October 11, 2013 1:13 pm

The science interview: Jared Diamond

The provocative insights of the bestselling author have won him a huge following – and the disdain of some academics. He discusses criticism, gall bladders and what the west can learn from other societies
Jared Diamond©Maja Daniels

Diamond photographed in the Palm House at Kew Gardens last September

As Washington has been rocked with political drama in recent weeks, investors, pundits and voters have watched with nervous horror and scorn. Over in the more rarefied environment of the University of California, Los Angeles, however, Jared Diamond, 76, professor and guru of cultural geography, is monitoring these peculiar power rituals with a more scholarly – and sweeping – perspective.

The reason? In the next couple of years, Diamond plans to write a blockbuster analysis of how modern civilisations “manage” the process of change and crisis. Some of this will focus on countries such as Japan and Britain; Diamond believes, for example, that Britain’s response to the loss of its empire after the second world war was striking. “I went to Britain myself in the late 1950s and it was a time when Britain was in slowly developing crisis, with Suez, race riots, the scrapping of the last battleships,” he observes, sitting in a London hotel and looking like the stereotype of the romantic, intellectual adventurer: greying beard, tweedy jacket and a tie seemingly decorated with armadillos. “[Then] we would never have guessed that Britain would have dealt with problems of becoming a hetero­geneous society as peacefully as it has. Today no one talks about the empire on which the sun never sets – Britain has a new identity.”

But Diamond’s analysis of “conflict” will also cover the less peaceful world of Washington as he tries to assess whether modern America can handle the process of change – or not. “It would be premature to say what I make of [US politics] but what is clear is that the polarisation and intolerance in America today is greater than at any point in my lifetime,” he states, adding rhetorical questions with professorial earnestness. “Why? Is it because of the electronic media? Or because people are not seeing each other face to face? Or is it due to the separation of politicians? Previously Democrats and Republicans would socialise at the weekends because they were trapped in Washington but now they go away because air travel is so good, which changes things.”

Whatever explanation Diamond eventually settles on as the cause of Washington’s woes, it is likely to be provocative – and blend the physical and cultural aspects of our lives in a dizzying bricolage. These, after all, have been the traits that have made him wildly popular in recent years, with a string of bestselling popular science-meets-history-meets-ecology books.

. . .

Born in Boston to a Bessarabian Jewish family, Diamond toiled in relative obscurity in the first few decades of his career as a physiologist at Cambridge university and UCLA. “For decades I was the world’s expert on the gall bladder,” he explains matter-of-factly, without any hint of modesty. “The gall bladder is a simple organ that absorbs salt and water – and that means you can study it with a minimum of equipment, which I like.”

Jared Diamond

Diamond in Papua New Guinea

But even as he obsessively observed gall­bladders, Diamond developed a second passion: birds. In his twenties he started to visit Papua New Guinea and used the material gathered to write academic papers in the field of ornithology. That led him into yet more – seemingly unlikely – areas of intellectual inquiry such as environmental geography, followed by physical and cultural anthropology (or the study of human evolution and culture). “My study of New Guinea was initially motivated by birds but you cannot do anything there without dealing with local people,” he explains. “And once you have spent time dealing with local people, you realise that humans are similar all around the world in some respects – but different in others.”

This led Diamond to produce his first bestseller, Guns, Germs, and Steel, which endeavoured to explain why the Eurasian people of North America and Europe displaced other native Indian American and Asian cultures by highlighting differences in ecology. It was a controversial thesis. But it turned him into something of a cult hero: 16 years after the book, when I tell friends that I am interviewing Diamond, one remarks that “Guns, Germs, and Steel changed how I thought.” In 2002, Diamond abandoned gall bladders, ending his career in physiology, to devote himself to writing. In 2005 he published another sweeping analysis, Collapse, which explained why some societies fail and others flourish. Then last year he published The World Until Yesterday , which describes how humans live in societies which are not “WEIRD”, or “Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic”.

'Guns, Germs, and Steel'

'Guns, Germs, and Steel', Diamond’s first bestselling foray into popular anthropology arose out of his contact with Papua New Guinea tribespeople, , which in turn resulted from his ornithological studies in the island state

This is a fun, lively read that sets out to illustrate two simple points: humans can live their lives in numerous, different ways; and the WEIRD approach is not always best. On the contrary, America and Europe could sometimes improve their own cultures and lives by looking at how other, more traditional cultures live. And, to illustrate this, Diamond presents the reader with a host of colourful stories in places ranging from Papua New Guinea to the Amazon and African deserts, focusing on issues such as diet, child-rearing and dispute-resolution. Some of these anecdotes are mundane; others are colourful (there are lengthy tales about widow-strangling and infanticide). But the account weaves together a powerful tapestry that – if nothing else – forces us to recognise that it could be perfectly possible for the western world to change how we raise our children, sort out divorce, wage wars or guard our health – if we choose to widen our gaze.

“Many people I encounter have changed how they bring up their children as a result of reading my book,” Diamond says. “In UCLA one of my colleagues is an American whose wife is from Finland. They were debating whether to speak Finnish to the newborn baby alongside English but then they read my chapter on the benefits of multilingualism.” More specifically, The World Until Yesterday explains that in many non-western societies, in places such as Papua New Guinea, it is considered entirely normal for people to speak several languages. And this not only helps groups to maintain more social ties but also has a tangible benefit that could be of use in the WEIRD world: scientific research shows that if you use your brain to speak several languages you are less likely to suffer from dementia. “When my friends read that, the mother decided she would only speak Finnish to the baby, but he speaks only English.”

