Controversial Diamond Delivers Lecture

1 February 2002

By Stentor Danielson
Managing Editor

Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond came to Persson Hall Auditorium on Thursday intending to explain why Europeans conquered America, rather than Montezuma leading the Aztecs to conquer Europe.

"It has nothing to do with the people themselves, and has everything to do with their environments," Diamond said.

Diamondís lecture is the first lecture sponsored this semester by the Center for Ethics and World Societies (CEWS). It was based on his book, titled Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, though he said he liked the subtitle of the British edition better: "A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years."

The basic argument of the book and lecture was that differences in the shapes of continents and the availability of plants and animals that could be domesticated led some people to develop more powerful technologies, larger populations and resistance to epidemic diseases that allowed them to conquer their neighbors.

A Papua New Guinea politicianís question about the European conquest of his island prompted Diamond to stop writing articles "to be read by the six other people in the world interested in sodium transport in the gall bladder," and pursue his present research into human history.

Diamond says that most people he has talked to, including cabinet ministers and captains of industry, privately admit that, while it isnít politically correct, they believe that the dominance of some groups, particularly Europeans, over others is because of racial differences.

Until the development of agriculture, which occurred first in the "Fertile Crescent" of Mesopotamia and Palestine about 8,500 years ago, people lived as hunter-gatherers. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle, Diamond said, is characterized by nomadism, simple technology, low population density and egalitarian social structure. If youíre a hunter-gatherer, "the last thing you want is to have an iron forge or an atomic bomb to bring along," Diamond said.

Agriculture, however, allowed people to accumulate food surpluses, which supported craft specialists, political leaders and armies.

"You might naÔvely assume that everywhere in the world somebody would get the bright idea for farming so they could attack their hunter-gatherer neighbors and smoosh them," Diamond said. "Why didnít aboriginal Australians domesticate wombats and koala bears and become herders?"

Diamond explained that only a few animals and plants in the world are suitable for domestication. Thirteen of the 14 -- all but the llama -- were native to Eurasia. Similarly, most suitable cereal grains were native to the Fertile Crescent and China.

The shape of the continents, especially whether they are oriented north-south or east-west, also played a key role, according to Diamond. Because they have similar climates, Europe, India and China could exchange species and ideas, whereas climate barriers slowed the spread of people and culture through Africa and the Americas. The lowland tropical environment of Panama was unsuitable for the llama, so "in the New World the pack animal and the wheel [invented in Mexico] never met each other," Diamond said.

Associate Professor of Philosophy David McCabe said Diamondís many awards, particularly the MacArthur Fellowship, which is often called the "genius grant," demonstrate "a sort of breadth of vision and ability to see connections among ideas." Diamond is a Professor of Physiology at UCLA, but went far beyond the boundaries of his discipline into archaeology, history, linguistics and biology to answer the questions he poses.

"People, including my best friend, accuse me of never saying 'I donít know' and always coming out with some explanation," Diamond said.

Diamondís ideas remain controversial. In addition to the race-based perspective that Diamond addressed, many scholars say he underplays the role of human agency and culture in shaping history. They say Diamondís ideas are part of an outdated theory of "environmental determinism."

The lectureís start was delayed by half an hour because so many people showed up that organizers wanted to look for a larger room.

"If the fire safety people ask, letís keep it between us," McCabe said. Diamond was forced to skip a pre-lecture dinner because his plane was delayed for two hours due to icy weather.

Those in attendance were impressed with Diamondís approach to answering the questions of human history.

"He takes a very different approach ... I was just enthralled by the whole thing," first-year Marisa Lubeck said.

"I thought he presented many stimulating ideas," Associate Professor of Anthropology Jordan Kerber said.

Diamondís personality also impressed audience members. "He had a quick wit about him, which was not apparent in his book," sophomore Travis Brooks said.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Prabasaj Paul, who has heard Diamond speak before, said "I find his arguments not just unique but inventive ... Itís very compelling."

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