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:

Easter Island statues
  1. 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…

  2. 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”

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond tackles the question of why cultures of European origin ended up globally dominant instead of the Chinese, Africans, or Native Americans. Conventional historical analysis looks at ‘proximate’ factors — events that took place within recorded history. Diamond looks at the ‘ultimate’ factors. He makes the case that the greater variety of wild plant and animal species suitable for domestication in Eurasia gave the whole continent a lead in developing advanced societies.

Link: Chapter summaries for 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.”

Germs:

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.

East-West axis:

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.

“Collapse” — overview

In Collapse, Jared Diamond gives a thorough historical background to the looming problems which threaten our existence over the coming decades:

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:

Five-point framework.

  1. Environmental damage
  2. Climate change
  3. Hostile neighbors
  4. Friendly trade partners
  5. 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:

“If we continue to follow our present course, we shall have exhausted the world’s major fisheries, tropical rain forests, fossil fuels, and much of our soil by the time my sons reach my current age.”

 
When he was interviewed by the National Review, Jared Diamond said:

“A blueprint for disaster in any society is when the elite are capable of insulating themselves.”

 
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:

Factors Underlying the Broadest Pattern of History - from Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

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