Prove your humanity

Jared Diamond is regularly stopped in airports by people telling him that his books changed their lives. That’s unusual for a geography professor but the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Third Chimpanzee and many other popular science books says people respond this way because he writes on the big issues of life that everybody’s concerned with–survival, sex and why history turned out the way it did. Diamond recently spoke in Pittsburgh, and Kara Holsopple talked with him about some of those themes in his most recent books.

KARA HOLSOPPLE: Your most recent book, The World Until Yesterday, asks the question, “What can you learn from traditional societies?” What do you mean by traditional societies?

JARED DIAMOND: Traditional societies are every society in the world for the last six million years until the last few thousand years when we started getting governments, armies, presidents and industries and all the resulting changes.

There are still some today.  There are tribal societies. In New Guinea, where I do my field work, in the Amazon, and then all around the world —  even so-called modern societies have traditional elements. For example, there’s a lot that’s traditional in Montana. If you have an argument with your neighbor, you don’t get lawyers, you deal with it in the traditional manner by trying to talk it out.

KARA HOLSOPPLE: What can we learn then from traditional societies, especially about living in an ecosystem without, as you say, romanticizing them?

JARED DIAMOND: There are so many things we can learn from traditional societies because in effect they are thousands of experiments on how to run a human society. Some of the things that they do seem terrible like being trapped in constant warfare.

Some of the things that some of them do strike me and others as wonderful: how they stay healthy, how they don’t die of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes — like never. And how they bring up their children and their attitudes towards danger.  Things that have most affected me in my work with New Guinea tribal societies for the last 55 years now has been seeing how they bring up their children to make their own decisions, to make their own choices, to be independent and not to have helicopter parents.

So when our children were born, my wife and I brought them up, not like New Guineans who send them off to the jungle to deal with snakes, but we nevertheless gave our kids a lot more autonomy than is usual in the United States.

A result was that at age three, one of our sons saw his first snake. It was dead. It was love at first sight. He said he wanted snakes as a pet. My wife and I are not snake lovers but there’s a boy making a choice. So we got a snake and another snake. He gradually built up to 147 pet snakes and frogs and lizards and reptiles. He got used to making his own choices. And then one day just after he graduated college, he called us up to say he decided he wanted to be a chef. That’s just an example of how we brought up our kids in New Guinea style to make their own choices.


KARA HOLSOPPLE: Yes, kids in New Guinea are allowed to climb trees which is kind of frowned upon these days in the US.

JARED DIAMOND: That’s the least of it! Good heavens, of course they’re allowed to climb trees! The idea that your kid wouldn’t climb a tree, it’s unthinkable! Not only are they allowed to climb trees, they’re allowed to swim in rivers with crocodiles, carefully. They’re allowed to run off into the jungle and spend as much time as they want. Again, they make their choices.

KARA HOLSOPPLE: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is also informed by your time in New Guinea. What are the environmental factors that can lead to a failed society?

JARED DIAMOND: A brief answer is: everything. You can fail to manage your forest problems. You can fail to manage your fish problems. That’s been a problem off the east coast of the United States with the cod industry. Anything you can do wrong humans have managed to do wrong. There are famous collapses in what is now the United States.

The most advanced Native American society before Columbus’s arrival were the Anasazi, based in the four corners area of New Mexico. They had big problems with water management which for a long time they solved. They also had problems of obtaining sufficient timber in a very dry environment and for several centuries they managed beautifully.

But they were eventually done in by a drought. Today we have Anasazi ruins and we don’t know what language they spoke. And yet they had the tallest skyscrapers in the United States until the skyscrapers of the central loop in Chicago in the 1880s.

KARA HOLSOPPLE: So I guess it’s easier to look back on a society and the factors that might have led to the collapse. It’s harder when you are in the moment. Is there something people 100 or 1000 years from now –  if that’s possible –will look back on that we’re doing here in the United States and say that’s what led to their ultimate demise?

JARED DIAMOND: For sure, except for two things. One is it’s uncertain whether there will be anybody around 100 or 1000 years from now. Let’s instead be realistic and talk about 30 years from now. As for your question asking for one thing that we did wrong, the answer is no there isn’t one thing we did wrong.

Everything that is possible to do wrong someone or other is doing it wrong. Our environmental policy is opposite of a sane environmental policy. Our jobs and education and science policy have taken disastrous turns. So, yes, 30 years from now we will either have solved those problems or if there are people 30 years form now they will say they did this, this and this wrong. How could they have been so stupid?

KARA HOLSOPPLE: Which societies have succeeded because of their relationship with natural resources or the environment. How can we learn from their example?

JARED DIAMOND: Lots of societies have succeeded. Among them Iceland, a really fragile environment. Pittsburgh is anything but a fragile environment. It’s fertile soils it’s temperate zone. Plenty of rainfall, etc. But Iceland is a volcanic environment with strong winds. It’s easy for soil to get blown away and the Icelanders ran into big problems until after a century they realized their soil was being blown off and they had to manage their environment carefully by regulating sheep grazing and when the sheep moved up into the pasture, and on and on.

Other success stories today, many of the countries of Northern Europe: Norway, Sweden, Finland manage their environments quite well. New Guineans discovered they were deforesting their environment about 1000 years ago. And they figured out how to have sustainable agro forestry by planting native trees in their villages.

So they got enough timber and construction and firewood from trees growing right in their villages. Those are among the success stories far away.  There are also success stories in our time. The United States. Good heavens! The United States is the richest country in the world. The United States is a success story that nevertheless is at risk of screwing things up.

KARA HOLSOPPLE: As a scientist, how important is scientific literacy in the general public?

JARED DIAMOND: This is a democracy. Ultimately what gets done is what the public wants. Either politicians think they know what the public wants or the public says what they want. That means that our science policy depends upon public choice.

But if the public doesn’t understand science  We’re going to mess up science. But science is simply knowledge of the real world. And if our public doesn’t understand the real world they are going to operate as if it’s unreal world. They’re going to operate as if the world is flat which it isn’t. They’re going to operate as if climate change is the biggest lie that was ever recounted. Which it isn’t. Those are reasons we need popular science. We need the public to have an understanding.


Jared Diamond’s recent appearance in Pittsburgh was sponsored by Point Park University’s Environmental Journalism program, and made possible through a grant from The Heinz Endowments. The Allegheny Front is also supported in part by the Heinz Endowments.