Our subject, introduced last week, is a special section in the 100th anniversary issue of Natural History magazine (December 2000/January 2001), in which some of the best minds in the scientific establishment reflect on what it means to be human. The first essay in the section, "Threescore and Ten," is by Jared Diamond, who was interviewed last year in Books & Culture. Diamond begins with an anecdote from his fieldwork in New Guinea, recalling the "terror" of his New Guinean companions when, on a trip there in 1966, he made camp near a large tree. This fear struck him as irrational at first, but later he learned that "falling trees rank as a major hazard of life in the jungle: while you may see a tree fall only a couple of times a decade, if you're hoping to last seventy years but are not careful, you may end up crushed under a falling trunk or branch before having lived out your allotted time."
This kind of learning, Diamond observes, "derives from a trait distinguishing us humans from other animals: our unusually large capacity to modify our behavior in response to acquired information rather than relying solely on instinct." This is spectacularly evident in the use we make of information stored in writing. But this trait, Diamond further suggests, is nevertheless not as fully developed as we like to suppose, and here he states the gist of his argument:
Contrary to assumptions cherished by modern literate societies, I suspect we still learn best in the way we did during most of our evolutionary history—not by reading but through direct experience. Some limitations on our thinking skills, I believe, stem from our evolutionary history. And although these limitations are not insuperable, we do need to be more aware of them and work harder to overcome them.
What are these limitations? Well, first, despite the fact that our roughly 70-year lifespan is exceptional among animal species, it is still too short to afford direct experience of rare events and long-range patterns. The storage of detailed information over long periods of time, made possible by writing, allows us to overcome that liability to a degree, but (handicap #2) because for most of our evolutionary history we have lacked writing, we are wired to give far more weight to information gained via direct experience. And third, because we are more receptive to learning when we are young, "our outlook is shaped especially strongly by early events and our experiences later in life form only a thin veneer on which we draw during more rational moments."
Interesting. Some readers will be reminded of the heyday of Freudianism. And what's the evidence? Well, Diamond tells a story. On the evening of October 22, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy's speech about the Cuban missile crisis was broadcast over the radio, Diamond
happened to be at a dinner of Harvard University's Society of Fellows, whose senior members included Nobel laureates and the presidents of the American Historical Association and the American Philosophical Association. If any group in the world was qualified to extract the lessons of history, not just from their own lifetime of experiences but from experiences committed to writing over the course of several thousand years, this was the group.
Hence, Diamond reports, he was astonished by the "overwhelming reaction" of the distinguished listeners, which was "to dismiss contemptuously both the seriousness of the danger and Kennedy's reaction to it."
And how does Diamond explain this reaction? Well, "the defining experience of the generation that grew up between 1900 and 1920"—which included most of the group at Harvard that evening, he says—"was the horror of World War I, and the lesson carried away by the surviving members of that generation was to avoid repeating the particular mistakes that produced that war." So the response of the savants at Harvard was dictated by that early, formative experience, "the horror of World War I," in contrast to the "thin veneer" made up by all their book learning, not to mention experience later in life, such as seeing how "appeasement" worked in Europe in the late 1930s.
Now this is so absurd in so many ways, it is almost embarrassing to point out the gaping holes in Diamond's argument. Most obviously, Diamond fails to take account of the fact that at that very moment, there were many other people in the United States who grew up between 1900 and 1920—some of them even at Harvard, perhaps—whose view of the Cuban missile crisis was radically at odds with the view that prevailed in that elite group whose reaction he reports.
How on earth does someone as intelligent as Jared Diamond fail to see this obvious evidence that disconfirms his hypothesis? And even more puzzling, how is it that the editors of Natural History saw fit to serve up this pseudo-science to their readers? We'll try to answer those questions next week.
John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture and Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today.
See last week's Books & Culture Corner on the Natural History anniversary issue, "On Being Human | Natural History magazine celebrates a milestone," and an earlier Books & Culture Corner on the magazine, "'To Know the Universe' | Well, sort of" (Mar. 2, 2000).
Books & Culture's interview with Jared Diamond appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of the magazine.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Are You Re:Generated? | Inside one of the best religious publications on the planet (that's not Christianity Today). (Dec. 4, 2000)
The Promise of Particularity Amid Pluralism | A dispatch from the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. (Nov. 22, 2000)
The Horror! | Joan Didion encounters evangelical Christianity. (Nov. 13, 2000)
Election Eve | Why isn't anyone focusing on those who simply won't bother to vote? (Nov. 6, 2000)
Three Books and a Wedding | Remembering the good news. (Oct. 30, 2000)
Unintelligent Designs | Baylor's dismissal of Polyani Center director Dembski was not a smart move.(Oct. 23, 2000)
Crying About Wolfe | Is there a scandal of "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind"? (Oct. 16, 2000)
The Light Still Shines | A Harvard-sponsored conference looks at the future of religious colleges. (Oct. 9, 2000)
RU-486 Uncovers a Lie—And It's Not Just About Abortion | Think the abortion pill is indicative of postmodernity? You're wrong. (Oct. 2, 2000)
Pencils Down Part II | Think your vote matters? You poor, misguided fool. (Sept. 18, 2000)