Jared Diamond was born in Boston, Massachusetts to European-Jewish immigrants. His father worked as a physician and his mother was a teacher, linguist, and pianist. Diamond attended the Roxbury Latin School for high school before going to Harvard for a BA in anthropology and history, and the University of Cambridge for a Ph.D. in physiology and metaphysics. He went back to Harvard to work as a junior fellow, before becoming a professor of physiology at UCLA. Around this time, he began developing an interest in ornithology and ecology as well. He spent a lot of time pursuing these interests in New Guinea and nearby. In his fifties, he developed yet another professional interest: environmental history. He went on to switch fields, becoming a professor of geography at UCLA. All of these varied scientific interests helped Diamond to write a number of works of popular science that made his fields more accessible to the public. Overall, his main focuses have been: salt absorption in the gall bladder, ecology, and ornithology. For this reason, he is often known as a "polymath," or someone with expertise in a large variety of different subjects.
Diamond is best known for his works of popular science. His first book, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal was published in 1991. This text explores human evolution and how it has impacted society today. It primarily examines why humans evolved so differently from most animals despite the genetic similarities between us and them. It looks into the ways in which our animal origins did impact our development of language, art, farming, and even drug use. The book won the Rhone-Poulenc Prize for Science Books and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. It established Diamond's reputation as a scientist who could write books about his field that appealed to the general public. In 1997, he published his best-known work, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. This book took on the ambitious task of explaining why Eurasian peoples came to dominate over other societies across the world. It explores all of human history, using historical, biological, and archeological evidence. It also cites some of Diamond's personal experiences in New Guinea, where he came into contact with native peoples who first asked him why they had been so oppressed by Eurasian invaders, instead of vice versa. This book won a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Aventis Prize for Science Books, and the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science. It was also made into a documentary series by the National Geographic Society, which aired on PBS.
Diamond went on to write a number of other books that did not receive quite the same level of recognition. He also published Why is Sex Fun? in 1997. This book deals with the evolutionary explanations of human sexuality that are unique to us and close relatives. He didn't publish his fourth book, Collapse, until 2005. Collapse explains why past societies have either collapsed or thrived, and attempts to glean lessons for contemporary societies based on these historical examples. This book met with success as well, going on to be translated into many languages, become an international best-seller, and inspire a documentary also produced by the National Geographic Society. It repeats many of the themes found in Guns, Germs, and Steel, including the argument that societies do not succeed or fail because of culture, but rather because of ecological factors. In 2012, he published his most recent text, The World Until Yesterday, which also explores what the West can learn from non-Western, hunter-gatherer societies.
Diamond has largely been praised for his interdisciplinary approach and work to debunk racist explanations of human history. He has also worked on a series of case studies, published as Natural Experiments of History, which emphasize his interdisciplinary approach to history. He argues that history cannot be studied using controlled experiments, the way that hard sciences approach their experimentation through laboratory studies, but should rather focus on natural experiments to glean similarly strong conclusions. Diamond has faced some controversy for his work with native populations. For example, his article "Vengeance is Ours," published in The New Yorker in 2008, led to a lawsuit by two indigenous people he mentioned. They claimed he had defamed them, through his discussion of how revenge plays a part in tribal warfare in New Guinea. Some scholars have also taken issue with his approach to history because it can be regarded as "geographical determinism," meaning it emphasizes the role of geography over human agency. Others have claimed that he has a problematically Eurocentric point of view, since he usually emphasizes Eurasian societies as world-historical agents, while other societies play a smaller role.