables, such as area rainfalls and so forth.
Skeptic: Why aren't historians doing this? Why does it take an evolutionary biologist to conduct a scientific study of human history?
Diamond: The response to my work, or, I should say, the non-response from historians, has been most enlightening. I have had hundreds of invitations to lecture since my book came out, but have received only two from historians, one at my own institution of UCLA, where I received a critical response, and the other from the American Historical Association, where I was clearly only a minor side event.
Why? There are a number of reasons. Historians define themselves narrowly--one is a 17th-century French historian, or a 14th-century medieval historian. Also, historians don't even begin considering history to be their subject matter until the invention of writing, by which time the fate of human history has already been sealed, at least in terms of these large-scale trends. By 3,400 BCE there were already large city-states, governments, social classes, division of labor, technology, science, and vast differences in the development of civilizations around the world. Historians are missing all the action by dosing themselves off to the history that came before. If you want to understand the grand patterns of history you can't start at 3,400 BCE, because it is all finished by then.
Also, the explanatory factors considered in Guns, Germs, and Steel involve some fairly sophisticated science for which historians have no training. To understand why these big patterns developed as they did, you have to know the science behind the domestication of plants and animals. To know why oak trees were not domesticated but almonds were, for example, you need to know that the basis for bitterness in oaks is polygenic and the basis for bitterness in almonds monogenic, so you can easily breed it out of almonds hut you cannot breed it out of oaks.
But the biggest problem, which you explained to me, is that historians are simply not trained in the scientific method. They are not trained to pose and test hypotheses.
Skeptic: With your new book you are going to really bump up against social, economic, and political implications of your science. You surely will be making policy recommendations that will prevent us from environmental self-destruction.
Diamond: There will be several chapters on the implications of what history teaches us about environmental destruction, including what we need to do in order to avoid the same fate.
Skeptic: Is there any doubt that humans are causing global warming?
Diamond: None, and I don't think there is a single climatologist who still doubts it. There is controversy, and there are critics, but the debate is about the degree to which the climate will be warmed--a degree, two degrees, and so on. I'm not aware of any knowledgeable scientist who denies the role of human action in global warming.
Skeptic: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about our future?
Diamond: I would describe myself as cautiously optimistic, by which I mean that if we do nothing, we are likely to reach disaster within 50 years, and if we do our best, the situation is not hopeless. If, starting tomorrow, we were all convinced that we needed to do something, then I think we could solve our problems. But at the moment I think it is up for grabs, which is one reason I am writing this book--to convince people that we need to do something.
Skeptic: And by that I presume you mean not just all of us recycling newspapers, but governmental actions to curtail industrial pollutions.
Diamond: Yes, we're talking about major actions to change deforestation, to stop using the ocean and the atmosphere as a dumping ground for toxic chemicals, to stop exterminating the remaining wild fisheries, to monitor our remaining fresh water supplies. On this latter front, for example, we are fast approaching the limit of accessible fresh water. The same holds true for photosynthetic energy from the sun. This is fixed. How much of that captured photosynthetic energy are we using ourselves? The numbers were worked out in 1986, by which time we were already using 50% of the energy captured by photosynthesis from the sun. But human populations double every couple of decades, which means that in a short time there will be no more utilized energy left from photosynthesis.
Skeptic: Why has it been so difficult to convince people that we have a problem?
Diamond: One reason is that these are very complicated problems that span or continue over long periods of time, and our personal experience tells us that everything is okay and that there is no cause for alarm. It is hard to think in decades-long trends of change. This is why I am taking an historical approach to show people that collapses already happened in the past. If these earlier peoples were able to destroy their environments with stone tools, what are six billion of us capable of with modem technologies?
Skeptic: So we need to solve these big problems within the next half century.
Diamond: Yes, but to solve them by then, we need to start now.
Skeptic: Thank you for the warning, and for the enlightening insights into humans, history, and environments.
Dr. Michael Shermer is Publisher of Skeptic, Director of the Skeptics Society, host of Science Talk on KPCC radio (the NPR affiliate for Southern California), and the Consulting Producer and co-host of the Fox Family television series Exploring the Unknown. Dr. Shermer is the author of How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science and Why People Believe Weird Thing (W. H. Freeman). His next book is Denying History (University of California Press) on Holocaust denial and other forms of pseudohistory. He is also the author of Teach Your Child Science and co-author of Teach Your Child Math and Mathemagics (with Dr. Arthur Benjamin). For 16 years he taught psychology, the history of science, and the history of ideas at Occidental College, California State University, Los Angeles, and Glendale College.…