THANKS, DR. DIAMOND
by victoria johnson February 28, 2012
fortnightjournal.com
Growing up, I enjoyed taking and reading those texts originally assigned to my older sister, Valerie. Why should I have settled for 10th grade European History, when I could have all the excitement of the Advanced Placement level but none of the test? (Flash fact about Val: she's a born teacher. She taught me how to read while she was learning how to read.) Among Val’s books was Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). Without hyperbole, I can say that this book changed my life by guiding me from uncertain high school sophomore to professional cartographer.

Diamond’s argument is that European society developed faster than other societies because of where it was located He tied together all that I had learned in years of schooling—separate, disconnected disciplines and themes—into one narrative; one cohesive history. According to Diamond, location dictated a population’s ability to develop agricultural systems, domesticate livestock and build strong immunity to disease. It was all geography. If I could make that word sparkle at you, I would. Geography! Of course!

I didn't know Jared Diamond was a geographer when I first opened Guns. I didn't know that geography was a thing that people did, honestly. The description “geographer” in fact encompasses a complex and diverse variety of people and professions. Marco Polo was a geographer. So were Jane Jacobs, Alfred Wegener and Prince William.

Seeing this vocation listed in his author bio was for me a spark, a hint—a push in the best of all possible directions.

Diamond didn’t start out as a geographer. He has no formal training in the subject. Before he started writing books, Diamond was already known in certain circles for his groundbreaking orinthological work in Papua New Guinea. He graduated from Cambridge University in 1961 with a Ph.D. in physiology—and most of his research still comes from a biological perspective. He was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1985 for his work as an environmental historian.

His first book, The Third Chimpanzee, focused on evolution and the modern world. His second, Why Is Sex Fun? explored exactly what you think it explores (and was charmingly dedicated to his wife, Marie). Guns, Germs and Steel brought his carefully researched and thoughtfully written work fully into the spotlight, earning him a Pulitzer (for general non-fiction) and the Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Best Science Book in 1998.

Geography is a fluid field with deep overlaps with the both humanities & liberal arts and the harder sciences. Like Tobler’s Law says, everything is related—and things close together are more related than things far apart. When you approach history with that idea in mind, seemingly disparate events on the timeline become clearer, and even logical.

Diamond makes expert use of both physical and human geography as a way of explaining societal development. I would have to say that the staggering amount of research involved in a work that carries the (completely accurate!) subtitle “A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years” earns one the right to be called a geographer. UCLA evidently agrees, as Diamond is currently employed there as a Professor of Geography, and teaches their World Regional Geography seminar, as well as a course based on the same principles from his 2005 epic Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

That last one, I bought from a 24-hour bookstore at midnight on the day it came out like it was a Harry Potter release.

Reading Guns, Germs and Steel introduced me to geography as something beyond memorizing capital cities or knowing how to read a map. Geography became something that people do with their lives—a vocation and daily profession. I sincerely hope that some day, I will be able to pass on my affection for geography to a younger generation—and maybe even inspire a future cartographer. Geography and cartography have a long, proud tradition. I am absolutely thrilled to be able to say that I’m a part of it thanks in no small part to Jared Diamond.

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Victoria Johnson is a GIS (geographic information science) analyst and cartographer based in Washington, DC. She graduated from the Department of Geography of George Washington University.

Her previous works on
Fortnight include Google Maps, Age of Exploration, Generation Geo-Dumb, Imperial Cartography, and Generational Disasters.