What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
by Jared Diamond
Hardcover (31 Dec 2012), 512 pages.
Most of us take for granted the features of our modern society, from air travel and telecommunications to literacy and obesity. Yet for nearly all of its six million years of existence, human society had none of these things. While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgeably wide, we can glimpse much of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies still or recently in existence. Societies like those of the New Guinea Highlanders remind us that it was only yesterday - in evolutionary time - when everything changed and that we moderns still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional than to modern conditions.
The World Until Yesterday provides a mesmerizing firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years - a past that has mostly vanished - and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today.
This is Jared Diamond's most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn't romanticize traditional societies - after all, we are shocked by some of their practices - but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us. A characteristically provocative, enlightening, and entertaining book, The World Until Yesterday will be essential and delightful reading.
Why study traditional societies?
Why do we find "traditional" societies so fascinating?1 Partly, it's because of their human interest: the fascination of getting to know people who are so similar to us and understandable in some ways, and so unlike us and hard to understand in other ways. When I arrived in New Guinea for the first time, in 1964 at the age of 26, I was struck by the exoticness of New Guineans: they look different from Americans, speak different languages, dress differently, and behave differently. But over the subsequent decades, in the course of my making dozens of visits of one to five months each to many parts of New Guinea and neighboring islands, that predominant sense of exoticness yielded to a sense of common ground as I came to know individual New Guineans: we hold long conversations, laugh at the same jokes, share interests in children and sex and food and sports, and find ourselves angry, frightened, grief- stricken, relieved, and exultant together. Even their languages are variations on familiar worldwide linguistic themes: although the first New Guinea language that I learned (Fore) is unrelated to Indo-European languages and hence has a vocabulary that was completely unfamiliar to me, Fore still conjugates verbs elaborately like German, and it has dual pronouns like Slovenian, postpositions like Finnish, and three demonstrative adverbs ("here," "there nearby," and "there faraway") like Latin.
All those similarities misled me, after my initial sense of New Guinea's exoticness, into thinking, "People are basically all the same everywhere." No, I eventually came to realize, in many basic ways we are not all the same: many of my New Guinea friends count differently (by visual mapping rather than by abstract numbers), select their wives or husbands differently, treat their parents and their children differently, view danger differently, and have a different concept of friendship. This confusing mixture of similarities and differences is part of what makes traditional societies fascinating to an outsider.
Another reason for the interest and importance of traditional societies is that they retain features of how all of our ancestors lived for tens of thousands of years, until virtually yesterday. Traditional lifestyles are what shaped us and caused us to be what we are now. The shift from hunting-gathering to farming began only about 11,000 years ago; the first metal tools were produced only about 7,000 years ago; and the first state government and the first writing arose only around 5,400 years ago. "Modern" conditions have prevailed, even just locally, for only a tiny fraction of human history; all human societies have been traditional for far longer than any society has been modern. Today, readers of this book take for granted farm- grown and store-bought food rather than wild food hunted and gathered daily, tools of metal rather than of stone and wood and bone, state government and its associated law courts and police and armies, and reading and writing. But all of those seeming necessities are relatively new, and billions of people around the world today still live in partly traditional ways.
Embedded even within modern industrial societies are realms where many traditional mechanisms still operate. In many rural areas of the First World, such as the Montana valley where my wife and children and I spend our annual summer vacations, many disputes are still resolved by traditional informal mechanisms rather than by going to court. Urban gangs in large cities don't call the police to settle their disagreements but rely on traditional methods of negotiation, compensation, intimidation, and war. European friends of mine who grew up in small European villages in the 1950s described childhoods like those in a traditional New Guinea village: everybody knew everybody else in the village, 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. That is, the world of yesterday wasn't erased and replaced by a new world of today: much of yesterday is still with us. That's another reason for wanting to understand yesterday's world.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond. Copyright © 2012 by Jared Diamond.
Jared Diamond is a big-picture thinker with the sweeping imagination of an old-fashioned polymath. His previous bestsellers, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, have earned him the status of a visionary for their skill at going for the jugular of our biggest cultural insecurities about the environment, about the post-imperialist world, about modernity. The World Until Yesterday is the latest installment in the conversation, bringing insights from anthropology, evolutionary biology, linguistics, and political science to explore ways in which the human race can find help for the future in the past.
The book is framed with an interesting conceit. Diamond explains that humans have been organizing themselves into nation states for a relatively short period of time, a mere blip on the radar when you consider that Homo sapiens have been roaming the planet for around 100,000 years. Before the rise of "state governments," as Diamond calls them, there were "traditional societies," small bands and tribes like those that still exist in remote regions such as the mountains of Papua New Guinea and the Amazonian rainforest.
The book's subtitle asks, "What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?", and Diamond seeks answers as he sifts through the available data on traditional modes of justice, warfare, child-rearing, nutrition and other cultural practices. He argues that most of what we know about humanity, scientifically speaking, is based on work with WEIRD subjects Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic. Traditional societies, as they existed at the time of "first contact" with the West, or as we know them from ethnographic work or the historical record, are like human experiments in progress, rich with alternative perspectives.
Some of the most riveting parts of the book read like a travel memoir, as Diamond recalls his experiences doing research in the remote forests of Papua New Guinea. Some parts of the country were unknown to the West until the 1930s, when military expeditions and research forays "discovered" villagers living the way they had lived, Diamond posits, for millennia. Personal observations ground and center the book's argument throughout, and Diamond's complicated affection for the jungles of Papua New Guinea is palpable. In spite of the danger of being murdered by a hostile stranger, or of falling ill out of reach of emergency medical care, he asserts that "being in New Guinea is like seeing the world briefly in vivid colors, when by comparison the world elsewhere is gray."
