The World Until Yesterday

the-world-until-yesterdayJared Diamond
publication date: January 2, 2013

Jared Diamond’s latest can be viewed, at least superficially, as the flip side of Collapse. In that earlier book, Diamond presented a group of cautionary tales, designed to help guide us away from the destructive social, industrial, and environmental practices that destroyed some of the most powerful civilizations of history, practices that pervade our own cultures.

In The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, Diamond focuses on the good things we can learn from traditional, pre-state societies. This time, we’re invited to examine practices that we might emulate, to our benefit.

Of course, Diamond is too smart, and too thorough a scholar, ever to suggest that hunter-gatherer societies in the few cultures that survive with minimal outsider contact are ideal or always worthy of imitation. That kind of thinking has long been the subject of Diamond’s scorn. He has no patience with the remnants of the “Noble Savage” romanticism of the anthropology of as little as a generation ago. (His scornful treatment in Collapse of the notion of the idealized primitive was a subject of an earlier posting on my general page.)

Diamond doesn’t ignore the rawer, rougher sides of human subsistence on the very edge of survival, from infanticide to the treatment of the elderly. There are rapes and raids, ambushes and wars of sufficient kinds and numbers to put to rest any Rousseau-like glorification of the “natural” man.

But there are also many attitudes and practices that Diamond offers as potential alternatives to our own ways of living. From “alloparents” to education rooted in social play to “constructive paranoia,” much of what Diamond reports could have benefits for us. Diamond relies on anthropological observations (his and others’) and extensive anecdotes and stories (his, primarily) to illustrate his points. The pictures of traditional societies he presents are then thoroughly compared and contrasted to the equivalent elements in modern, state-based societies. Where he has a strong opinion or a clear preference, he makes that clear. Where he doesn’t, he takes a more restrained stance, inviting his readers to decide for themselves how much, if any, of what he’s observed might work well for us. Diamond writes:

Traditional societies in effect represent thousands of natural experiments in how to construct a human society. They have come up with thousands of solutions to human problems, solutions different from those adopted by our own … modern societies. We shall see that some of those solutions—for instance, some of the ways in which traditional societies raise their children, treat their elderly, remain healthy, talk, spend their leisure time, and settle disputes—may strike you, as they do me, as superior to normal practices in the First World. Perhaps we could benefit by selectively adopting some of those traditional practices.

Many of Diamond’s accounts of these “natural experiments” are both instructive and fascinating. Diamond’s more than forty years of familiarity with the traditional societies of the interior of New Guinea have given him a unique Western insight into the ways of living and thinking of the peoples he has lived with and studied. This experience enriches the book, lifting it beyond the merely scholarly and into the truly revealing. Diamond’s long familiarity with the region and its peoples lends real credibility to his interpretations. His knowledge of many of the local languages lets him into the cultures in ways that a less-experienced (and less accepted) outsider can’t duplicate.

It’s this experience, and Diamond’s genuine affection and respect for the peoples he describes, that makes his analyses of such contentious practices as education and child-rearing so informative. Even the less attractive practices, like occasional infanticide and persistent blood feuds, are presented with an eye on the often stark environmental pressures that prompt them. It’s easy to sit in comfort here in the West and condemn the survival strategies of societies with fewer resources and therefore fewer options. This easy chair moralizing is a trap, one that Diamond always avoids, and always without going so far in the other direction that he commits the equal error of theory-bound equanimity with any practice that another culture has “chosen.”

But we should also not go to the opposite extreme of romanticizing the past and longing for simpler times. Many traditional practices are ones that we can consider ourselves blessed to have discarded—such as infanticide, abandoning or killing elderly people, facing periodic risk of starvation, being at heightened risk from environmental dangers and infectious diseases, often seeing one’s children die, and living in constant fear of being attacked. Traditional societies may not only suggest to us some better living practices, but may also help us appreciate some advantages of our own society that we take for granted.

The predominately dispassionate, objective approach represents by the two quotations above is a persistent feature of the book as a whole, and it adds much to the book’s clarity — and its credibility.

Diamond constantly emphasizes the differences that size, or lack of it, generate in traditional societies on the one hand, and in the more familiar “state societies” that have replaced tribal groups almost everywhere.

Scale makes a great difference, as in issues of justice and retribution. By asserting the sole right to mete out judgement and punishment, the state restrains, in important ways replaces, the clan feuds and revenge killings that are typical in and between small, family-based villages. It’s not that traditional peoples are more peace-loving, or less violent, than we are. In fact, there is much evidence –long ignored or decried by politically-correct anthropologists–that traditional peoples are victims of violence at a far higher rate per capita than are citizens of large nations. This is true even when the carnage of two world wars and any number of twentieth-century genocides is included.

Diamond writes:

I sympathize with scholars outraged by the mistreatment of indigenous peoples. But denying the reality of traditional warfare because of political misuse of its reality is a bad strategy, for the same reason that denying any other reality for any other laudable political goal is a bad strategy. The reason not to mistreat indigenous people is not that they are falsely accused of being warlike, but that it’s unjust to mistreat them.

Similar differences of scale inform the social structures of traditional and state societies with respect to warfare, child-rearing, education, treatment of the elderly, language fluency (mono- vs. multi-lingualism), and other areas of life. Two major differences that pertain to general health are diet and illnesses. In broad terms, traditional peoples eat a scanter but healthier diet than we do. They die much more frequently of communicable diseases like malaria and much less frequently from noncommunicable diseases like cancer and heart problems. But Diamond knows that this isn’t a simple, equal exchange of one kind of health for another:

But that’s not to say that traditional New Guineans enjoyed a carefree health utopia: far from it. The lifespans of most of them were, and still are, shorter than in the West. The diseases that killed them, along with accidents and interpersonal violence, were ones that have by now been largely eliminated as causes of death in the First World: gastrointestinal infections producing diarrhea, respiratory infections, malaria, parasites, malnutrition, and secondary conditions preying on people weakened by those primary conditions. That is, we Westerners, despite having traded our set of traditional human illnesses for a new set of modern illnesses, enjoy on the average better health and longer lives.

This balanced view is one of the best features of The World Until Yesterday. Diamond grinds few axes, if any. Rather, he calls on a lifetime of experience to parse his way through some pretty complicated issues. In the end, he reiterates his general point that while there are advantages to traditional lifestyles, there are also advantages, and large ones, to modern life.

Because most of the remainder of this chapter will be about features of traditional life from which we in the modern world can usefully learn, let’s begin by reminding ourselves of an obvious conclusion. Traditional life should not be romanticized: the modern world does offer huge advantages. It’s not the case that citizens of Westernized societies are fleeing in droves from steel tools, health, material comfort, and state-imposed peace, and are trying to return to an idyllic hunter- gatherer lifestyle. Instead, the overwhelming direction of change is that hunter- gatherers and small-scale farmers who know their traditional lifestyle, but who also witness a Westernized lifestyle, are seeking to enter the modern world. Their reasons are compelling, and include such modern amenities as material goods that make life easier and more comfortable; opportunities for formal education and jobs; good health, effective medicines, doctors, and hospitals; personal security, less violence, and less danger from other people and from the environment; food security; much longer lives; and a much lower frequency of experiencing the deaths of one’s children.

All in all, Diamond urges us, we need to choose carefully among the features of traditional societies, to find those elements that we can adopt or adapt to our advantage.

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