Saturday, February 09, 2013


Pink Floyd's 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon is probably one of the two or three greatest rock albums of fall time - it remained on the Billboard 200 for a staggering 741 consecutive weeks, and nearly every one of its songs is recognizable to music lovers. Wikipedia offers an overview of the album's conceptual foundations:
The Dark Side of the Moon built upon experiments Pink Floyd had attempted in their previous live shows and recordings, but lacks the extended instrumental excursions which, according to critic David Fricke, had become characteristic of the band after founder member Syd Barrett left in 1968. Guitarist David Gilmour, Barrett's replacement, later referred to those instrumentals as "that psychedelic noodling stuff", and with Waters cited 1971's Meddle as a turning-point towards what would be realised on the album. The Dark Side of the Moon's lyrical themes include conflict, greed, the passage of time, death, and insanity, the latter inspired in part by Barrett's deteriorating mental state; he had been the band's principal composer and lyricist.[8] The album is notable for its use of musique concrète[4] and conceptual, philosophical lyrics, as found in much of the band's other work.

Each side of the album is a continuous piece of music. The five tracks on each side reflect various stages of human life, beginning and ending with a heartbeat, exploring the nature of the human experience, and (according to Waters) "empathy".[8] "Speak to Me" and "Breathe" together stress the mundane and futile elements of life that accompany the ever-present threat of madness, and the importance of living one's own life—"Don't be afraid to care".[23] By shifting the scene to an airport, the synthesiser-driven instrumental "On the Run" evokes the stress and anxiety of modern travel, in particular Wright's fear of flying.[24] "Time" examines the manner in which its passage can control one's life and offers a stark warning to those who remain focused on mundane aspects; it is followed by a retreat into solitude and withdrawal in "Breathe (Reprise)". The first side of the album ends with Wright and vocalist Clare Torry's soulful metaphor for death, "The Great Gig in the Sky".[4] Opening with the sound of cash registers and loose change, the first track on side two, "Money", mocks greed and consumerism using tongue-in-cheek lyrics and cash-related sound effects (ironically, "Money" has been the most commercially successful track from the album, with several cover versions produced by other bands).[25] "Us and Them" addresses the isolation of the depressed with the symbolism of conflict and the use of simple dichotomies to describe personal relationships. "Any Colour You Like" concerns the lack of choice one has in a human society. "Brain Damage" looks at a mental illness resulting from the elevation of fame and success above the needs of the self; in particular, the line "and if the band you're in starts playing different tunes" reflects the mental breakdown of former band-mate Syd Barrett. The album ends with "Eclipse", which espouses the concepts of alterity and unity, while forcing the listener to recognise the common traits shared by humanity.[26][27]
Here is the documentary.


If there are a handful of albums in the rock universe that deserve a bells-and-whistles DVD treatment, Dark Side of the Moon is clearly among them. In the ’70s and ’80s, the classic 1973 album by Pink Floyd remained on the Billboard 200 for a staggering 741 consecutive weeks, a record that will likely stand forever. Echoing themes of alienation, paranoia, and death, it is a dreamy, often trancelike tour through the subconscious of Floyd lyricist Roger Waters.

This 84-minute DVD offers a track-by-track look at the making of Dark Side of the Moon, featuring interviews with band members Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright, plus rare acoustic versions of “Breathe” and “Brain Damage.”

For those fans interested in the story behind the crafting of one of rock’s true landmark records, this is the equivalent of ambrosia. Discussions involve the studio-specific techniques used to create the clock loops on “Time,” the cash register sounds on “Money,” and the vocal chorus on “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Special features include alternate versions of “Brain Damage,” “Breathe,” and “Time.”

Richard Davidson Probes the Roots of Emotions In the Brain

From WUWM (Milwaukee Public Radio), this is a cool interview with Dr. Richard Davidson, author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live--and How You Can Change Them. Davidson has been a member of the Dalai Lama's Mind and Life Institute Board of Directors since 1991, replacing Mind and Life founder, Francisco Varela, following his death.

In addition, Davidson is the Director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, and is currently the William James Professor and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin. at Madison. You can find many of his more than 250 publications at this page.

Madison Scientist Probes the Roots of Emotions In the Brain

Mitch Teich

Richard Davidson is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at UW Madison.


When Richard Davidson first began his doctoral work more than 30 years ago, the disciplines of neuroscience and psychology didn't play well together. The idea that emotions were brain activity that could actually be measured and quantified in a laboratory setting was dismissed by most researchers. But Davidson persevered and is today the foremost expert on the science of emotions.

He’s a scientist at UW-Madison, and his recent book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, explores how our emotions are as much a part of our brain activity as its other functions, like cognition.

We reached Davidson in Madison in March and he explained to Lake Effect's Bonnie North why the topic of emotions captured his professional interest so early in his career.

Davidson has been in Madison since 1984, and he is currently the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, and Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Friday, February 08, 2013

Alain de Botton Proposes a Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success

From Open Culture, this is a TED Talk by pop philosopher Alain de Botton on his vision for a more kind and compassionate philosophy of success. Among his many books are How to Think More About Sex (The School of Life) [2012], How Proust Can Change Your Life [1998], Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion [2012], and The Architecture of Happiness [2004].

Alain de Botton Proposes a Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success

February 7th, 2013

For better or worse, Alain de Botton is the face of pop philosophy. He has advocated “religion for atheists” in a book of the same name (to the deep consternation of some atheists and the eloquent interest of others); he has distilled selected philosophical nuggets into self-help in his The Consolations of Philosophy; and most recently, he’s tackled a subject close to everybody’s heart (to put it charitably) in How to Think More About Sex. As a corollary to his intellectual interests in human betterment, de Botton also oversees The School of Life, a “cultural enterprise offering good ideas for everyday life” with a base in Central London and a colorful online presence. Many critics disdain de Botton’s shotgun approach to philosophy, but it gets people reading (not just his own books), and gets them talking, rather than just shouting at each other.

In addition to his publishing, de Botton is an accomplished and engaging speaker. Although himself a committed secularist, in his TED talks, he has posed some formidable challenges to the smug certainties of liberal secularism and the often brutal certainties of libertarian meritocracy. Apropos of the latter, in the talk above, de Botton takes on what he calls “job snobbery,” the dominant form of snobbery today, he says, and a global phenomenon. Certainly, we can all remember any number of times when the question “What do you do?” has either made us exhale with pride or feel like we might shrivel up and blow away. De Botton takes this common experience and draws from it some interesting inferences: for example, against the idea that we (one assumes he means Westerners) live in a materialistic society, de Botton posits that we primarily use material goods and career status not as ends in themselves but as the means to receive emotional rewards from those who choose how much love or respect to “spend” on us based on where we land in any social hierarchy.

