Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, received the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1998 for Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. In 1999, he received the National Medal of Science. His most recent book is Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004).

Professor Diamond argues that religion has encompassed at least four independent components that have arisen or disappeared at different stages of development of human societies over the last 10,000 years.

Category: UnScience, Video

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6 Responses to “Jared Diamond: The Evolution of Religions”

  1. quiddity says:

    I’ll give it a look, but I’m disinclined to believe most of what Diamond says. In GG&S he talked about the slow material development of societies in the pre-Columbian Americas due to the lack of a beast of burden. But there was one available: humans. (That would likely involve slavery, which is distasteful, but Diamond was making a functional argument, not a moral one.

    His just-so explanation for why Europe prospered (lots of valleys and rugged coastline) while China stagnated (different geography) was hard to stomach.

    Also, a minor point, but he always quoted “discovered” when discussing Columbus. Discovery is from the point of view of the discoverer (requires ambition, will, and effort) and while it’s true that natives were in the Americas prior to 1492, as were Frenchmen in Europe, someone had to be the first to discover the other continent(s). Diamond dismisses that as an accomplishment.

  2. jnutley says:

    The discussion in GG&S concerning Central America did not rely on the absence of donkey analogs. Prof. Diamond argued that because the orientation of the continent was North/South, agricultural innovation spread more slowly. A food plant domesticated in South America was useful in North America but useless in Panama, Costa Rica et al. Trade begins as a hand off between neighbors, and grows into chains. But Americans had no incentive to pass seeds all the way from South to North with no utility in the jungles in between.

    Contrast this to what became the Silk Road. Plants that grow in Syria also grow in India at the foot of the Himalayas, also grow in China and many places in between. Diamond’s thesis is that East/West orientation, maintaining a narrow band of latitudes, allowed innovations in agriculture to spread easily; becoming the foundation of “rapid” growth in civilization.

    I must say though that I was also disappointed in GG&S because in my opinion he stops the book there, demonstrating the superiority of the proto-Silk Road but briefly waving his hands about everything that happened after that. You are right that he does not make a case about why China fell behind the West. I ended up getting another source to try to uncover that story: I recommend “The Great Divergence:
    China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy by Kenneth Pomeranz”. That book is NOT as fun or easy to read as GG&S, but it actually wrestles with why the Chinese did not inherit the Earth and Europeans did. the book is available thru Princeton University Press, and Google books (see link).


  3. quiddity says:


    I agree that Diamond did make some good points vis-a-vis plant diversity and human-pig disease resistance. It’s just that I’d estimate about half the book contained dubious propositions (like the ones I mentioned) that furthered the belief that culture doesn’t matter very much. I think that cultural developments are more-or-less random, and it’s just as likely that China could have experienced a Renaissance and Enlightenment. There is nothing in the genes of Europeans that make them special. Looking at history, Europe was stagnant for about 1000 years while Islam and China were thriving. Yet they were supposed to have the advantages Diamond advocates.

    Speaking of advances in human history, I’m constantly impressed by the Ancient Greeks. Their abstract thinking, most notable in mathematics (and philosophy), was remarkable. It may have been encouraged by a numbers-centric Pythagoreanism. Certainly, they didn’t see mathematics simply as a working tool like the Egyptians and Babylonians. Whatever it was, it impressed the Romans and, centuries later, revived fresh thinking in Europe. I don’t see how geography was a factor in that important historical development. (A by-product of vibrant Mediterranean trade? Maybe.)

    I’ll check out that book you reference. Thanks for the link.

  4. KJ Foehr says:

    It’s been a long time since I read G,G & S, but I recall having thoughts similar to yours – a lot of conclusions / opinions without sufficient scientific data to support them. I could see, logically, how some of his major conclusions might be true, but remained unconvinced that they actually are.

    I also recall thinking that he was trying to support his preconceived conclusions: one of the primary ones being that differences due to race or ethnicity played no role in differential development. He seemed to be purposefully looking (reaching) for other explanations.

    Yet, his writing is interesting and thought provoking as he does deal with big picture issues usually only found in dissertations or other less accessible tomes.

  5. Jan Rogozinski says:

    It’s truly depressing that readers accept egregious ignorance of history like Diamond’s.

    In particular,anything who believes that “Europe was stagnant for about 1000 years while Islam and China were thriving” has never read any book by any historian written since about 1850.

    The period between 400 and 1500 was one of incredible fecundity, during which literally everything characteristic of European civilization was invented–representative democracy, natural science, double-entry book-keeping, check accounts, credit cards, “classical” music. At the most basic level, water mills, wind mills, the stirrup, the heavy plow, collars that did not choke horses, eyeglasses, barbed wire, distilling …. etc.

    And of course, the entire religion of Christianity in all its various forms–Orthodox, Roman Catholic. Protestant.

    By comparison to the Middle Ages, the “Ancient Greeks” invented nothing at all.

    I suggest that anyone that still thinks there was a “Renaissance” begin by purchasing a textbook for what used to be called “Western Civilization” courses. Perhaps the most entertainingly written is Robert Lopez, The Birth of Europe. New York: M. Evans, 1967

    Also White, Lynn. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford University Press, 1962.

  6. drollere says:

    diamond’s talk is disorganized even for an academic, and is merely a “what if” exercise with ample audience questions and comments at the end. thus, diamond asks what are the attributes that appear in religions everywhere at all times (origin myths, training toward political obedience, moral precepts, justifications for war against other groups), then muddies his own analysis with distinctions between primitive, “chieftan” and state religions. he then quotes some suggestions by david sloan wilson as to how some religions were more “adaptive” (evolutionarily successful) than others: encouraging large families, teaching business and economic skills, selective forgiveness, hygienic and food principles, etc.

    the fundamental problem with diamond’s analysis is that he hypothesizes religion as a more or less fixed or coherent system of attributes, rather than a social phenomenon with its own developmental stages and changing reasons for existence. “primitive” religions are deeply involved in magical practices, but in modern societies these have been subsumed into science; religious moral codes only evolved as group sizes increased, etc. the unanswered questions: how did “religion” start in the first place, and what “selection pressures” explain its historical transformations over the past 20,000 years?