For anyone hoping that Covid-19 would be an event that only happens once a century, American biogeographer Jared Diamond, 83, has bad news.
“I would say Covid-19 is the beginning of the future,” said Diamond, author of the classic “Armas, Germes e Aço” in a video interview with Folha. “It is clearer than a year ago that the current pandemic is a one-off 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 through jet planes, despite the 1918 Spanish flu coming close.
The researcher from the University of California in Los Angeles is this year the first guest of the conference series Frontiers of Thought, which takes place in virtual format. His lecture to the Brazilian public will take place on August 25th.
Diamond was known for his ability to synthesize a wide variety of biological, geographic, archaeological, and anthropological information to find the great strands of human history. One of the constants, in his opinion, is the role of infectious diseases, as suggested by the word “germs” in the title of his ledger – they were mainly responsible for the relative ease with which Europeans approach the native populations of continents such as America and Oceania.
The civilizations of Europe and Asia enjoyed this advantage over Native American and Aboriginal people in Australia in large part thanks to their herds of domestic animals, which were rare or nonexistent in the invaded locations.
The microbes and viruses of the bedbugs have spent millennia jumping on and adapting to their owners in European territory, while no similar process has taken place among the indigenous people of Brazil, the US or Australia. As a result, these populations did not have natural resistance to diseases such as measles, smallpox, and influenza, which were often decimated by germs without firing a single shot.
The resemblance to the new coronavirus, to which no one had a natural resistance when it spread in late 2019, is no coincidence.
“There are other viruses just waiting to show up. We have about 30 million species of animals out there, and each of those animals has their own diseases, ”says Diamond. “We have monkey yellow fever, primate malaria of the Old World, we have SARS” [doença causada por outro coronavírus no começo dos anos 2000] of animals from Southeast Asia. So you can bet that they will appear as long as humans come into contact with animals. “
The relationship between pets, infectious diseases and European achievements illustrates the specialist’s approach to his analysis of human history. For Diamond, the broad lines of confrontation between civilizations were defined by the environmental conditions of each continent and region, which are very rarely under the control of any people.
This is one of the reasons why he is a staunch opponent of the notion that supposed genetic differences between races or ethnic groups, particularly those that would affect intelligence, have led to the triumph of certain peoples over others.
“Of course there are some genetic differences between populations on each continent that have solid ecological reasons for existence. People in tropical regions of the Old World, for example, have genes for resistance to malaria because they’ve spent millennia fighting the disease that Swedes don’t have. The inhabitants of Northern Europe, who have consumed milk for millennia, carry mutations that allow adults to digest the sugar in milk. But when it comes to brain capacity, there is no evidence of any difference, ”he says.
“From my experience in New Guinea, where I do my field research, I can say that stupid Americans not only survive but vote,” he jokes. “A native of New Guinea does not survive long enough to reproduce.”
Decades of contact with the traditional societies of the Pacific island is one of the foundations for another of his books, “The World Until Yesterday”, in which Diamond shows what can be learned from populations that still live very much like our ancestors 10,000 years ago or 5,000 years ago. For the researcher, such groups open a window to 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 humans. They have many opportunities to raise their children, many opportunities to look after the elderly, many opportunities to learn social skills. In New Guinea, I was very impressed to see that five-year-olds are much better at negotiating with adults like me than five-year-old Americans, ”he says. “I can imagine that Brazilians over 70 or 80 are generally very unhappy, just like Americans that age. Sit down and talk to the forest dwellers about how they deal with age. “