Interview with Jared Diamond
Q: When you set out to write Guns, Germs and Steel
what was it you actually wanted to prove?
JD: When I set out to write Guns, Germs and Steel
I wasn't trying to prove anything, but I was trying to answer a question;
the biggest question of history – why history unfolded differently
on the different continents over the last 13 thousand years and the
usual answer to this question is the answer that racists come up with;
they say its because some people are superior to other people. What
we found is that the answer doesn't have anything to do with people
and it has everything to do with people's environments.
Q: In what sense?
JD: The answer has to do with peoples' environments especially in
the first place because of the differences in the availability of
wild plants and animals suitable for domestication, lots of them in
a few areas like the fertile crescent in China and virtually none
of them in other areas like the western United States or sub equatorial
Africa. Another difference had to do with the shapes and orientations
of the continents – those are perhaps the two biggest factors contributing
to the explanation.
Q: So we're in Africa at moment and it's basically known as the world's basket case, it has the world's worst
poverty rate and all the rest of it.... Is there anything in the book that can actually help Africa?
JD: Is there anything in my book that can help Africa? I think so
yes; I'd say the message of my book is that understanding can help
us. There are things in this story that can make a difference to the
lives of Africans. We've seen that the economic relative underdevelopment
of Africa has nothing to do with African people but it has to do with
some very specific factors; tropical agriculture; the history of tropical
crops; the tropical disease burden and the history of colonialism
– and once you understand these things you can do something about
them. For example, one of the messages is, a high priority is to invest
in public health; there are other tropical parts of the world like
Africa that recognise the public health burden and they invested massively
in public health and they are the countries that have grown the most
rapidly economically in the last forty years. That's a hopeful message.
Q: I think most people's theories are that most of the problems in Africa are to do with Africans themselves.
What would you say to that?
JD: There are people who say that the problems of Africa have to do
with the Africans. Well the message is, its insoluble! To that I would
say that is rubbish, there no evidence for it and that all the evidence
is against it.
Q What evidence have you seen that would support that?
JD Evidence to support that statement that we've seen in Africa include
the differences between South Africa, the furthest southern African
country, and the smaller tropical areas, the temperate zones have
an advantage and its not an accident that South Africa is the richest
country in sub equatorial Africa.
Q: Isn't it a danger to those who read Guns, Germs and
Steel that they read it and it seems like it's such a sweeping
theory that covers 10,000 years of history that they might just think
that that's the answer and that's it in a bag. So it's no longer race,
but now Jared's come up with a theory that it's geography, and that's
it, we can just leave it behind. What would you say to that kind of
JD: If someone said at the end of this all, 'it's geography and that's
all there is to it', I would say it's geography in an extremely complicated
sense – it's taken us several hours to work through these things,
and there are many aspects of geography and geography interacts with
the choices that people make.
Q: So would you say the message of Guns, Germs and Steel
is the definitive one; is that the end of your journey?
JD: The message of Guns, Germs and Steel,
I think is substantially correct in the outlines, but there are many
details that we still have to understand... more important, I would
say, is that the message is a hopeful one, its not a deterministic
fatalistic one which says forget about Africa areas and underdeveloped
areas; it says that there are specific reasons why different parts
of world ended up as they did and with understanding of those reasons
we can use that knowledge to help the places that historically were
at a disadvantage. And that is what's going on in the modern world
Q: The book has sold millions of copies. Why?
JD The book has sold millions of copies because it grabs people, it
addresses the biggest question of history; why history unfolded differently.
It's a question that all of us ask and when we're teenagers its just
obvious as you look around in your own country that different peoples
fared differently in history. We ask ourselves the question but historians
haven't told us the answer, racists have told us the answers and we
haven't understood what is wrong with that racist answer and the result
is that most of us then back away from the question. We think the
question stinks. To raise the question means buying into the racist
paradigm. I think that people buy the book because the question is
such an interesting one, and because the answer is understandable
and is substantially correct.
Q: Having sold millions is there a sense of a burden of responsibility you feel for having unleashed this
theory on the world?
JD: I don't feel a burden of responsibility for having unleashed this
theory on the world, instead I feel a sense of excitement at having
learned all this fascinating stuff in the process of going through
it. I was learning lots of stuff myself and I was having to explain
it to myself and get other people to explain it to me, and then I've
gone on to explain these things to other people in the same way that
I explained them to myself. Part of the reason, perhaps a large part
of the reason why people tell me that the book is clear is because
I worked hard to understand these things myself. I worked hard to
put these things in terms that I could understand and then having
done that it was easy to put these things in terms that other people
Q: Are you proud of it?
JD: I feel good about the book, I feel that if I were to die tomorrow,
or if were to die 20 years from now and if I were asked what was the
most important thing you did in your life, apart from contributing
to the happiness of my wife and children, it would be having written
Guns, Germs and Steel.
Q: When you set out on the journey of Guns, Germs and
Steel, what was it you were expecting to achieve, or show?
JD: When I set out on the journey of Guns, Germs and Steel,
what I was hoping to achieve was an understanding of the grand pattern
of history and what I was expecting to show was, that I didn't know.
It was a voyage of discovery.
Q: What did you discover?
