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Fall 1998
The Man Who Knows Too Much
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"Having 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."

In 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."

Diamond's 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 diabetes.

With 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.

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