Accordingly, de Botton asks us to see someone in a Ferrari not as greedy but as “incredibly vulnerable and in need of love” (he does not address other possible compensations of middle-aged men in overly-expensive cars). For de Botton, modern society turns the whole world into a school, where equals compete with each other relentlessly. But the problem with the analogy is that in the wider world, the admirable spirit of equality runs up against the realities of increasingly entrenched inequities. Our inability to see this is nurturned, de Botton points out, by an industry that sells us all the fiction that, with just enough know-how and gumption, anyone can become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. But if this were true, of course, there would be hundreds of thousands of Zuckerbergs and Jobs.

For de Botton, when we believe that those who make it to the top do so only on merit, we also, in a callous way, believe those at the bottom deserve their place and should stay there—a belief that takes no account of the accidents of birth and the enormity of factors outside anyone’s control. This shift in thinking, he says—especially in the United States—gets reflected in a shift in language. Where in former times someone in tough circumstances might be called “unfortunate” or “down on their luck,” they are now more likely to be called “a loser,” a social condition that exacerbates feelings of personal failure and increases the numbers of suicides. The rest of de Botton’s richly observed talk lays out his philosophical and psychological alternatives to the irrational reasoning that makes everyone responsible for everything that happens to them. As a consequence of softening the harsh binary logic of success/failure, de Botton concludes, we can find greater meaning and happiness in the work we choose to do—because we love it, not because it buys us love.

Related Content:

~ Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

Jim And Jamie Dutcher: "The Hidden Life of Wolves"

This is a cool segment from the Diane Rehm Show yesterday morning - an interview with Jim And Jamie Dutcher who have spent years of their lives living with and studying wolves. Their new book is The Hidden Life of Wolves. Here is a description of the book:
The photography is stunningly beautiful and the insights that Jim and Jamie Dutcher share with us opens a world of understanding into wolf behavior." –Apogee Photo Magazine 
Delve into amazingly intimate wolf photography by Jim and Jamie Dutcher, a couple who spent many years living with a pack of wolves at the edge of Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness, observing their complex social hierarchy. Here is the alpha pair, leaders of the pack, often the only couple that mate. Here are the pups, born with eyes shut in the spring, tousled by their mother through the first six weeks of life. Here is the omega wolf, lowest ranking wolf in the pack, whose subservience, often playful, alleviates pack tension. Here are moments of cooperation and moments of snarling dominance, moments of communication and affection. Here, too, are heartwarming moments of connection between the Dutchers and the wolves, caught in pictures that remind us how close the links are between wolves in the wild and the beloved family dog.

Short chapters introduce the wolves as individuals, describe the Dutchers' years of coming to know them, and address the complex conservation issues surrounding the near-extinction and now replenishment of the species in the wild. Sidebars explore myths about wolves, including Native American spirit stories, European fairy tales, and modern ranching hearsay. 
For animal lovers, nature lovers, environmentalists, and especially dog lovers, this book shares the new understanding gained by six years of the authors' living intimately with wild wolves. Created to complement a traveling exhibition that makes its debut at Chicago's Field Museum in March 2013, it will also appeal to those unable to see the show.
Enjoy the discussion.

Jim And Jamie Dutcher: "The Hidden Life of Wolves"

Puppies maintain and develop their own pup hierarchy for their first few years of life, and their ranks are established early. (Photo by Jim and Jamie Dutcher/National Geographic Stock p. 85)


  • From 1990 to 1996, Jim and Jamie Dutcher lived among a pack of gray wolves just outside Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness. During these years of observation, the Dutchers say they found these often misunderstood animals to be highly social, communicating and bonding with family in a way humans could easily understand. Their new book, accompanied by Jim's photography, documents their findings and argues that the gray wolf should not have been removed from the endangered species list.

    • Jim Dutcher, author and photographer, "The Hidden Life of Wolves." Jim is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and cinematographer.
    • Jamie Dutcher, co-author and co-producer, "The Hidden Life of Wolves." Jamie worked in the animal hospital of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

    Related Items

    The Hidden Life of Wolves

    Jim And Jamie Dutcher's Wolf Photography

    Published with permission of the National Geographic Society from the book The Hidden Life of Wolves by Jim and Jamie Dutcher. Copyright ©2013 Jim Dutcher and Jamie Dutcher. All rights reserved. 

    Watch The Hidden Life Of Wolves

    Read An Excerpt

    Published with permission of the National Geographic Society from the book The Hidden Life of Wolves by Jim and Jamie Dutcher. Copyright ©2013 Jim Dutcher and Jamie Dutcher. All rights reserved.

    Neil Shubin - The Universe Within

    Palaeontologist and professor Neil Shubin, author of The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People, was recently a guest at the RSA. This is the audio of his presentation, complete with audience questions.

    Here is a brief description of the book:
    From one of our finest and most popular science writers, and the best-selling author of Your Inner Fish, comes the answer to a scientific mystery as big as the world itself: How are the events that formed our solar system billions of years ago embedded inside each of us? 
    In Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin delved into the amazing connections between human bodies—our hands, heads, and jaws—and the structures in fish and worms that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. In The Universe Within, with his trademark clarity and exuberance, Shubin takes an even more expansive approach to the question of why we look the way we do. Starting once again with fossils, he turns his gaze skyward, showing us how the entirety of the universe’s fourteen-billion-year history can be seen in our bodies. As he moves from our very molecular composition (a result of stellar events at the origin of our solar system) through the workings of our eyes, Shubin makes clear how the evolution of the cosmos has profoundly marked our own bodies.
    Interesting book - nice discussion.

    The Universe Within

    31st Jan 2013

    Listen to the audio

    (full recording including audience Q&A)
    Please right-click link and choose "Save Link As..." to download audio file onto your computer.

    RSA Thursday

    Professor Neil Shubin, one of the world’s most distinguished palaeontologists, visits the RSA to reveal the extraordinary evolutionary and cosmic adventure of the human body.

    Against the epic backdrop of billions of years of evolution from the Big Bang, humanity's place in the cosmos can look tiny and insignificant. But, as Professor Shubin reveals, the one place where universe, solar system and planet merge is inside our own bodies.

    Join Neil Shubin at the RSA to discover how in every one of us lies the most profound story of all - how we and our world came to be.

    Speaker: Neil Shubin, Robert R. Bensley Professor of Anatomy at the University of Chicago and author.

    Chair: Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA

    Thursday, February 07, 2013

    Eric Schwitzgebel - If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious

    One of the papers featured in the Fifth Consciousness Online Conference comes from Eric Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at U.C. Riverside (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley, 1997).

    For the Online Consciousness Conference, he submitted a paper arguing If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious. A brief explanation of materialism might help (from The Dictionary of the Philosophy of Mind):
    There are two prominent construals of `material'. First, according to many philosophers, something is material if and only if it is spatial, extended in space. One might thus propose that what it means to say that something is material is that it is extended in space. This construal of `material' is inspired by Descartes's influential characterization of material bodies, in Meditation II. Given this construal, materialism is just the view that everything that exists is extended in space, that nothing nonspatial exists. This portrayal of materialism is attractively simple, but may be unilluminating. 
    The problem is that the relevant notion of spatial extension may depend on the very notion of material in need of elucidation. If there is such dependence, conceptual circularity hampers the proposed characterization of materialism. The main worry here is that the notion of spatial extension is actually the notion of something's being extended in physical space, or the notion of something's being physically extended. It seems conceivable that something (perhaps a purely spiritual being) has temporal extension, in virtue of extending over time, even though that thing lacks extension in physical space. It does not seem self-contradictory, in other words, to hold that something is temporal (or, temporally extended) but is not a body. If this is so, the proposed characterization of materialism should be qualified to talk of physical space or physical extension. In that case, however, the threat of conceptual circularity is transparent. Even if there is no strict circularity here, the pertinent notion of spatial extension may be too closely related to the notion of material to offer genuine clarification. At a minimum, we need a precise explanation of spatial extension, if talk of such extension aims to elucidate talk of what is material. Perhaps a notion of spatial extension is crucial to an elucidation of materialism, but further explanation, without conceptual circularity, will then be needed. (Cf. Chomsky 1988.)
    In this article, Schwitzgebel argues that if they (meaning materialists) accept that if other non-human life forms have consciousness, then by extension, the collected conscious entities that comprise the United States could be seen as a life form of its own, possessing consciousness.
    If you’re a materialist, you probably also think that conscious experience would be present in a wide range of alien beings behaviorally very similar to us even if they are physiologically very different.  And you ought to think that.  After all, to deny it seems insupportable Earthly chauvinism; the vast universe presumably contains many entities that a neutral observer would recognize to be as complex, linguistic, intelligent, and self-aware as we are.  It would be odd if among them only we with our neurons had subjective experience or (as we philosophers call it) phenomenal consciousness.  But, I will argue, a materialist who accepts the possibility of consciousness in oddly-formed aliens ought to accept the possibility of consciousness in spatially distributed group entities.  If she then also accepts rabbit consciousness, she ought to accept the possibility of consciousness even in rather dumb group entities.  Finally, the United States would seem to be a rather dumb group entity of the relevant sort.  (Or maybe, even, it’s rather smart, but that’s more than I need for my argument.)  If we set aside our morphological prejudices against spatially distributed group entities, we can see that the United States has all the types of properties that materialists tend to regard as characteristic of conscious beings.
    Here is another section that may inspire you to read the whole article:
    4. A Telescopic View of the United States.

    A planet-sized alien who squints might see the United States as a single diffuse entity consuming bananas and automobiles, wiring up communications systems, touching the moon, and regulating its smoggy exhalations – an entity that can be evaluated for the presence or absence of consciousness.

    You might say: The United States is not a biological organism.  It doesn’t have a life cycle.  It doesn’t reproduce.  It’s not biologically integrated and homeostatic.  Therefore, even accepting the relatively liberal views so far advocated regarding the types of structures that can house consciousness, there are good grounds for resisting the thought that the United States might be conscious.  A further step is necessary.

    To this thought, I have two replies.

    First, why should consciousness require being an organism in the biological sense?  Properly-designed androids, brains in vats, gods – these may not be organisms in the biological sense and yet are sometimes regarded by materialists as possible loci of conscious.  Having distinctive modes of reproduction is often thought to be a central, defining feature of organisms (e.g., J. Wilson 1999; R.A. Wilson 2005), but it’s unclear why reproductive mode should matter to consciousness.

    Second, it’s not clear that nations aren’t biological organisms.  The United States is (after all) composed of cells and organs that share genetic material, to the extent it is composed of people who are composed of cells and organs and who share genetic material.  The United States also maintains homeostasis.  Farmers grow crops to feed non-farmers, and these nutritional resources are distributed with the help of other people via a network of roads.  Groups of people organized as import companies bring food in from the outside environment.  Medical specialists help maintain the health of their compatriots.  Soldiers defend their compatriots against potential threats.  Teachers educate future generations.  Home builders, textile manufacturers, telephone companies, mail carriers, rubbish haulers, bankers, police, all contribute to the stable well-being of the organism.  Politicians and bureaucrats work top-down to ensure that certain actions are coordinated, while other types of coordination emerge spontaneously without top-down control, just as in ordinary animals.  Viewed telescopically, the United States is a pretty awesome animal.

    Nations also reproduce – not sexually but by fission.  The United States and several other countries are fission products of Great Britain.  In the 1860’s, the United States almost fissioned again.  And fissioning nations retain traits of the parent that affect the fitness of future fission products – intergenerationally stable developmental resources, if you will.

    On Earth, at all levels, from the molecular to the neural to the societal, there’s a vast array of competitive and cooperative pressures; at all levels, there’s a wide range of actual and possible modes of reproduction, direct and indirect; and all levels show manifold forms of symbiosis, parasitism, partial integration, agonism, and antagonism.  There isn’t as radical a difference in kind as people are inclined to think between our favorite level of organization and higher and lower levels.

    Documentary - Guns, Culture, and Crime in the US

    The debate about control in this country feels almost entirely irrational to me. No one is proposing the banning of all guns, but that is how the NRA types seems to respond. Banning assault rifles seems like common sense and imposing background checks and waiting periods also seem like common sense. For example, if you think you need a gun right now, we should have a right to delay that purchase. What possible reason can there be for needing a gun right this minute, other than a desire to use it impulsively?

    Anyway, I like guns and I enjoy target shooting, but I am completely on board with making guns a little harder to obtain. This documentary comes from Top Documentary Films.

    Guns, Culture, and Crime in the US

    We look at why the debate over gun control is so polarized and travel to West Virginia – a place where shooting guns is a sport that has been passed down over generations – to find out what fuels the love for guns in this country.

    Are American people as divided as their politicians? The Newtown shooting, which left 20 school children and six teachers dead, has dragged the issue of gun control back into the national agenda.

    For the first time in years, US politicians are discussing serious gun control measures. But millions of people in the country’s inner cities live with the threat of gun violence on a daily basis.

    In Baltimore, one of the most dangerous cities in the US, the police have re-framed their ‘war on drugs’ as a ‘war on guns’. We travel to Baltimore to meet those trying to stop gun crime and others who say owning a gun is sometimes a matter of survival.

    Watch the full documentary now - (playlist - 56 min)

    Bonnitta Roy - AQAL 2210: A Tentative Cartology of the Future

    Integral scholar (and co-editor of The Integral Review), Bonnitta Roy has posted a new article on her blog, An Integral Review of Books. This paper is, to my reading, an echo (expansion?) of the talk she gave at the 2010 Integral Theory Conference. Here is her thesis statement, sort of:
    In this paper, I hypothesize three kinds of emergent, border-crossings correlating to new types of methodologies, new ways of cognitive reasoning, and new kinds of phenomenological experiences—respectively, emergent methodologies, onto-logics and post-metaphysical views. Each of these carry elements of what Gebser called Integral-A-persrpectival, which include
    • New types of language (what Gebser termed systasis)
    • New types of syntheses beyond dialectical thinking (what Gebser termed synairesis)
    • Thinking in terms of generative process (Gebserian emphasis on dynamics)
    • Processes that generate spatial and temporal frameworks (characteristically, what Gebser named the Diaphanon)
    • Onto-genetic processes that contextualize time.
    • The ontological entanglement of polarities.
    • De-objectification of phenomena.
    • The a-local subject simultaneously nowhere and everywhere.
    • Resolution of opposites into unified field dynamics (Gebser’s priority of the whole.”
    • Re-conceptualization of dualistic pairs into generative orders.
    • New ontology of wholes and parts.
    • New gestalt of figure and ground.
    This is good stuff, and well-worth your time in reading it.


    Posted on February 5, 2013
    by bonnittaroy

    Books discussed in this Section
    ~ Alexander, Christopher. (2001). The Phenomenon of Life (The Nature of Order Bk 1-4 ). CES Publishing, Berkeley, Ca.
    ~ Basseches, Michael. (1984). Dialectical Thinking and Adult Development. Ablex Publishing Corp. Norwood, New Jersey.
    ~ Brown, Jason (2002) The Self Embodying Mind. Barrytown,/Station Hill.
    . . . (1991) Cognitive Microgenesis. Springer-Verlag, New York.
    ~ Cook-Greuter, Suzanne. Nine Levels of Increasing Embrace. Retrived from
    ~ Gebser, Jean. (1985). The Ever Present Origin. Ohio University Press, Athens.
    ~ Gendlin, Eugene. (1997). A Process Model. University of Chicago, Chicago, IL.
    . . . (1991). Thinking Beyond Patterns: Body, Language, and Situations. University of Chicago, Chicago, IL.
    . . . What First Person and Third Person Processes Really Are. Retrieved from Goswami, Amit. (1993). The Self-Aware Universe. Penguin Putnam, New York.
    ~ Laszlo, Ervin. (2004). Science and the Akashic Field. Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT.
    ~ Roy, Bonnitta. (2006). A Process Model of Integral Theory. Integral-Review, Thackhoe, Sonam. (2007). The Two Truths Debate. Wisdom Publications, Boston.
    ~ Thompson, Evan. (2007). Mind in Life. Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA.
    ~ Trungpa, Chogyam. (2004). The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa. Shambhala, Boston.
    ~ Wilber, Ken. (2007). Integral Spirituality. Shambhala, Boston.
    . . . (2000). The Collected Works of Ken Wilber. Shambhala, Boston.

    AQAL 2210: A Tentative Cartology* of the Future: Or How do we Get from AQAL to A-perspectival?

    * Note: Cartology: cartography of discourse & meaning derived from ‘carte’- map ;’ logos’- discourse


    As early as 1949 Jean Gebser (1985) predicted that Integral consciousness would have the capacity to render all the previous structures of cognition transparent. Today we have the AQAL map which identifies and contextualizes the eight indigenous or native perspectives of cognition. What is the possibility that there are emergent perspectives beyond the eight indigenous perspectives included in the AQAL framework? What would these potentially “super integrative” perspectives look like? Can we anticipate future potentials by identifying those who seem to be operating at or near the edges of these integrative perspectives today? In addition, Gebser predicted that Integral consciousness would have the capacity to make new kinds of statements, by engaging new types of thinking that would go beyond perspectival thinking into the realm of the A-perspectival. According to Gebser, the hallmarks of this new consciousness would include, in addition to transparency and integrity, dynamics of the whole, space and time freedom, and spirituality. So the question is “How do We Get from AQAL to A-perspectival- from the ability to contextualize perspectives across the boundaries that delimitate them, to a realm of unbounded wholeness? Writing in No Boundary, Ken Wilber (2000) tells us:
    The ultimate metaphysical secret, if we dare state it so simply, is that there are no boundaries in the universe. Boundaries are illusions, products not of reality but of the way we map and edit reality. And while it is fine to map out the territory, it is fatal to confuse the two. (vol. 1 p. 462)

    * * *

    Integral theory is tricky. In many respects, it is a liberation theory – whether it addresses personal, spiritual or social concerns. At its best, integral theory enables us to dis-embedd from limited perspectival frameworks, and open up into more integrated views. However, at its worst, integral theory is absorbed as a metaphysical reality, as a fixed and static limitation on how we perceive, what we can perceive, and how reality arises. When Wilber writes that AQAL is a map of the prison, the integral community should immediately understand there is no prison except for the map. A-perspectivity is the unconditioned situation of living/being without the map. If we can learn to operate from that unconditioned place, then we can create new maps through which new worlds might arise with greater degrees of freedom and open-up our choice field. If we operate from that unconditioned place we will avoid the mistakes of misplaced concreteness that weld ideas into the bars and barriers of our self-imposed prisons. If we operate from that unconditioned place we will have transmuted the prisons of our selves into the playgrounds of spirit. We will, in other words, enter into the ever-present process of enacting our future.
    This article is a series of thought-explorations on the nature of the perspectival world and the possibility of shifting toward a-perspectivity. Our starting point is the world of AQAL – the realm of perspectives. Our journey is through three kinds of “shifts” from each of their perspectival constraints toward a more a-perspectival view. In this paper, I will use the term view to represent relative degrees of freedom away from perspectivity and toward the a-perspectival. View, in this sense, is not a static dimensional object, it is a dynamic relationship toward greater degrees of freedom from perspectivity, which is to say, toward a-perspectivity.

    Read the whole, long and intriguing article.

    Wednesday, February 06, 2013

    An Evening with Neil Gaiman - Sydney Writer's Festival

    In this clip from the Sydney Writer's Festival (January, 2013), author Neil Gaiman talks about and reads from his new novel for adults, The Ocean at the End of the LaneGaiman is also the author of Coraline (2003), The Sandman series, beginning with The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes (New Edition), and many other books.
    Author statement:
    I make things up and write them down. Which takes us from comics (like SANDMAN) to novels (like ANANSI BOYS and AMERICAN GODS) to short stories (some are collected in SMOKE AND MIRRORS) and to occasionally movies (like Dave McKean's MIRRORMASK or the NEVERWHERE TV series, or my own short film A SHORT FILM ABOUT JOHN BOLTON). 
    In my spare time I read and sleep and eat and try to keep the blog at more or less up to date.

    An Evening with Neil Gaiman 
    Neil Gaiman is one of the world's greatest storytellers. He is a multi-award winning novelist who writes across genres and has been credited as one of the creators of modern comics. At this Sydney event, Neil talks and reads from his next novel for adults, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Presented by Top Shelf in association with Sydney Writers' Festival, City Recital Hall, Jan 2013.

    Jared Diamond - The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies

    A lot is being written about Jared Diamond's new book, The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies. I'm offering here a serious criticism, a review of praise, and Jared Diamond in his own voice.

    Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ Is Completely Wrong

    Jan 30, 2013

    Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, is completely wrong, writes Stephen Corry. Diamond argues that industrialized people (‘modern’) can learn from tribal peoples (‘traditional’) because they show how everyone lived until a few thousand years ago. Corry agrees that ‘we’ can learn from tribes, but counters they represent no more of a throwback to our past than anyone else does. He shows that Diamond’s other—and dangerous—message is that most tribes engage in constant warfare. According to Diamond, they need, and welcome, state intervention to stop their violent behavior. Corry argues that this is merely a political opinion, backed by questionable and spurious data. He sees Diamond’s position as one of supporting colonial ideas about ‘pacifying savages’ and says it is factually and morally wrong.

    The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?’ by Jared Diamond. 512 p. Viking Adult. $20.89 (General Photographic Agency/Getty)

    I ought to like this book: after all, I have spent decades saying we can learn from tribal peoples, and that is, or so we are told, Jared Diamond’s principal message in his new “popular science” work, The World Until Yesterday. But is it really?

    Diamond has been commuting for 50 years between the U.S. and New Guinea to study birds, and he must know the island and some of its peoples well. He has spent time in both halves, Papua New Guinea and Indonesian‐occupied West Papua. He is in no doubt that New Guineans are just as intelligent as anyone, and he has clearly thought a lot about the differences between them and societies like his, which he terms Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (“WEIRD”). He calls the latter “modern.”

    Had he left it at that, he would have at least upset only some experts in New Guinea, who think his characterizations miss the point. But he goes further, overreaching considerably by adding a number of other, what he terms “traditional” societies, and then generalizing wildly. His information here is largely gleaned from social scientists, particularly (for those in South America) from the studies of American anthropologists, Napoleon Chagnon, and Kim Hill, who crop up several times.

    It is true that Diamond does briefly mention, in passing, that all such societies have “been partly modified by contact,” but he has still decided they are best thought about as if they lived more or less as all humankind did until the “earliest origins of agriculture around 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent,” as he puts it. That is his unequivocal message, and the meaning of “yesterday” in his title. This is a common mistake, and Diamond wastes little of his very long book trying to support it. The dust jacket, which he must agree with even if he did not actually write it, makes the astonishingly overweening claim that “tribal societies offer an extraordinary window into how our ancestors lived for millions of years” (my emphasis).

    This is nonsense. Many scientists debunk the idea that contemporary tribes reveal anything significantly more about our ancestors, of even a few thousand years ago, than we all do. Obviously, self-­sufficiency is and was an important component of the ways of life of both; equally obviously, neither approach or approached the heaving and burgeoning populations visible in today’s cities. In these senses, any numerically small and largely self-­sufficient society might provide something of a model of ancient life, at least in some respects. Nevertheless, tribal peoples are simply not replicas of our ancestors.

    Britain’s foremost expert on prehistoric man, Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum, for example, routinely cautions against seeing modern hunter-­gatherers as “living fossils,” and repeatedly emphasizes that, like everyone else, their “genes, cultures and behaviors” have continued to evolve to the present. They must have changed, of course, or they simply would not have survived.

    It is important to note that, although Diamond’s thesis is that we were all once “hunter-­gatherers” and that this is the main key to them being seen as our window into the past, in fact most New Guineans do little hunting. They live principally from cultivations, as they probably have for millennia. Diamond barely slips in the fact that their main foodstuff, sweet potato, was probably imported from the Americas, perhaps a few hundred or a thousand years ago. No one agrees on how this came about, but it is just one demonstration that “globalization” and change have impacted on Diamond’s “traditional” peoples for just as long as on everyone else. Disturbingly, Diamond knows these things, but he does not allow them to spoil his conclusions.

    But he has come up with a list of practices he thinks we should learn from “traditional” societies, and all this is well and good, though little of it appears particularly radical or novel. He believes we (Americans, at least) should make more effort to put criminals on a better track, and try to rehabilitate rather than merely punish. He feels we should carry our babies more, and ensure they’re facing forward when we cart them around (which is slightly odd because most strollers and many baby carriers face forward anyway). He pleads with us to value old people more … and proffers much similar advice. These “self-­help manual” sections of the book are pretty unobjectionable, even occasionally thought-­provoking, though it is difficult to see what impact they might really have on rich Westerners or governments.

    Diamond is certainly in fine fettle when he finally turns to the physiology of our recent excessive salt and sugar intake, and the catastrophic impact it brings to health. His description of how large a proportion of the world is racking up obesity, blindness, limb amputations, kidney failure, and much more, is a vitally important message that cannot be overstressed. Pointing out that the average Yanomami Indian, at home in Amazonia, takes over a year to consume the same amount of salt as can be found in a single dish of a Los Angeles restaurant is a real shocker and should be a wake-up call.

    The real problem with Diamond’s book, and it is a very big one, is that he thinks “traditional” societies do nasty things which cry out for the intervention of state governments to stop. His key point is that they kill a lot, be it in “war,” infanticide, or the abandonment, or murder, of the very old. This he repeats endlessly. He is convinced he can explain why they do this, and demonstrates the cold, but necessary, logic behind it. Although he admits to never actually having seen any of this in all his travels, he supports his point both with personal anecdotes from New Guinea and a great deal of “data” about a very few tribes—a good proportion of it originating with the anthropologists mentioned above. Many of his boldly stated “facts” are, at best, questionable.

    How much of this actually is fact, and how much just personal opinion? It is of course true that many of the tribes he cites do express violence in various ways; people kill people everywhere, as nobody would deny. But how murderous are they exactly, and how to quantify it? Diamond claims that tribes are considerably more prone to killing than are societies ruled by state governments. He goes much further. Despite acknowledging, rather sotto voce, that there are no reports of any war at all in some societies, he does not let this cloud his principal emphasis: most tribal peoples live in a state of constant war.

    He supports this entirely unverifiable and dangerous nonsense (as have others, such as Steven Pinker) by taking the numbers killed in wars and homicides in industrialized states and calculating the proportions of the total populations involved. He then compares the results with figures produced by anthropologists like Chagnon for tribes like the Yanomami. He thinks that the results prove that a much higher proportion of individuals are killed in tribal conflict than in state wars; ergo tribal peoples are more violent than “we” are.

    There are of course lies, damned lies, and statistics. Let us first give Diamond the benefit of several highly debatable, not to say controversial, doubts. I will, for example, pass over the likelihood that at least some of these intertribal “wars” are likely to have been exacerbated, if not caused, by land encroachment or other hostilities from colonist societies. I will also leave aside the fact that Chagnon’s data, from his work with the Yanomami in the 1960s, has been discredited for decades: most anthropologists working with Yanomami simply do not recognize Chagnon’s violent caricature of those he calls the “fierce people.” I will also skate over Kim Hill’s role in denying the genocide of the Aché Indians at the hands of Paraguayan settlers and the Army in the 1960s and early 1970s. (Though there is an interesting pointer to this cited in Diamond’s book: as he says, over half Aché “violent deaths” were at the hands of nontribals.)

    I will also throw only a passing glance at the fact that Diamond refers only to those societies where social scientists have collected data on homicides, and ignores the hundreds where this has not been examined, perhaps because—at least in some cases—there was no such data. After all, scientists seeking to study violence and war are unlikely to spend their precious fieldwork dropping in on tribes with little noticeable tradition of killing. In saying this, I stress once again, I am not denying that people kill people—everywhere. The question is, how much?

    Awarding Diamond all the above ‘benefits of doubt’, and restricting my remarks to looking just at “our” side of the story: how many are killed in our wars, and how reasonable is it to cite those numbers as a proportion of the total population of the countries involved?

    Is it meaningful, for example, to follow Diamond in calculating deaths in the fighting for Okinawa in 1945 as a percentage of the total populations of all combatant nations—he gives the result as 0.10 percent—and then comparing this with eleven tribal Dani deaths during a conflict in 1961. Diamond reckons the latter as 0.14 percent of the Dani population—more than at Okinawa.

    Viewed like this, the Dani violence is worse that the bloodiest Pacific battle of WWII. But of course the largest nation involved in Okinawa was the U.S., which saw no fighting on its mainland at all. Would it not be more sensible to look at, say, the percentage of people killed who were actually in the areas where the war was taking place? No one knows, but estimates of the proportion of Okinawa citizens killed in the battle, for example, range from about 10 percent to 33 percent. Taking the upper figure gives a result of nearly 250 times moredeaths than the proportion for the Dani violence, and does not even count anyof the military killed in the battle.

    Similarly, Diamond tells us that the proportion of people killed in Hiroshima in August 1945 was a tiny 0.1 percent of the Japanese people. However, what about the much smaller “tribe” of what we might call “Hiroshimans,” whose death toll was nearly 50 percent from a single bomb? Which numbers are more meaningful; which could be seen as a contrivance to support the conceit that tribespeople are the bigger killers? By supposedly “proving” his thesis in this way, to what degree does Diamond’s characterization differ significantly from labeling tribal peoples as “primitive savages,” or at any rate as more savage than “we” are?

    If you think I am exaggerating the problem—after all, Diamond does not say “primitive savage” himself—then consider how professional readers of his book see it: his reviewers from the prestigious Sunday Times (U.K.) and The Wall Street Journal (U.S.) both call tribes “primitive,” and Germany’s popular Sternmagazine splashed “Wilde” (“savages”) in large letters across its pages when describing the book.

    Seek and you shall find statistics to underscore any conceivable position on this. Diamond is no fool and doubtless knows all this—the problem is in what he chooses to present and emphasize, and what he leaves out or skates over.

    I do not have the author’s 500 pages to expand, so I will leave aside the problem of infanticide (I have looked at it in other contexts), but I cannot omit a response to the fact that, as he repeatedly tells us, some tribes abandon, or abandoned, their old at the end of their lives, leaving them only with what food or water might be spared, and moving on in the sure knowledge that death would quickly follow, or even hastening it deliberately.

    Again, Diamond explains the logic of it, and again he tells us that, because of munificent state governments’ ability to organize “efficient food distribution,” and because it is now illegal to kill people like this, “modern” societies have left such behavior behind.

    Really? So let us forget the 40 million or so dead in the Great Chinese Famine of the early 1960s. But what about the widespread, though usually very quiet, medical practice of giving patients strong doses of opiates— really strong doses—when illness and age have reached a threshold? The drugs relieve pain, but they also suppress the respiratory reflex, leading directly to death. Or, what about deliberately withholding food and fluids from patients judged near the end? Specialist nonprofits reckon there are about a million elderly people in the U.K. alone who are malnourished or even starving, many inside hospitals. So how different is what we industrialized folk get up to from some tribal practices? Are we all “savages” too?

    Contrasting tribal with industrialized societies has always been more about politics than science, and we should be extremely wary of those who use statistics to “prove” their views. It all depends on what your question is, whom you believe, and most of all, exactly where you are standing when you ask it.

    If, for example, you are an Aguaruna Indian in Peru, with a history of occasional revenge raiding stretching back the small handful of generations which comprise living memory (no Aguaruna can really know the extent to which such raiding was going on even a few generations ago, leave alone millennia), and if you have recently been pushed out of the forest interior into riverine villages by encroachment from oil exploration or missionaries, then your chances of being killed by your compatriots might even exceed those caught in Mexican drugs wars, Brazilian favelas, or Chicago’s South Side.

    In such circumstances there would undoubtedly be much more homicide in Aguaruna-land than that faced by well-heeled American college professors, but also much less than that confronted by inmates in Soviet gulags, Nazi concentration camps, or those who took up arms against colonial rule in British Kenya, or apartheid South Africa.

    If you find yourself born a boy in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in the center of the world’s richest nation, your average lifespan will be shorter than in any country in the world except for some African states and Afghanistan. If you escape being murdered, you may end up dead anyway, from diabetes, alcoholism, drug addiction, or similar. Such misery, not inevitable but likely, would not result from your own choices, but from those made by the state over the last couple of hundred years.

    What does any of this really tell us about violence throughout human history? The fanciful assertion that nation states lessen it is unlikely to convince a Russian or Chinese dissident, or Tibetan. It will not be very persuasive either to West Papuan tribes, where the Indonesian invasion and occupation has been responsible for a guessed 100,000 killings at least (no one will ever know the actual number), and where state-­sponsored torture can now be viewed onYouTube. The state is responsible for killing more tribespeople in West Papua than anywhere else in the world.

    Although his book is rooted in New Guinea, not only does Diamond fail to mention Indonesian atrocities, he actually writes of, “the continued low level of violence in Indonesian New Guinea under maintained rigorous government control there.” This is a breathtaking denial of brutal state-sponsored repression waged on little armed tribespeople for decades.

    The political dimensions concerning how tribal peoples are portrayed by outsiders, and how they are actually treated by them, are intertwined and inescapable: industrialized societies treat tribes well or badly depending on what they think of them, as well as what they want from them. Are they “backward,” from “yesterday”; are they more “savage,” more violent, than we are?

    Jared Diamond has powerful and wealthy backers. He is a prestigious academic and author, a Pulitzer Prize winner no less, who sits in a commanding position in two American, and immensely rich, corporate-governmental organizations (they are not really NGOs at all), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation International (CI), whose record on tribal peoples is, to say the least, questionable. He is very much in favor of strong states and leaders, and he believes efforts to minimize inequality are “idealistic,” and have failed anyway. He thinks that governments which assert their “monopoly of force” are rendering a “huge service” because “most small-­scale societies [are] trapped in … warfare’ (my emphasis). “The biggest advantage of state government,” he waxes, is “the bringing of peace.”

    Diamond comes out unequivocally in favor of the same “pacification of the natives,” which was the cornerstone of European colonialism and world domination. Furthermore, he echoes imperial propaganda by claiming tribes welcome it, according to him, “willingly abandon[ing] their jungle lifestyle.”

    With this, he in effect attacks decades of work by tribal peoples and their supporters, who have opposed the theft of their land and resources, and asserted their right to live as they choose—often successfully. Diamond backs up his sweeping assault with just two “instances”: Kim Hill’s work with the Aché; and a friend who recounted that he, “traveled half way around the world to meet a recently discovered band of New Guinea forest hunter-­gatherers, only to discover that half of them had already chosen to move to an Indonesian village and put on T-­ shirts, because life there was safer and more comfortable.”

    This would be comic were it not tragic. The Aché, for example, had suffered generations of genocidal attacks and slavery. Was Diamond’s disappointed friend in New Guinea unaware of the high probability of carrying infectious diseases? If this really were a recently “discovered” band, which is highly unlikely, such a visit was, to say the least, irresponsible. Or, was it rather a contrived tourist visit, like almost all supposed “first contacts” in New Guinea where a playacting industry has grown up around such deception? In either event, West Papuans are “safer” in Indonesian villages only if they are prepared to accept subjugation to a mainstream society which does not want them around.

    As I said, I ought to like this book. It asserts, as I do, that we have much to learn from tribal peoples, but it actually turns out to propose nothing that challenges the status quo.

    Diamond adds his voice to a very influential sector of American academia which is, naively or not, striving to bring back out-­of-­date caricatures of tribal peoples. These erudite and polymath academics claim scientific proof for their damaging theories and political views (as did respected eugenicists once). In my own, humbler, opinion, and experience, this is both completely wrong—both factually and morally—and extremely dangerous. The principal cause of the destruction of tribal peoples is the imposition of nation states. This does not save them; it kills them.

    Were those of Diamond’s (and Pinker’s) persuasion to be widely believed, they risk pushing the advancement of human rights for tribal peoples back decades. Yesterday’s world repeated tomorrow? I hope not.

    * * * * *

    Jared Diamond, traditional societies and myths of the future

    Civilisation’s gains and losses.


    Chief Joe of the Insect Tribe from Papua New Guinea at a farmhouse in Wales, 2009. Photograph: Muir Vidler

    The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
    Jared Diamond
    Allen Lane, 512 pages

    From the standpoint of anthropology, a distinguished practitioner of the discipline once told me, modernity is an unnecessary concept. It was a striking observation. The idea that modern human beings are vastly different from those who came before is central to the way that many people now think of themselves and, for most of them, it seems obvious that being modern is an unmixed blessing. Economists and some historians tell impressive-sounding stories of how humankind has struggled to leave behind the darkness and misery of pre-modern times to achieve its present level of wellbeing and enlightenment, while “modernisation” has been the rallying cry of generations of politicians.

    To be sure, the meaning of modernisation has changed over time. If practically the entire political class today understands being modern to mean that society must adapt itself to the market, many were equally convinced until only a few decades ago that no society could be truly modern until market forces had been replaced by collective planning. Again, nowadays everyone equates being modern with acceptance of democracy and liberal values; but during the interwar years fascism was perceived as a thoroughly modern movement. Everybody celebrates modernisation and understands it as the passage to a better world but ideas of what it means to be modern are like the advertisements you watch on television – quickly dated and soon forgotten.

    “‘Modern’ conditions have prevailed, even just locally, for a tiny fraction of human history,” writes Jared Diamond. “All human societies have been traditional for far longer than any society has been modern.” Diamond begins his inquiry with the wise observation that no society is fully modern. “Billions of people around the world today still live in traditional ways,” he writes, and traditional ways of life persist within the most modern societies. In the Montana valley where Diamond and his family spend their summer holidays, he tells us, “Many disputes are still resolved by informal social mechanisms rather than by going to court.”

    Many Europeans who grew up in the 1950s had childhoods not unlike those Diamond has studied in traditional New Guinea villages: “Everyone knew what everyone else was doing and expressed their opinions about it, people married spouses born only a mile or two distant, people spent their entire lives in or near the village except for young men away during the world war years and disputes within the village had to be settled in a way that restored relationships or made them tolerable, because you were going to be living near that person for the rest of your life.” When a society becomes modern, older ways of living don’t altogether vanish. “The world of yesterday wasn’t erased and replaced by a new world of today: much of yesterday is still with us.”

    Modernity isn’t, for Diamond, a condition that should triumph completely but this is not because he romanticises traditional ways of living. Much ofThe World Until Yesterday is an account of the drawbacks of life in traditional societies, some of it deriving from the author’s experience during periods of fieldwork. He describes vividly how on one of his first trips, when he spent a month with a group of New Guineans studying birds on a forest-covered mountain, his companions became agitated and refused to sleep in a beautiful valley where he had selected a place to set up camp at the base of a giant tree. The campsite was dangerous, the New Guineans explained, because the tree was dead and might fall over and kill them all. After a number of other incidents, including one in which he nearly drowned, Diamond came to see their response as an example of what he calls “constructive paranoia” – a sense of danger that comes with living in environments that are chronically unsafe for humans.

    Rightly, Diamond thinks that we may have something to learn from this attitude; but he underscores clearly how it is a response to living in a world that, in some important respects, is more insecure than the one that has been built in modern times. Without modern medicine, accidents are more easily fatal or permanently disabling – and there is no place in traditional cultures for the severely impaired. As Diamond notes: “Some traditional societies, especially nomadic ones or those in harsh environments, are forced to neglect, abandon or kill their elderly.”

    The paranoia he describes has another source in how, in traditional communities, encounters with strangers are infused with peril. When New Guinean Highlanders had their first sight of a European in 1933, they wept in terror. Reflecting this horror of outsiders, their relations with other tribal groups were governed by more or less continuous warfare. These are not the innocent primitives of Rousseauesque mythology but nor are they the bloodthirsty savages of Victorian imperialist folklore. Living as everyone lived until around 11,000 years ago, they are human beings in many ways like ourselves.

    When a 50-year-old Yahi Indian from Northern California gave up his huntergatherer life to live in San Francisco, Diamond tells us, he was deeply impressed by matches and glue, thinking them the most admirable modern inventions (later he became attached to running water, flushing lavatories and railway trains, among other amenities). The Yahi admired these modern inventions for the same reason Europeans invented them: they add to the ease and enjoyment of life.

    For Diamond, the modern world is a patchwork of such inventions but their overall impact on human well-being has been complex and mixed. The domestication of plants and animals, the emergence of large human settlements along with formal systems of justice, the expansion of states, the spread of literacy, cumulative innovation in science and technology – these are some of the developments that together produced the way we live today.

    Along with their undoubted benefits, modern societies have their distinctive disorders, including the epidemic spread of diseases such as diabetes and hypertension that are unknown in traditional societies, unremitting time-scarcity and the cultural and cognitive losses that go with vanishing languages (one of the remaining 7,000 languages that are still extant disappears every nine days, Diamond tells us). As he sees it, modernity is not a unique transition that some societies have experienced at various times during the past few centuries; it is an ongoing process whose upshot is uncertain and insecure.

    The fragility of civilisation is a theme that runs through much of Diamond’s work. His bestselling books Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005) have given him the reputation of being something of a doommonger. This is only to be expected, since Diamond points to an undeniable but unwelcome truth. Modern societies are no more immune from environmental collapse than the many that have disappeared in the past – having become so closely interconnected, they are in some ways more at risk. Yet Diamond’s work is about much more than the vulnerabilities of advanced societies and it would be more accurate to describe him as inquiring into the environmental conditions that shape human communities.

    One way or another, most theories of human development privilege the kind of society in which the theorist lives. Where 19th-century racial theories posited the biological superiority of Europeans, the triumphal celebrations of unending economic advance that filled the airport bookstalls in the 1990s invoked the cultural superiority of American individualism – something of which we hear rather less now that the financial crisis has shown reckless debt rather than bourgeois virtue to be the chief source of America’s apparent economic outperformance in recent times.

    Diamond’s divergence from such ways of thinking is bracing and deeply instructive. Arguing that, “The explanation for the differences in types of societies existing in the modern world depends on environmental differences,” he suggests that human groups in the relatively few regions of the world with plants and animals suitable for domestication had a major advantage over others. Food surpluses led to population growth, which in turn led to political centralisation and social stratification, the growth of cities and the rise of industrial production. Rather than any built-in biological or cultural advantage, it was this environmental head start that eventually produced the modern societies we know today.

    Diamond is one of our most consistently illuminating thinkers and The World Until Yesterday is a compelling account of the gains and losses that go with modern living. But if Diamond is impressive in deconstructing simple-minded ideas about what it means to be modern, he does not explain why modernisation has become such a powerful myth. Recent history is littered with vast political experiments aiming to impose models of modernisation on refractory societies, often incurring huge human costs. Not only in Russia and China in the communist era but also in many emerging countries, millions of lives have been lost or ruined by the imposition of crudely schematic plans of development. If Nazism is included as a modernist ideology aiming to remake the world on a hideous new model, probably more human beings were killed in the 20th century for the sake of a vision of the future than for any other single reason.

    At this point, the scales tilt against modern societies. Traditional cultures may live in a state of continuous warfare with each other, while genocide is not unknown. No traditional people has attacked and murdered its own members on anything like the scale perpetrated by some modern states. No doubt one reason for this is that traditional societies lack a state apparatus, one of the preconditions of industrial-style killing. Yet there may be a more fundamental reason why traditional peoples do not engage in large-scale slaughter of their own members. Partly because of their non-linear, cyclical understanding of time, traditional cultures lack the idea that a new world can be brought into being by human action. To sacrifice the present generation of human beings for a hypothetical future would be literally inconceivable to them.

    Traditional cultures have many disadvantages but it is silly to think of them as being simply backward when the belief that we are forever on the brink of a new world has led to so many disasters. Think of the experiment in financial deregulation that resulted, only a few years later, in an unprecedented bust in the global banking system. Undoubtedly, part of the pressure for deregulation came from selfinterest – if anyone has benefited, it is surely bankers and those with substantial financial assets. Yet the experiment could not have been attempted if an ideology that envisioned the future in terms of a self-regulating global market had not been widely promoted and accepted by mainstream politicians. We had entered a “great moderation”, we were assured, in which the buffering institutions of earlier times – a welfare state, full employment policies –were obsolete. The results of chasing this fantasy can be seen all around us.

    As much as the inventions that Diamond describes, it is myths of the future that have come to drive modern life. The self-regulating market was only the latest version of a dream in which the cycles of history have been left behind. If we’d retained some of the constructive paranoia of traditional cultures, we might still not have been able to prevent the neoliberal experiment; but we would have been better prepared for the fiasco that has ensued.

    John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His next book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, will be published by Allen Lane in February
    * * * * *

    The World Until Yesterday: What we can learn from traditional societies

    5th Feb 2013; 13:00

    Listen Live: You can listen to this event live online
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    RSA Keynote

    Why are modern afflictions like diabetes, obesity and hypertension largely non-existent in tribal societies? Do traditional societies have superior ideas about how to live well?

    Our current, modern way of living comprises only a tiny fraction of human history. Traditional living has moulded and shaped us for millennia, and tribal societies today provide us with incredible insights into all aspects of human nature and the human condition.

    Join Jared Diamond as he draws on his experiences from over five decades working and living in New Guinea, an island that is home to one thousand of the world's 7,000 languages and one of the most culturally diverse places on earth. He will explore how tribal peoples approach essential human problems, from childrearing to old age to conflict resolution to health.

    Speaker: Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, author and noted polymath, influential in the fields of anthropology, biology, ornithology, ecology and history.

    Chair: Evan Davis, economist, journalist and presenter of the BBC’s Today Programme.


    The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
    Jared Diamond (Penguin Books, 2012)