October 23, 2000

Jared Diamond Speaks About Human History

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13,000 years of history were summed up in 42 minutes last night in the Alice B. Statler Auditorium.

The Spencer T. & Ann W. Olin Foundation presented Prof. Jared Diamond, physiology, UCLA School of Medicine, who discussed human history from a scientific perspective.

Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book that combines history and biology to account for numerous modern social phenomena, was the topic of last night’s lecture.

In trying to sum up his lecture in one sentence, Diamond said, “The difference between human societies on different continents seems to me to be attributed to environmental differences, not innate differences in the people.”

Diamond opened the lecture with slides of various people from around the world to illustrate human diversity.

“13,000 years ago, everybody everywhere in the world was a hunter-gatherer,” Diamond explained. “As a result of their nomadic lifestyles, [they] lived at relatively low population densities. The woman cannot carry two children on her back. She won’t give birth to her next child until the older child can keep up with the group.”

Certain nomadic cultures existed in environments conducive to agriculture. These nomads were able to settle and develop farming along with edible plant and animal domestication. “There was a population explosion because they were able to settle down and live full lives,” Diamond said.

Diamond explained that “90 percent of the world speaks languages derived two-thousand years ago from two places: the Fertile Crescent or China, the areas that developed the first farming and hence the first expansion of farmers.”

He compared the agricultural societies with those that remained hunter-gatherers, pointing out that in the former there was no longer a need to space out births and that an agricultural society surrounds themselves with edible plants and animals, making survival easier. He added that the storing of food surpluses allowed certain people to be political or form armies, unlike the hunter-gatherer societies.

As a result, the agricultural societies became more technologically advanced.

Jennifer Fox grad, who has used Diamond’s book in a course she TA’s, said, “I was most pleased with his ability to utilize ideas from not only evolution and biology, but apply them to history and broad historical trends.”

Gavin Sacks grad, said he found it particularly interesting when Diamond drew attention to “agricultural and domestication influences on the variable rates of civilization on different continents.”

Many students commented favorably on Diamond’s interpretation of racism. The professor explained that the usual response from an academic when asked the question, “Why did Europeans conquer aboriginals and Native Americans instead of the reverse?” was “something like, ‘I know this isn’t politically correct, but those aboriginals were primitive and just not as intelligent as Europeans.'”

He then said that “the reason why people fall back on these racist explanations is because historians have not given an explanation. People look different on the outside, so they must be different on the inside.”

“I thought his arguments against racism were very appropriate and heartfelt,” said Dan Grossman grad.

Audience members came from outside of Cornell as well. Donna Puskar, a biology and chemistry teacher at Wellsboro Area High School in Pennsylvania, said, “I applaud his cross-curriculum approach.”

Archived article by Olga Byrne