Humans, History, & Environments

By Shermer, Michael | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Humans, History, & Environments

Shermer, Michael, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


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? …

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