EDGE 3rd Culture: Jared Diamond
The Third Culture

Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?
A Talk By Jared Diamond [4.23.97]

Introduction by
John Brockman

The biggest question that Jared Diamond is asking himself is how to turn the study of history into a science. He notes the distinction between the "hard sciences" such as physics, biology, and astronomy and what we sometimes call the "social sciences," which includes history, economics, government. The social sciences are often thought of as a pejorative. In particular many of the so-called hard scientists such as physicists or biologists, don't consider history to be a science. The situation is even more extreme because, he points out, even historians themselves don't consider history to be a science. Historians don't get training in the scientific methods; they don't get training in statistics; they don't get training in the experimental method or problems of doing experiments on historical subjects; and they'll often say that history is not a science, history is closer to an art.

Jared comes to this question as one who is accomplished in two scientific areas: physiology and evolutionary biology. The first is a laboratory science; the second, is never far from history. "Biology is the science," he says. "Evolution is the concept that makes biology unique."

In his new theories of human development, he brings together history and biology in presenting a global account of the rise of civilization. In so doing he takes on race-based theories of human development.

"Most people are explicitly racists," he says. "In parts of the world so called educated, so-called western society we've learned that it is not polite to be racist, and so often we don't express racist views, but nevertheless I've given lectures on this subject, and members of the National Academy of Sciences come up to me afterwards and say, but native Australians, they're so primitive. Racism is one of the big issues in the world today. Racism is the big social problem in the United States."

So why are people racists? According to Jared, racism involves the belief that other people are not capable of being educated. Or being human that they're different from us, and they're less than human. It was through his work in New Guinea for the last 30 years that convinced him that it's not true. "'They' are smarter than we are," he says. But perhaps the main reason why people resort to racist explanations, he notes, is that they don't have another answer. Until there's a convincing answer why history really took the course that it did, people are going to fall back on the racist explanation. Jared believes that the big world impact of his ideas may being in demolishing the basis for racist theories of history and racist views.

- JB

The Talk...