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Traditional Societies and Us

What We Can Learn — Or Not — From Earlier Cultures

Human beings and apes went their separate ways 6 million years ago, Jared Diamond notes near the beginning of The World Until Yesterday. Yet agriculture has been around for just 11,000 years, and the first state government arose only 5,400 years ago.

In other words, life as we know it accounts for a small fraction of human history. By looking closely at the world’s last few “traditional” (i.e., tribal) societies — especially in New Guinea, where he’s spent much of the past half-century — Diamond shows what it must have been like before that.

He deftly explodes a few myths, beginning with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “speculative and ungrounded theory” that “humans were naturally compassionate in a state of nature, and that wars began only with the rise of states.”

The reality was the opposite — maniacal xenophobia and perennial war. If you encountered a stranger on your path, you had essentially two options: run or fight.

The percentage of people that tribal societies typically lost in conflicts dwarfs German and Russian war losses during the 20th century (even if the numbers seem less dramatic at first because they aren’t in the millions).

That’s why they’ve so often accepted state control with so little protest: Since states, for their own reasons, suppress tribal warfare, life under their authority is less dangerous and a lot more pleasant.

The World Until Yesterday is packed with fascinating information of this kind. But because Diamond has constructed it as a series of lessons we can learn from what once were called primitive peoples, it’s also problematic.

I don’t doubt his good faith when he declares, “My own outlook on life has been transformed and enriched by my years among one set of traditional societies, that of New Guinea.” (He previously wrote about these societies, among others, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel.)

But then what does he tell us we can learn from them? To value mediation as a method of settling legal disputes. To treat the elderly with greater dignity. To watch our salt and sugar intake.

Fifty years of study — for that?

Diamond’s most intriguing discussion, in terms of novel and usable information, involves child rearing. I was happy to find him advocating, for example, that parents allow small children to share their beds; I’m still mad about how strictly my own parents barred me from theirs.

But even when Diamond offers convincing arguments about “the precocious development of social skills” in the children of hunter-gatherers, he dulls them with an irritating habit of belaboring the hyper-obvious:

“Naturally, I’m not saying that we should emulate all child-rearing practices of hunter-gatherers. I don’t recommend that we return to the hunter-gatherer practices of selective infanticide, high risk of death in childbirth and letting infants play with knives and get burned by fires.”

Or, on the elderly: “I don’t know any individual American whose devoted care of his aged parents goes as far as pre-chewing their food, nor any who has strangled his aged parents and been publicly commended as a good son for doing so.”

Much like his friends in the New Guinea jungle, for whom “there is no time pressure, no schedule,” Diamond is in no hurry to get where he’s going.

What disturbs me more than the leisurely blandness of his style, though, is his apparent conviction (or maybe it came from his agent or his publisher) that he had to make his book relevant by delivering news you can use. The idea that knowledge isn’t sufficient in itself is depressing if not insulting.

I was absorbed as I read The World Before Yesterday. But faced with the embarrassing question its subtitle poses — What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? — I would have to answer: Not all that much.