TOPICS > Arts

Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs & Steel

April 17, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jared Diamond and his book “Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” has won this year’s prize for general nonfiction. The work explores the environmental and geographical factors behind differences of power and wealth among the world’s people.

Diamond is a professor of physiology at the University of California-Los Angeles Medical School. He also pursues research in evolutionary biology in New Guinea and other countries. Thank you for being with us, and congratulations, Mr. Diamond.

JARED DIAMOND, Pulitzer Prize, General Nonfiction: Thank you, thank you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Your book, I believe, grew out of a question posed to you by a politician in New Guinea. What was that question?

JARED DIAMOND: I’d been studying bird evolution in New Guinea for 34 years. New Guineans used stone tools until relatively recently. And eventually in 1972, a politician that I ran into on a beach in New Guinea asked me straight out, why is it that we New Guineans were the people using stone tools and you Europeans and Americans were the people who brought steel tools and writing and ships to us. It’s a straight question. I couldn’t tell ‘em the answer, and I’ve spent much of the last five years trying to understand the reason.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And in the book you use a very dramatic moment in human history, the moment in 1531, when Francisco Pizarro confronted and defeated the leader of the Incas, Atahuallpa, in Peru to also get us into this question. Tell us about that.

JARED DIAMOND: That was an incredible moment, one of the most dramatic moments in world history. The Spanish Conquistador, Pizarro, with an army of 169 Spaniards out of contact with his home base marched up to Camajarca in the Andes and ran into the Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, with an army of 80,000. You might think that the 169 Spaniards were about to get smushed. Instead, what happened within a few minutes is that Pizarro captured the Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, and that–held him for ransom–and that led to the downfall of one of the two most powerful native American states in the new world. That really requires explaining.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. And you’re quite explicit in this book that you’re out to prove that racial factors do not play a role, right?

JARED DIAMOND: That’s right. Most people, if you ask why is it that here in the United States people of European, Africa, and Asian background are now sitting here occupying land that used to be the land of native Americans, why did history turn out that way, instead of native Americans conquering Africa and bringing in Europeans as slaves, and most people say, well, or, you know, I hate to admit it but let’s face it, it’s because Europeans were smarter and they had the get up and go initiative, whereas, these other peoples didn’t, and yet there’s no evidence whatsoever for intellectual superiority for any IQ advantage of Europeans. So there must be some other explanation. And that was the goal of my book.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Let’s go through some of those. Let’s being with agriculture and the fertile crescent, that very rich area that’s now part of Iraq and Iran.

JARED DIAMOND: Agriculture began in the world about 12,000 years ago. The place where it began was the fertile crescent, the area that today is Iraq, Iran, and Syria. And the beginning of agriculture was a key step in the development of what we call civilization because there’s no point having a printing press while you’re still a nomadic hunter-gatherer. If you move camp every three weeks, you have enough work carrying around your spears and the baby. You don’t want–you have no use for a printing press. But once people settle down in agricultural communities, that was the beginning for the development of kings, for feeding people to develop technology, crafts people, people who would develop metal tools, and riding to serve the purposes of the king, and it was also the beginning of the evolution of nasty germs like smallpox and measles that played a key role in European conquest of the new world. It was smallpox and measles and other germs that killed 95 percent of native Americans. But those germs evolved in dense agricultural societies that arose in the fertile crescent and then China 11,000 years ago.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what’s so interesting is that you explain that agriculture arose there because the right wild specially grasses where there and could be domesticated, whereas, they weren’t say here in California or in other places.

JARED DIAMOND: That’s right. It’s not that ancient people of the fertile crescent were more gifted or smarter and saw the advances of agriculture. They have no idea what was in store for them. Instead, it just happened, and Eurasia as the biggest continent had the largest number of wild plants and animal species, and, in particular, the fertile crescent was the area where the wild ancestors of the most valuable crop and domestic animals of the modern world grew. Wheat and barley and wild calves and sheep and goats and pigs and horses were native to the fertile crescent, but contrast that say with Australia. Why do you think Aboriginal Australians remained hunter-gatherers? Because no one today has been able to domesticate kangaroos, the only large wild mammals of Australia and the only plant of Australia that has been domesticated was macadamia nuts, but you can’t feed a civilization on macadamia nuts alone. You can based on wheat, barley, peas, lentils, and so on. So that’s why native Australians remained hunter-gatherers and Eurasians became the first farmers.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the germs–this surprised me very much–you mentioned the germs. They actually developed from the domesticated animals, and that’s why Pizarro could bring the germs that killed, what, 95 percent of the people that he met in the new world.

JARED DIAMOND: That’s right. And that’s one of the surprising discoveries that we’ve gained from molecular biology in the last decade or two. That’s why people couldn’t figure out a hundred years ago the ways in which geography tipped the balance of fate among the world’s people. We now know that smallpox, measles, and other epidemic diseases of humans like that evolve from epidemic diseases of our domestic animals with which we came into intimate contact when we started to domesticate them 11,000 years ago. Smallpox may have evolved from a disease of our domestic camels. Measles certainly evolved from a disease of our domestic cattle. And so Eurasian people were exposed to these nasty diseases, gradually evolved immune and genetic resistance to them, but Native Americans, without big domestic animals, except the llamas and El Pacas, did not evolve nasty germs of their own, and so had no immunity when Europeans arrived, bringing smallpox and measles and these other nasty germs. So most native Americans died before they could even reach the battlefield. They were killed by Eurasian germs.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, you’ve been criticized in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere for being too geographically determinist, for not taking into account enough, although you certainly talking about writing and other things, ideas, culture. How do you answer that criticism?

JARED DIAMOND: I would answer that by saying that ideas and culture, of course, they’re essential in human society, in human history, but ideas and complex technology and culture can evolve only where you have the right environmental conditions, where people are settled down in large societies, in villages, and in cities, which depended upon agriculture. Now, cultural idiosyncracies, yes, of course, they’re crucial when you’re talking about differences in the fates of societies a hundred miles apart over ten or twenty years or over a century.

For example, the fact that that bomb that was planted in Hitler’s headquarters on July 20, 1944, the fact that the bomb was two feet too far from Hitler to kill him had enormous consequences but over the course of 13,000 years, accidents to individual people like Hitler or Alexander the Great, you have geniuses for the better or for the worse in Australia and in the new world accidents that happened; accidents where a particular bomb or spear was placed have short-term consequences but not long-term consequences. In the long run what counts is geography that sets the envelope of human societies.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Jared Diamond, congratulations again and thank you very much.

JARED DIAMOND: Thank you. You’re welcome.

JIM LEHRER: This year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to Philip Roth for his novel “American Pastoral.” For the record, we invited Mr. Roth to appear on the program but he declined and he sent this statement: “My hope is that the Pulitzer Prize will encourage people to sit down and seriously read my book. Nothing could please me, or, for that matter, any writer more.”