School of the World: Jared Diamond on The World Until Yesterday

The polymathic Jared Diamond ranks among the foremost writers of popular science. In Collapse:How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he brought to bear his diverse background — evolutionary biologist, expert on traditional societies, multilinguist –to discuss why certain societies failed to gain a foothold and eventually disappeared. His best-known work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, explored the circumstances by which European cultures developed the technologies, immune systems, and attitudes toward warfare that led to their later global dominance. These were complicated topics made palatable and digestible to a wide readership, and both books became bestsellers. Diamond’s comprehensive expertise is once again in evidence in The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

Diamond, who has been visiting New Guinea since 1964, is intimately familiar with that region’s social, political, and financial practices; they seem radically different from those of our  society and yet resemble cultures that could be found around the globe through much of human history. There is much that modern readers can learn from such societies, Diamond writes; for example, in how they raise and treat their children; how they value their senior citizens; how they use “constructive paranoia” to survive dangerous situations; and how their multilingualism helps them stave off illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease.

But traditional societies — Diamond cites dozens in this book, among them groups from Africa and South America — should not be wholly romanticized. Some of their practices are better left to the dustbin of history: most notably infanticide, widow strangling, and persistent warfare.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Diamond discussed his long-held fascination with traditional societies and what they can teach us about human nature and the best ways to live. —Cameron Martin

The Barnes & Noble Review: There’s so much worthy of examination and discussion in this book, but I thought we might use as a starting point a quote from the middle of the book, where you concisely state that the book’s purpose is concerned with “the whole spectrum of related phenomenon observed from the smallest human bands of 20 people to the largest states of over a billion people.” Out of context, that stated purpose looks massive and unwieldy. What was the starting point for the construction of this book?  Can it be considered the third part of a trilogy that began with Guns, Germs, and Steel and continued with Collapse?

Jared Diamond: Not at all. Each of my books has started from what I was interested in when I finished my previous book. This book was initially going to be an autobiographical account of what I have experienced and observed in New Guinea, but my editors wanted another big, worldwide book similar to Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, and so it got transformed into an examination of small-scale societies around the world — not just my anecdotal observations in New Guinea but also the published studies by anthropologists all around the world. To keep it manageable, I focused on thirty-nine small-scale societies that I kept coming back to so that readers could become familiar. And just as you say, it’s a huge topic, and I could write a 30,000-page book summarizing all aspects of human society. But I had to pick. And to keep it manageable and affordable, I picked some aspects of traditional societies that we consider horrible and we don’t want to emulate, such as being constantly at war and strangling widows. I picked some features that we can easily emulate for ourselves as individuals, such as carrying your baby upright and not in a baby carriage. I selected some features that we can’t adopt as individuals but which governments have to adopt, such as a legal system. And so that’s how I selected material for eleven chapters.

BNR: The first part of the book is called “Setting the Stage by Dividing Peace” and discusses how members of state societies differ from traditional societies in their relationships with friends, enemies, strangers, and traders. You mention something called a “conventional monopoly,” a term and practice that I think would be of surprise and interest to Westerners. “This term refers to trade in an item which either of the two trade partners could obtain or manufacture, but which one side chooses to rely on the other partner to supply, as an excuse for maintaining trade relations.” It’s somewhat sycophantic, that practice, and definitely incongruous with capitalism as most Americans know it. Where is this practiced today — and are you aware of any Westerners who practice it?

JD: It’s practiced today among a lot of traditional societies. For example it’s practiced among New Guineans and among Amazonian Indians. There are cases of one group who makes pottery and another group who makes spears and another who makes decorations. Each group could do all of those things, but they rely on each other so that they’ll have trade partners who can be their allies in case of conflicts. As to whether there are any examples in the Western world, I can’t immediately think of any examples. But in general, when I buy something from somebody, I buy it because somebody has it and I don’t know how to make it or I don’t want to go to the time to make it. I buy it because it’s useful for me to do so. It’s not the case that there’s anything I abstain from making which I could very well make myself and which I buy from someone just so I can remain friends with that person.

BNR: That’s such an interesting dynamic. It has a social and political aspect to it beyond the financial.

JD: That’s right, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The social and political aspect is far more important than the financial aspect. In the case of the Dani of New Guinea, they buy net bags decorated with orchid fibers from a neighboring group. But they have orchid fibers and are completely capable of making their own fiber bags decorated with orchid fibers. The reason they buy them from the neighboring group is not for any financial reason whatsoever; it’s to foster friendly relations with the neighboring group.

BNR: That’s fascinating. In the “Peace and War” section, you discuss the traditional practice of “restorative justice,” in which legal matters are handled face to face and justice is restored by the participating parties and not through courts.

JD: Restorative justice is not for every situation. It’s instead for situations where both sides are willing – both the perpetrator and the victim or the relatives of the victim. It’s especially important when the participants are going to have relationships for the rest of their lives. For example, because it’s your neighbor or it’s your sister or it’s your spouse and you’re going to get divorced. In those cases you want to establish at least a decent relationship so you can talk to your sister and your ex-spouse for the rest of life if you have to do it. I have plenty of friends who were victims or were involved in disputes with people they were never going to see again. Nevertheless, in the absence of restorative justice they were chewed up emotionally for the rest of their lives because they never got emotional clearance.

BNR: You mentioned in passing in the book…not serial killers but definitely repeat murderers in traditional societies who exhibited sociopathic tendencies. What’s your experience or knowledge of serial killers in traditional societies? Or what are the factors that maybe are not in play that would otherwise produce them?

JD: I don’t personally know of any serial killers, but there are lots of anthropological accounts of serial killers. For example among the Yanomamo Indians and various New Guinea groups. In our society a serial killer is someone who is pathological and who is rejected by the rest of society — it’s not the case that their behavior would ever be acceptable to society. The contrast is that among the Yanomamo Indians and other New Guinea groups that have serial killers, it’s often that serial killers are doing something that’s admired, and they get prestige for doing it because it’s something that the society aims to do. For example, if a group of Yanomamo wants to kill a neighboring group of Yanomamo, a member of your group who is successful in killing a relatively large group of people on the other side is doing what your group wants and is approved of, and that person gets prestige that translates itself into getting more wives and having more children.

BNR: That’s an interesting dynamic. They basically have an outlet for their sociopathic tendencies and then they’re lauded for it.

JD: Well, for them it wouldn’t be considered sociopathic or pathological tendencies. For them it’s a widespread human instinct that we get talked out of, because from the age of two or three forward we’re taught “Thou shall not kill.” But among all traditional human societies, from age two or three onward you’re taught you shall kill these particular people under these circumstances and you shall be praised for it.

BNR: Which leads to another thing you mentioned in the book, how in World War II and other well-known conflicts, more than half of Western soldiers couldn’t bring themselves to shoot the enemy because they’d been indoctrinated with the idea that killing is wrong, whereas in traditional societies there is no such reluctance and they don’t feel guilty afterwards.

JD: Right. For example, my wife is a clinical psychologist out here in Los Angeles who works with soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and also with soldiers preparing for the wars. They are getting training, months of training beforehand, where they’re out in these camps in the desert outside Los Angeles getting training. They’re given targets to shoot at. And then the targets become humanlike targets, so that the soldiers are slowly getting desensitized and brought to the point where they’re slowly willing to shoot another person. But when they’re out in Iraq and Afghanistan, if buddies of theirs end up getting killed, and if they end up shooting a child or a woman or a man, they’ll come back and be really upset with post-traumatic stress. Because even with that desensitization in the desert east of Los Angeles, they spent 18-25 years of their life being told “Thou shall not kill” and now they’ve done it.

BNR: In the section devoted to “Young and Old,” you discuss how children are brought up in traditional versus state-governed societies and also the disparity between their attitude toward older people and our own. “American ideals push old Americans to lose self-respect, and push their younger care-givers to lose respect for them.” How does that contrast with traditional societies, and what can we learn from them in terms of how they treat young and old?

JD: How traditional societies treat the young varies among traditional societies just as it varies among industrial societies. In Sweden, for example, it’s a criminal act if you spank a child. In Germany fifty years ago, you were regarded as a bad parent if you failed to spank a child. So there’s diversity in modern societies just as there’s diversity in traditional societies. Some of them beat children much more severely than we do. In others of them, it’s considered utterly unacceptable to hit a child. Among really small traditional societies, the hunter-gatherer societies or the small-farming societies, the usual pattern is that children are not hit. For example among the Aka Pygmies, you do it once and that’s considered grounds for divorce by the co-parent. There are differences with children with traditional societies. You allow them freedom of choice to do what they decide to do. You hold them all the time when they cry and you immediately respond to the cry, and you don’t put them in a crib and let them cry themselves out for twenty minutes. So those are some differences as regards children.

As regards old people, again there’s diversity. We have modern societies that are kinder to their old people than other modern societies. Among some traditional societies, some actually kill their old people or abandon them or encourage them to commit suicide. But a lot of traditional societies — maybe the majority of them — gave their people much more satisfying lives and got more value out of them and treated them much better and maintained better relationships with them than in the modern United States or Europe.
BNR: What’s your own take on the “spare the rod, spoil the child” approach?

JD: My own take is that that is a bad idea. I’m the parent of two children who are now in their mid-twenties and never, not once, did I hit my kids. I never found it necessary to hit my kids. I was always able to get them to do what I wanted them to do and to prevent them from doing what they shouldn’t do by means other than hitting them. I see no good to hitting a child. I see a lot of harm to hitting a child.
BNR: In “Danger and Response,” you discuss the benefits of constructive paranoia, using the example of New Guineans who would not sleep under a rotted tree as you were prepared to do. And you mention how traditional people have no concept of being macho, whereas we of course do. Can you discuss what contributed to that disparity?

JD: The !Kung, the Kalahari San people of the southwestern African desert, do things that for an American teenager or a gang member would be considered the ultimate macho. Namely, there’ll be lions on a carcass and you stand there and you throw stones at the lions or wave sticks to drive the lions off the carcass. Boy, that’s something that you would really boast about if you were an American. But among the !Kung, it’s part of how they make their living, part of their everyday lifestyle, and they don’t boast about it. And again, if they kill an antelope with sharp horns. And if their child runs away from an antelope with sharp horns, they’re not ashamed of it [laughs]. That’s a child, and they think it’s very smart to run away from a dangerous antelope.

BNR: And as you pointed out with the !Kung, they’re very adept at recognizing whether the lions are sitting over prey that they’ve already feasted on or whether they’re eating prey that they’ve only recently taken and that they are prepared to defend.

JD: That’s right. If you see lions whose bellies are bulging and there’s blood on their faces because they’ve been feasting, then those are lions that you drive off a carcass. If you see a lion with its ribs showing that’s really hungry, you do not fool around with that lion and try to drive it off a carcass, because you know it’s going to stand its ground.

BNR: What were some other instances in your own life in which “constructive paranoia” was beneficial to you?

JD: I’ll give an example of something that happened to me three hours ago and which happens to me every day. I took a shower. Our shower here in the house has a marble floor. And it’s got some of these frictional strips, but it’s slippery. And I’ve learned that taking a shower is the most dangerous thing I’m going to do today. And every time I take a shower, I’m really careful, because I know particularly at my age — I’m seventy-five — the risk of falling in the shower is high. We Americans, what we are really worried about is terrorism and nuclear radiation and stuff like that. But the reality is that very few of us are going to get killed by terrorists or get hurt by nuclear radiation. But tens of thousands of us per year get crippled or die as a result of falling in the shower. For example among my wife’s friends are two women over eighty who have fallen within the last month and a half. The likelihood is that one is not going to walk again, and the other seems to have survived. But all you have to do is read the obituary page of any newspaper any day, and on any page you find accounts of people who died as a result of a fall. I am really, really ultra-careful about slipping in the shower.

BNR: In the last section, devoted to religion, language, and health, you discussed the benefits of being multilingual. Namely, that people who are possessed of many different languages are constantly having to make snap decisions about what words to use in what context, and so they are better adapted to dealing with the myriad problems that daily life can unexpectedly present. Can you just elaborate a bit on the benefits of being multilingual?

JD: Oh, we could talk for several hours on the subject [laughs].

BNR: That’s no problem!

JD: But two sorts of benefit. Just the personal benefit and the personal pleasure that has nothing to do with health. Personally at one time or another, I’ve spoken or read thirteen languages. I read Italian every day. I love learning other languages. It’s given me a lot of pleasure, it’s given me other ways to express myself. It means I have friends who I get to know in their own languages rather than just through the medium of English. It means that I can read all of this wonderful language. Not just Shakespeare, but I can read Dante and Goethe in the original. So it’s something that has personally enriched my life. So that’s the personal. The health benefits are something that are just being appreciated in the last half dozen years. Increasingly we’re learning about Alzheimer’s and the dimensions of old age, and as more and more Americans live to older ages, eventually about 15 percent of Americans will end up with Alzheimer’s, which is a terrifying prospect. If you’re multilingual, you’re less likely to develop Alzheimer’s. The reason is it exercises the brain. For the same reason I do pushups every morning, because it keeps my shoulders strong, one could argue that one keeps one’s brain strong by being multilingual, because you’re having to shift back and forth between languages literally every second. You have to think about the words, mentally work through and recognize.

BNR: You discussed the evolutionary irony of those ancestors who were equipped to get by with limited amounts of salt, and who are now at the highest risk of developing high blood pressure and hypertension. Likewise, there are people who are now more prone to diabetes, even though in the past they were able to subsist with less sugar. Is there any way for those traditional societies to more gradually adapt?

JD: The way to adapt is not to take in more salt and hope your body will adapt. Your body has genes and your genes are not going to adapt in your lifetime. Instead what some governments have done is to gradually adapt by reducing the salt in the food that’s widely available with the help of food manufacturers. In Finland, if they were going to announce next year that there’d be no salt in food, everyone would notice it and people would complain and say, “I want my salty food.” Instead the government of Finland got manufacturers to agree to lower the salt 10 percent. Nobody notices that. Two years later you do another 10 percent, and nobody notices. At the end of 30 years, the salt in Finnish food is way down, and lo and behold the frequency of heart disease and hypertension is down by 70 percent. So that’s an instance of how to gradually adapt.

BNR: What was it about New Guinea that first attracted you to that area?

JD: It’s simple. When I first went out there at the age of twenty-six, unmarried, lusting for adventure, I went to New Guinea because it was a wild and adventurous place. It’s also famous for its diversity of beautiful birds. And when I went there for the first time in 1964, I loved it, I was fascinated, and I’ve been going back ever since.

BNR: When was the last time you were there?

JD: Four years ago, in 2008. Since 2008 I’ve made three trips to Indonesia, to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, which are big tropical mountainous areas like New Guinea. But within the next twelve months I’m hoping to return to New Guinea.

BNR: You mentioned that this book could have been a 30,000-page tome. What were some main aspects that you didn’t include that you maybe wanted to?

JD: Oh, there were so many. I would love to have had a chapter on the effect of language and how we think. It’s a debated area. There’s a theory that the language that you speak affects your ability to perceive something. For example, if your language only has two words for colors – dark and light – you’re not going to have the words for colors and you may not be able to distinguish colors as well as someone who speaks English, a language with a number of color terms. I would have loved to have a chapter on that, but we just don’t know enough about it.

I considered having a chapter on the role of women. In fact I tried out this book by giving lectures in an undergraduate class at UCLA, to see what my students thought of the various material in the book. And for a couple of years I gave a lecture on the role of women. I decided not to have a chapter on the role of women because the fact is in traditional societies women are not treated equally. In fact they’re often treated rather badly. And the female students in my class were so angry and upset and disbelieving, that I felt it was best not to have a chapter.

I also don’t have a chapter on art. I don’t have a chapter on how you select your spouse. I don’t have a chapter on kinship terms. There are so many things if I had written a 30,000-page book that I would have had chapters on.

BNR: Are these omitted chapters going to be the basis for future books or articles?

JD: No, I already have the basis for my next book, and it’s not going to be the other 30,000 pages.

BNR: Can you disclose what the crutch of your next book is going to be about?

JD: I think the next book is going to be about change in individuals and change in countries like the United States. I’m still thinking about it, and I think that’s about all I can safely say about it now.

BNR: What are you hoping readers will take away in particular from The World Until Yesterday?

JD: The first thing I hope that readers will take away is just how fascinating it is to learn about how different societies deal with universal problems like bringing up children, staying healthy, and religion. I’d like readers to share my own pleasure, fascination, and excitement about other societies. There are things we can learn from them. Things as banal as not slipping in the shower. Things like settling disputes in a way that you’re not churned up emotionally for the rest of your life. Staying healthy and not getting heart attacks and strokes and not getting diabetes. Learning the benefits of other languages, and bringing up your children in ways that result in your children being curious and self-confident and happy, rather than so many American children who have been micro-managed for so long and told what to do so much that they don’t make their own decisions.

BNR: Jared, thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure. Good luck with the book.

JD: Thank you. And thank you very much for your interesting questions.