Dr. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, has a new book out, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
Here I bring together two recent interviews with Diamond, the first from UCLA Magazine and the second from Life on Earth, an NPR program that airs here in Tucson, but comes from PRI (Public Radio International).
I like his definition of WEIRD societies: "Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic."
The World Until Yesterday
Published Jan 1, 2013
By Jack Feuer
Learn how to avoid diabetes. Or heart disease. Realize that religion is not just theology. And make sure your children speak more than one language. There is much in traditional societies that those of us in advanced cultures can adopt to live better as nations and individuals, says famed UCLA Professor of Geography Jared Diamond — author of the acclaimed mega-bestsellers Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel — in his new book, The World Until Yesterday.
Q: Why choose this topic?
A: Because it's what I've lived for the last 50 years of my life. Since 1964, I've been working on the island of New Guinea in cultures that were and partly still are traditional, small-scale cultures without centralized government, without law courts, and doing many things in traditional ways that have all these fascinating differences from our own ways. They settle disputes in different ways, they have different attitudes towards danger, they raise their children differently, they treat their old people differently and their health is very different.
Some of those ways horrified me, but some of them were wonderful, and I've incorporated them into my own life. So my book originated from what I learned from my New Guinea friends, but then it broadened into a survey of traditional societies around the world.
Q: In the book, you talk about the shortcomings of research that's limited to what you call "WEIRD" societies.
A: It's an acronym coined by a former UCLA grad student named Joe Henrich M.A. '95, Ph.D. '99 and his colleagues, and it stands for "Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic." The essence is that when we talk about human societies and we make comparisons, usually the comparisons are [between such nations as] Germany, Japan, the United States, Argentina and Indonesia — advanced, industrialized, educated societies. And such societies didn't exist until 5,000 years ago, so they are just a narrow slice of humanity. Worse yet, most studies by psychologists are just on American college undergraduates who major in psychology. It's a "WEIRD" sample.
Q: You note in The World Until Yesterday how fast traditional societies often become Westernized. Does that have any bearing on the lessons we can learn from them?
A: In the case of New Guinea, on the coast, Europeans started prowling around in the 1600s, but the first colonial government wasn't set up in coastal New Guinea until the 1880s, so Westernization there has been going on very slowly. It's only been in the last few decades that the [Westernized] epidemic of diabetes started, so that has taken 400 years. In the highlands, Europeans didn't arrive until the 1930s and 1950s. I met highlanders who had only come under European influence five years before I met them, and yet they're already speaking pidgin English and some of them were writing. So there's enormous variation in speed. My guess is the quicker the speed of change, the more drastic the changes.
Q: You chose nine broad fields to discuss in 11 chapters and left out others. Why those and not others?
A: Because if I included the other topics, the book would have been 7,000 pages long. ... I selected things into which I had some insight, a range of things to illustrate the differences between traditional and modern societies. Things that we can do ourselves, such as how we raise our children and our attitudes towards danger. Things that we want to get away from, like war. Things that we certainly want to emulate, like not dying of cancer, heart disease and stroke. There's also the issue of religion. And, of course, settling disputes.
Q: You break human organizations into four groups: bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states. Are there tribes that act like states and states that act like chiefdoms?
A: Even within the U.S., a WEIRD society, there's a lot that's essentially tribal. In small, rural areas where everybody knows everybody, if you have a dispute with your neighbor, you probably will not immediately hire a lawyer ... you probably work it out or find mediators. Or in downtown Los Angeles, when urban gangs have disputes, they don't go to a priest or a lawyer. They work out their disputes in traditional ways of compensation or retaliation. That's part of why the title of my book is The World Until Yesterday. Because yesterday is still with us.
Q: Other topics you explore include the elderly, languages and multilingualism. What can we learn from multilingualism?
A: We know that children raised multilingually do not suffer a disadvantage in learning language. They are not less effective at speaking English. They are more effective at learning other languages and then, the bombshell which has come out in the last five years is that the best protection that we now know of against Alzheimer's disease and other dementias of old age is to be multilingual. So that is a very strong argument for raising children multilingually.
Q: What can we learn from traditional societies about religion?
