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.
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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.
“Europe … ended up dominating the world”
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