Australia's Past & Future

by Dr Jared Diamond

Alfred Deakin Lecture
Melbourne Town Hall
Monday, May 14 2001

It's always a great pleasure for me to be back in Australia. I first came here 37 years ago, and I've been visiting about once a year since then. I spent a happy sabbatical in Canberra, and at one point, I thought seriously of emigrating to Australia. In addition , the main site of my field work is New Guinea, and I feel even stronger ties to New Guinea than to Australia, but New Guinea and Australia were joined as a single continent until 10,000 years ago, and New Guineans are in fact the cousins of Native Australians.

I was asked to talk about race and biology in Australia. While it may seem hubristic for a non-Australian, an American, to presume to tell you Australians anything about those subjects, I think that I can still offer you two perspectives as an outsider. First, I've been much interested in the question why history unfolded differently for different peoples, and I wrote a recent book Guns, Germs and Steel on the subject which an American critic complained read like an Australian's or New Guinean's upside-down view of world history.

Second, I have lots of personal experience with multi-ethnic societies, especially the US and PNG (Papua New Guinea), and Indonesia and the former Yugoslavia, and more recently Holland. I'll use that experience to offer some perspective on multi-ethnic issues in Australia.

A convenient starting point is a common view, a racist perspective which is sometimes uttered explicitly and more often is held unspoken, and may even represent the prevalent view about Native Australians in Australia. This view goes as follows. Native Australians arrived here about 65,000 years ago, yet as of the year 1788 they were still hunter-gatherers; they still had no agriculture, no metal tools, no writing, no politically centralised government, anywhere in Australia. In 1788, Europeans arrived, and within a short time, they created a modern society with agriculture, metal tools, writing and a politically centralised government whose centenary we are celebrating today.

Apparently, this is a perfectly controlled experiment: same place, different people; the sole difference is between the two different peoples, and so the different outcomes of the two runs of the experiment must be because of biological differences between the two peoples. But there's a fatal mistake in that reasoning. Europeans did not create any of those things in Australia. Instead, they imported them all to Australia from Eurasia. It's not true that arriving naked Europeans went out and domesticated wombats and gum trees, independently devised a new alphabet, and invented by themselves completely new techniques for smelting iron and aluminum.

Instead, they imported agricultural techniques, they even imported the domesticated plants and animals like wheat and sheep, and they imported the alphabet, metallurgy, and a political system. And in turn, none of those things had even been invented in Europe. They were all imported to Europe from the Fertile Crescent between 7,000 BC and 1500 BC. Europeans never figured out how to survive in Australia or in the Australian environment itself without the help of Eurasian metallurgy, animals and crops. There isn't even a single case of an initially naked European without tools succeeding unassisted in making a living in Australia. That's not because of any inferiority of Europeans. It's simply that it's a very difficult task to survive in much of Australia without outside provisions and knowledge and crops and animals. It took Native Australians tens of thousands of years to develop the necessary adaptations, so it's no surprise that Europeans couldn't figure it out in 213 years.

I got interested in the corresponding question for New Guinea. I arrived in New Guinea to study birds in 1964, naive, knowing that New Guineans traditionally used stone tools but not metal tools and were regarded as technologically primitive people. I naively assumed that they used the stone tools and were technologically primitive because they were primitive mentally. It took me about one day in the New Guinea highlands to realise that New Guineans are really smart people. So why is it that they, the smart people, were the ones to end up with the stone tools, and I, the dope who after 37 years still can't find my way around in the New Guinea jungle and still can't light a fire when it's raining, why is it that I arrived there as a representative of the steel tool-using culture?

In 1972, finally, I happened to be on a beach in New Guinea and ran into a New Guinea politician called Yali, who asked me point-blank the question of why is it that you white people arrived here with plenty of cargo, while we black people had none. It was a really basic question about the most obvious thing in human history, and I burbled out some answer which, at the time, I realised was wrong as soon as I said it. I couldn't answer his obvious question then. I thought about it, and eventually, 25 years later, I addressed the question in my book, Guns, Germs and Steel.

Well, the book took me five years to write and it's 460 pages long. So I'm not going to inflict it on you this evening. Instead, I'll just summarise the answer in one minute. The answer is that the rise of agriculture was fundamental to the development of human societies around the world since the end of the last Ice Age, because it was agriculture that permitted the development of high human population densities, sedentary living in villages, and accumulation of storable food surpluses that could be used to feed professional craft specialists, metal workers, scribes, bureaucrats, kings and generals, who could devote all their time to those professions and who didn't have to spend any time hunting or gathering or growing their own food. So agriculture was prerequisite to the development of complex technologies, metallurgy, writing, politically centralised government and standing armies. No hunter-gatherer society ever developed any of those things, and so it was agriculture that gave rise to guns, germs and steel, the ingredients by which some people - the farmers - conquered other peoples, the hunter-gatherers - and that furnished the title of my book about human history.

Why, then, didn't some local hunter-gatherers develop farming and gain those advantages at many different places all around the world, including in Australia? It's because very few wild plant and animal species can be usefully domesticated, and those few species are concentrated in only a few areas of the world, especially the Fertile Crescent of Western Eurasia and China. So people of those few areas got a big head start on agriculture and a big advantage over other peoples.

Australia, as the smallest and least productive continent, has the fewest wild plant and animal species, and it has by far the lowest number of domesticable plant and animal species. To this date, the only native Australian crop is the Macadamia nut, but you can't feed a city like Melbourne on Macadamia nuts alone, and today is my second day in Australia and I still haven't had a chance to eat a Macadamia nut. I've just been eating imported foods. So, of course, Native Australians remained hunter-gatherers. The Australian environment provided them with no wild species to turn into crops and livestock: That's why even European farmers in Australia herd sheep and grow wheat instead of herding possums and growing Mallee trees. That's also why your cousins in New Guinea did become farmers. The New Guinean environment provided the wild ancestors of bananas, sugar cane, swamp taro and other crops. But the New Guinean environment still provided a smaller number of such crops than did the Fertile Crescent or China, so that's why New Guinea farmers didn't develop societies large enough to invent metal tools and writing and empires.

Those are the reasons why native Australians entered the modern world as hunter-gatherers without writing or metal tools. The answer has nothing to do with the peoples themselves; it's got everything to do with the environment. But today, 213 years later, Native Australians still have not achieved equality in education and in wealth with Eurasian-descended immigrant Australians. Many European Australians, consciously or subconsciously, attribute that continuing disparity to an assumed biological inferiority of Native Australians, reasoning that if they were biologically equal, then why haven't they caught up to Eurasian Australians in jobs and education by now? But it's difficult to acquire 13,000 years of Eurasian development within just 213 years. Take PNG. New Guineans now rule their own country. They no longer have white masters holding them back, they are working flat-out to catch up, and still, 26 years after independence, they haven't come close to catching up with Europe and Australia in education and in wealth. It's no surprise that Native Australians haven't caught up yet either in a country that they don't govern, in a society that doesn't have their welfare as its highest objective and that, in fact until recently, had killing or conquering or driving them out as one of its main objectives.

You Australians may detect parallels between that Australian history and the treatment of Native Americans by us new Americans that I am now going to describe to you. The basic similarity is that indigenous societies in both America and Australia were overwhelmed by an immigrant society, giving rise to problems that persist today. There are differences between Native Americans and Native Australians. Unlike Native Australians, most Native Americans were farmers, living in towns with walls and permanent multi-storied buildings. They had politically centralised societies capable of waging full-scale war and they were far more numerous - about 20 million Native Americans originally, compared to something like 300,000 Native Australians. The conquest of Native Americans began earlier and was completed slightly earlier than the conquest of Native Australians. The last large-scale massacre of American Indians by Whites took place already in 1890 but the last large-scale massacre of Native Australians wasn't until 1928, and the last independently living hunter-gatherer gave up or came in in 1911 in the US but not until around 1930 in Australia. But the outcome was still very similar on both continents.

Here's the story of white American/Native American relationships. See if any of this sounds familiar to you. Europeans arrived in the Americas in 1492 and began to settle in North America around 1600. They acquired land and traded with Indians, whom they began to kill and push out. They infected Indians with Eurasian diseases to which Indians had no immunity. Indians were infected largely accidentally, but occasionally intentionally as a result of Europeans giving Indians as gifts blankets that had been used to wrap smallpox patients. Something like 95 per cent of Indians died in epidemics of European diseases, which often spread far in advance of Europeans themselves.. For example, the most populous and politically advanced Native American society was that in the Mississippi Valley, and it disappeared before Europeans arrived in the Mississippi Valley, as a result of germs spreading from the coast in advance of Europeans themselves. In the same way, the most populous and politically advanced Native Australian societies were those in the Murray and Darling Valleys which largely disappeared in advance of Europeans as a result of the spreading of germs inland.

After 95 percent of Indians had been killed by diseases, the remaining five percent were conquered by murders, massacres and wars in which whites often enlisted Indians to track down and kill other Indians, much as happened in Australia. The surviving Indians were then mostly pushed west into reservations on unwanted unproductive land. Hundreds of treaties were signed between whites and Indians, and all of those treaties, without exception, were then broken by whites.

Until the year 1960, as far as the US and Canadian governments had any goals for Indians, those goals were to turn Indians into useful servants and workers because they were considered incapable of anything else. Indian culture, society and language were considered primitive and barbaric, and so a fundamental principle of our schools for Indians was to take Indians kids away from the barbaric influence of their parents, into boarding schools where physical and sexual abuse were common. Whites correctly perceived that preventing Indian children from speaking Native Indian languages was critical to destroying cultural identity, and so Indian kids in those schools caught speaking their language were punished by starvation and by beatings. I'll say more in a couple of minutes about languages.

This situation in the US began to change, especially with the civil rights movement of the 1950s which focussed on other minorities, particularly on Black Americans (African Americans). Some Indian groups began to sue in the courts to regain their land and rights and to obtain compensation. A few Indian groups have parlayed those court victories into establishing businesses and becoming affluent. Most Indian groups, though, have not been able to.

Conditions are often wretched beyond description in Native American communities, because there are no opportunities and there's a sense of hopelessness. There is widespread alcoholism, widespread foetal alcohol syndrome (meaning babies born already damaged at birth by alcohol ingested by their mothers during pregnancy), and there's widespread wife beating. For example, the Innu Indian tribe in Labrador has the highest suicide rate in the world, half of Innu adults are addicted to alcohol, 28 percent of Innu adults have attempted suicide, there are widespread beatings and sexual abuse of Innu kids by their own relatives and (until recently) by the Christian residential schools to which they were sent, 60 percent of Innu kids are addicted to gasoline sniffing, and they occasionally pass out and freeze to death outdoors in the winter at temperatures of minus 50 degrees.

Six months ago, Innu leaders became so desperate that they asked the Canadian government to take away their own children for the safety of their children. The Canadian government has evacuated the Innu children to detoxify them but has no long-term plan and is just putting them in foster homes.

So that's the situation in the US and Canada. All of you know the Australian situation better than I do, but I'm told that some of the things that I've just described for Native Americans have parallels here in Australia. What can be done? Obviously, in 20 minutes I can't solve problems with which you have been struggling for a long time. But, from examples of what has worked and what hasn't worked in other countries, I can suggest three components that belong in your eventual solutions: emphasis on Native languages, emphasis on affirmative action and emphasis on national identity.

Let's begin with Native languages. Language is crucial in ethnic identity. The most important characteristic distinguishing one human group from other human groups is its language. Language is the vehicle for any group's culture and literature and legends, and so throughout history conquerors who wanted to destroy the identity of conquered peoples have always done their best to destroy their languages, just as have the US and Canadian governments with our Indians.