This is no traditional ethnography, however. Diamond supports his own fieldwork with data from studies of traditional peoples around the world, organizing his general areas of interest into large surveys. He sets about this task with a style that reads as earnest and forthright, rather than fleet or clever, and can plod at times as he sorts through a miscellany of material. In the early chapters on warfare, reading becomes a hard slog as the names of esoteric village factions and battles pile up. But in time the peripatetic nature of the book's wanderings from culture to culture and topic to topic come to seem like an edifying ramble, the meandering commentary of a far-reaching mind working through things it finds curious.
Diamond paints with a very broad brush, which means that while the scope of his work is exciting, the complexity of the details can be lost. The gaps left by the broad-brush approach grow frustrating. Diamond doesn't engage in the history of his question ('What can we learn from traditional societies?'), for one thing. He isn't interested in meta-debate, but the lack of a recent historical perspective reads like a glaring omission. And some topics are too lightly touched on, perhaps out of necessity (He has struggled to keep the book to a reasonable size as it is the notes are only available online.). The chapter on childrearing seemed oddly slight, for instance. Almost any parent who has been to a La Leche League meeting or picked up a parenting magazine will know more about traditional breastfeeding and co-sleeping than Diamond covers. And is it news that the standard Western diet is causing an epidemic of diabetes? "It's worth repeating the truth," Diamond says as he lays out the facts about how to fight this trend. "We already know enough to warrant our being hopeful, not depressed." The World Until Yesterday gathers a wealth of material for asking the big questions, but the specifics of the answers are left up in the air.
For a TED talk by Jared Diamond about why societies collapse, click on the video below:
Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder
Lyrical and harrowing, this survey of traditional societies reveals the surprising truth that modern life is a mere snippet in the long narrative of human endeavor.
This detailed, insightful, and accessible cultural study is bound to be popular with readers of Diamond's previous books as well as with general readers interested in anthropology, sociology, and other related fields.
In this fascinating book, Diamond brings fresh perspective to historic and contemporary ways of life with an eye toward those that are likely to enhance our future.
Starred Review. A symphonic yet unromantic portrait of traditional societies and the often stirring lessons they offer.
Jared Diamond's question, "What can we learn from traditional societies?" is one Westerners have been asking in a Utopian spirit for generations, looking for ways to revivify our cultural practices and trying revisionist experiments to reverse the damage civilization does to our health and psyches. It's a tricky exercise, since there are plenty of traditional practices like the Kaulong people's practice of widow strangulation, that humanity is well rid of. A glimpse of what life was like in traditional societies (in the words of Thomas Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short"), especially for women, is enough to make one exceedingly thankful for modernity despite its imperfections. Still, we have an apt fascination with the natural and traditional, and as Diamond avers, conservation of our human past may be the thing that informs our progress. Here are a few contemporary cultural movements that look to "traditional societies" for inspiration:
Attachment Parenting: This trend in parenting, with reputed pediatrician William Sears as its advocate, had its start in observations of traditional childrearing practices. Breastfeeding on demand, wearing baby in a sling, and co-sleeping are parenting techniques meant to promote a natural "attachment" between mother and child. The theory is that babies raised in this manner grow up to be more secure and confident (like a rural tribal child), not stressed and alienated (like a disaffected urban youth). The controversy surrounding the scientific basis of attachment parenting is a good example of how difficult it can be to prove what is "natural", in evolutionary terms, for humans. Emulating tribal patterns of what Sears calls "babywearing" and extended breastfeeding might make sense as a natural antidote for what might be seen as the excesses of more recent innovations in parenting (the invention of bottle feeding and cage-like cribs). Sometimes what we see in the past has a lot to say about the imbalances in our culture in the present.
Midwifery: The current midwifery movement in America draws much inspiration from observing traditional childbirth practices. Midwifery seeks to move birth practices away from the medical birth in the stirrups model to more traditional modes, with better outcomes for mother and baby. The midwives of the 1960s and 70s, led by the path-breaking Ina May Gaskin (Spiritual Midwifery, 1977), set off a renaissance of a profession that had virtually died out in America by looking to Native Americans and other traditional peoples for techniques and advice. Emphasis on standing during labor, or squatting, or birthing in water are all commonly used traditional practices which are now commonplace once again in the West.
The Paleo Diet (or Paleolithic, or Stone Age): The ravages of the Western salty, fatty, and sugary diet has left us clamoring to know what we should eat instead. The idea that humans have evolved to make use of an optimal diet is alluring, and the "Paleo diet", based on the 1970s work of a gastroenterologist, aims to recreate the menu of an early hunter-gatherer. Fish, meat, and veggies are allowed; sugar and flour and oils are not. The evolutionary basis for the menu is controversial, and there are lots of ways to enter into the spirit of the diet. Some Paleo Diet practitioners eat their meat raw, while others can put together a credible "pizza."
A healthy dose of skepticism and common sense is essential for engaging Jared Diamond's question, "What can we learn from traditional societies?" For further reading, check out Marlene Zuk's upcoming book, Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live. Evolutionary biology may offer some provocative suggestions, but their practical application is often open to interpretation. Basing culture on science is not a purely scientific enterprise.
William Sears and Martha Sears, The Attachment Parenting Book
Sarah Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
Robb Wolf and Loren Cordain, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet