Jared Diamond is an American anthropologist, evolutionary biologist, historian, linguist, scientist, writer, environmentalist and geographer – the epitome of a polymath. He is best known for writing Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). His latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies (2012) is not a recent publication yet is still relevant to the societal and cultural issues we face in the West.
Diamond bases his theories on the small-scale traditional societies of New Guinea where he spent more than 50 years doing fieldwork and research. He writes with respect and fondness of the New Guineans he knows well, yet remains objective throughout. While he acknowledges the benefits that traditional societies can offer the West, he excludes certain traditional practices such as infanticide and senicide. The book covers topics including danger, risk, treatment of the elderly, parenting strategies, multi-linguistics and an interesting chapter on the pattern of feast and famine, practised historically by traditional societies and influenced by their environments and religions.
Traditional societies are small enough for the entire community to know each other and most have cultural practices where responsibility for bringing up children is shared by the majority of adults, even if they are not related. The result is more precocious development of children. Diamond also shows how exposing children to danger and risk at a young age means they are prepared for the harsh realities of life and therefore exhibit far more mature behaviour than our own young. Caring for children is relatively unstructured and they are given more freedom than Westernised children to make decisions – even to their own detriment. Many carry scars from getting too close to a fire when young. Being risk-averse in traditional societies does not mean shielding children from the harsh realities of life but proceeding with caution in physical tasks. Traditional hunter-gatherers do not take adventure holidays – they avoid risk wherever they can.
Traditional societies do not have the level of non-communicable diseases that the developed world has, such as diabetes and hypertension. But as New Guineans became more Westernised and left the hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind, they began to suffer from new diseases. Until recently what killed them was violence, and conditions such as respiratory illnesses and malaria. Most of what kills in traditional societies has been eliminated by the West. Surprisingly Europeans have a genetically low risk of diabetes compared with the rest of the world, despite their relative wealth and access to abundance of food.
Pervasive ethnocentrism in developed societies means the lessons of traditional societies are often disregarded. Diamond’s main thesis is that the West can learn valuable lessons from these traditional societies. Most of them have incorporated some degree of Westernisation into their lifestyles, social and cultural practices but there are certain beneficial aspects that they retain and which can be assimilated by the West if the impetus is there. As Diamond so aptly explains in his book, we have a multitude of characteristics we can proud of in the West but we can still learn from traditional societies how to create a better way of living.
Diamond explains that as population growth increased humans expanded from living in a band to living in a tribe. This was succeeded by a chiefdom and then the state, a behemoth of a structure in which most of us live now. Although most contemporary traditional societies have incorporated some Western elements, many retain ancient wisdoms. And it is from these we can learn lessons.
Some of these traditional societies still continue to practise certain social and cultural components untainted by Westernisation. These are part of our primitive and tribal genetic memories and should come naturally to all of us, which leads Diamond to postulate that we might be able to incorporate them into our Western social structures.
Diamond makes us question our sense of superiority in our large-scale societal structures, where faceless bureaucrats dictate the minutiae which affect our everyday lives. Large-scale societies are constructed through massive systems, structures and units which influence the creation and form of smaller-scale structures, systems and units, such as the family unit. Traditional societies have the advantage that everyone knows each other and this familiarity leads to a society that is less rigid and more fluid.
At the same time we are fortunate to live in such developed societies where we have achieved so much in technology, food production, legal and parliamentary systems, transport, literature and academia – a point which Diamond acknowledges. He proposes that we would lead happier lives if we incorporated elements from small-scale societies.
For most of human history we have lived in small bands and tribes. This primitive experience created a sense of safety on a basic level that we all feel deep inside us and so developed our desire for community and the extended family unit. So living in developed societal structures in the West means that we can struggle with unhappiness, loneliness and alienation because the vastness of the state is not what our tribal brain craves.
Diamond writes in an accessible style without losing the necessary complexity of argument and debate. He does not claim to have all the answers but offers a refreshing and alternative view which differs from both ‘the noble savage’ approach – which historically ethnographers encapsulated – and from Western ethnocentrism.