Conversely, a people trying to re-establish their identity strives to maintain its distinctive language. The state of Israel brought back Hebrew, which had disappeared as a spoken language. The state of Ireland, even though English is the predominant language of Ireland, pays people in western Ireland to sit in their villages and to speak Irish so that there will be at least some Irish speakers in Ireland and so that Ireland won't just be yet another English-speaking country with nothing to distinguish it from all the other English-speaking countries in the world.

The status of Native languages is as disastrous in North America as it is in Australia. On each of these two continents, hundreds of languages were spoken upon European arrival. The majority of those languages are no longer spoken and, of those that still are spoken, most are what linguists term moribund: that's to say, they're no longer being learned by children and transmitted to children, they're spoken only by adults - usually old people - often just one or two old people.

There are only abut seven of your Native Australian languages that have more than a thousand speakers each. In the US and in Canada, survival of the languages of even the most populist Indian tribes, the Navajo and the Sioux (tribes of more than 100,000 people each), is in doubt because the Navajo and Sioux languages are being learned less and less by children. There are only two Native American languages that have regular radio broadcasts in those languages. I don't know how many Native Australian languages have their own radio stations and their own regular radio programs not in English but in that Native Australian language.

There are some common misconceptions about languages. One misconception is that we should encourage minority languages to disappear because it's languages that promote hatred and dissension and war in the world. That's wrong. The two worst cases of countries collapsing in warfare today are the former Yugoslavia and Somalia. In the former Yugoslavia, Serbs and Croats and Bosnians and Herzogovinans united by a common language (Serbo-Croat) are at each others throats. In Somalia, which is ethnically and linguistically one of the most homogenous countries in Africa, strife has reached the point among these peoples of common language that central government has vanished. Instead, the stable, multi-ethnic countries today are ones like Switzerland and Finland, where each ethnic group is strongly supported in retaining its own language.

There's another common misconception about language, which is that we should get rid of minority languages because we need a common language to communicate with each other. Yes, we do need a common language to communicate with each other, but that doesn't prevent our having additional languages: being bi-lingual. Nobody is suggesting that white Americans be forced to learn Navajo. Instead, the suggestion is that Navajos should be permitted or encouraged to learn Navaujo as well as English. We forget how normal bi-lingualism is in the world. I personally have never met a New Guinean who spoke fewer than two languages, and most of my New Guinean friends speak between seven and fifteen languages. Those include two languages used for communication with outsiders - English and Neo-Melanesian - and then their own local languages.

There are lots of examples now of majority government that paradoxically found that the best way to promote ethnic peace was by actively supporting their minority languages. For example, last October I visited the Dutch province of Friesland. There is a minority language in Holland called Fresian. When I was invited by some birdwatching friends to visit Friesland, at first I was a little worried. I knew that there was language-related strife and a succession movement in Belgium, and I was afraid that I was getting into a dangerous situation in Friesland.

Instead, what I found in Friesland is that the road signs are all bi-lingual in both Frisian and in Dutch. There is Frisian instruction in all of the schools in Friesland and the Frisians are happy with their joint identity as Frisians and as Dutch. What's happened is that it's obvious to Frisians that the Dutch State is massively behind the revival of the Frisian language and Frisian identity, putting lots of money into Friesian publishing and initially into a Frisian bible translation. The result is no separatist movement in Friesland today. A cynic who didn't care a bit about the Frisian language would say that by a modest expenditure of money to promote Frisian language and Frisian cultural identity, the Dutch government has bought its way out of ethnic problems and strife.

A second example is Wales. The night before I flew to Australia (the day before yesterday), I was in the United Kingdom sitting at dinner next to someone from Wales who was explaining to me that the British government, some years ago, faced a separatist movement in Wales, and the British government responded by throwing its full resources visibly behind promoting instruction in Welsh in schools. The speaking of the Welsh language is now spreading, and there is little risk of secession today.

And the third example is closer to home for you Australians. The New Zealand government is now visibly and vigorously promoting the Maori language. For six years recently, in fact, the teaching of Maori was compulsory in New Zealand schools.

What can you do in Australia, and what can we do in the US and Canada, about Native languages? Whatever else goes into your Native Australian policy, it should include a crash program to save dying languages, with far more money and resources being devoted than is the case at present. The program would include getting linguists to study and tape record every single surviving Native Australian language while there are still any speakers left. And it would involve subsidising radio broadcasts and newspapers wherever possible in Native Australian languages.

Already it is too late for Tasmanian and for a majority of other Australian languages that have disappeared, but it is still possible to save many languages. Far more money should go into teaching Native languages in schools, both in areas of Australia with substantial Native populations and in areas of Australia without substantial Native populations. There should be some exposure to Native Australian languages in every Australian school, just as there now is in Friesland and in Wales and in New Zealand. If you study and tape record a language, then you have the possibility of reviving it, even after the death of the last Native speaker of that language. For example, there is an Alaskan Indian language called Eyak which was the subject of study of by white New York linguist friend of mine called Michael Kraus, who devoted ten years to learning Eyak from the last two 80-year-old Eyak Indians. After the two of them died, young Eyaks became motivated to learn the Eyak language and they were able to do it after the death of the last Eyak speakers from the materials that Michael Kraus had collected. So an emphasis on Native languages I see as one element of a policy.

A second element is what's called affirmative action. Here's the basic idea behind affirmative action. When a group of people is on the average disadvantaged economically and educationally, it will require some extra resources to enable them to catch up. This idea is controversial because it seems to violate our sense of justice. If you say that discriminating against some minority is bad, then how can discriminating against the majority be good? There is a lot of resistance to the idea of affirmative action in the US, and I hear, that there is even more resistance in Australia. Well, you can learn from our experience in the US, both as to what has gone right with affirmative action in the US and as to what has gone wrong.

On the positive side, affirmative action started in the US with our 1954 Supreme Court decision forbidding racially based segregation in our schools. Affirmative action spread at first slowly. In 1966, when I moved to the University of California and began teaching medical students, my first University of California medical class consisted of 76 students, of whom 74 were white, two were Asians, and not a single Black, even though the Black population of Los Angeles numbers 700,000. That of course meant that Blacks have had much less access to medical care and less access to becoming doctors and entering other professions in the United States. Laws were passed mandating crash programs in affirmative action in the US, with the result that there has been a large increase in the medical school intake of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities. Asians now are represented in our medical classes in proportion to the general population.

In the last 47 years in the United States, there's been a big improvement of the role of Blacks in our economy and in politics. For example, at present, our Secretary of State (equivalent of your Foreign Secretary) and our National Security Advisor are both Blacks, but there is still a long way to go for Blacks and Native Americans to achieve equality in the United States.

Those are the positive aspects of affirmative action in the US. The negative aspects include that there is now a backlash against affirmative action. We've made a fundamental error in the United States. Affirmative action has been misrepresented as something done for minorities at the expense of the majority. In fact, even more important, affirmative action is something done for the sake of the majority. Affirmative action is an investment and a sound economic policy by the majority to achieve two goals for the majority: first to free the majority of the biggest problem destabilising our American society; second, to convert minorities, who contribute less than the average of the population to our economy or who are subsidised and are an actual drain on the economy, into people who contribute on the average as much as anyone else, and thereby to decrease the tax burden and increase the wealth of the majority. For example, if our one million Native American Indians earned incomes on the average equal to those of other Americans, they would contribute an additional tens of billions of dollars per year in perpetuity to the US economy. They actually contribute much less, and their need for social services costs the US government. It would be smart economic policy if an investment by the US majority in the Native American minority could produce that billions of dollars of payoff per year.