New Guinean tribespeople©Getty Images

Papua New Guinea tribespeople

It is provocative stuff – having read Diamond’s book I was left reflecting on many aspects of childcare myself. And as somebody who once studied for a PhD in cultural anthropology, I am thrilled that Diamond’s work has highlighted a point that is central to the discipline: namely that studying “other” cultures is not just valuable in terms of understanding how the wider world works – but also because it helps to “flip the lens” and garner fresh perspective on our own lives.

. . .

As I chat with Diamond, however, I am also aware that a certain irony hangs over his work. In some senses his tomes are a powerful advertisement for anthropology – he cites no fewer than 39 anthro­pology studies in his latest book, which now appears on some undergraduate courses. “Whenever I give a public lecture I get people coming up and saying that they went into anthropology because of my books,” he cheerfully declares. And yet if you talk to anthropologists about Diamond, some are scathing if not hostile. So much so that Survival International – an advocacy group for tribal people – issued a statement criticising The World Until Yesterday. And groups such as the American Anthropological Association have staged critical debates on his work (“which they didn’t even ask me to attend myself”, Diamond says with some chagrin).

Some of this criticism seems to reflect academic jealousy or snobbery; there are complaints, for example, that Diamond doesn’t use many footnotes and only cites a narrow pool of ethnographic texts (many based on Papua New Guinea). But some anthropologists are angry that the examples of ­“traditional” culture are luridly presented, and that Diamond tends to assume that non-WEIRD societies live like WEIRD cultures did millennia ago. There has also been criticism of the suggestion in his earlier books that culture is driven by environmental and ecological factors; to cultural anthropologists this sounds unpleasantly determinist.

Diamond bristles when I cite those criticisms and insists that the vast majority anthropologists have welcomed his book. “Whenever I hear the word environmental ‘determinism’, I know you will get a poor quality of reasoning,” he declares, explaining that people have misunderstood him: he does not view culture as something merely determined by material factors. Instead, he is fascinated by the variations of culture within a single ecosystem, citing the colourful example of widow-strangling in Papua New Guinea. “There is one group that does that after a man dies – it’s considered entirely normal. But other groups do not do that and they live in identical environments,” he observes. “Or look at Europe, and think about dogs, horses and frogs. The French eat horses and frogs but the British eat neither and Germans don’t eat frogs – yet all have frogs, horses and dogs. I am not aware of any environmental explanation for that difference or for the fact we don’t eat dogs.”

'Collapse' by Jared Diamond

Diamond’s 2005 bestseller, 'Collapse', explored why some societies succeed while others fail

That means, he concludes, that both environment and culture need to be analysed: if you want to understand political polarisation in Washington, in other words, look at Tea Party ideology and the advent of cheap airline flights. But anthropologists are sometimes ill-equipped to take this common-sense approach, due to infighting. “Anthropology is a controversial discipline,” he points out. “Many anthropologists don’t like [cross-cultural] comparisons and syntheses – they dislike me coming in from a field outside anthropology and writing about this since I am performing territorial trespass!”

The key issue, it seems, is that Diamond has had the audacity to break the boundary taboo. “Silo-busting is exceptional in academia – one is expected to specialise. There is a lot of turf warfare,” he notes, explaining that when he first started studying ornithology he kept this secret from his colleagues in the medical department. “Luckily my [academic] papers about birds were published in journals which no gall bladder physiologists ever read. But when my review committee eventually found out about what I was doing, they voted against my promotion. In academia, working in multiple fields is not a benefit but a penalty.” So much so that he now advises young academics to “make sure you get tenure before you start publishing in a second field”. “In academia people talk about interdisciplinary thinking and run courses and programmes – but Lord help you if you try to make an interdisciplinary career, unless you are already so high that there is nothing they can do to you.”

These days, Diamond has found a solution to this, of sorts: although he was offered professorships in both the UCLA departments of anthro­pology and geography, he chose the latter. However, UCLA is sufficiently broad-based in its teaching approach – and broad-minded – that he is able to keep hopping between disciplines. And, as he knows, it is this bricolage approach which not only makes his books so readable but also enables him to develop his insights. “There are numerous different disciplines which study human societies – all departments have different expertise and views about what is appropriate to do and what not to do,” he explains, pointing out that he first learnt about the value of comparing different populations that live in similar niches by studying birds. “It is only by comparison that you see what the other options are – and what your society is not doing.”

'The World Until Yesterday' by Jared Diamond

'The World Until Yesterday' (2012) considers the different ways societies live

So would he prefer to live among the “non-WEIRD” people, to benefit from their wisdom, rather than have to cope with the bizarre rituals of American universities or meetings with journalists?

For the first time in almost an hour, Diamond cracks a wide smile and shakes his head. “My life is in California, I like it there. I like going to Papua New Guinea, too, and I have gone so many times, but just for short periods,” he admits. It is an answer that might provoke yet more questions from anthropologists. But it also captures the spirit of his books: we might not want to entirely abandon our western ways but we know that by peering outside our lives – however briefly in a book – we can better understand our own peculiarities, and sometimes even improve on them. Maybe it is time to pack Congress off to Papua New Guinea for a short break. Or failing that, to read Diamond’s book – starting with what can be learnt from “traditional” forms of resolving tribal warfare.

Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ is published by Penguin Books (£8.99).

To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com.

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE