The Man Who Knows Too Much
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been born in 1937, I grew up with the view that the Nazis were unique,"
he continues. "And yes, the efficiency of the Holocaust was indeed
unique. But the effort behind it was totally mundane. All the groups
I work with in New Guinea have their own stories of what they've
done to someone else. Unfortunately, many people regard genocide
as something that was done only by the Nazis. They don't realize
that the potential for genocide is widespread."
New Guinea, where he has done a great deal of field work, Diamond
is removed from the fray of intertribal resentments. Nevertheless,
he finds the place dangerous enough that he won't allow his 11-year-old
twin sons to accompany him on expeditions. "Every expedition has
at least one close call,"he says. "Boat accidents, plane accidents.
One of the closest [was] with the Indonesian military. They came
in on a trumped-up excuse to plunder our cargo. Well, I know what
it's like with the Indonesian military, and I could just picture
the message to my wife: 'He attacked us, so we shot him in self-defense.'
It took us 45 minutes to talk our way out of it; it was pretty tense."
close scrapes with human nature at its most primal are side effects
to his research in another field altogether: the evolution and behavior
of South Pacific birds. Over more than 30 years, he has led 17 ornithological
expeditions to New Guinea and its neighboring islands. The first
sojourn was inauspicious: Diamond was unable to locate even one
jungle nest. But he persevered and on subsequent visits made considerable
progress. Among his accomplishments in this part of the world, Diamond
designed New Guinea's national park system, learned Foré, a tribal
language he found "deliciously complex," and rediscovered the rare
and mysterious yellow-fronted gardener bowerbird previously known
only from a few specimens in a 19th-century Paris feather shop.
This important sighting led to field experiments with colored poker
chips examining bird bower building (i.e., decorating choices) in
general and, through insights gained from the study of bird evolution,
to papers on the evolution of human diseases like Tay-Sachs and
its jagged mountains and deep, isolated valleys, New Guinea is home
to a microcosmic variety of Stone Age tribes most of which
were unaware of even each other's existence until first contact
was made with the outside world in the 1930s. The rareness of that
condition is illustrated in The Third Chimpanzee, when, after a
day of traipsing through the jungle on a different Pacific Island,
Diamond hears a woman's voice. "My head whirled with fantasies of
the beautiful, unspoilt, grass-skirted, bare-breasted Polynesian
maiden who awaited me," he writes.