Diamond was born in Boston, Massachusetts, United States. Both of his parents were from East European Jewish families who had emigrated to the United States. His father, Louis Diamond, was a physician, and his mother, Flora Kaplan, a Teacher, Linguist, and concert Pianist. Diamond himself began studying piano at age six; years later he would propose to his wife after playing the Brahms Intermezzo in A minor for her. He attended the Roxbury Latin School and earned a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology and history from Harvard College in 1958 and a PhD on the physiology and biophysics of membranes in the gall bladder from Trinity College, University of Cambridge in 1961.
After graduating from Cambridge, Diamond returned to Harvard as a Junior Fellow until 1965, and, in 1968, became a professor of physiology at UCLA Medical School. While in his twenties he developed a second, parallel, career in ornithology and ecology, specialising in New Guinea and nearby islands. Later, in his fifties, Diamond developed a third career in environmental history and became a professor of geography at UCLA, his current position. He also teaches at LUISS Guido Carli in Rome. He won the National Medal of Science in 1999 and Westfield State University granted him an honorary doctorate in 2009.
Diamond's first popular book, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991), examines human evolution and its relevance to the modern world, incorporating evidence from anthropology, evolutionary biology, genetics, ecology, and linguistics. The book traces how humans evolved to be so different from other animals, despite sharing over 98% of our DNA with our closest animal relatives, the chimpanzees. The book also examines the animal origins of language, art, agriculture, smoking and drug use, and other apparently uniquely human attributes. It was well received by critics and won the 1992 Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
In his third book, Why is Sex Fun?, also published in 1997, Diamond discusses evolutionary factors underlying features of human sexuality that are generally taken for granted but that are highly unusual among our animal relatives. Those features include a long-term pair relationship (marriage), coexistence of economically cooperating pairs within a shared communal territory, provision of parental care by fathers as well as by mothers, having sex in private rather than in public, concealed ovulation, female sexual receptivity encompassing most of the menstrual cycle (including days of infertility), female but not male menopause, and distinctive secondary sexual characteristics.
Diamond's next book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, published in 2005, examines a range of past societies in an attempt to identify why they either collapsed or continued to thrive and considers what contemporary societies can learn from these historical examples. As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, he argues against explanations for the failure of past societies based primarily on cultural factors, instead focusing on ecology. Among the societies mentioned in the book are the Norse and Inuit of Greenland, the Maya, the Anasazi, the indigenous people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Japan, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and modern Montana. The book concludes by asking why some societies make disastrous decisions, how big businesses affect the environment, what our principal environmental problems are today, and what individuals can do about those problems. Like Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse was translated into dozens of languages, became an international best-seller, and was the basis of a television documentary produced by the National Geographic Society. It was also nominated for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books.
In 2008, Diamond published an article in The New Yorker entitled "Vengeance Is Ours", describing the role of revenge in tribal warfare in Papua New Guinea. A year later two indigenous people mentioned in the article filed a lawsuit against Diamond and The New Yorker claiming the article defamed them. In 2013, The Observer reported that the lawsuit "was withdrawn by mutual consent after the sudden death of their Lawyer."
In 2010, Diamond co-edited (with James Robinson) Natural Experiments of History, a collection of seven case studies illustrating the multidisciplinary and comparative approach to the study of history that he advocates. The book’s title stems from the fact that it is not possible to study history by the preferred methods of the laboratory sciences, i.e., by controlled experiments comparing replicated human societies as if they were test tubes of bacteria. Instead, one must look at natural experiments in which human societies that are similar in many respects have been historically perturbed, either by different starting conditions or by different impacts. The book’s afterword classifies natural experiments, discusses the practical difficulties of studying them, and offers suggestions how to address those difficulties.
Diamond's most recent book, The World Until Yesterday, published in 2012, asks what the western world can learn from traditional societies. It surveys 39 traditional small-scale societies of farmers and hunter-gatherers with respect to how they deal with universal human problems. The problems discussed include dividing space, resolving disputes, bringing up children, treatment of elders, dealing with dangers, formulating religions, learning multiple languages, and remaining healthy. The book suggests that some practices of traditional societies could be usefully adopted in the modern industrial world today, either by individuals or else by society as a whole.