Jared Diamond


American Scientist, Civilization Scholar, Geographer and Author

Author Quotes

The metaphor is so obvious. Easter Island isolated in the Pacific Ocean ? once the island got into trouble, there was no way they could get free. There were no other people from whom they could get help. In the same way that we on Planet Earth, if we ruin our own [world], we won't be able to get help.

Until the end of the last Ice Age, around 11 000 BC, all people on all continents were hunter-gatherers. Different rates of development on different continents, from 11 000BC to 1500AD, were what led to technological and political inequalities of 1500AD. While Aboriginal Australians and many Native Americans remained hunter-gatherers, most of Eurasia and much of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa gradually developed agriculture, herding, metallurgy and complex political organization. Parts of Eurasia, and one area of the Americas, independently developed writing as well. However, each of these new developments appeared earlier in Eurasia than elsewhere. For instance, the mass production of bronze tools which was just beginning in the South American Andes in the centuries before 1500AD, was already established in Eurasia over 4000 years earlier. The stone technology of the Tasmanians, when first encountered by European explorers in 1642AD, was simpler than that prevalent in parts of the Upper Paleolithic Europe tens of thousands of years earlier.

Domestic animals revolutionized land transport. They also revolutionized agriculture, by letting one farmer plough and manure much more land than the farmer could till or manure by the farmer's own efforts.

History, as well as life itself, is complicated; neither life nor history is an enterprise for those who seek simplicity and consistency.

Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality (murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, problems procuring food..) in traditional New Guinean societies. However, the differential mortality from epidemic diseases in traditional European societies had little to do with intelligence, and instead involved genetic resistance dependent on details of body chemistry. For example people with blood type B or O have a greater genetic resistance to smallpox than do people with blood group A. That is, natural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely populated, politically complex societies, where natural selection for body chemistry was more potent.

No government is here forever. And there are other forces - the most potent force in our society, in fact, big business - doing good for the environment.

Take air quality in the United States today: It's about 30 percent better than it was 25 years ago, even though there are now more people driving more cars.

The Norse held values that would not allow them to deal with... pagans and certainly would not let them eat fish and hunt ringed seals the way these pagans did. So here is a case where the values that sustained them for 450 years ultimately killed them. The United States faces similar agonizing reappraisals today.

We can't manipulate some stars while maintaining other stars as controls; we can't start and stop ice ages, and we can't experiment with designing and evolving dinosaurs.

Domesticated plants and animals yield far more calories per acre than do wild habitats, in which most species are inedible to humans.

How is it that Pizarro and Cortes reached the New World at all, before Aztec and Inca conquistadors could reach Europe? That outcome depended partly on technology in the form of oceangoing ships. Europeans had such ships, while the Aztecs and Incas did not.

Introspection and preserved writings give us far more insight into the ways of past humans than we have into the ways of past dinosaurs. For that reason, I'm optimistic that we can eventually arrive at convincing explanations for these broadest patterns of human history.

Not until the beginning of the 20th century did Europe's urban populations finally become self-sustaining: before then, constant immigration of healthy peasants from the countryside was necessary to make up for the constant deaths of city dwellers from crowd diseases.

Tasmania lies 130 miles southeast of Australia. When it was first visited by Europeans in 1642, Tasmania was occupied by 4,000 hunter-gatherers related to mainland Australians, but with the simplest technology of any recent people on Earth. Unlike mainland Aboriginal Australians, Tasmanians couldn't start a fire.

The official religions and patriotic fervor of many states make their troops willing to fight suicidally. The latter willingness is one so strongly programmed into us citizens of modern states, by our schools and churches and governments, that we forget what a radical break it makes with previous human history... Naturally, what makes patriotic and religious fanatics such dangerous opponents is not the deaths of the fanatics themselves, but their willingness to accept the deaths of a fraction of their number in order to annihilate or crush their infidel enemy. Fanaticism in war, of the type that drove recorded Christian and Islamic conquests, was probably unknown on Earth until chiefdoms and especially states emerged within the last 6,000 years.

We know from our recent history that English did not come to replace U.S. Indian languages merely because English sounded musical to Indians' ears. Instead, the replacement entailed English-speaking immigrants' killing most Indians by war, murder, and introduced diseases, and the surviving Indians' being pressured into adopting English, the new majority language.

During the Ice Ages, so much of the oceans waters was locked up in glaciers that worldwide sea levels dropped hundreds of feet below their present stand. As a result, what are now the shallow seas between Asia and the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Borneo, Java and Bali became dry land. The edge of the South east Asian mainland then lay 700 miles east of its present location. Nevertheless, central Indonesian islands between Bali and Australia remained surrounded and separated by deep water channels. To reach Australia / New Guinea from the Asian mainland at that time still required crossing a minimum of 8 channels, the broadest of which was 50 miles wide. Most of these channels divided islands visible from each other, but Australia itself was always invisible from even the nearest Indonesian islands, Timor and Tanimbar. Thus the occupation of Australia / New Guinea is momentus in that it demanded watercraft and provides by far the earliest evidence of their use in history. Not until about 30 000 years later (13 000 years ago) is there strong evidence of watercraft anywhere else in the world, from the Mediterranean.

Human history took off around 50 000 years ago. The earliest definite signs of the Great Leap Forward come from East African sites with standardized stone tools and the first preserved jewelry. Similar developments soon appear in the Near East and in southeastern Europe, then (some 40 000 years ago) in southwestern Europe, where abundant artifacts are associated with fully modern skeletons of people termed Cro-Magnons. Cro-Magnon garbage heaps yield not only stone tools but also tools of bone, whose suitability for shaping (i.e. fish hooks) had apparently gone unrecognized by previous humans. Tools were produced in diverse and distinctive shapes so modern that their functions as needles, awls, engraving tools and so on are obvious to us. Multi-piece tools also made their appearance at Cro-Magnon sites, such as harpoons, spear-throwers and eventually bows and arrows, the precursors of rifles. Those efficient means of killing at a safe distance permitted the hunting of such dangerous prey as rhinos and elephants, while the invention of rope for nets, lines and snares allowed the addition of fish and birds to our diet. Remains of houses and sewn clothing testify to a greatly improved ability to survive in cold climates.

Invokes the supposed stimulatory effects of their homeland's cold climate and the inhibitory effects of hot, humid, tropical climates on human creativity and energy. Perhaps the seasonally variable climate at high latitudes poses more diverse challenges that does a seasonally constant tropical climate

Of the Cro-Magnons? products that have been preserved, the best known are their artworks: their magnificent cave paintings, statues and musical instruments, which we still appreciate as art today. Obviously, some momentous change took place in our ancestors capabilities between about 100 000 and 50 000 years ago. That Great Leap Forward poses two major unresolved questions, regarding its triggering causes and its geographic location. As for its cause, I argued in my book The Third Chimpanzee for the perfection of the voice box and hence the anatomical basis of modern language, on which the exercise of human creativity is so dependent. Others have suggested instead that a change in brain organization around that time, without a change in brain size, made modern language possible. As for the site of the Great Leap Forward, did it take place primarily in one geographic area, in one group of humans, who were thereby enabled to expand and replace the former human populations of other parts of the world? Or did it occur parallel in different regions, in each of which the human populations living there today would be descendants of the populations living there before the leap?

Tasmanian history is a study of human isolation unprecedented except in science fiction - namely, complete isolation from other humans for 10,000 years.

The past was still a Golden Age, of ignorance, while the present is an Iron Age of willful bliss.

We study the injustices of history for the same reason that we study genocide, and for the same reason that psychologists study the minds of murderers and rapists... to understand how those evil things came about.

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American Scientist, Civilization Scholar, Geographer and Author