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Fall 1998
The Man Who Knows Too Much
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Diamond's own work draws upon knowledge of such seemingly unconnected topics as (to name but a few) the domestication of animals; the development of the Indo-European family of languages; the primitive tribes of New Guinea; the reason for menopause; the latitude-related features of climate; the history of China; and the origins of horsemanship.

The way Diamond weaves such threads together is most remarkable in Guns, Germs, and Steel. The idea for the book sprang from a simple question he was asked some 20 years ago by a New Guinean friend: Why did Europeans and Asians conquer the indigenous peoples of Africa, the New World, Australia and the South Pacific instead of being vanquished themselves? A key part of the answer, Diamond argues, was the availability of large, domesticatable animals in Eurasia and the absence of them elsewhere (with minor exceptions like the llama in South America). This coincidence of zoology had a critical effect on the development — or the lack of it — of advanced civilization. In making his case, Diamond is masterful with small, illuminating bits of information: Zebras, superficially similar to horses, are actually much nastier, more agile at avoiding lassos and therefore impossible to tame; in fact, they injure more zookeepers each year than do tigers.

This polymath wisdom leads Diamond to conclusions that explode many of the more extreme assumptions of the American left and right. He makes the point in Guns, Germs, and Steel that "contrary to what white racists believe, advanced societies didn't develop because of innate genetic ability but because of their luck of the draw in biogeography." On the other hand, he eschews the tender-hearted contemporary view of aboriginal peoples as ecological saints. The reason that American Indians didn't have horses until Spanish explorers brought them to the New World, Diamond explains in The Third Chimpanzee, is that their ancestors exterminated these animals along with a host of other North American species when they arrived here from Asia.

In fact, he has little patience with the idea that what's "natural" is necessarily good. "Rape is natural! Murder is natural!" he exclaims. "What's natural is often repulsive. One of the most important functions of human society — and the driving force behind most political institutions — is to prevent humans from doing what comes naturally.

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