Jared Diamond


American Scientist, Civilization Scholar, Geographer and Author

Author Quotes

People often ask, "What is the single most important environmental population problem facing the world today?" A flip answer would be, "The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!

The broadest pattern of history - namely, the differences between human societies on different continents - seems to me to be attributable to differences among continental environments, and not to biological differences among peoples themselves.

The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.

Although native Africans domesticated some plants in the Sahel and in Ethiopia and in tropical West Africa, they acquired valuable domestic animals only later, from the north.

For anyone inclined to caricature environmental history as 'environmental determinism,' the contrasting histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti provide a useful antidote. Yes, environmental problems do constrain human societies, but the societies' responses also make a difference.

If we succeed in explaining how some people came to dominate other people, may this not seem to justify the domination? Doesn?t it seem to say that the outcome was inevitable, and that it would therefore be futile to try to change the outcome today? This objection rests on a common tendency to confuse an explanation of causes with a justification or acceptance of results. What use one makes of a historical explanation is a question separate from the explanation itself. Understanding is more often used to try to alter an outcome than to repeat or perpetuate it. That?s why psychologists try to understand the minds of murderers and rapists, why social historians try to understand genocide, and why physicians try to understand the causes of disease. Those investigators do not seek to justify murder, rape, genocide and illness. Instead, they seek to use their understanding of a chain of causes to interrupt the chain.

Livestock adopted in Africa were Eurasian species that came in from the north. Africa's long axis, like that of the Americas, is north/south rather than east/west. Those Eurasian domestic mammals spread southward very slowly in Africa, because they had to adapt to different climate zones and different animal diseases.

Perhaps our greatest distinction as a species is our capacity, unique among animals, to make counter-evolutionary choices.

The evidence for a localized origin of modern humans, followed by their spread and then their replacement of other types of humans elsewhere, seems strongest for Europe. Some 40 000 years ago, into Europe came the Cro-Magnons, with their modern skeletons, superior weapons and advanced cultural traits. Within a few thousand years there were no more Neanderthals, who had been evolving as the sole occupants of Europe for hundreds of thousands of years.

Thousands of years ago, humans domesticated every possible large wild mammal species fulfilling all those criteria and worth domesticating, with the result that there have been no valuable additions of domestic animals in recent times, despite the efforts of modern science.

As a biologist practicing laboratory experimental science, I'm aware that some scientists may be inclined to dismiss these historical interpretations as unprovable speculation, because they're not founded on replicated laboratory experiments.

For the first 5 or 6 million years, after our origins about 7 million years ago, proto-humans remained confined to Africa. The first human ancestor to spread beyond Africa was Homo erectus, as is attested by fossils discovered on the Southeast Asian island of Java and conventionally known as ?Java man?. The oldest Java man fossils have usually been assumed to date from about a million years ago.

If you gave me 10 million dollars, I wouldn't live any differently. Although nowadays I guess you'd have to raise that to 20 million to mean anything.

Many of our problems are broadly similar to those that undermined ... Norse Greenland, and that many other past societies also struggled to solve. Some of those past societies failed (like the Greenland Norse) and others succeeded ... The past offers us a rich database from which we can learn in order that we may keep on succeeding.

Population densities of farmers and herders are typically 10 to 100 times greater than those of hunter/gatherers. That fact alone explains why farmers and herders everywhere in the world have been able to push hunter/gatherers out of land suitable for farming and herding.

The few preserved African skeletal fragments contemporary with the Neanderthals are more similar to our modern skeletons than to Neanderthal skeletons. Even fewer preserved East Asian sketal fragments are known, but they appear different again from both Africans and Neanderthals.

To me, the conclusion that the public has the ultimate responsibility for the behavior of even the biggest businesses is empowering and hopeful, rather than disappointing. My conclusion is not a moralistic one about who is right or wrong, admirable or selfish, a good guy or a bad guy. My conclusion is instead a prediction, based on what I have seen happening in the past. Businesses have changed when the public came to expect and require different behavior, to reward businesses for behavior that the public wanted, and to make things difficult for businesses practicing behaviors that the public didn't want. I predict that in the future, just as in the past, changes in public attitudes will be essential for changes in businesses' environmental practices.

Australia is the most isolated continent.

Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation, as did Easter Island and the Greenland Norse in the past. Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote ... can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. But we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That's why I wrote this book.

In contrast [to trees and fish], oil, metals, and coal are not renewable; they don't reproduce, sprout, or have sex to produce baby oil droplets or coal nuggets.

Measles and TB evolved from diseases of our cattle, influenza from a disease of pigs, and smallpox possibly from a disease of camels. The Americas had very few native domesticated animal species from which humans could acquire such diseases.

Rhino-mounted Bantu shock troops could have overthrown the Roman Empire. It never happened.

The Great Leap Forward coincides with the first proven major extension of human geographic range since our ancestors? colonization of Eurasia. That extension consisted of the occupation of Australia and New Guinea, joined at that time into a single continent. Many radiocarbon dated sites attest to human presence in Australia/New Guinea between 40 000 and 30 000 years ago. Within a short time of that initial peopling, humans had expanded over the whole continent and adapted to its diverse habitats.

To us today, it is tempting to ask why societies with early writing systems accepted the ambiguities that restricted writing to a few functions and a few scribes. But even to pose that question is illustrate the gap between ancient perspectives and our own expectations of mass literacy. The intended restricted uses of early writing provided a positive disincentive for devising less ambiguous writing systems. The kings and priests of ancient Sumer wanted writing to be used by professional scribes to recorded numbers of sheep owed in taxes, not by the masses to write poetry and hatch plots. As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss put it, ancients writing?s main function was to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings. Personal uses of writing by nonprofessionals came only much later, as writing systems grew simpler and more expressive

Australia is the smallest continent, and most of it can support only small human populations because of low rainfall and productivity.

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American Scientist, Civilization Scholar, Geographer and Author