Jared Diamond: ‘150,000 years ago, humans wouldn’t figure on a list of the five most interesting species on Earth’

Oliver Berkeman in The Guardian:

Jared-Diamond-011Most people would be overjoyed to receive one of the MacArthur Foundation’s annual “genius grants” – around half a million dollars, no strings attached – but when Jared Diamond won his, in 1985, it plunged him into a depression. At 47, he was an accomplished scholar, but in two almost comically obscure niches: the movement of sodium in the gallbladder and the birdlife of New Guinea. “What the MacArthur call said to me was, ‘Jared, people think highly of you, and they expect important things of you, and look what you’ve actually done with your career’,” Diamond says today. It was a painful thought for someone who recalled being told, by an admiring teacher at his Massachusetts school, that one day he would “unify the sciences and humanities”. Clearly, he needed a larger canvas. Even so, few could have predicted how large a canvas he would choose.

In the decades since, Diamond has enjoyed huge success with several “big books” – most famously, 1997’s Guns, Germs and Steel – which ask the most sweeping questions it is possible to ask about human history. For instance: why did one species of primate, unremarkable until 70,000 years ago, come to develop language, art, music, nation states and space travel? Why do some civilisations prosper, while others collapse? Why did westerners conquer the Americas, Africa and Australia, instead of the other way round? Diamond, who describes himself as a biogeographer, answers them in translucent prose that has the effect of making the world seem to click into place, each fact assuming its place in an elegant arc of pan-historical reasoning. Our interview itself provides an example: one white man arriving to interview another, in English, on the imposing main campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, in a landscape bearing little trace of the Native Americans who once thrived here. Why? Because 8,000 years ago – to borrow from Guns, Germs and Steel – the geography of Europe and the Middle East made it easier to farm crops and animals there than elsewhere.

More here.