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Sources of Power

Jared Diamond

      . . . is an author, physiologist, evolutionary biologist and biogeographer. Dr. Diamond is also a medical researcher and professor of physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine. His book, Guns, Germs and Steel won a Pulitzer Prize and The Third Chimpanzee was a best-selling award winner. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, Professor Diamond is a MacArthur Fellow who has published over 200 articles in Discover, Natural History, Nature and Geo magazines.

  3:36

Humans lived as hunter-gatherers for 5 million years, then we (unconsciously) developed agriculture about 13,000 years age. Were we better off? The farmers overwhelmed the hunter-gatherers. How come? The fundamentally egalitarian hunter-gatherers were replaced everywhere by hierarchical societies supported by religion and complex political organization. Was agriculture a bad deal for the vast scores of individuals who supported those few in charge? And why did Europeans overwhelm indigenous peoples all over the planet?

Dr. Jared Diamond offers a series of stunning answers to these and a wealth of other questions about human societies in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. That title is also his short answer to who won and why. His richer answer looks to the antecedents of guns, germs and steel: wild plants and animals suitable for domestication; the axes of the continents (east-west or north-south); and the differing areas and isolation of the different continents.

Dr. Diamond's findings offer a wealth of implications, among them a definitive refutation of racism. Biology and geography (not superior humans) determined who domesticated animals and plants, who developed what technology and who could survive the diseases that evolved alongside domesticated animals. It doesn't have to do with who's smart, either. In fact, Dr. Diamond offers convincing evidence that hunter-gatherers, as represented by people he studied in New Guinea, may well be "smarter" than those in the West. (Not all individuals survive to reproduce and there‚s no TV in New Guinea to dumb-down or numb-down their kids.)

Maybe the best part of sedentary agriculture's lifestyle is that routine murders, common among hunter-gatherers, went down. Government monopolized force. But with increased personal safety came the loss of more egalitarian hunter-gatherer social relationships, declining nutrition, a shorter life span for those who survived childhood and the loss of the prior, more varied, life experience.

Dr. Diamond applies what he's learned about the past to humanity's future. He is certain that his question is the world's question: How are we going to cope with our current human population explosion which we must consider in combination with today's enormously destructive technology? We can ignore what's going on, struggle through a terrible time when scarce resources fuel monumental conflicts made all the more horrific by advanced technology and, in the end, survive as we did 50,000 years ago. Or we can learn from our mistakes and survive as civilized society. The answer, according to Dr. Diamond, is up for grabs. And we'll know in 40 to 80 years.

Will our children and grandchildren have a world worth living in? We'll know, all too soon, the ultimate fate of human societies.

[This Program was recorded October 1, 1998, in Los Angeles, California, US.]

Conversation 1

 

Professor Jared Diamond tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell why he thinks the most momentous changes in human history began around 13,000 years ago, when people began abandoning 5 million years of our hunter-gatherer lifestyle for agriculture. He summarizes the results of that shift and explains why the agricultural revolution's results were, at best, a "mixed bag."

  7:33


Conversation 2

 

Dr. Diamond's abbreviated history of the world: Thirteen thousand years ago, everybody everywhere was a hunter-gatherer. Over the last 13,000 years, people in some parts of the world have become farmers and have come to live in politically centralized, socially stratified societies earlier than in other parts and in some parts not at all. Why? The short answer is guns, germs and steel. (Facts make any racist premises completely untenable. In fact, Dr. Diamond suggest reasons why he thinks aboriginal peoples have an edge over people in today‚s industrialized countries.) Dr. Diamond expands on his ultimate answer as to who overcame whom: wild plants and animals suitable for domestication; the geographic axes of the continents; and differing areas and relative isolation of continents.

  7:27


Conversation 3

 

Dr. Diamond explains why "location, location and location" are key ingredients to who succeeded and who failed. He shows the powerful influence geography has had on human history. He gives examples from plant and animal domestication to the spread of those animals and plants once tamed to human use. He recalls how he was convinced that the end result of who succeeded and who failed had nothing to do with diligence, everything to do with the starting material of the wild plants and animals. While noting the role of writing, Dr. Diamond describes how humans unconsciously created agriculture via artificial selection. He gives examples of how other creatures have domesticated plants to their own use.

  12:56


Conversation 4

 

Dr. Diamond describes how "routine" genocide has been among humans, expressing his concern that our failure to recognize this human trait allows genocide to crop up again and again. He notes how important the distinction between "us" and "them" has been. Dr. Diamond shows how the development of complex political institutions and organized religion went along with the rise of food production. He describes how governments and religion resolved the inherent conflict between the need people have, when living together in societies, for strong inhibitions about killing another human and the need to overcome those inhibitions in order to justify killing the people next door. He draws implications from his observation that every society in the world which is more complex than hunter-gathers' is hierarchical. He notes the wide range of effects of agricultural societies' population densities as compared to hunter-gatherers (roughly 100 to 1,) and again applies his insights about geography to who won and who lost.

  10:41


Conversation 5

 

Dr. Diamond believes that the biggest question facing us in the world today is the explosion of human population. He tells us why we have 40 years to solve the problems associated with this explosion. He describes the alternative to getting the population explosion and destructive technology under control -- our own children and grandchildren inhabiting a world not worth living in.  He takes hope in humans' ability to learn from mistakes, to communicate what we know, and to act. He gives examples. He describes powerful, practical implications of China‚s early unification versus Europe‚s inability to consolidate, suggesting that all levels of human endeavor profit when more than one solution is available in the face of complicated challenges.  He offers two radically different scenarios to how humans will survive, offering us humans the choice -- survive as civilized society or survive as we were 50,000 years ago. We'll know which we chose in the next 40 to 80 years.

  10:07


Conversation 6

 

Invention, Dr. Diamond has discerned, is the mother of necessity, not vice versa. He explains why that is so, with examples. He describes the rich outcomes of basic scientific research, where scientists do not care about practical implications. He assures us, with examples, that the most important advances in technology having been made by tinkerers. He decries targeted science, which yields only small advances. He relates his work to what we might all learn from our species' history.

  6:14


Acknowledgements

 

Dr. Diamond graciously welcomed us into his Los Angeles home to record this Show. Splendid reminders of his years in New Guinea vied for our attention with vivid reminders of his active family life. (We especially enjoyed the turtle.) We sincerely thank Dr. Diamond for his cordial welcome.

We feel an even greater sense of debt to Dr. Diamond for enormously expanding everyone‚s opportunity to understand the human condition better. We also thank Professor William Calvin for facilitating our invitation to Dr. Diamond.

 

Related Links:


Dr. Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, is available in hard cover and paper back from publisher W.W. Norton.


The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal is published by HarperPerennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.

Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall suggests that what separates anatomically modern humans from behavorally modern humans is art.  Agriculture probably came tens of thousands of years later.


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