Jared Diamond is Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and formerly Professor of Physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine. He painted a less than rosy picture of the history and future of human societies in three bestselling books: “The Third Chlmpanzee” (1991), “Guns, Germs and Steel” (1997), and “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (2005). He writes from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist and has taken forward ideas that Desmond Morris presented more than a quarter century earlier. In The Third Chlmpanzee Jared Diamond addresses two main issues:
How and why human beings were transformed, in a short period of time, from “just another species of big mammal” into a world-dominating force, and…
the degree to which our immense progress has been coupled with the seeds of self-destruction, particularly through genocide and environmental degradation.
“Guns, Germs and Steel”
Crops, livestock and food storage permitted the growth of large settlements in prehistoric times. These settlements developed into societies with armies, hierarchical political power, writing, and cultures favourable for technological progress. Eurasia occupies an East-West axis. Similar conditions for crop growth exist across the continent, facilitating the spread of domesticated species. By contrast, the Americas and Africa have a North-South continental axis, with disparate climate zones inhibiting the spread of animal and plant species. Australia had large desert regions and very few species suitable for domestication.
Guns & Steel:
The development of steel from iron led to the craft of sword-making. Later, steel was used to maufacture guns and machinery for transportation, among its many applications. In Jared Diamond’s words, “Technology, in the form of weapons and transport, provides the direct means by which certain peoples have expanded their realms and conquered other peoples.”
In dense living conditions, germs and viruses from domestic animals can cross the species barrier and give rise to human epidemic diseases. Through natural selection, genetic immunity developed in Eurasian societies long before Europeans colonized other continents. When European explorers started arriving in the Americas, Australia and Polynesia, native peoples were killed off in large numbers by introduced diseases. Similarly, tropical diseases like malaria were an impediment to the European colonization of tropical regions.
The chart at the foot of this page, adapted from Guns, Germs and Steel, gives a schematic overview of factors from ultimate to proximate which led to the dominance of present day Western cultures. Eurasia’s East-West axis gave it an advantage for spreading crops, farm animals and new technologies.
Deforestation, the impending demise of tropical rain forests, over-fishing, soil erosion, global climate change, full utilization of the world’s fresh water supplies, exhaustion of energy reserves, the accumulation of toxins in water, food and soil, and the world population explosion.
Collapse examines these issues by analyzing the background to societies which once flourished, but eventually went into decline — the Polynesians of Easter Island and Pitcairn Island, the Anasazi of the South-western USA, the Maya of Central America, the Greenland Norse, and many others.
On the publisher’s website:
Excerpt (Prologue) and Table of Contents for “Collapse”
The Prologue contains chapter summaries (near the end) and Jared Diamond’s five-point framework for possible contributing factors to a society’s collapse:
- Environmental damage
- Climate change
- Hostile neighbors
- Friendly trade partners
- The society’s responses to its problems
Jared Diamond has contributed articles to Discover Magazine, including one about Easter Island — perhaps the best known example of a civilization that collapsed due to environmental degradation. It’s available online: Easter’s End by Jared Diamond. He notes that there’s a lesson to be learned for our present global civilization:
When he was interviewed by the National Review, Jared Diamond said:
Jared Diamond gave a presentation about his book “Collapse” at Frankfurt’s Museum of Natural Sciences (Senckenberg Museum) in November 2005. According to a customer review at Amazon.co.uk, someone asked what does it matter “if in 20,000 years or so we do exterminate ourselves, and another species takes over. It’s happened to the dinosaurs and the mammoths… why should we be any different?” His answer was “I don’t think we have another 20,000 years, I think it’s closer to fifteen years.”
Let’s hope political leaders come to their senses soon.
More to read:
Worldwide Explosion of Consumers.
Ultimate to proximate factors diagram
Summary of the factors underlying the broadest pattern of history: