Why have some species of animals dominated the earth? Why have certain nations acquired wealth whereas others failed? What lessons can we learn from vanished societies or from the traditional cultures that exist in isolated pockets throughout the world? These are the kinds of questions that Jared Diamond thinks about and that propel him to write books.
Diamond’s boundless curiosity has shaped his life. With Bachelor of Arts degrees in anthropology and history from Harvard and a PhD in physiology from Trinity College, University of Cambridge, Diamond first became a professor of physiology. But then a love of the subtle art of birdwatching increased his interest in ornithology and ecology. In his fifties, his interest in environmental history led him to become a professor of geography at UCLA.
And that was before he wrote the books that would make him an international celebrity.
Although Diamond published scholarly papers, it was not until he was in his fifties that the accomplished scientist would start to write the popular books that made his a household name. So far he has written The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future Of The Human Animal, Why Is Sex Fun?, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Natural Experiments of History, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? and The Third Chimpanzee for Young People: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal.
Diamond was not only curious about a range of topics but wanted to share his findings with a wider audience. In an interview with American Scientist he said that he set himself “the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years.”
His first book, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future Of The Human Animal, explored what makes humans so similar to and yet so very different from their chimpanzee cousins. His work won the 1992 Rhone-Poulenc Price for Science Books and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
His second book, Guns, Germs And Steel, reshaped the way many people think about history. It upended the notion that dominant civilizations survived and thrived on their own merits, citing the contributions of geographically-provided natural resources in the victories that reshaped the world’s national borders. The National Geographic Society created a documentary based on this book in 2005.
His third book, Why Is Sex Fun? explores the evolution of human sexuality and why humans’ sex lives are so very different from those of other animals.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed examines the reasons some societies fail and attempts to draws lessons that modern societies might study and benefit from. This book also became a National Geographic Society documentary and won the international Royal Society Prize for Science Books.
Diamond also wrote The Third Chimpanzee for Young People: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal which adapts his first book for younger readers. Diamond decided to adapt the book because he noticed that middle and high school students would come to his lectures but found his book ponderous to read. He decided to make the book easier and more visually appealing, to simplify it without “dumbing it down.” With help from Rebecca Stefoff, the text was condensed in some places, while it was expanded in others, by adding definitions to give ideas context. The new book includes photos, graphs and illustrations.
For Diamond, it is especially important that a younger generation take an interest in their environment.
“I’ve children of my own, so I’m concerned about the world they’re going to end up in, whether it’s going to be a world worth living in or not,” he said in a 2013 interview with the Daily Beast. “It’s young people who will be affected by the state of the world, who will also be the ones who eventually make the decisions that determine the state of the world.”
By studying past mistakes and successes, future generations can take a few lessons from the past.
In his book The World Until Yesterday Diamond explores what traditional societies have to teach the modern world. By examining isolated traditional societies and what shapes their worldview, he posits that it is possible to see which of their practices proved successful in the long run. Past societies test theories about the evolutionary success of social practices.
“Loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies,” Diamond observed in a 2013 New York Times interview. “People spend their lives in or near the place where they were born, and they remain surrounded by relatives and childhood companions.”
Would this work in what often seems like an increasingly indifferent, geographically alienated modern society? According to Diamond, studying alternative societies may not provide a master plan for reshaping society but can inspire new directions.
Find Jared Diamond at the Tucson Festival of Books: Jared Diamond Presents and Evolution and Culture on Saturday, March 12. He will be available at signing areas after both events. See more about Diamond on his website.
This article was originally published at Tucson Festival of Books: