A Passion for Jungle People and Birdsong

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Philip Jones Griffiths/Magnum Photos
A warrior in Papua New Guinea looking through binoculars for the first time, 1973

Thank goodness for being WEIRD—for living in a Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic world rather than in prehistory. Otherwise life might be an endless round of tribal warfare and diarrhea. I might have to strangle my sister if her husband died and kill my newborn baby if it looked on the weak side, although I could probably leave that task to its mother. How lovely to be WEIRD: to have the prospect of death by heart attack or cancer, to breathe polluted air, and to live in crowded cities full of lonely old people and maladjusted children.

Although there are advantages, we have paid a heavy price for choosing to leave traditional society behind, first entering the world of state societies in Mesopotamia 5,400 years ago—although some would argue that the cultural Rubicon was crossed by the invention of farming soon after the end of the last ice age 11,600 years ago. Would it have been better for the planet, our society, and our physical and mental well-being to have remained within the world of small-scale societies, living by hunting and gathering, herding, or subsistence farming? Surely not, for we would have neither Mozart nor modern medicine. But are there nevertheless lessons that we can still learn from a more traditional lifestyle to enhance our personal lives and society today? Jared Diamond thinks so. While being unable to step back into prehistory itself, he has been regularly visiting traditional communities in New Guinea since 1964 and brings a wealth of personal experience and a breadth of academic knowledge—of archaeology, geography, ecology, physiology—to bear on the big question: how to live.

Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, is well known for three outstanding popular science books—The Third Chimpanzee (1991), Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). He has been suitably lauded—a National Medal of Science, the Tyler, Pulitzer, Rhône-Poulenc, and Aventis, among other prizes for science and science writing. He was also the subject of a $10 million lawsuit for alleged defamation of two New Guinea tribesmen whom he wrote about in The New Yorker in 2008. So Diamond comes with his own history that makes his new book, The World Until Yesterday, all the more fascinating to read.

Diamond addresses a series of topics: attitudes toward friends and strangers; systems of justice and the nature of warfare; child-rearing and treatment of the elderly; attitudes toward danger; religion; linguistic diversity and capability; diet and health. For each of these he identifies some important differences between traditional and modern society, and what lessons we might learn from them. Some are for us as individuals—how to bring up our children, how to adjust our diet—and some for society as a whole, such as amending our systems of justice. Why should …

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