A: Religion is one of those things that differ so much between traditional and modern societies. Religion is often conceived as belief in the supernatural and God. But there is much more to it than that. In fact, I conclude my chapter on religion with the stories of three friends of mine in whose lives religion is important for reasons that have nothing to do with theology. Almost all of us go through a phase where we deal with religion; either we lose our original faith or we were brought up without it and we get interested and explore religion, or we change religions as one of my friends did. All of us inevitably try to figure out what religion means to us. I think it's valuable to realize that religion is not just a matter of supernatural beliefs.
Q: One of the most poignant parts of the book was when you talk about how quickly people who come here from traditional societies begin to develop Western diseases. Why is that such a pernicious effect, and does the trend work in reverse?
A: Absolutely. There are lots of people who choose the reverse trend in the U.S. or elsewhere. Americans who have learned about traditional diets or are overweight and beginning to develop diabetes or heart problems may be able to avoid these problems by watching what they eat and by exercising. Whole countries have adopted these ideas as matters of national strategy, and the results are dramatic.
Q: In this book and throughout your work, you say there's no magic bullet. If you don't handle every aspect of a problem, you don't solve the problem. Given that, how do we fix things in our societies?
A: People often ask me, "What is the one most important thing that our society needs to do or that I need to do in my own life?" And my flip but accurate answer is, "Learn not to look for the one most important thing to do." For instance, you often hear people ask, "What's the one most important requirement for a happy marriage?" Anyone who asks that question is bound for divorce. To have a happy marriage, you have to get 37 things right: sex, money, children, values, religion, inlaws, and 31 other things. If you agree about all of them but the in-laws, that's enough to get you divorced.
Q: Then what problem do you tackle first?
A: We don't do things "first" in life. We multitask. It's not like I'm going to devote the next two years of my life to solving my genetic heritage. And then two years from now, I'll get to culture. The reality is that, of course, we deal with things simultaneously.
Q: You're a National Medal of Science winner. You have a doctorate in physiology. Why write books about popular science?
A: Academics are not supposed to write books for the general public. They're supposed to write research papers on gall bladders and other arcane subjects. But American science has severe financial problems. Lawmakers do not understand the importance of science. And they're not going to understand it until we, the faculty, explain these things in terms that the general public can understand.
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Here is the episode of NPR's Life on Earth.
Best-selling author Jared Diamond‘s new book “The World Until Yesterday” is part anthropology, part personal memoir drawing on decades of field work in New Guinea. He tells host Steve Curwood the book explores lessons westerners could learn from tribal cultures on issues as varied as conflict, childcare and personal safety.
CURWOOD: "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and "Collapse" are two of the mostinfluential social anthropology books ever written. Now author and UCLA professor Jared Diamond is out with a new volume, “The World Until Yesterday.” Professor Diamond intended to write a small book of personal memoirs but says his editors had other plans.
DIAMOND: So, the book evolved into an examination of traditional small societies all around the world throughout history, laced with my anecdotes from New Guinea and learning what lessons these societies have to teach us about how to conduct our own personal lives.
CURWOOD: This new book opens at an airport in Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea, where Diamond was struck by the rapid modernization of the island's peoples over the decades that he's done field work there.
Jared Diamond is a UCLA geography professor and Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Guns Germs, and Steel.“ (Wikimedia Commons)
DIAMOND: It's taken a couple hundred thousand years for anatomically modern humans in many parts of Eurasia to transform themselves from hunter-gatherers without writing to famers and industrial people with writing. But in New Guinea, this has happened in parts of New Guinea within a few decades. And some friends of mine in New Guinea grew up making stone tools and then by the time I met them they were using steel tools and they had writing. The changes have been telescoped in New Guinea into a short time.
CURWOOD: One of your most interesting observations was the different number of people who were in the modern airport and how they would have behaved in the past – can you describe some of that for us?
DIAMOND: Sure. The New Guinea capital city airport that I was in, in 2006, was a normal airport in that when I came in there, there was nobody else in that airport whom I knew – everybody was strangers, the baggage attendants, all the other passengers, and for me, of course, that’s no big deal in our modern society, we’re always encountering strangers. On my drive down here today, everybody that I was passing was a stranger.
But in traditional New Guinea and in any traditional society, people don’t move. If you move, there are rules about who is your friend and who are your enemies. Any stranger is assumed to be an enemy. And so that 2006 New Guinea scene where I was surrounded by strangers would have been unthinkable in traditional New Guinea. I would have freaked out, I would have expected to be killed instantaneously, I would have run or started attacking other people.
