The science interview: Jared Diamond

Gillian Tett in FT Magazine:

DiamondBorn in Boston to a Bessarabian Jewish family, Diamond toiled in relative obscurity in the first few decades of his career as a physiologist at Cambridge university and UCLA. “For decades I was the world’s expert on the gall bladder,” he explains matter-of-factly, without any hint of modesty. “The gall bladder is a simple organ that absorbs salt and water – and that means you can study it with a minimum of equipment, which I like.” But even as he obsessively observed gall­bladders, Diamond developed a second passion: birds. In his twenties he started to visit Papua New Guinea and used the material gathered to write academic papers in the field of ornithology. That led him into yet more – seemingly unlikely – areas of intellectual inquiry such as environmental geography, followed by physical and cultural anthropology (or the study of human evolution and culture). “My study of New Guinea was initially motivated by birds but you cannot do anything there without dealing with local people,” he explains. “And once you have spent time dealing with local people, you realise that humans are similar all around the world in some respects – but different in others.”

This led Diamond to produce his first bestseller, Guns, Germs, and Steel, which endeavoured to explain why the Eurasian people of North America and Europe displaced other native Indian American and Asian cultures by highlighting differences in ecology. It was a controversial thesis. But it turned him into something of a cult hero: 16 years after the book, when I tell friends that I am interviewing Diamond, one remarks that “Guns, Germs, and Steel changed how I thought.” In 2002, Diamond abandoned gall bladders, ending his career in physiology, to devote himself to writing. In 2005 he published another sweeping analysis, Collapse, which explained why some societies fail and others flourish. Then last year he published The World Until Yesterday , which describes how humans live in societies which are not “WEIRD”, or “Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic”. This is a fun, lively read that sets out to illustrate two simple points: humans can live their lives in numerous, different ways; and the WEIRD approach is not always best. On the contrary, America and Europe could sometimes improve their own cultures and lives by looking at how other, more traditional cultures live.

More here.