White Americans often fall into the trap of resenting affirmative action programs on behalf of Blacks and Native Americans and other minorities and failing to see the benefits for White Americans themselves. I often hear White Australians falling into the same trap of resentment when talking about Native Australians. Yes, it is true that one reason for affirmative action in the US and here in Australia is social justice, but that's not the only reason, and it may not be the most effective argument to use if you want to win votes for affirmative action. Instead, the largest group of people who would benefit from improving the economic condition of Australia's Native minority is Australia's non-Native majority. They could thereby find themselves in a wealthier country, they would be wasting less political energy on what in the long run is doomed as an obstructionist losing cause, and they will free themselves of a chronic blot on Australia's image with the rest of the world, particularly with all of your non-white Asian neighbours.

The final point that I wanted to mention as a step towards a solution is concerned with national identity. National identity is the feature of a nation that is hardest to put a dollar value on, but it's the feature with the highest dollar value. National identity is bound up with your view of your country's history and your country's distinctiveness. National identity is what is required to motivate Australians to make big sacrifices, to pay taxes voluntarily, to remain in Australia and not to emigrate after receiving a subsidised education here, to come back to Australia after going abroad for professional training, to defend Australia in time of war, to be prepared to die for Australia, and to be proud of being Australian.

In the 37 years that I have been visiting Australia, I have seen big changes in your national identity. In 1964, when I first came here, Australia's national identity was bound up with Britain. Australia seemed to me more British than Britain itself. Australia of 1964 reminded me of Britain of 1950. Australia hasn't shed - and it won't shed - its British heritage, but that heritage alone is no longer enough. There are lots of new Australians who have arrived here since 1964, and most of them are not British. Most of your trade is no longer with Britain. Your foreign policy and your miliary concerns are no longer focussed on Britain. Your Asian neighbours are no longer European colonies as they were a few decades ago. They're independent, and you're involved directly with them rather than with their former European colonial masters. To deal with Indonesians, you now have to deal directly with Jakarta. You can no longer deal with Amsterdam and by-pass Indonesians. You appreciate now that your history didn't begin in 1788, and your archaeologists have learnt a lot more about what happened in Australia long before 1788.

What, then, will Australia's new national identity end up like? I don't expect you to go to the opposite extreme from your former British-based identity and acquire a Native Australian-based identity, but I do expect that Native Australians and their history will play a much bigger role in your new identity than they did before, just as Maoris and their history are now playing a much bigger role in New Zealand's new emerging national identity.

We now know that Native Australians have been in Australia for about 65,000 years, much longer than Europeans have been in Europe. We now know that Native Australians were the first behaviourally modern humans of whom we have material evidence anywhere in the world, even earlier than the first behaviourally modern African. We now know that the first boats in the world were built by Native Australians who arrived here by boat and that it took another 50,000 years before anybody anywhere else in the world developed other boats. We now know that Australian environments were the most difficult environments ever mastered by pre-industrial humans.

All those things are much bigger landmarks in world history than were the First Fleet, or the crossing of the Blue Mountains, or even than was the founding of the Australian Commonwealth that we're celebrating today. All of those things, too, deserve to be celebrated and to play a big role in Australia's emerging national identity.

Because I've talked a lot today about parallels between Australia's and America's minorities, I'd like to conclude now with another parallel. The most important speech in recent American history was by the Black American leader Martin Luther King, who explained his dream about the future relations of Black Americans with other Americans. I, too, would like to express a dream about the future of Australia. It is a dream in which Native Australian languages are being revived rather than dying out; a dream in which affirmative action is no longer necessary because Native Australians will already have achieved equality; and it's a dream in which Native Australians loom much larger in Australia's national identity than they do today.

All that may sound like a difficult dream to bring true. But you Australians - both you Native Australians and you immigrant Australians - have already accomplished much more difficult feats, and you've already realised much more difficult dreams against much more daunting odds. So I'm confident that you will be able to make this dream as well come true.