September 26, 2001

Guns, Germs, and Steel Author Speaks at Bailey

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“Why is it that human history unfolded so differently on different continents over the last 13,000 years? I found the question so fascinating that I just had to write the book,” Diamond said, admitting that his original draft of his 400-plus page book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, was more than 700 pages.

He cut it under pressure from his editors, he said.

Last night it was clear that Diamond did have plenty more to say about the history of human civilizations.

In a free lecture before 400 audience members assembled in Bailey Auditorium, he extended his argument to suggest why geography has led to the contrasting fates of countries and national economies.

He began by contrasting the “innovational productivities” of China and Europe.

“Medieval China led the world in innovation and technology in 1000 A.D. Why did it lose the lead?” Diamond asked.

China’s extreme political centralization, due to its geography, stifled economic and intellectual growth, he argued.

China’s two major rivers running parallel resulted in less social fragmentation and fewer competing cultures, which slowed the influx of new ideas.

“Why is it that China became unified in 221 B.C. whereas Europe has never been unified?” Diamond added. “The reason, I think, is geography.”

Europe had the right balance of leadership and natural geographical segregation to dominate the world in creativity, he argued.

In the second half of his lecture, Diamond carried his argument into industry and business by considering the German and United States beer markets.

“The German beer industry is not very successful in the export market, because it suffers from small scale production,” he said.

The average U.S. brewery is 21 times the size of the average German one, due to differences across local tastes and government policies.

He took the “local monopolies” of the German beer industry as an extreme example of fragmentation that could lower productivity, as opposed to that fragmentation that helped Europe.

Diamond also considered what form of organization is most efficient for human groups: fragmentation, centralization or some compromise between the two. He concluded that human society has a trend towards globalization and the formation of large groups.

In the question and answer period which followed the lecture, one audience member asked why so many historians have consistently disagreed with Diamond’s arguments.

“Historians study history over a much shorter time period,” Diamond said. “I’ve found that individuals matter very little over the course of 13,000 years. Individuals make the most difference on a modest time and space scale.”

“Hearing Diamond extend his argument was interesting,” said Prof. Gary Fields, labor economics, adding that it was the logical extension of the arguments posed in his book.

A few audience members refused to comment on Diamond’s speech.

One professor who preferred to remain anonymous said that Diamond was “too wedded to his ideas” and that he tended to oversimplify human history.

“I think it was rather bold,” said Elizabeth Rawlings, who attended the lecture. “Even if he has over-simplified things, he gives people a place to begin debate.”

“I found it nice to hear an argument so broad, since so much of today’s think is compartmentalized” she said, countering the many people who have said Diamond tries to cover too much ground.

Diamond is the professor of physiology at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Medicine.

His Pulitzer Prize winning National Bestseller, “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” was required reading for this year’s freshman class.

The book proposes that Eurasians societies evolved more rapidly than societies living on other continents during the same era, because of ecological differences between the continents that led to better farming and animal domestication.

Because of his ground-breaking applications of Darwinian theory to the diverse fields of linguistics, ecology, human history, physiology, and conservation biology, Diamond won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and a 1999 National Medal of Science.

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts