Jared Diamond wants to be famous. The slight, frizzy-haired UCLA Medical School physiology professor wants to reach beyond his admiring audience of science buffs and feel the heady jolt that comes from recognition by mainstream America. In Southern California, in particular, this quest places him in a thundering herd of attention-seekers willing to do anything for their one big shot at stardom. Diamond's approach, however, is more old-fashioned--more naive, some might say. He's trying to earn our attention.
If Diamond, 62, hadn't suddenly decided to seek a certain celebrity, he would embody that rarest subspecies of human: contented Renaissance Man. Consider his curriculum vitae. His were the first human feet to reach the peak of the Van Rees Mountains in New Guinea's jungle. His were the first eyes of a Western scientist to witness the mating rituals of the elusive golden-fronted bowerbird. His theories on intestinal absorption are taught in college physiology classes worldwide. His three books and hundreds of magazine columns weave science, language, history and ornithology into theories on the Big Questions so persuasively that a cadre of influential fans, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, has sung his praises. President Clinton put one of his books on his reading list this summer. And last year Diamond added a Pulitzer to his many prizes.
"He's simply one of the several brightest people in the world," says friend and Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer winner and author of last year's most talked-about science book, "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge." "If you think I'm exaggerating, look at his record, from Korean language to Chinese history and the history of Polynesia, to ornithology and on and on and on, all of it first-class research."
None of that, of course, offers the slightest advantage toward achieving celebrity in this culture, and with his wispy Robert Bork facial hair and penchant for shuffling about in brown suede Inuit slippers, the eccentric Diamond won't make it on image alone. He does, however, have a couple of things going for him that most other scientists who have merely helped redefine the world don't: sex and guns.
Diamond sits on a couch in his family's Bel-Air home wearing a brown velvet safari jacket and surrounded by New Guinea wood carvings and prints of rare birds. In a sonorous, Boston-accented voice that seems too big for his diminutive frame, he recalls his reaction to learning that his 1997 book, "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Society," had won the Pulitzer for general nonfiction, opening a gaping passage to the mainstream.
"My first words were, I believe, 'My God,' or 'goddamn,' " he says, his tone straining for colloquialism but unable to stray far from the professorial. That night Diamond celebrated with his wife, Marie Cohen, and their twin sons, now 12. Ten days later he flew off to the New Guinea jungle, and for the next six weeks, carrying an umbrella, binoculars and a notepad, he and his guide carved trails through moss a foot thick and were privy to, among other things, the song of the shovel-billed kingfisher.
"I feel more at home in the New Guinea jungle than I do anywhere," Diamond says. "I know those bird sounds and I know how to operate there. It feels more normal to me than Los Angeles."
New Guinea is Diamond's Mecca. It's there that he carries on his 50-year love
affair with birds and where his study of bird
sex broadened into human sexuality. It was on a New Guinea beach that Diamond stumbled on the core idea for the best-selling "Guns, Germs and Steel," and it was in New Guinea that Diamond had the life-threatening experience that began a series of domino-like events leading up to his decision to become a fame seeker.
How a skinny scientist came to feel so at home in the jungle goes back to his childhood home in Brookline, Mass. His father, Louis Diamond, died in June at age 97. As noted in obituaries nationwide, the elder Diamond, a Harvard pediatrics professor, pioneered the practice of transfusions for babies whose blood is incompatible with their mothers'. Jared's late mother, Flora Diamond, was a concert pianist, language whiz and teacher. The Diamonds' standards on learning and productivity were exacting, and their two children absorbed them wholly and without fuss.
Diamond's sister, Susan, recalls an important high school debate during which her brother made a mistake. "He split an infinitive and stopped dead," she says. "He looked out in the audience toward my mother, and my mother and I looked down at our laps. We were not going to show him in any way that we had heard.
"I'm not saying we had a mother who slapped us around when we split an infinitive," the Los Angeles journalist adds. "But we knew you don't split infinitives. You have respect for the language."
Jared took languages seriously, learning Latin and Greek in high school. With his mother's help, he taught himself German and later learned to speak or read Russian, French, Spanish, Finnish, Dutch, Italian, Neo-Melanesian, Indonesian and the New Guinea dialect Fore.
Academically he followed in his father's scientific footsteps, majoring in biochemistry at Harvard. After earning his PhD at Cambridge University in England and doing postdoctoral work in Munich, Diamond returned to Harvard and began publishing his breakthrough theories in molecular cell physiology. Despite his early success, Diamond itched to learn more and began experimenting with the idea of a second career. While other college students were swept up in the Kennedy fervor of the early '60s, Diamond studied the pottery of Peruvian Indians and learned to play one-third of Bach's organ music. "I found that I didn't have insights into pre-Columbian pottery," he says. "And I was not gifted enough to develop a second career in music. The first two efforts didn't work. But the third one, New Guinea, did."
