Diamond’s drive to live an interesting life reminds us how fortunate we are to be living in an era in which a life focused on the art of generating knowledge for the pleasure of learning as an intrinsic reward is ever closer at hand.
Reading the post by Nat on Shanzai and cargo cults, I remembered the question that Yali, a politician of New Guinea, asked Jared Diamond in 1972, while walking on one of the beaches of the island:
Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?
Diamond froze. He knew that Yali’s question was an enigma, and that to answer it meant one of the most formidable intellectual challenges. And to answer it would also mean contributing to the deconstruction of a good quantity of racial prejudices that continued to be rooted both in academia and in the popular imagination.
He was biologist by profession, a specialist in human physiology, and his passion was birdwatching, which was what he was doing in New Guinea at the time. But since having finished his PhD in Cambridge a decade earlier, he knew that he did not want to spend the rest of his life doing studies on the gall bladder, which was what he had specialized in.
Yali inspired him, with his question, to dedicate the rest of his career to answering it, and gave him the courage to embark on an multidisciplinary intellectual adventure that led him to explore half the world and to multispecialize in anthropology, history, ecology, and above all, in geography.
The drive to respond to Yali’s question led Diamond to write Guns, Germs, and Steel, published in 1997 and for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.
The book summarizes more than 30 years of Diamond’s career, and proposes such a radically parsimonious theory on the ultimate origins of economic inequality and political power in the world, that it has generated as much criticism as praise.
The central argument of the book is that the reason Eurasia was able to develop technologically long before America, Africa, Oceania, and other zones of the world that ended up being colonized, is that its inhabitants were lucky enough, during prehistory, to be able to access the most productive crops and the animals that were the easiest to domesticate on the planet.
The privileged access to these two factors of production was what determined that prehistoric farmers in Europe could produce, several thousand years before the civilizations that they ended up conquering, a food surplus capable of maintaining artisans that could dedicate themselves to their craft full time and therefore develop advanced technologies.
The blessings of the animal kingdom
While wheat and barley were blessings of the plant kingdom that European agriculture had enjoyed since the end of the last ice age, more important still were the blessings provided to it by the animal kingdom.
Diamond determined that of the two millions of species of wild animals we know, only 148 meet with the minimum requirements that would make them domesticable: terrestrial herbivorous mammals that weigh more than 100 lbs. And of those 148 animals, only 14 have been successfully and systematically domesticated in the whole history of mankind: goats, sheep, pigs, cows, horses, donkeys, bactrian camels, Arabian camels, the water buffalo, llama, reindeer, the yak, Bali cattle and the mithan.
With exception of the South American llamas, absolutely all the ancestors of those fourteen easily domesticable animals come from Asia, north Africa and Europe.
The Fertile Crescent
Besides, of the 14 easily domesticable animals mentioned above, four of the most easily domesticable large animals (cows, pigs, sheep and goats) come from the Middle East, specifically from the area known as the Fertile Crescent, which is where wheat and barley also come from.
But ironically, the Fertile Crescent had a fundamental natural weakness that prevented it from taking advantage of the full potential of the very high quality of raw material it had: its climate was too dry, and its ecology too fragile, to support continuous intensive agriculture, which is why it used up its water reserves and forests only about a thousand years after the communities in the area abandoned hunting and gathering and started to practice agriculture.
That’s why those communities were forced to migrate. But in that process, geography again played in their favor.
The role of continental morphology
The morphology of the Eurasian continent (wide from east to west, narrow from north to south) forced those migratory flows east and west of the Fertile Crescent, and migratory communities found land that their crops and domestic animals could adapt to easily, because it was in approximately the same latitude as their place of origin, so they shared characteristics such as weather, vegetation and length of day. That was what determined that the crops and domestic animals of the Fertile Crescent could spread easily towards India in the east, and towards North Africa and Europe in the west, causing an explosion of civilization wherever they went.
In the same way, Europe inherited from the Fertile Crescent nothing less than the cuneiform system, which became the basis for written language and for the enormous advantage in cultural and technological evolution that this facilitates.
And while the Mayans of southern Mexico had also developed a writing system approximately 2,500 years ago, the morphology of the American continent, being long from north to south and narrow from east to west, represented a formidable obstacle to the dissemination of ideas, technology, people, crops and animals; unlike in Eurasia, traveling from north to south on the American continent implies going through dramatic changes in vegetation, length of the day, and weather zones. The Incas could never have inherited the system of writing of the Maya.
Germs as the first weapons of mass destruction
Perhaps the historical event that most dramatically illustrates the consequences of the technological advantages that geographical priviledge bestowed on Europe, was the arrival of Francisco Pizarro to Inca territory in 1532, which, accompanied by a band of fewer than than two hundred mercenaries, was able to massacre and subdue an army of tens of thousands of warriors under the command of Atahualpa.
Pizarro’s victory is a particularly sharp reflection of the role that Europe’s geographical advantage played in the colonization process. The Incas were rapidly overwhelmed by the firearms and the steel swords of the men on horseback they clashed with in combat.
But the most effective weapon the conquerors had were the germs they didn’t even knew they had brought with them: smallpox ended up killing millions of Native American Indians, turning out to be a true and unexpected chemical weapon of mass destruction.
