"I wonder what they were thinking when they cut down the last tree on Easter Island."
-- a UCLA student in Jared Diamond's class.
Every society makes mistakes. Some are catastrophic. But most can be attributed to rational, if short-sighted, decisions.
That's the message of two acclaimed studies of the rise and fall of human societies by Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA. In his 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond explored the environmental reasons why some societies advance technologically. In 2005's Collapse, he asked why some societies hold on to their core values even after environmental change makes those values destructive to the society.
Diamond will present the Sanford Institute's Crown Lecture in Ethics on Feb. 16, speaking on "Seizing the Moment: How Individuals and Societies Respond to Crises." In an interview, Diamond shared his fascination with why societies fail.
He said he was particularly struck by the example of Easter Island. Today, the island is mostly known for the giant, haunting stone statues that dominate the barren landscape. The statues have inspired extraordinary theories, from romantic stories of influence from ancient Egypt or Peru to an invasion by alien astronauts.
But Easter Island's landscape was once covered with forests. The trees provided food and shelter to the islanders, but for the chiefs of the islands' rival clans, the trees also were essential as a means of transporting and raising the massive statues, Diamond said.
Trees were cut faster than they could be replaced on the volcanic island. In retrospect, Diamond said, Easter Island was on a suicidal path.
"The chiefs of the rival clans were more interested in building bigger statues than maintaining the forests," Diamond said. "They weren't stupid. A chief's prestige was based on building bigger and bigger statues. If he didn't build the statues, he would lose prestige. They were short-sighted in their decisions, but rational in their thinking.
"Easter Island has a lot of lessons for us. One of the recurring themes in social collapses is that leaders isolate themselves from the problems of society. They enrich themselves but do what is wrong for society in the long run. Take Enron, for instance. The actions of the company's leaders were fatal for the company and for the thousands if not millions of stockholders and people who depended on the company for energy. But their actions were based on rational decisions. The executives reasoned that they could get away with it, or that if they got caught, the laws would not deal out enough punishment to outweigh the gains."
Collapse explored the end of several human societies from the Maya to Viking settlers in Greenland. The stories are ancient history, but Diamond said the lessons are timely.
"In some ways, the stakes of social collapse are greater now. There are things that make it more dangerous: globalization, for one. In the past, a society that collapsed rarely affected other societies. But now, just to cite two examples, in Afghanistan and Somalia social collapse led to tragic consequences for many people."
Diamond has followed one of the more unusual career routes in academics. His Ph.D. training was in the physiology of the gall bladder. His path from medical scientist to student of human societies went through, strangely enough, his love of birds.
"I always loved watching birds as a child," Diamond said. "After I became a medical scientist, I learned that just studying the gall bladder didn't completely satisfy me. So I started a second career in bird studies."
That interest led him to exploring the birds on the island of New Guinea. It wasn't long before he grew close to some of the people there. One day, one of the New Guineans asked him a question: "Why do you have so much stuff, and we have so little?" That challenge was the origin of his study of the fates of human societies and led to Guns, Germs and Steel.
Diamond, whose son is a freshman at Duke, says there are advantages for a society that supports broadly based liberal arts education. A society where people learn to explore their interests is one that can confront problems.
"I got interested in a lot of things as an undergraduate at Harvard," he said. "My son is a freshman here at Duke. Duke, Harvard and all the major research universities require students to be broadly trained. You have to learn history, languages, sciences. You come away with a lot of different interests. If you hold on to those, it proves to be very valuable."
In his writings, Diamond presents an egalitarian message. Humans share the same strengths and weaknesses across societies. Few if any cultures can claim to have a particular advantage in intelligence, he said. The mistakes made by one society have been made by many others and serve as lessons to all.
"When I went out to New Guinea in 1964, I naively believed they were primitive people," Diamond said. "They were still using stone tools. But once there, I immediately realized that in their intellectual abilities, there is nothing primitive about them.
"They are on the average at least as smart as us, if not smarter. They thrive in an environment where I, and most Americans, would flail about. Their knowledge of their surroundings was enormous. There were reasons other than their intelligence why they were still using stone tools. The answer to my friend's question -- the reason why we have so much stuff -- turns out to have nothing to do with the people."