In 1964, he and a friend "cooked up an expedition" to an island in the Indonesian archipelago. Diamond's life has never been the same. Both had been bird-watchers since their teens, and the island was a paradise of tropical species. It was also "the wildest, most adventurous place in the world," he says. At that point, Diamond was as arrogant as racists he would later analyze in "Guns," he says. "I went out very naive. I knew New Guinea people had been using stone tools until, really, the 19th century. I thought, 'Ugh, primitive tools means there's something primitive about them upstairs.' Rubbish! Within about two days, I realized these are really smart people. On the average, they're at least as alert, probably more alert, more engaged, more conversational, more social than the Americans or Europeans that I'm used to."
Diamond was so surprised, intrigued and enamored that he kept going back. It's hard to overestimate New Guinea's impact. In 1966, he joined the UCLA faculty as a physiology professor with the understanding that he would continue studying bird populations as well. His work in physiology and population biology began winning him awards. By his early 40s, he had been elected to several prestigious national honorary societies. Meanwhile, his thinking was pushing off in new directions.
The mating patterns of those New Guinea birds, for instance, inspired Diamond to study human sexuality. And he didn't just approach the subject academically, but rather turned it into something of an applied science. So when he wanted to court his wife in the early 1980s, he referred to a study of college women who said the most successful seduction technique was for a man to cook dinner. He cooked for her. Then she cooked for him. The path leading from that initial step to the decision to marry, however, was circuitous.
In 1981 Diamond tracked down the golden-fronted bowerbird, which he describes in his first book, "The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal." The bird had been unknown except for feather samples found in a Paris shop a century ago. Diamond's search led him to a jungle bird hut, or "bower," that a male bird had embellished with butterfly wings, flowers and berries--all to woo females.
Recording the ritual with a tape recorder, Diamond watched entranced as the jay-sized birds mated. Having made his exciting discovery, he headed home.
While plane-and-boat hopping among other Indonesian islands, Diamond boarded a low-lying water taxi. It quickly ran into rough waves and the "brash young driver" refused to slow down, Diamond says. The taxi, a dug-out canoe with a snug plastic canopy, promptly capsized. Diamond and the passengers were trapped between the boat and its roof. In a frantic struggle, all escaped. But their lives remained at risk.
"We were too far offshore to swim, and our survival depended upon another boat coming close enough to spot us and pick us up," Diamond says. But the upended canoe was hidden from nearby ships by the swelling waves, and the tide began carrying it toward an island 50 miles away. The scientist clung to the boat's outboard motor for an hour as waves continued to surge and the sun inched toward the horizon. A fellow passenger calculated that if a ship didn't pick them up before dark, they would be lost at sea or die of hypothermia overnight. Fifteen minutes before sunset, a sailboat spotted the group waving and shouting. But it was too small to take them all on. Soon, amazingly, a second sailboat appeared. Breathless, Diamond clambered aboard.
Just as the sun disappeared, Diamond heard cries in the darkness--pleas, he realized. The other boat had capsized. He listened helplessly as its crew and passengers screamed for help. Diamond's boat left. He assumes the others drowned.
"I had a lot of dangerous incidents in my career in New Guinea before 1981, but none had been so obviously close to killing me," he says. "I was prepared to blame the boat drivers, but I realized, 'Jared, you were the one who got into the canoe. It was your responsibility.'
"That was a defining moment in my life," he says. Diamond was credited with the bowerbird discovery even though his tape and notes had washed away. But the brush with personal extinction made Diamond change his thinking in profound ways. He decided that he wanted to have children and married Cohen, a UCLA clinical psychologist, in 1982. Five years later, their twin sons, Max and Joshua, were born--another catalyzing event, and the indirect impetus for his decision to reach for fame's brass ring.
For decades, Diamond had moved happily between laboratory and jungle, fully satisfied by the rewards of research and adventure. Now he began writing. Through the eyes of a parent, all he had learned about ecology and species survival suddenly seemed alarming. "People talk about oil reserves getting exhausted by around 2040," Diamond says. "When I heard those dates, they just didn't register--I'll be dead by 2040. Then, when my kids were born in 1987, 'Oh, my dear--in 2040, my boys are going to be 53 years old!' The year 2040 is no longer an unreal year long after my death. It's a year when my boys will be alive. They'll be the age I was when they were 3 years old."
Ecology and evolution are the focus of all three of Diamond's books. "The Third Chimpanzee" says that because humans and chimps share 98.4% of their DNA, they should be grouped in one species. It also draws some interesting conclusions about sex. Because humans are the only animals that continue having sex during pregnancy, Diamond theorizes that we have sex for fun, not procreation. The main goal of human sex is to cement marriage bonds so as to give parents incentive to stay together and protect the gene pool, Diamond says.
