Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Yesterday and Today: Jared Diamond on Traditional Societies

Jared Diamond. The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? New York: Viking, 2012. Hardcover $36 U.S. ISBN: 978-0670024810

There is a long history, dating at least back to Tacitus’ Germania, of authors examining more traditional societies and detailing laudable traits from them that their own more technologically advanced societies should emulate. As its title suggests, Jared Diamond’s The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? fits squarely within this tradition. It highlights differences between traditional and modern societies in areas ranging from conflict resolution and what Diamond terms “constructive paranoia” to child rearing and nutrition. In the process, it details—with varying levels of success—aspects of traditional societies that people living in the industrialized world should incorporate into our own lives and suggests ways that society as a whole should change.

Diamond, the winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for his earlier book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, is well placed to discuss traditional societies. Although currently a professor of geography at UCLA, his original training and PhD are in physiology, and he has also conducted extensive ornithological research. He indeed refers to himself as an “evolutionary biologist” in the book. Like in his previous works, Diamond calls upon his wide-ranging knowledge in the natural and social sciences in writing The World until Yesterday.

Over the past fifty years, Diamond’s ornithological research has frequently brought him to New Guinea, an island containing a large percentage of the world’s remaining traditional societies. Many of the book’s insights and anecdotes are gleaned from Diamond’s personal interactions with these groups. In fact, it occasionally reads like a memoir of his most memorable experiences in New Guinea. The book also examines a large number of traditional societies with which Diamond has no first-hand experience such as the North Slope Inuit and Great Basin Shoshone in North America and the !Kung and Pygmies of Africa.

The World until Yesterday is not the first time that Diamond has compared traditional and modern societies. In Guns, Germs, and Steel he argued that environmental factors explain why some human groups have evolved into more complex state societies while others have not. Developments such as political centralization were the result of increased population density, which was in turn caused by the intensification of food production due to the domestication of various crops and animals. In order for this process to occur, humans needed plants and animals suitable for domestication, but such species are concentrated in only a few places around the world. Human groups living in areas with these species developed larger, more complex societies. Those who did not continued to live in societies virtually unchanged from those in which their ancestors had lived for countless millennia.

Diamond continues to discuss environmental factors in The World until Yesterday. Indeed, he convincingly argues that the environment plays an important, albeit not exclusive, role in differences between traditional societies. For example, a group of people living in an environment that forces them to constantly be on the move in order to feed themselves is much more likely to euthanize its elderly than a group that leads a more settled existence. The amount of language diversity in an area is also primarily caused by environmental factors such as climate and the productivity of the land in which various groups live. But in his new book Diamond’s emphasis has changed from the evolution of societies to a study of those societies whose environment kept them from developing into more complex state societies, and what people living in modern societies can learn from them.

According to Diamond, the answer is a lot. People have, after all, lived in traditional societies until “yesterday” in the overall lifespan of the human race. As a result, studying traditional societies both helps us understand our past and elucidates what elements from these societies remain with us still. Studying traditional societies also emphasizes the diversity of human nature and moves researchers away from basing their findings just on the “narrow and atypical slice of human diversity” of modern industrialized societies (8). Diamond seems rightly disturbed that 96% of psychological research conducted in 2008 was from such societies. (Around 80% of research was on an even smaller grouping: college undergraduates enrolled in psychology courses!)  Finally, he believes that both individuals and modern society as a whole could benefit from adopting certain traits found in many traditional groups. This final lesson is by far the most emphasized in The World until Yesterday. In almost every section of the book, Diamond’s focus is on how we can better our lives by adopting aspects of traditional societies into them.

Diamond’s emphasis on what his readers can learn from traditional societies does not mean that he idolizes them. He recognizes that people living in traditional societies usually adopt the trappings of modern ones when given the opportunity—and for good reason. As he puts it, “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” (9). Diamond’s emphasis on the violence present in traditional societies has even led him to be attacked by some supporters of traditional peoples for supposedly portraying them as savages (The Observer, 2/2/13)—an accusation that is not supported by the contents of the book. Diamond, however, argues that even traditional groups’ negative traits can teach us the important lesson of appreciating elements of our own society that we might otherwise take for granted.

Diamond’s writing is on the whole engaging, and his definitions and explanations are easy to follow. His clear prose is sometimes marred, however, by the overly complex and often unnecessary tables that he includes. Rather than assisting the reader like they should, tables, for instance, listing examples of gluttony in traditional societies when food is abundant, providing sixteen scholarly definitions of religion, and describing in excruciating detail objects traded by a large number of traditional societies instead bog the reader down. The book includes an excellent array of relevant photographs, divided into separate sections of color and black and white plates. But these, too, are marred by poor organization. For example, why did Diamond and the editors at Viking choose to make an image of Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, the first black and white plate when he is not first mentioned until page 398?

The World until Yesterday examines the differences between modern and traditional societies in eight different areas: peaceful dispute resolution, war, raising children, treatment of the elderly, “constructive paranoia,” religion, multilingualism, and diet. Diamond admits that he has left out a large number of topics that have been studied by social scientists, but he argues that his goal is not to paint a comprehensive portrait of all aspects of human society. That is his right, of course, although one wonders how he chose to include the above topics while leaving out equally important ones such as gender relations. Each section usually begins with an anecdote relevant to the subject, often drawn from Diamond’s experiences in New Guinea, then gives an overview of various traditional societies’ norms in this area, and concludes with the lessons that can be gleaned from traditional practices.

The first two topics that Diamond covers are peaceful conflict resolution and war, which in traditional societies are the two ways that individuals handle disputes. Unlike in modern societies where disputes are usually between two or more strangers and the government’s overarching goal is to maintain social stability, the goal of peaceful dispute resolution in traditional, small-scale societies is to restore relationships between two individuals who either know each other or at least know of each other. Diamond is careful not to overemphasize the potential advantages of this traditional system of conflict resolution as failed efforts at reconciliation frequently deteriorate into cycles of violence and war, something that does not typically happen in state societies. Indeed, studies show that traditional societies’ frequent conflicts result in an average death rate from war that is three times higher than even the most war-torn countries of the twentieth century. But Diamond does believe that modern societies can learn a few lessons from traditional groups’ emphasis on restoring relationships. One suggested change is to provide more mediation in conflicts where the two sides do know each other such as divorce and inheritance disputes. Diamond argues that even strangers should be given the option to choose mediation to resolve disputes.

Diamond next discusses how traditional societies raise children and treat the elderly. While traditional societies’ behavior towards the elderly varies, Diamond argues that they are remarkably similar when it comes to the basic elements of raising children. For example, the average age of weaning in traditional societies is three, and many hunter-gatherer groups practice continual nursing in which an infant nurses in brief spurts every 15 minutes or so, a practice that they share with our closest primate relatives. Diamond huffs that “modern human mothers have acquired the suckling habits of rabbits, while retaining the lactational physiology of chimpanzees and monkeys” (183). In climates that allow it, most hunter gatherers also retain constant skin-to-skin with their babies, and every traditional society surveyed engages in co-sleeping. Most traditional societies also deal with crying children immediately, give their children more autonomy, encourage creative play rather than bombarding them with toys, and practice allo-parenting in which individuals beyond the family assist in raising a child. Diamond believes that parents in modern societies should consider adopting all these practices, observing that “other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children” (208). While traditional societies’ treatment of the elderly vary greatly, Diamond argues that many rely on the elderly for historical memory and tasks such as childcare—areas in which modern societies should utilize their aged population more as well.

The most important lesson that Diamond learned from his time among traditional groups in New Guinea is “constructive paranoia,” an oxymoron that reflects the importance of being aware of one’s environment and the potential dangers within it. Diamond believes that one close correlation to this lesson that his readers can learn is to think more clearly about the dangers we face in state societies. As such we should not focus our fears on something such as genetic modification, which has an extremely low chance of killing us, and focus instead on driving safely and wearing a helmet while biking both of which would save many lives a day.

Diamond’s interesting discussion on religion does not really fit with the rest of the book, as he does not really attempt to describe what his readers can learn from traditional religions. Diamond instead offers a learned exposition about how religion possibly originated among humans in order to explain the world around them and make predictions about it. He also explains how the functions of religious belief differ between traditional and modern societies. For instance, religion’s role in defusing anxiety was greater in traditional societies where the threat of violence and other dangers were much higher than in modern societies. On the other hand, religion’s function in larger states of providing people with codes of behavior when interacting with strangers was much less necessary in smaller traditional societies where you knew everyone.

The section on multilingualism begins by making an impassioned plea for the preservation of traditional languages, sadly noting that a language disappears every 9 days. Diamond believes that this trend is tragic as “each language is the vehicle for a unique way of thinking and talking, a unique literature, and a unique view of the world. Hence looming over us today is the tragedy of the impending loss of most of our cultural heritage” (370). Diamond then notes that multilingualism is widespread among small-scale societies that will frequently come into contact with groups speaking a language different than their own. The section ends with Diamond forcibly arguing that people living in mostly monolingual societies such as the United States need to strive to learn other languages. Besides its cross-cultural benefits, studies show that learning a different language results in more flexible minds and can even stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s for a time.

The book’s last section details how the study of traditional societies provides guidelines to reduce hypertension and diabetes in today’s industrialized societies. In it, Diamond points out that the rates of non-communicable diseases are extremely low in traditional societies and correctly argues that many of these diseases can usually be staved off by lifestyle changes. The section ends with Diamond’s prescription for leading a healthy lifestyle.

As it details what people living in modern states can learn from traditional societies, The World until Yesterday often reads as some sort of weird self-help book filled with insights that range from the useful and interesting to the unoriginal and humdrum. The conclusions that Diamond draws from traditional societies about how to lead a healthy lifestyle definitely fall into the latter category. After giving the standard advice about limiting one’s intake of calories, exercising more, not smoking, and eating more fruits and vegetables, Diamond admits: “This advice is so banally familiar that it’s embarrassing to repeat it.”  Although he then goes on to justify his conclusions by stating that “it’s worth repeating the truth,” this reviewer at least was left thinking: “Yes, your prescriptions in this area are quite banal, aren’t they?” (451).

One wonders how the average reader of Diamond’s book could implement some of his other most worthwhile suggestions. Many readers will agree that bilingualism is important, but immersing children in multiple languages early in life is extremely difficult in countries with one dominant language unless a family has the money to hire caregivers who speak a foreign language and/or send their children to a special school. Much of Diamond’s advice for childrearing is equally difficult to follow. Although a large percentage of his readership could presumably implement allo-parenting to some extent, few harried parents are in a situation where they can engage in continuous nursing or have constant skin-to-skin contact with their child. Diamond himself acknowledges that at least one of the lessons taught by traditional societies, the methods that many of them use to resolve conflict peacefully, is a change that should be adopted more at the societal rather than the individual level.

The World until Yesterday does a good job of providing an overview of differences between traditional and state societies in the areas that Diamond chooses to highlight. But the lessons that he argues modern individuals and societies should glean from traditional groups are often either trite or too difficult for the average person to implement.

- Eric Platt

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