Quarryhill Botanical Garden launches its second annual Peter H. Raven Lecture Series on Saturday, July 8, with an appearance by one of the most well-known and influential social scientists of the day, Jared Diamond.
Currently professor of geography at UCLA, Diamond has been on national best-seller lists several times over the past three decades, an unusual status for an academic.
His titles, if not always his theories, have become almost mainstream, migrating from academia into common knowledge thanks to their clarity of argument and logical – if at times controversial – conclusions: that social and environmental forces contribute not only to the rise of civilizations but their eventual, and perhaps inevitable, decline.
“How can we understand what makes some societies more fragile than other societies?” he asks, in one way or another, though his four books. And, a related question of perhaps greater importance, “What is there that we can learn from the past that would help us avoid declining or collapsing in the way that so many past societies have?”
For Diamond these are not bloodless meditations, but lines of inquiry and passion – dating from even before his first published book, “The Third Chimpanzee” (1991), which argued that what separates humans from chimpanzees and bonobos (our closest cousins) are not so much genetic differences as advantages found in local environments which allowed homo sapiens to develop larger populations, wider immunities to disease, and superior technologies.
He carries this further in his next book, and perhaps his most famous, “Guns, Germs and Steel” (1998), again arguing that it was primarily environmental and geographical factors that led to the so-called “advanced” societies. That book won the Pulitzer Prize, and is still a required text in many college courses.
But it was “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (2005) that hit closest to home. Societal collapse is not a fate that any society can necessarily avoid: look at the Maya of Central America, the Anasazi of the American Southwest, or remote inhabitants of Easter Island. In many of these cases, environmental pressures led to the collapse of these societies – the Easter Islanders stripped their island of their forests, drought destabilized the Anasazi, and the Maya civilization may have disappeared over just a couple generations by overpopulation, environmental change and warfare.
It might be tempting to believe that our society is immune from collapse, but history has a different story to tell. The fact of climate change is one inescapable item on Diamond’s checklist of factors leading to collapse. Others are relations with neighbors, both positive and negative; human impact on the environment; and the inability of a society to perceive and solve its problems.
If this checklist gives his readers pause, perhaps it should.
“The fact is that our present course is a non-sustainable course, which means, by definition, that it cannot be maintained,” said Diamond in a 2004 TED talk. “And the outcome is going to get resolved within a few decades… Our biggest threat is not an asteroid about to crash into us, something we can do nothing about. Instead, all the major threats facing us today are problems entirely of our own making.”
For his July 8 speech at Quarryhill, his topic will be “Plants: the Key to Civilization,” perhaps expanding upon his theory that domestication of plants in the Fertile Crescent not only made civilization possible, but was “the worst mistake in the history of the human race,” as a 1987 essay suggested.
Books by Jared Diamond
‘The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal’ (1992)
‘Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ (1997)
‘Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years’ (1997)
‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’ (2005)
‘The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?’ (2012)