History is to Blame: Exploring the Works of Jared Diamond
Recently, we looked at the biographies of Walter Isaacson, whose works elucidate the lives of specific historical figures. But what about the wide field of history itself in which these people have lived and shaped? Writers have been trying to understand these patterns and forces since the ancient Greek scholar Herodotus.
A more modern parallel we can point to are the works of historian Jared Diamond. Though technically a professor of Geography, spending decades in the classroom and the field working on a broad range of topics (and managing to look rather scholarly regardless of environment), Diamond is better known for his books on history.
Many of Diamond’s works have been bestsellers and PBS adapted Guns, Germs, and Steel into a three-part miniseries released in 2005. Check out the list below and find out which one you might want to read.
1. Something old, something new
It can be tempting to think that we have little to learn from societies without cars or computers. However, Diamond argues that we can still take away bits of wisdom. After all, the peoples he writes about have existed together for centuries or even millennia. From criminal justice to child-rearing and religion, ancient teachings still have a place in the modern world.
2. Look upon my works, ye mighty…
To stare at works like the Roman Forum, Puebloan dwellings in Canyon de Chelly, or crumbled Crusade-era castles leaves one in wonderment at the capacities of human imagination and engineering. But the groups that produced these works have also faded into the annals of history, rather than retain their glory, or gone through arcs of resurgence and decline. Why is this the case? Diamond examines well-known examples of such societies and extrapolates the lessons to contemporary times.
3. Ain’t nothing but mammals
Published the same year as Guns, Germs, and Steel, this book takes a similar broad historical overview of human sexuality. Diamond threads evolution, human physiology, and cultural anthropology into this account. This wider context helps to explain some of the behaviors and biological mechanisms in humans that would make little sense in other animals.
4. Lather, rinse, repeat
Guns, Germs, and Steel is the book that set Diamond in the public consciousness. He started with a relatively simple question: How did Eurasian cultures achieve their historical prominence? Though only three factors are mentioned in the title, Diamond also explores the role of other factors, such as geography and animal domestication. Though this book is not in the Blinkist library, it still very much worth your time.
5. Hey, hey, we’re the monkeys (well, technically, apes, but you get the idea)
Not uncommonly found in Anthropology 101 readings, Diamond’s first book looks at what differentiates us from our closest animal-kingdom relatives. Anatomy, language, and art all seem uniquely human in some regard, but Diamond teases out how many of our most human qualities, both noble and treacherous, were born from our evolution as a species.
History, whether of a whole species or a particular society, can illuminate the moment in which we find ourselves. Jared Diamond’s works provide us with a framework for understanding our world. Beyond remaining in abstraction, like many a renowned teacher, Diamond also explores the implications of his findings and how the knowledge from his research can be applied to society at large. In time, no doubt, history will remember him well.