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 not one of them. What does "environmental determinist" mean? It conjures up images of humans, zombielike, being programmed by the environment, of human creativity meaning nothing, of there being no role for culture or anything other than the environment. And naturally, that's absurd.
The reality is that, of course, the environment has had big effects on human history. If you are living on a continent that has no domesticable wild plants and animals, like Australia, there is no way that you can end up as a farmer or herder because there is nothing for you to farm and herd. That's just a simple example. There are many examples of geography and biogeography playing a big role in human history. And if you don't understand those environmental constraints you can't possibly come to grips with the cultural constraints that remain afterward.
YERXA:Diamond dismisses far too many important developments: the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, that sort of thing.
All right. There we are getting to a very interesting, substantive issue. Important developments that I "dismiss," the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution: these are late phenomena. By the year 3000 b.c., Eurasia already had widespread farming, metal tools, the first writing systems, empires. Aboriginal Australia had none of those things and would never acquire any, and the New World did not yet have any of those things and would acquire them later. I think this makes clear that in the broad pattern of history, Eurasia's dominance was already set thousands of years before the beginnings of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions.
Next, you have to ask why these developments arose in Eurasia rather than in Aboriginal Australia or the Americas. They were outgrowths of these sedentary societies producing food surpluses that could support craft specialists, including thinkers.
KARL GIBERSON: A follow-up question to your comments about the Scientific Revolution: A nonenvironmental explanation for why the Scientific Revolution arose in Europe rather than, say, China has been advanced by some thinkers, who stress the impact of the prior medieval theological view that the world was the product of a rational Creator and thus could be understood in that way. What do you think of that argument?
I would say that such explanations are focusing on a late, highly derived epiphenomenon. Again you have to ask the basic question: So there is "rationality" in Europe; why in Europe, not in China? Or, alternatively, you can say: So there is an inquiring tradition in Europe. There was an inquiring tradition in Greece. Why in Greece, not in China? You have to push those epiphenomenological explanations back to geographical bedrock: the geography of China, the geography of Europe, the early unification of China. If you were a critical thinker in China, and the emperor didn't like you, there was no where you could go. Whereas in Europe, if you were a critical thinker and the local prince didn't like you, you could walk 50 miles, just as Kepler did, and you were into a new principality.
GIBERSON: I have a question that comes out of The Third Chimpanzee and relates to the broad concerns that a lot of people have with sociobiological approaches to human nature. Such approaches are said to discount moral sentiments by placing them in the same category as our preference for family members over total strangers or our preference for sweet acorns over bitter ones. How would you respond to that?
I'm trying to think of the best way to respond. My feeling about that would be similar to my feeling about environmental determinism; namely, that it is a badly phrased inquiry. Humans have a long history, and a much longer evolutionary history. We are animals that share 98.6 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, and our sharing involves not just our anatomy—that was already obvious in the eighteenth century—but also many aspects of our behavior and outlook. For example, consider genocide. One of the two or three photographs that most stamped itself upon my consciousness was the photograph of the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945 and the piled up bodies there. I was then about eight years old. And I grew up thinking that genocide was uniquely human and also unique to the Nazis. But it turns out that that's nonsense. There is a straight line taking human genocide back to chimpanzee genocide and wolf genocide.
So we carry lots of baggage from our background, on the one hand. On the other hand, what does that mean in practice? Does it excuse us? Does it mean that I can go out now, kill people next door, and say I'm a helpless automaton? Ridiculous! The most distinctive thing about humans is that we are the only animal species that can make choices, choices that go against genetic self-interest. It seems to me that a lot—maybe most—of the objections to what is called sociobiology are based on muddled thinking.
YERXA:You have challenged the conventional historical understanding by contending that the advent of agriculture is very much a mixed blessing. Would you comment on that a little further?
The advent of agriculture was a mixed blessing in the following senses. Surprisingly, it turns out that the advent of agriculture was bad rather than good for health and nutrition. That's to say the first farmers were smaller, nutritionally stunted, compared to the hunter-gatherers that preceded them. Initially, the farmers had a much narrower dietary base. They're taking in less fiber. So that's one bad consequence of the advent of agriculture. The advent of agriculture also led to stratified, politically centralized societies, and that in turn gave rise to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Goethe's Faust, standing armies, taxes, bureaucrats, and exploitation.
GIBERSON: As a scientist, I can't help believing that history would be vastly improved as a discipline if it adopted the methodologies of the other historical sciences, such as geology, evolutionary biology, and cosmology. Is some of the criticism you've received a matter of disciplinary insecurity?
I'm not sure. I have not yet engaged much with historians. There's talk now about a symposium at the American Historical Association meeting next January focused on Guns, Germs, and Steel. That should give me a better idea of what historians think. My one dip into that was a seminar that I gave in the UCLA history department. Here I'd been at UCLA 34 years, and I've never given a seminar in that department. But I did last January. The spectrum of responses included some suspicious or skeptical assessments that gave me a sense of what the obstacles are. My colleagues in the history department told me explicitly that historians are taught to devote their careers to one area and one short time span. So typically you talk about a late nineteenth-century French historian, someone who devotes his career to France, 1870 to 1900. I met one historian who was broad; in addition to being interested in Austria 1870 to 1900, this person was also interested in Austria 1700 to 1730! [Laughs.] Historians lack the broad perspective, the integrating perspective. And then historians will point to earlier attempts to apply an integrating perspective, such as Toynbee, and they'll say, "Look, people have done it before, and it failed, so why are you doing it again?"
All right, a couple of things to that. We've learned a lot since Toynbee's heyday as a historian. We now know a lot about the origin of measles and pox viruses and domestic plants and animals. We can attack the same problems again with greatly improved, much stronger tools. The second thing is that historians are not trained in the methods of science. They are trained in archival research. They do not learn to think as scientists, and so I think historians fail to recognize that there are all these sciences out there, historical sciences, that have wrestled with similar problems and developed methods. And then still a third thing is that historians say that there are unique problems to human history. Humans are complicated. They have free will; they are individuals; and therefore the study of human societies and their history is a whole new ballgame.
Well, yes and no. Animals are also conscious. Animals have individuals. Animal societies differ. Yes, there is a role for free will. And yes, individuals—Alexander the Great and Hitler, for example—certainly posed particular problems in human history. But they don't utterly transform the field. Hitler changed the map of modern Europe, and Alexander the Great gave a nudge to western Eurasian civilization, but the nudge didn't last very long and didn't go very far.
YERXA:Well, I'm a historian, so let me represent the guild. The French Annales historian Fernand Braudel generated some fairly strong criticism a few decades ago for his failure to study human history on a human scale. What do you believe is the proper scale for historical inquiry? Are there not multiple levels, of which you represent one, while someone who focuses on Austrian history for a decade is also doing a valuable service on a different level?
Absolutely. There are different scales of human history just as there are different scales of the study of glaciers and of black-capped chickadees. For some questions of history, the only relevant answer is on the scale of individual people. For example, the bomb that went off in Hitler's headquarters on July 20, 1944, didn't kill Hitler because it was placed three feet too far from Hitler. If von Stauffenberg had pushed it a little closer, the map of Eastern Europe would be different today. And that has nothing to do with the domestication of camels in Arabia, 2500 b.c. It has everything to do with how far von Stauffenberg shoved that briefcase.
On the other hand, if you want to understand why aboriginal Australians in modern times were all hunter-gatherers, that doesn't have anything to do with anything that any aboriginal Australian individually ever did. It has everything to do with the environment of Australia. So, in short, there are different questions and different scales for studying history. This I see as the biggest unresolved question coming out of my book, namely, down to how small a scale does this broad comparative approach work? That question, I think, was behind the criticism made by William McNeill in his mixed review of my book in the New York Review of Books. And whereas I dismissed environmental determinism as being not a substantive issue, this I regard as the main substantive issue: down to how small a spatial scale and time scale can you properly pursue these environmental considerations?
GIBERSON:Is there any sense in which the affirmation that God is the Creator can coexist or be integrated with views like yours, particularly as expressed in The Third Chimpanzee?
Short answer, yes. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, Paul Tillich had just come there. He taught introductory freshman courses. I remember going to one of his lectures, and I remember him saying in a strong German accent: "Why is there something, when there could have been nothing?" Science doesn't have anything useful to say about that question. Whether God is the answer, I don't know, but that certainly indicates the biggest thing that science can't get at: why there is a universe at all. Another question, another obvious entree, is the whole field of morality or ethics. Yes, you can approach human ethics from a sociobiological point of view, and that's all very interesting. But it is of no practical use when you are trying to decide whether you should tell a lie or kill the person next door.
In fact, I'm working now on an article dealing with the question of what might be called the evolution of religion. Human religion had a couple of distinct components: an explanatory component, including belief in God, and an ethical component. And if you look at the history of human religion, those two components came together only relatively recently, perhaps five or six thousand years ago. For example, in the New Guinea societies where I work, there is a strong explanatory component of religion, but morality is not associated with what we recognize as religion.
GIBERSON: Many Christian intellectuals today subscribe to some version of what is called theistic evolution, which holds that God is involved to some degree with the evolutionary process. Now, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, you articulate how a fixed biological human nature interacts with a changing environment and a changing technology. Given that universal human rights are a very serious concern for modern Western thinkers, is there not a sense in which we might actually be making moral progress in history, and would it be unreasonable to understand this concern as the unfolding of a religious perspective on reality rather than an exclusively biological perspective?
Again, I think the short answer to both of your questions would be yes.
Is it the case that we're behaving better, according to higher ethical standards, over the course of human history? Given this question, the first response of someone born in 1937, as I was, might be "Ridiculous! Look at what went on in during World War II. Look at the Holocaust!" But you have to take a broad perspective. My wife's parents grew up in Poland; they spent their early years in Poland during the war. And the nasty fact remains, if you were in Poland during World War II, in the worst place in the world to be, your chances of dying a violent death were still lower than for almost any traditional New Guinean. State societies, when they make war, can do it on a large scale in a very vicious way, but more often state societies suppress war, whereas tribal societies are in a chronic "wartime" mode. Over the last 6,000 years of human history, the evolution of state societies has brought increasingly high moral standards. And I say that in full consciousness of the fact that the nastiest stuff that has gone on in modern times has been done by state societies, not only by the Nazis but also by the Spaniards and other Europeans during the period of colonial expansion.
Can this evolution of moral standards be related to religion? Yes, absolutely, yes. Religion, like the rise of agriculture, has had both unpleasant and pleasant consequences. All too often—in fact, almost usually— as religion arose, it served as a handmaiden of state political power, served as a justification for conquering and exterminating or displacing the people next door. But also religions have proclaimed ethical standards, and gradually more and more people have come to understand that those ethical standards apply not only to people speaking your language and in your own ethnic group, but to other people as well.
YERXA: You have written a broad universal history of humanity, which has won a Pulitzer prize. Where does an author go from there?
To another broad universal history of humanity from another aspect! Many civilizations have collapsed, destroyed themselves: the Anasazi in the Southwest United States, the Maya in Central America, Polynesian societies like Easter Island, Fertile Crescent societies, Angkor Wat, the Indus Valley, Greater Zimbabwe. From archaeological work largely in the past decade or two, we know that many of them collapsed as a result of destroying the resource base on which they depended; environmental mismanagement was their undoing.
I am trying to understand why some societies were prone to collapse and others were not, why some societies took corrective action and others did not. What makes an environment fragile? And then applying it all to the crisis that faces us today because of the rate at which human population is doubling. We will run out of excess resources around 2040, when my children will be in their fifties. So my next book combines a romantic mystery and a big problem of historical explanation with an effort to motivate people to shape up.
Karl Giberson is professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College. Donald Yerxa is professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College.
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