CURWOOD: Now, you tell an interesting story, in Papua New Guinea, about this tension among strangers, and how folks diffuse the war that would otherwise begin. And what I’m thinking of is the story of this driver for a company who’s zipping along, a kid darts out from behind a bus and gets run over and killed. The driver, of course, is now expecting that the family of this little boy will now try to kill him. How did this situation get resolved and how does that reflect traditional values and how might we use those values today?
DIAMOND: It’s a gut-wrenching story that was told to me by a friend of mine who was in New Guinea. There was a traffic accident, so, a kid ran out incautiously across the street and got killed. If such a thing happens in the United States, the state intervenes, there may be a criminal case if the driver was incautious, and certainly, there may be a civil case where the relatives of the dead child are going to sue the driver for having killed the child.
In New Guinea, it’s different. In this case, the next day, the father of the dead boy came to visit the employer of the driver. And the employer was afraid that there was going to be violence but, no, the father of the dead boy wanted to settle the matter in the traditional New Guinea way by payment of compensation. In this case the compensation was large by New Guinea standards, it was several hundred dollars and some food, but trivial by our standards.
And after negotiations, on I think, the fifth day after the accident, the relatives of the dead boy, the father and mother and uncles, sat down together for a meal with the employer of the driver. They made speeches in which they talked about missing the dead boy. My friend made a speech in which he ended up crying because he said, ‘I’m identifying with what you must be going through because I also have young children and nothing can compensate for the death of a young child.’ The end result after five days was that the whole matter was settled, there was emotional clearance, the people went on with their lives, whereas in the United States, the idea that after 5 days you would sit down with the killer of your child is unthinkable. Instead, there would be a lawsuit.
So, this illustrates that in New Guinea, disputes are settled in a way that aims at emotional clearance and getting on with your life. Whereas in a state government, you never meet the person again, the last thing you hear about is emotional clearance and you spend the rest of your life churned up with feelings left over from the accident.
CURWOOD: Now, traditional society in many respects sounds wonderful, and then there are horrible things like killing babies, you mention in your book that sometimes if a baby is born and has a deformity, or sometimes in the case of twins, the mother will kill the newborn for the sake of the tribe as a whole. Can you explain that?
DIAMOND: Yes, it’s true that in many traditional societies, babies who are born impaired are killed. What on earth, though, can you do if you are living in a marginal society? It’s also the case that if you are living in traditional societies, some of them are abandoned or killed…their old people. But what again can you do if you are a small group that is walking to the next camp and you’ve got an old person who is not capable of walking? So, there are both things that we find horrible in traditional societies, and things that we find wonderful in them – often how they bring up their children, often how they treat their old people, how they approach danger, how they remain healthy.
CURWOOD: When you write about the elderly, you title your chapter “Treatment of Old People: Cherish, Abandon, or Kill” and I suppose that sums it all up, but perhaps you could expand on that for us.
DIAMOND: Those are the extremes of choices about what to do with old people. This is an issue that interests me increasingly having passed my 75th birthday some months ago. I used to, when I was a child, thought of 75 as being really old. And now it feels to me as if I’m entering the prime of life. So, in traditional societies, depending on circumstances, old people may be abandoned if there is no way for taking care of them, for example, if the society is nomadic; old people may be encouraged to commit suicide, they may be actively killed.
But at the opposite side, old people in societies that are sedentary, that live in permanent huts and villages where it’s easy to take care of old people, then old people will spend their old years surrounded by their children and relatives and friends and they have much more socially rich life, satisfying life, they have much more value than in modern American society.
CURWOOD: I thought the section on raising children was really fascinating. Here in the US most of the games our kids play are teaching them, well, how to compete with their peers. But in your experience from New Guinea, the games that children play in are largely about teaching them how to share. Why do you suppose that is?
DIAMOND: Probably because they are living in small societies where the people with whom you are playing games are the people you’ll be dealing with for the rest of your life. It’s the case that in a really small society, one individual is not supposed to get ahead, instead any individual who is successful is expected to share what he or she gets with other people. But conversely, if you are down on your luck, then you can get food and things from other people.
So, sharing is necessary for survival in traditional societies, in contrast with modern American society. We stress the individual, getting ahead, you do as well as you can and you’re certainly not going to share everything you’ve acquired with all of your relatives and cousins and people you knew 10 years ago.
CURWOOD: As we were preparing for our interview with you, this was happening just as the mass shooting came to light in Newton, Connecticut. I kept wondering how would a tribal community handle a member of the tribe who was emotionally unbalanced in that way.
DIAMOND: I’ll give you an example of how a tribal community did deal with a member of the tribe who was emotionally unbalanced. This example came from the Kung San people of the Kalahari Desert of Southwest Africa. The Kung formerly, occasionally, killed each other, and when state control came into place over the Kung, the killing stopped. But there was among the last killings, there, a Kung man who was really, really dangerous and possibly deranged by our standards. He had killed several people.
And finally what happened was that a group of men went into his band, he was there surrounded by members of his band, and in the presence of his relatives, they killed him. The relatives did not interfere because they recognized that this guy was dangerous and deranged, they were too afraid to take care of him themselves, but they did not interfere when other people eliminated him. So, that’s one way to deal with dangerous people in small-scale societies.
CURWOOD: You coined a term in this book that you call constructive paranoia. And you write a couple of chapters about dangers and how to stay safe with this concept - tell me more about this.
DIAMOND: Sure. Dealing with danger is one of the things that I observed in New Guinea and that I have learned that have had the biggest impact on my life and my attitude towards nature. I was camping out with some New Guineans, I was picking campsites in a forest, and I picked what I thought was a gorgeous campsite under a colossal, beautiful tree. And, the New Guineans with me freaked out and they said, ‘we’re not going to sleep under this tree.’ And I said, ‘what’s the matter? Why not?’ And they said, ‘because the tree is dead.’ And I looked up and saw that yes, it is dead, but it was such a big, huge tree that I said ‘it’s not going to fall down for 50 years, don’t be silly.’
But, no, they were not going to sleep under that dead tree. I thought their fears were exaggerated, but then, as I spent more time in New Guinea forest, I realized: OK, well the chance is 1 in 1,000 that this tree is going to crash on me tonight, but if I expect to spend 10,000 nights in the forest because I expect to live 30 years and I spend a lot of time in the forest, if I ignore 1 in 1,000 risks, by the time I’ve run that risk 10,000 times, I’ll have died 10 times over.
How that affects me now is that when I shower in the morning, I recognize that for older people, slipping in the shower is one of the big risks of life, and yes, the chance of my falling down in the shower this morning was only 1 in 1,000, but I intend to take a shower every day for the next 20 or 30 years, and if I’m not careful in the shower then I’m going to end up with a broken hip and then probably be dead. So that’s an example of constructive paranoia guiding my own life. I’m very careful about small things that each time you do them aren’t dangerous but that will eventually catch up with you if you’re not careful.
CURWOOD: Jared Diamond, you are 75 years old now, and you spent most of your adult life traveling back and forth to remote corners of the earth and spending time among traditional tribal peoples. So how did the things you learned inform how you live your life and the way that you raised your own children?
DIAMOND: One is my attitude towards danger that I mentioned. The other is raising children, so I have twin sons who are now 25 years old, and my observations from New Guineans raising their own children informed my raising my children. One thing is that New Guineans and traditional people in general allow their children as much freedom as possible. They consider children to be autonomous creatures capable of making their own decisions and I let my kids make their own decisions insofar as possible.
There were some surprising results (laughs). At the age of three my son Max fell in love at first sight with snakes. My wife and I are not snake lovers, but alright, Max loves snakes and let’s help him keep snakes as pets and Max ended up with 147 pet snakes and frogs and lizards. Eventually he got beyond snakes and he got interested in cooking so now he’s a professional chef. But that’s an example of allowing kids the opportunity to choose what they want.
And still another example is that never, not once, did I ever hit my children. I found that it was possible to get them to do what was necessary, to discipline them, without hitting, and, that’s again something that I’ve learned from New Guinea; you never, never hit a child.
CURWOOD: Jared Diamond, what can we expect next from you? Another book, I suppose?
DIAMOND: Yes! I already have an idea for another book which I expect to publish around my 82nd birthday, but I’m still thinking about what might go into that.
CURWOOD: Seven years to write.
DIAMOND: Yes. They take a long time.
CURWOOD: Thank you so much Jared Diamond.
DIAMOND: (Laughs.) You’re welcome.
CURWOOD: Jared Diamond’s new book is called “The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies.”