"Chimpanzee" won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Britain's Science Book Prize, in part because of its graceful rendering of difficult ideas. "He's a great popularizer, someone who really understands the science and really understands how to convey it with a sense of excitement," says Polly Shulman, senior editor of Discover magazine, where Diamond is a contributing editor. "That's one of the most important aspects of being a bridge between science and the public."
For his part, Diamond says he can genuinely relate to science dunderheads--because he feels so inept himself when he's in New Guinea. "I can't follow a trail. I've been going there for 30 years and I still haven't figured out how to follow bent sticks and marks in the ground. I'll think I'm stepping on piles of moss and then one leg breaks through, and I'll realize I'm 15 feet up a tree, and what I thought was a fallen log was actually a limb."
In a sense, this belief--that intelligence is relative--is at the core of his second and most successful book. The idea for "Guns, Germs and Steel" came to him as he and a New Guinea politician fell into step on a beach one afternoon. "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" the man asked.
Diamond's subsequent, 480-page exploration of that question poses the theory that Eurasians got a head start on world domination after the Ice Age, 13,000 years ago, by evolving in the Fertile Crescent--a Garden of Eden full of friendly, edible beasts and easy-to-grow crops. The people of Africa, the Americas and Australia, meanwhile, struggled with animals that still can't be domesticated, and/or wild plants that took thousands of years to cultivate. People on those continents scraped out an existence as hunter-gatherers while those in the Fertile Crescent began farming their easy crops and domesticating their friendly animals. These techniques spread with relative speed through Europe, Asia and Northern Africa. People settled, developed immunity to animal diseases and some had the leisure to share ideas and build weapons.
Yet, Diamond says, when Eurasians invaded territories, including the Americas, they killed more inhabitants with disease than with guns. Weapons were significant, but no more so than horses. For instance, when Pizarro and his battalion of 168 attacked 80,000 Inca soldiers in 1532, the Spanish won because the sight of shiny armor and horses stunned the Incas. In Mexico, Indian warriors assumed that the conquistadors, mounted high and glowing in the sun, were gods. To bolster this theory, Diamond marshaled a mountain of evidence--everything from plant biology to linguistics, historical anecdotes to archeological artifacts.
In an Internet discussion with Diamond at http://www.edge.org, Peter von Sievers, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Utah, joined a contingent of scholars critical of Diamond for dabbling in areas outside his fields of expertise. "As a world historian, I love to stray into other fields for stimulation," Von Sievers said. "But I cringe when I see world history reduced to limited concepts." Diamond counters: "That's the usual, defensive, territorial response of anyone, in any field, to outsiders. So many areas of science have so much to contribute to our understanding of history."
Many reviewers agreed. Interest in the book ratcheted up as professors assigned it hot off the presses. Then Bill Gates called it "fascinating," and even more volumes flew off shelves. Writing on Microsoft's Web site, Gates said, "It's the first explanation of history I've seen that gets at the key question of why Europeans and Asians came to control most of the world, rather than Africans, Native Americans or other people."
As "Guns, Germs and Steel" rode the bestseller list, Diamond published his third book, "Why Is Sex Fun?" In this tome, Diamond again makes joyous intellectual leaps--this time in probing the esoterics of human sexuality. "The reason sexuality is so interesting is that human sexuality is bizarre by the standards of other animals," he says.
He points out that tribal men are as obsessed with penis size as Westerners are. This surprised him because the average human phallus is gargantuan when compared to the 1 1/4-inch organ of a 450-pound gorilla. His conclusion: Penises are built to fit the corresponding females' vaginas, period. The fuss men make about it is simply to establish a hierarchy among themselves. He also argues that because humans are the only species with a pronounced female menopause, it is reasonable to conclude that older women serve the species with their wisdom and honed domestic skills.
Diamond swears that the inherently fascinating nature of the subject, rather than its attention-grabbing magic, compels him to write about sex. But there's no doubt that "Sex" has pushed Diamond up a notch in the hierarchy of popular celebrity (heck, it was recommended by the Accurate Sexlections Adult Bookstore Web site). The Pulitzer hasn't hurt either, and he now seems poised on the precipice of fame.
One benefit of this gathering acclaim, he says, is that it will help sell his next book, a cautionary tale about societies that destroyed their environments, as Easter Islanders did, and as we are doing.
He has been on one sinking boat, Diamond says, and has decided to do everything in his power to save himself from a similar situation. The book is still several years off, but he hopes its warning will be widely heard, and he is even meeting with Hollywood producers to raise money for a documentary film or TV show to accompany it. Popular culture never has been among Diamond's interests, but he is beginning a foray into this foreign land to learn its language and customs. After a quick assessment, he's realistic about the scope of his impending fame.
"I can't compete with Leonard DiCaprio," he says--unaware, of course, that he has left the "o" off the teen heartthrob's name. "But I now have an opportunity to learn more and give back more to the public. I don't have a desire to become more famous for its own sake. I would like to achieve that goal to convince people to build a sane world."