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Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond to speak at Vanderbilt

Jan. 4, 2002, 2:43 PM

January 04, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Cultural critic and physiologist Jared Diamond had studied bird evolution in New Guinea for 34 years when one day a local politician asked him two very direct evolutionary questions: Why had New Guineans continued to use stone tools until relatively recently, and why had Europeans and Americans been the ones to introduce them to steel tools, books and ships?

Diamond was stumped. Indeed, why had Europeans and Asians conquered, displaced or decimated Native Americans, Australians and Africans instead of the reverse? In order to answer these questions, the UCLA School of Medicine professor spent five years researching evolution in terms of geography—why people in some regions of the world prospered while others failed—and the answers he found shed light not only on the development of society in New Guinea, but that of the entire world for the last 13,000 years.

Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the subject and the topic of a Jan. 30 address at Vanderbilt University. The lecture begins at 6 p.m. in Ingram Hall of the newly completed Martha Rivers Ingram Center for the Performing Arts at the Blair School of Music. The event is free and open to the public. A reception will be held at 5 p.m. in the Ingram Hall lobby. Diamond will sign his book at 3 p.m. in the Vanderbilt University bookstore.

Diamond’s theory of geographical evolution resonates in light of current events. His odyssey of human evolution touches on war, genocide, technology, genetics, pestilence, weather, geography and just plain luck to explain, in his words, “how we got where we are and what it may mean for where we are going.” The New Yorker has called the scope and explanatory power of Guns, Germs & Steel astounding.

In his book, Diamond dismantles racially based theories of human history and replaces them with geographical and environmental factors. According to Diamond, the development of human societies began to diverge greatly 13,000 years ago when those living in agriculturally rich parts of the world, such as the Fertile Crescent in the Near East, China and the southeastern United States, began to domesticate wild plants and animals allowing them to abandon their hunter-gatherer society for a more sedentary way of life.

Societies that were stationary were more likely than the itinerant hunter-gatherers to develop writing, technology, government and organized religions, as well as some of man’s darker creations—deadly germs and weapons of war. When those societies—especially the Europeans—went in search of precious metals and spices in the last 500 years, they took with them the desire to invade and conquer native lands, decimating inhabitants and introducing diseases in the process.

Diamond is also the author of The Third Chimpanzee, a best-selling book, and Why is Sex Fun? A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, he is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award and has published more than 200 articles in Discover, Nature, Natural History and Geo magazines.

Diamond’s appearance is part of Vanderbilt’s Chancellor’s Lecture Series. The series is designed to advance and integrate classroom learning with broader social issues and concerns and to connect the Vanderbilt and Nashville communities. For more information, call (615) 322-4959.

Contact: Emily Pearce, (615) 322-NEWS