The Man Who Knows Too Much
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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.
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
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
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.