Jared Diamond Identifies the Real, Unexpected Risks in Our Everyday Life (in a Psychedelic Animated Video)

Jared Dia­mond is a true poly­math. He got his start research­ing how the gall blad­der absorbed salt and then moved on to oth­er fields of study – ornithol­o­gy, anthro­pol­o­gy, lin­guis­tics. His wild­ly diverse inter­ests have giv­en him a unique per­spec­tive of how and why our species evolved. His Pulitzer Prize-win­ning book Germs, Guns and Steel makes a pret­ty con­vinc­ing argu­ment about why Europe — and not Chi­na or South Amer­i­ca — end­ed up dom­i­nat­ing the world. The answer, it turns not, has every­thing to do with geog­ra­phy and lit­tle to do with any kind of cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty.

Back in 2013, Dia­mond spoke at The Roy­al Insti­tu­tion about how we think of risk in the first world ver­sus those who live in remote New Guinea. The RI has tak­en a por­tion of that hour and a half talk and set it to some glo­ri­ous ani­ma­tion. You can watch it above.

Ear­ly in Diamond’s career, he was in the jun­gle with his New Guinean guides. He found what he thought was a per­fect spot to pitch camp – under a mas­sive dead tree. His guides refused to sleep there, fear­ing that the tree might fall in the mid­dle of the night. He thought that they were being over­ly para­noid until he start­ed see­ing things from their per­spec­tive.

Every night you’re in New Guinea sleep­ing in a for­est, you hear a tree fall some­where and then you go do the num­bers. Sup­pose the risk of that tree falling on me tonight is 1 in 1000. If I sleep under dead trees for 1000 nights, in three years I’m going to be dead. … The New Guinea atti­tude is sen­si­tive to the risks of things you are going to do reg­u­lar­ly. Each time they car­ry a low risk but if you are not cau­tious it will catch up with you.

Dia­mond then extrap­o­lat­ed this real­iza­tion to mod­ern life. He notes that he is 76 years old and will sta­tis­ti­cal­ly speak­ing prob­a­bly live anoth­er 15 or so years. Yet if the risk of tak­ing a fall in the show­er is rough­ly the same as get­ting brained by a dead tree in the jun­gles of New Guinea (1 in 1000), then Dia­mond fig­ures he could kill him­self 5 ½ times over his the course of those 15 years.

“And so I’m care­ful about show­ers,” he says in the full video of the talk. “I’m care­ful about side­walks. I’m care­ful about steplad­ders. It dri­ves many of my Amer­i­can friends crazy but I will sur­vive and they won’t.”

Peo­ple in the first world are ter­ri­fied by the wrong things, Dia­mond argues. The real dan­ger isn’t ter­ror­ism, ser­i­al killers or sharks, which kill a very, very small per­cent­age of peo­ple annu­al­ly. The real risks are those things that we do dai­ly that car­ry a low risk but that even­tu­al­ly catch up with you – dri­ving, tak­ing stairs, using step lad­ders.

You can watch the full inter­view, which is fas­ci­nat­ing, below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jared Dia­mond Explains Haiti’s Endur­ing Pover­ty

The Evo­lu­tion of Reli­gions: A Talk by Jared Dia­mond

“Pro­fes­sor Risk” at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Says “One of the Biggest Risks is Being Too Cau­tious”

MIT’s Intro­duc­tion to Pok­er The­o­ry: A Free Online Course

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.