Diamond may be the worldís best-known geography
teacher. The UCLA professor bristles with academic
credentials ó heís won a MacArthur Foundation
"genius" grant and a National Medal of
Science, among many other prizes.
Diamondís reach far exceeds the boundaries of academe.
How did someone trained as a physiologist become a
breakout book, 1997ís "Guns, Germs and Steel: The
Fates of Human Societies," won the Pulitzer Prize
for its analysis of why Europeans and Asians came to
dominate the world. "Collapse: How Societies Choose
to Fail or Succeed," from 2005, analyzed the
reasons successful civilizations vanish from the earth.
a recent interview, Diamond talked about how he became
one of the English-speaking worldís great explainers
in arenas most of us donít have the wherewithal to
enter ó physiology, anthropology, sociology, history.
And he touched on several topics in his new book,
"The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From
Traditional Societies?" (Viking, $36).
uses his years of experience in studying traditional
peoples (especially in New Guinea, where he has worked
for many years as a conservationist) to consider a
compelling topic: Whatís gotten better as man has
become more civilized? Whatís become worse? He
examines human behavior in the areas of peace and war,
treatment of the young and old, responses to danger,
religion and diet in search of answers to a central
question: What can we learn from people who live pretty
much as humans did thousands of years ago?
Are your three books "Guns, Germs and Steel,"
"Collapse" and now "The World Until
Yesterday" a trilogy of sorts?
No, not a trilogy. Each of the books has been on what I
found most fascinating at the time.
Hereís a softball question: Why do you think your
books have become so popular?
The subjects that fascinate me fascinate other people.
Why is it that Europeans ended up dominating the world?
What are the risks to our societies?
learned to write so as to explain things to myself. In
my childhood I was always having to explain things to my
sister (Diamond was 1 1/2 years older than his next
oldest sibling). Now I explain things to other people.
Part of it is that my books are about things Iím
trying to understand myself. Much of the material in the
book is not about my immediate specialty. Iíve had to
explain it to myself, then explain it to other people.
Your book looks at traditional vs. modern societies in
several arenas. One is justice and how itís meted out.
You use as an example the way two groups of New Guineans
negotiated after the death of a child in an auto
accident. Both the driver and his company, and the childís
family, were able to resolve their feelings. What is
your biggest take-away on this subject?
There are two take-aways. In our state justice systems,
administered by a state government, weíre gaining some
things. But weíre losing the emotional clearance in
cases of divorce, disputes between brothers and sisters
about inheritance, disputes between business colleagues.
state justice system is not concerned at all about
emotional clearance for the parties. Thatís something
that needs to be worked on. Among my close
acquaintances, brothers and sisters (in a dispute) hired
a mediator. It really made a difference. I have a school
classmate whose sister was killed by robbers. The
robbers were arrested and sent to jail, but 50 years
later that still gnaws at my friend. Thatís something
state justice doesnít do, and restorative justice
You point to several differences between traditional
warfare and modern warfare. Though many more people are
killed in modern warfare, a greater percentage of a
given population dies in traditional warfare. Has manís
urge to wage war changed much?
There is hope for optimism. Itís not that our
propensity (for violence) has changed, but the reality
is that fewer and fewer people are dying in wars than in
the past. It may sound obscenely bad to say that, given
Auschwitz, given Hiroshima. But when you look at the
numbers, even in the worst affected countries, a
considerably smaller percentage of people have died in
In your chapter about childhood, you note that in
traditional societies, kids of multiple ages mix more
with each other (a la the Little Red Schoolhouse); in
our modern systems, kids are grouped according to age.
What do you think is lost when kids are sequestered by
In traditional societies, all sorts of role models are
available to children. Every adult in the village is an
aunt or uncle. When kids who have misfortunes with their
own parents have problems, they can learn from them,
even if their parents were screwed up.
I grew up in a suburb of Boston, we ran together on the
street and played together in mixed groups. In my own
home in a suburb of Los Angeles, there isnít even a
sidewalk. (Kids) canít walk over to see friends; they
have to see friends by appointment.
You talk about "constructive paranoia" among
traditional people ó how they learn from on-the-ground
experience to avoid danger. What have you as a person
with a foot in both worlds learned from that trait?
I can say something that all my readers over 60 should
think about. What are the real dangers in life? If you
ask, people are likely to talk about nuclear power,
terrorists, radiation. What you should really worry
about is slipping in the shower and slipping on the
You cite the Christian doctrine of forgiveness as one
reason that Christianity has achieved enduring success.
The doctrine of forgiveness is often misunderstood to
mean turn the other cheek. Itís more sophisticated
than that ... the best way to resolve the dispute is not
to jump to the nuclear option. The best way is to try to
seek understanding, is forgive the person and try to
reestablish the relationship.
Your chapter on diet and noncommunicable diseases in
emerging societies was frightening, especially in
reference to diabetes. Talk about where you think that
The incidence is rising. In particular, itís rising
most rapidly in countries that have been underdeveloped
and poor and are becoming rich. For example, the rich
Arab countries. The steepest rise is in diabetes ó for
people in places like Kuwait itís 15 percent to 20
percent and higher (for Type 2 diabetes). They are
wealthy, they can afford rich food and they havenít
learned the public-health lessons we have in the United
States. In the U.S., rich people are slimmer than poor
people. In India and Saudi Arabia, rich people are