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A Passion for Jungle People and Birdsong

mithen_1-022113.jpg
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 there be lessons? Because “in some respects we moderns are misfits; our bodies and our practices now face conditions different from those under which they evolved, and to which they became adapted.”

“Traditional society” is, of course, a very broad term. Diamond leaves its definition to a rare footnote:

I mean past and present societies living at low population densities in small groups ranging from a few dozen to a few thousand people, subsisting by hunting-gathering or by farming or herding, and transformed to a limited degree by contact with large, Westernized, industrial societies.

He continues by acknowledging that all such societies today have been at least partly modified by such contact, while also arguing that they retain many features and social processes of small-scale societies of the past. That is most likely the case. But perhaps even more caution is due in light of those traditional societies largely being found in marginal environments today—marginal with regard to their being conducive to economic growth or exploitation by state societies. As such, still-existing traditional societies most likely provide an unrepresentative range of those that have ever existed. While Diamond describes such societies as providing us with “thousands of natural experiments” about how to live, the sample might nevertheless be severely biased. Archaeological reconstruction is required to expand the sample, but that brings its own problems of how to interpret mute material remains of the socially and emotionally charged lives that we wish to compare with our own.

The tribes of Highland New Guinea that dominate Diamond’s book are a case in point. When first encountered by Western (Australian) eyes in 1931 they seemed as traditional as could possibly be: Stone Age technology, chronic tribal warfare, a bewildering number of languages, exotic rituals. As Diamond describes them, those societies have spent the last seventy-five years racing through the social and economic changes that took thousands of years to unfold in much of the rest of the world. But what had happened in the seventy-five years prior to 1931? Or in the one hundred, one thousand, or seven thousand years back to the first archaeological evidence for cultivation in the Highlands? Had there always been the culture of strict territoriality, vengeance, and periodic famine that was observed following 1931? Or did the New Guinea Highlanders of the 1930s have their own traditional societies that were as different from them as the recent New Guineans are from us today?

Diamond is quite aware of such difficulties and when he seems to suggest otherwise, such as by referring to thousands of years of New Guinea tribal warfare, this is most likely a consequence of seeking literary impact rather than a misjudgment. Indeed, he stresses that his book is a work for a wide readership rather than an academic study. Whether that is sufficient to justify the absence of footnotes for the many assertions he makes about both modern and traditional societies poses a problem: I would have thought that a great many readers would have wished to consult the source materials from which Diamond has drawn, and I certainly found many fascinating facts and figures I wished to follow up, and some that I was skeptical about and for which I required verification. I recall that Diamond’s defense against claims of factual inaccuracies in his New Yorker article was that he was writing as a journalist rather than a scientist. In my view the standards of accountability are equivalent, and popular science needs its footnotes—although I may be currently oversensitized on this issue, writing this review during the week that the Leveson inquiry into the ethics of the press is being published in the UK.

WEIRD societies are themselves hugely variable—with different degrees of the W, E, I, R, and D. Diamond is often quite flexible and occasionally rather unspecific as to which variant he is referring to and makes no reference to really weird China with its mix of capitalism and communism, rich and poor, urban and rural. Sometimes he encompasses all state societies since the time of Mesopotamia, at others refers to the “modern world” or the “First World” or “Western life,” and sometimes appears to be thinking about nothing more than an affluent, middle-class American society—probably much like the one I imagine he inhabits in California.

This appears to be the case, for instance, when he is writing about the greatly extended longevity and general health of older people in modern as opposed to traditional societies: the latter might look rather more favorable if the comparison was with, say, the urban working classes of the nineteenth century or perhaps even with those of today. Even if one were to take a snapshot of just modern-day America, any attempt to generalize about the lives, diet, child care, and treatment of the elderly is a near-impossible task in light of the vast range of socioeconomic circumstances.

In any case, modern America is rather odd. When writing about religion, for instance, Diamond argues that it has now been undermined by the explanatory role of science while the need for prayer has been reduced because technology has decreased the number and potential impact of the dangers we face. This is quite persuasive for understanding the secularization of Europe but flounders in the face of America, the most scientifically and technologically advanced nation in which Christianity and perhaps creationism are thriving. Conversely, Diamond’s explanations for the rise in diabetes—having a lifestyle in stark contrast to that in traditional society—seems effective for understanding the prevalence of diabetes in America but leaves its low frequency in equally lazy and overfed Europe unexplained.

Diamond is evidently vexed by these differences between America and Europe, but other important contrasts are neglected. He writes, for instance, about how networks of social relationships tend to be more important and long-lasting in traditional than in Western societies. Maybe so for meritocratic America, but I rather doubt this is the case for Europe and certainly not the UK where the networks of “old boys” continue to thrive. A recently published Sutton Trust report showed the continuing influence of a handful of private schools, notably Eton, on getting access to the top jobs.

Diamond begins his study by considering attitudes toward friends, enemies, and strangers, concluding that traditional societies of the past and present behaved like “tiny nations.” Here, as elsewhere, he uses tales of his own experience to help the argument along. These are enjoyable short narratives that when pieced together provide something of a biographical account of a fascinating life. One anecdote in this section of the book is used to explain how traditional society, or at least the particular New Guinea tribe he was visiting at the time, had a quite different concept of personal friendship from Diamond’s own notion gained from his native America, which he had previously assumed was universal.

Diamond’s notion of friendship had been jolted by the response of a New Guinean named Yabu when asked whether he intended to visit a friend called Jim, a British schoolteacher based in New Guinea. Diamond had watched how Yabu and Jim had met at one of his bird-watching campsites and greatly enjoyed each other’s company, spending a great deal of time talking, joking, and sharing stories. Jim had returned to his Central Highlands town, which was located just a few miles from Yabu’s village. Diamond’s innocuous question had been met with an indignant response from Yabu:

Visit him? What for? If he had work or a paid job to offer me, then I would. But he doesn’t have a job for me. Of course I’m not going to stop in his town and look him up just for the sake of “friendship”!

Part two covers “Peace and War.” It starts by using an account of the death of a child in a traffic accident in New Guinea to lead us into revealing contrasts between justice systems in traditional and modern societies. In the former the emphasis is placed on repairing relationships between all of the parties involved, seeking to achieve emotional closure and reconciliation; in the latter the concern is with identifying guilt and seeking retribution. The reason for the difference is clear: in small-scale traditional societies the parties in dispute are most likely to already know one another, may well be related, and will certainly encounter one another again; in a state society there is no need to worry about mending a relationship because it is most unlikely that one had ever existed and that the parties will ever see each other again.

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