For anyone who had any hope that Covid-19 would be the kind of event that only happens once a century, American biogeographer Jared Diamond, 83, has bad news.
“I would say that Covid-19 is the beginning of the future”, stated Diamond, author of the classic “Armas, Germes e Aço” in a video interview with Folha. “It is clearer than it was a year ago that the current pandemic is a one-time event unprecedented in the past, but one that will have many imitators from now on. In other words, Covid-19 is the first truly global pandemic thanks to its ability to spread by jet planes, although the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic came close.”
The researcher from the University of California at Los Angeles is the first guest this year in the Frontiers of Thought conference series, which takes place in a virtual format. His lecture to the Brazilian public takes place on August 25th.
Diamond was noted for his ability to synthesize a vast array of biological, geographic, archaeological, and anthropological information in an attempt to find the great strands of human history. One of the constants, according to him, is the role of infectious diseases, as suggested by the word “germs” in the title of his main book — they were mainly responsible for the relative ease with which Europeans dominated the native populations of continents such as America and to Oceania.
The civilizations of Europe and Asia had this advantage over Native Americans and Aborigines in Australia thanks in large part to their herds of domestic animals, which were rare or non-existent in the invaded places.
The bugs’ microbes and viruses have spent thousands of years jumping onto their owners and adapting to them on European territory, while no similar process took place among natives of Brazil, the USA or Australia. As a result, these populations had no natural resistance to diseases such as measles, smallpox and flu, often being decimated by germs without having to fire a single shot.
The resemblance to the new coronavirus, which no human being had natural resistance to when it began to spread in late 2019, is no coincidence.
“There are other viruses just waiting to emerge. We have something like 30 million species of animals out there, and each of these animals have their own diseases,” says Diamond. “We got monkey yellow fever, Old World primate malaria, we got SARS [doença causada por outro coronavírus no começo dos anos 2000] of animals from Southeast Asia. So you can bet they’ll keep appearing as long as humans come into contact with animals.”
The relationship between domestic animals, infectious diseases and European conquest exemplifies the specialist’s approach to his analysis of human history. For Diamond, the great lines of the confrontations between civilizations were defined by the environmental conditions of each continent and region, which are very rarely under the control of each people.
This is one of the reasons why he is a staunch opponent of the idea that supposed genetic differences between races or ethnic groups, especially those that would affect intelligence, would have led to the triumph of certain peoples over others.
“Of course there are some genetic differences between populations on each continent, which have solid environmental reasons for existing. People in tropical regions of the Old World, for example, have genes for resistance to malaria because they have spent millennia fighting the disease, which the Swedes do not have. The inhabitants of northern Europe, who have been consuming milk for thousands of years, carry mutations that allow adults to be able to digest the sugars in milk. But when it comes to brain capacity, there is no evidence of any differences,” he points out.
“Based on my experience in New Guinea, where I do my fieldwork, I can say that dumb Americans manage not only to survive but even end up voting,” he quips. “A native of New Guinea don’t survive long enough to reproduce.”
The decades of contact with the traditional societies of the Pacific Island is one of the bases of another of his books, “The World Until Yesterday”, in which Diamond shows what is possible to learn from populations that still live in a very similar way to our ancestors 10,000 years or 5,000 years ago. For the researcher, such groups open a window for social interaction and human development strategies that continue to be valuable.
“Indigenous peoples have societies that are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and 75,000 years of evolution of modern human beings. They have many ways to raise their children, many ways to care for the elderly, many ways to learn social skills. In New Guinea, I was very impressed when I saw that five-year-olds can negotiate with adults like me much better than five-year-old Americans,” he says. “I imagine that Brazilians over 70 or 80 in general are very unhappy, just like Americans of that age. Sit down and talk to forest peoples about how they cope with old age.”