Noted Historian Visits Harvard

“Whenever my wife and I travel to Germany,” he said, “we bring an empty suitcase with us. We designate it entirely for German beer. We love German beer.”

That’s not exactly something one hears every day in the Sackler Museum. But last Friday evening, however, it was the subject of an academic analysis by Jared M. Diamond ’58, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel.

In an event sponsored by the Harvard Book Store, the MacArthur fellow and groundbreaking historian charmed a standing room-only crowd with anecdotes of his post-bestseller life and presented some newly conceived extensions of the ideas he proposed in the book.

In that revolutionary tome, Diamond attempts to explain why it was the West that won—or why it is European economic and political structures that dominate the world today, as opposed to those of Africa, Oceania or the Americas.

Diamond contends that the history of humanity unfolded around the globe as it did not because of inherent cultural or racial differences, but due to geography. In a meticulously substantiated argument, he suggests that both Europeans and Asians rose to dominance due to their abundance of plants and animals suitable for domestication, and that the east-west orientation of the continent facilitated the spread of such animals and crops between societies.

According to Diamond, Eurasians were eventually able to dominate because of their earlier adoption of agriculture and consequently their development of complex societies around farming cultures. These societies had the dual advantages of technological superiority and disease resistance, a theory reflected in the title Guns, Germs, and Steel.

So why did Diamond spend a good portion of the evening talking about beer? The German beer industry is one of the ways in which he has expanded his theory in the past seven years. “We love German beer,” he said, because it is delicious and unique. As Diamond explains, German beer is generally micro-brewed, and most of it is consumed within twenty miles of where it was produced. This system is extremely inefficient, so German beer is both expensive and infrequently exported (American beer, on the other hand, is produced on a much larger scale). Despite its superior reputation, such German beer is not sold in the United States, which is why Diamond and his wife must set aside a suitcase.

The point is that his theories in Guns, Germs, and Steel can also be applied to the modern economy. According to Diamond, the organization of a company or industry, just like the institutions of a society, is the most significant reason for its success or lack thereof. He even says that Bill Gates supports this theory—that it was actually Gates who first applied the logic of Diamond’s theory to the contemporary business world.

This particular application is one of the motivations behind Diamond’s new afterword to the book. In the new section, Diamond uses his theory to explore the underlying social processes by which weapons spread, ultimately reinforcing his original argument about why Europe emerged as the dominant world player.

However, ideas alone did not prompt Diamond to include this afterword. As he joked to the audience, the afterword is “the reason why all of you who own copies of the book will want to rush out and buy a new one.”

—Staff writer Alexandra B. Moss can be reached at abmoss@fas.harvard.edu.

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