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Interview by Karl Giberson and Donald Yerxa
In the sports-page parlance of football's days of yore, a "triple threat" was a player who excelled at running, passing, and kicking the ball. Jared Diamond is a triple threat in his own right. A longtime professor of physiology at UCLA, he is a respected scholar in his field. At the same time, he has been a prolific contributor to several popular science magazines, and he has written three widely acclaimed books for a general audience: The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1992), Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality (1997), and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. (For a review of this most recent book, see p. 36 in this issue.) Karl Giberson and Donald Yerxa interviewed Diamond by phone in February of this year.
DONALD YERXA: What were you trying to accomplish with Guns, Germs, and Steel?
I was trying to answer some of my own questions about history. Every time I go to New Guinea, where I have done much of my fieldwork, a bunch of very bright people lead me around in the jungle. I am the stupid one. They are very kind to me. They don't rub it in that I've been spending time there off and on for 35 years, and I still can't follow a trail or put up a hut. It would be ridiculous to say I'm smarter than they are. I'm not smarter! In that context, they're smarter than I am. How is it, then, that I, the dope, come to New Guinea representing the society that brought steel, tools, matches, and umbrellas to their world, while they were the ones using stone tools? That question hit me, literally within a few days of first arriving in New Guinea.
YERXA:Guns, Germs, and Steel has generally been very favorably reviewed, but there are some recurring criticisms. I wonder if I could ask you to respond briefly to several of these.
YERXA:Diamond is an environmental determinist. Yes, that's a common one-liner. There are criticisms that have substance. That's ...