JD: I discovered that the explanation for this grand pattern has to
do with differences in the environments of different continents and
it has nothing to do with differences in people. For example, here
we are in Africa, Africa has had a very distinctive history. But to
understand this history we have never mentioned anything about African
people's biology, except for something about their genetic resistance
to malaria, but we've had a lot to say about the African environment.
And this illustrates that for Africa, as for the other continents,
the reason for the distinctive pattern of history had to do with the
environment of that continent.
Q: What do you think of racism personally?
JD: What do I think of racism, two things, it is despicable but in
addition it's wrong, dead wrong.
JD It's dead wrong because it explains the grand pattern of history
by assumptions about differences among people, assumptions for which
there's no evidence in favour, lots of evidence against, and we found
that the explanation for the grand pattern of history is instead things
that we can observe; things to do with agricultural productivity and
crops and the shapes of continents.
Q: So you're a scientist really aren't you?
JD: I'm a scientist trying to understand history scientifically.
Q: Do you think that's a new thing?
JD: Do I think it's a new thing to study history scientifically? No,
there are plenty of people who have studied history scientifically,
but probably because of my background as a scientist I'm more explicit
and conscious about it, and also I draw on many different areas of
science more than historians who have not had the training in molecular
biology and crop genetics and biogeography that I have had.
Q: What was the second thing that you learnt on your journey?
JD: Another thing that I've learnt on this journey is to put faces,
human faces on abstract features of history. We talk about history,
we talk about development, we talk about competition between societies
and the wealth of nations – here in Africa there are human faces on
it. When we go into a malaria ward, and see a child in a coma from
malaria, and when we see people who are really poor, that puts a human
face on these problems. When we talk about history it can sound intellectual,
but history is really the fates of individual people like me, and
all like the Africans that we have seen on this journey.
Q: Were you moved by what you saw?
JD: Yeah, what I saw was moving, even though I've been to Africa five
times previously and even though I wrote a whole chapter about Africa,
so intellectually this is not new to me, but still to be there in
a malaria ward in front of these children and to be looking out at
the fields and to see the signs of poverty, yeah, intellectually it's
not new but personally it gets to you; it gets me.
Q: The great argument against Guns, Germs and Steel
is that its purely deterministic, it just says exactly what's going
to happen to every country in the world. What do you say to that?
JD: A misunderstanding that some people have of Guns,
Germs and Steel is that it's deterministic and it says
what's going to happen in the future. That's exactly backwards, Guns,
Germs and Steel provides us with explanations of what
happened in the past, and as in any area of knowledge or any science,
explanations give you power, they give you the power to change, they
tell us what happened in the past and why and we can use that knowledge
to make different things happen in the future. There are countries
which for the last several decades have been using that knowledge
to make themselves rich even though they were poor 40-50 years ago.
That's true for Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Mauritius. There are
other countries who can similarly use knowledge to help themselves.
Q: Ultimately a lot of people look at the world and they are quite pessimistic about the future of the world. What do you think
JD: A lot of people look at the world and they're pessimistic about
the future of the world. People often ask me the question; Jared,
are you an optimist or a pessimist? And my answer is I'm a cautious
optimist! By that, I mean the situation is not hopeless, so I'm not
a pessimist. I also mean that our future happiness is not assured,
we're going to have to work on it, but if we do work on it we can
achieve a better future, and that's why I'm not a pessimist, I'm not
an optimist, but I'm a cautious optimist.
Q: Do you trust human beings to be able to do it, because ultimately it comes down to human beings doesn't it?
JD: Do I trust human beings to be able to succeed? Yes I trust them
to succeed after making lots of mistakes in the process.
Q: Give me an idea of how long has this journey been and what
does it now mean to you all those years later? When did this journey
of Guns, Germs, and Steel start and what does it mean to
JD: The journey of Guns, Germs and Steel
started exactly forty years ago when I first came to New Guinea and
was confronted face to face with the question – why these people had
stone tools and yet I'd discovered that they were really bright people,
why did such bright people end up with stone tools? So it's been a
long journey. Now that I've arrived at a certain end of the journey
what it means to me first and foremost is fascination, the stuff is
so interesting, the explanations so interesting, they were complex,
they were unexpected, the story of the discovery was fascinating,
it was something that I was working on, the question was posed forty
years ago... Yali's question of 1972 turned it on for me and I began
to think about it actively in 1986 and it wasn't until 1997 that I
published the book, so its been a long journey – and I feel that whatever
I work on for the rest of my life, I can never work on questions as
fascinating as the questions of Guns, Germs and Steel
because they're the biggest questions of human history!
Q: And you're proud of it?
JD: I feel good about it, yeah I'm proud of it. I'm proud of it. I
sometimes wonder twenty or thirty years from now when I'm in my 80s
or 90s and I look back on my life, what meaning will I see to my life?
Well I'll be proud of whatever I've been able to do to contribute
to the happiness of my wife and children, but the thing that I'll
be next proudest of, I think, is Guns, Germs and Steel
– coming to grips with these biggest questions of history and I think
providing a substantially correct explanation for them!
This interview was conducted with Mr Diamond via email in
late 2004 by the program's Associate Producer, Susan Horth.
Where to next?
Read a profile of Jared Diamond.
Find out more about the shooting of the program in Behind
Go to an scienceNOW interview with Jared Diamond on the NOVA
to the transcript of the conversation between Jared Diamond and
Elizabeth Farnsworth in April 1998 when he won the Pulitzer Prize.