And once again, the luck of having that weapon of mass destruction that facilitated conquest more than any other was also due to the European advantage of ten thousand years of contact with domestic animals, from which they contracted the germs that evolved into diseases like smallpox.
Paradoxically, successive epidemics in Europe allowed those who were genetically better prepared to resist disease to pass their genes to the next generation, developing a relatively high degree of immunity that the native peoples of America did not have.
In fact, Diamond argues that the reason smallpox wasn’t able to decimate the native population of tropical Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century like it did the Khoisan of the Cape when the first settlers arrived in the south of the continent, was that the cattle raised by the African peoples north of the tropic of Capricorn were what originally transmitted the virus to humans, which is why the people had had exposure to the virus for long enough to develop immunological resistance to it.
On the contrary, the settlers were devastated by malaria and other tropical diseases typical of that zone that they hadn’t developed antibodies against. But even though germs were on the side of the native people in that case, the Africans succumbed to the power of the Maxim machine gun.
The answer to Yali’s question
Diamond says that after several decades of research, he has the answer to Yali’s question:
Yali, it wasn’t for lack of ingenuity that your people didn’t end up with modern technology. [You] had the ingenuity to master these New Guinea environments. Instead, the whole answer to your question is geography. If your people had enjoyed of the same geographical advantages that my people did, your people would have been the ones to invent helicopters.
The most common criticism of Diamond’s work is that it is “deterministic,” in the sense that it attributes little explanatory power to the free will of people to overcome the restrictions of the environment in which they develop.
But really, Diamond’s theory does not deny that the origin of economic inequality and political power has to do with a complex set of factors, but rather, simply asserts that the geographical advantage certain groups enjoyed in prehistory is a necessary condition, but not sufficient, for having reached a high level of technological development with several thousand years of advantage.
Besides, Diamond responds that a good part of the criticisms that accuse him of geographical determinism not only are often an excuse for intellectual laziness and the lack of willingness to face facts, but rather emphasize the importance of free will to justify a supposed superiority of certain groups to which are attributed a greater intelligence and intrinsic capacity for initiative, which is essentialist talk that, most of the time, leads to all manner of blatantly racist arguments.
A good example of that type of argument, which also is based on a particular interpretation of the influence of geography, is the very widespread urban legend, according to which cold climates stimulate creativity and human energy, while the hot and humid climates of the tropical zones inhibit them. Or that cold climates require one to be more technologically inventive to survive, because one has to think about how to construct a good, solid house as shelter from the cold, while one can survive in the tropics with simple housing and without clothes. The inverted version of the argument is also used a lot to reach the same conclusion: the long winters at high altitudes force people to spend a lot of time in their houses, leaving them more time to think of and invent, etc, etc, etc.
But as we’ve seen, Diamond presents a great deal of emprical evidence in his book that supports the idea that the peoples of Northern Europe did not contribute anything of fundamental importance to Eurasian civilization until the last thousand years; they were simply lucky enough to live in a geographic location that biased probabilities in favor of their adopting advances (like agriculture, the wheel, writing, and metallurgy) developed in warmer parts of Eurasia. In the New World, the cold regions in the high latitudes were even more more of a human backwater. The only native societies of the Americas that developed writing emerged in Mexico, south of the Tropic of Cancer; the oldest crafts in the New World come from regions close to the Equator, in tropical South America; and the New World society considered the most advanced in art, astronomy and other aspects was the Classic Maya society of the tropical Yucatán and Guatemala in the first millennium A.D.
The interesting life of Jared Diamond
Listening to Jared Diamond talk about the evolution of his life and work is as enriching as reading his books. The humility with which he expresses himself on where his intellectual concerns came from is tremendous. He always emphasizes that long before he was bitten by the bug of answering crucial questions about the history of mankind like the one Yali asked him in 1972, his love for geography and history was born of the nights in his childhood he spent moving pins on the maps hanging on the walls of his room, listening to his father explain to him the movements of the battle lines in the Second World War.
As for his success as a writer, he tells us that
I didn’t know that the book had been nominated [for the Pulitzer prize]. I didn’t know that the winner of the was award announced the first or second Tuesday of April… I was sitting at my desk, shuffling papers, […] and at precisely 12 noon, there was a phone call, and on the line was a reporter, and the reporter was saying, “Mr. Diamond, how does it feel to have won the Pulitzer prize?” My answer was, approximately, “My God…” My next sentence was “Jesus Christ…” […] And he convinced me that I really had won the Pulitzer prize.
The most revealing statement of Diamond’s was his acceptance of how difficult it is to make a multidisciplinary career in the academic world: even though everyone talks about the importance of tearing down the barriers between the different academic specialties, Diamond always emphasizes that in practice, even today, those who really dare to follow that path almost always are envied and regarded with resentment, to the point where practically the only way to do it is only after specializing in a very specific field and getting a stable academic job.
This reveals how advanced Diamond’s desire to live an interesting life was by the time he decided do it. But it also reminds us how fortunate we are to be living in an era in which the traditional academy is losing its monopoly as the institution that generates truly significant knowledge; an era in which a life focused on the art of generating knowledge for the pleasure of learning as an intrinsic reward is ever closer at hand.