But that leaves open the need for emotional closure. While acknowledging the crucial advantages of state justice—the ability to break otherwise ongoing cycles of violence, providing a “level playing field” for the settlement of disputes (in theory, at least), and deterring further wrongdoing by punishing the guilty—Diamond suggests that we in the West could gain a great deal by incorporating more of the traditional practices into our state systems of justice, notably mediation and restorative justice.
This is not an especially novel idea and Diamond acknowledges that there has already been a long discussion about carrying out such practices. Restorative justice—the practice of bringing all parties together so that responsibilities are recognized and reconciliation sought—has had a significant part in the two broadly successful peace processes of the modern world, in South Africa and Northern Ireland. I was surprised that the otherwise seemingly comprehensive Diamond did not comment or reflect on these case studies of precisely what he is proposing should be done.
Indeed, he left me rather frustrated—but also inspired to find out more. A few moments of googling enabled me to find an excellent 2008 article by Rachel Monaghan in International Criminal Justice Review that drew lessons from both South Africa and Northern Ireland on how community-based restorative justice systems can most effectively engage with state systems. The South African examples were especially interesting as these were described as having been adapted from traditional tribal-based restorative justice systems—more than a decade prior to Diamond’s proposition that this is what should be done.
I was grateful to Diamond for encouraging me to search out that excellent article. I was similarly motivated to do extra reading in response to the next two chapters about “Peace and War.” The first is a short account of the 1961 Dani War between two tribal alliances in New Guinea; the second, a discursive consideration of warfare in tribal societies and how it differs from that of the modern world. The account of the Dani War was fascinating and disturbing in equal amounts, with Diamond perhaps responding to previous criticisms by making a careful documentation of his sources (a doctoral dissertation in Dutch, two books by an anthropologist, a popular science book, and a documentary film). This war appears to have been quite typical of not only those in New Guinea but those of traditional farming societies in general: a seemingly never-ending cycle of ambushes, raids, and open battles; of killings and occasional mass slaughters.
Diamond avoids the mistake of attributing such persistent violence to human nature per se, recognizing that warfare is a response to particular ecological and economic circumstances. He notes key differences from modern warfare: tribal people often know the identities of those they kill; whole populations rather than specialized armies are mobilized; peace is much harder to achieve and remains more fragile when there is no centralized government to impose it.
The chronic nature of tribal warfare with its continual desire for vengeance is quite horrifying—not only to us reading about it at a distance but to the tribal people themselves. Diamond describes the misery it caused to the New Guinea people and how they were grateful for the intervention of state governments that brought the warfare to an end with a small number of patrol officers. Diamond refers to various examples of modern warfare to draw comparisons with that of traditional societies, ranging from the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor to the 1969 Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras; but I was surprised that he makes no reference to the most striking comparison: the Arab–Israeli conflict.
From page to page about New Guinea warfare I couldn’t help but think about the seemingly never-ending cycle of violence in the Middle East. There have been Arab–Israeli wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and more recently in 2006, 2008, and in the very week that I was reading Diamond’s book in November 2012. Among both Israelis and Palestinians we find long memories, desire for revenge, demonization of the enemy, slaughter of civilians, and the mobilization of whole populations—either as conscripted Israeli soldiers or stone-throwing Palestinian children. This appears to be classic tribal warfare as described by Diamond for the Highlands of New Guinea, but it is also tribal warfare with modern weapons in modern society and with the potential for a massive Middle East conflagration.
Part Three explores attitudes and practices toward the young and old in traditional and modern societies. With regard to child-rearing, Diamond finds much to admire in the former: the constant contact between mother and child, including sleeping in the same bed; nursing on demand; cooperative rather than competitive games; the diffuse pattern of care, with children being passed around and looked after by a wide range of adults in addition to their parents—alloparenting in scientific terminology.
These practices are, he implies, responsible for the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of both adults and children in small-scale societies, providing much to emulate for us in the West. But whether the contrasts are as great as he suggests remained unclear to me. My guess is that alloparenting is rather more prominent in the West, at least in Europe, than Diamond implies, often taking the form of baby-sitting circles, breakfast and after-school clubs, and a wide range of day-care arrangements using grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and paid facilities, only some of which are declared to the state.
After considering the young, Diamond turns his attention to the old. He declares a degree of self-interest, informing us that he is seventy-five and expects that his own old age will start when he is eighty-five, with his sixties and seventies having been the peak of his life. In rural New Guinea, those aged fifty are considered old, although both within New Guinea and other traditional societies one finds a scattering of people in their seventies and perhaps older.
Diamond provides graphic descriptions of the means by which traditional people get rid of the old, ranging from passive neglect such as by giving them little food, through assisted suicide, to violent killing. I was a little surprised that he did not make greater reference to the ongoing debates (in the UK at least) about legalization of assisted suicide, which would seem to represent the modern world returning to a traditional attitude toward the elderly. Again, I worry about Diamond’s generalizations concerning the West, such as its people having the good fortune to have access to surplus food and medical care (many don’t), but as a whole this section of the book is valuable reflection on the ever-growing issue of the role of old people in the modern world.
I had another sense of the modern world returning to the traditional mode in a manner unacknowledged by Diamond in the following couple of chapters that deal with “danger,” constituting the fourth part of his book. The prominent theme is what Diamond calls “constructive paranoia”—being attentive to and sensibly avoiding dangers. One means by which the New Guinea people do so is by constantly talking among themselves:
They keep up a running commentary on what is happening now, what happened this morning and yesterday, who ate what and when, who urinated where and when, and minute details of who said what about whom or did what to whom.
The !Kung, Aka Pygmies, and other traditional peoples are the same.
Such gossip functions as a means to reduce risk from the environment, partly by maintaining social relationships that may be needed in time of trouble. The value of gossip provides one of the best theories for the evolution of language among our hominin ancestors and is further substantiated by Diamond’s accounts of it in the Highlands of New Guinea. He contrasts the extent of traditional gossiping with the much lower levels of talk within Western society, attributing this to the proposition that we face fewer dangers and have more sources of information.
But a rather obvious comparison to make—neglected by Diamond—is the astonishing rise of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. These appear to pass on information as trivial as that found in the gossiping of the New Guinea Highlanders. But social media must be fulfilling the same function as face-to-face gossip in traditional society, a means to transcend the physical separation imposed by Western society—and Skype does indeed allow face-to-face gossip with people across continents. My guess, however, is that much use of social media is equivalent to excessive salt intake: an evolved desire, once functional but now maladaptive. This isn’t something that had to be learned anew from traditional society; it is simply deeply embedded within our genome.
There is a great deal more information and many more ideas in Diamond’s chapters about danger, including accounts of three incidents in his own travels in New Guinea that persuaded him of the value of “constructive paranoia.” He describes himself as having now become so cautious that he drives crazy some of his American friends who consider it ridiculous. His key argument is that in the West we are extremely poor at assessing risk, citing American college students who erroneously rate nuclear power a greater danger than cars, and pesticides more dangerous than having surgery. He compares the sensible manner in which subsistence farmers spread risk by dispersing their plots in different ecological settings with the foolishness of Harvard investment managers. They placed too much emphasis on maximizing long-term profits with insufficient attention to short-term risk and suffered the consequences in the 2008–2009 financial meltdown.
Part Five has three chapters dealing with religion, language, and health. The one about religion is the least satisfactory, getting rather too fixated on definitions of religion and deviating too far from the comparisons between traditional and WEIRD societies that are the raison d’être for the book. I suspect that of all the subjects covered, religion is the one that requires a level of anthropological knowledge beyond what Diamond possesses to gain any significant insights. But some rather obvious contrasts are also lacking, notably the impact of writing on the nature of religious ideology in state societies.
The following chapter about linguistic diversity and capabilities is far more interesting. It describes the appalling rate at which the languages are being lost—if current trends continue just a few hundred of the seven thousand existing today will survive by the end of the century. The majority of these languages have only a few thousand speakers, while a large number have less than two hundred, and there are nine giants, each with more than a hundred million speakers: in order of magnitude we have Mandarin, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese. Diamond explores the ecological and historical factors influencing linguistic diversity that effectively explain the astonishing number of languages spoken within New Guinea.
His key contrast between the traditional and modern worlds is the prevalence of bi- and multilingualism in the former and the prominence of monolingualism in the latter. Diamond refers to a “frequently expressed view” in the US that bilingualism is harmful, and English must be the dominant official language. Opposing such linguistic chauvinism, he refers to studies demonstrating that bilingualism provides various specific cognitive benefits beyond enhanced communication, including protection against Alzheimers. If the lesson that Diamond wants us to take from traditional societies is that bi- and multilingualism are good for us, I take it that many readers of these pages would join him in opposing attacks on bilingualism in the US and would also deplore the continuing decline of foreign language teaching in the US and Britain.