Most 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.
By Oliver Burkeman—Raw Stroy/The Guardian
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.
Whether such satisfying explanations are in fact true is the subject of vicious jousting between Diamond and many anthropologists. They condemn him as a cultural imperialist, intent on excusing the horrors of colonialism while asserting the moral superiority of the west. (One 2013 article, in an ecology journal, was entitled “F**k Jared Diamond”, the asterisks failing to conceal the general tone of the debate.) Diamond strikes back with equal force, calling his critics “idiots”, unscientific timewasters and purveyors of “politically correct blabber”. So it is slightly disconcerting to meet this strident propagandist for capitalism in his faculty office. In person, Diamond is a fastidiously courteous 77-year-old with a Quaker-style beard sans moustache, and archaic New England vowels: “often” becomes “orphan”, “area” becomes “eerier”. There’s no computer: despite his children’s best efforts, he admits he’s never learned to use one.