• Email
  • Print

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.

mithen_2-022113.jpg
Film Study Center/Peabody Museum, Harvard University
A skirmish between tribes, New Guinea Highlands, 1961; photograph by Michael Rockefeller from Peter Matthiessen’s 1962 book Under the Mountain Wall: Two Seasons in the Stone Age

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.

Diamond’s penultimate chapter about diet focuses on the prevalence of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in the modern world: diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart attack, cancers, and so forth. These are what most of us will die from, but they are unknown or rare in traditional societies. Conversely deaths from lions, falling trees, and parasitic disease are rare in New York. A key factor in the prevalence of NCDs is excessive salt intake, one of our dietary vices in the West and one about which Diamond has considerable expertise—his original specialty was salt absorption by the gall bladder. He writes in much greater scientific detail and ease about not only salt intake but also about the dramatic growth of diabetes and its cause.

There are good evolutionary stories behind our seemingly maladaptive desire for salt, sugar, and fat. Diamond emphasizes the irony that those of us whose ancestors had best coped with salt deficiency problems in Africa’s savannahs thousands of years ago are now the ones at the highest risk of dying from salt excess problems in Los Angeles; similarly the genes that now predispose us to diabetes may have formerly allowed us to survive famine. Diamond argues that we must work out what specific aspects of traditional lifestyles protect them from NCDs. But when he gives the answer—no smoking, regular exercise, limited intake of alcohol, salt, and sugar, plenty of fiber, fruit, and vegetables—he recognizes that the advice is so banally familiar that it is embarrassing to repeat it.

Diamond concludes by describing his mixed emotions when arriving at Los Angeles International Airport after one of his field expeditions to New Guinea. He evidently has a passion for the dense jungle and birdsong, appreciates the rich social and emotional lives in traditional societies, and has been heavily influenced in his own daily life by his New Guinea friends and acquaintances, adopting constructive paranoia and never touching a salt shaker. But he is under no illusions about the challenges of traditional life and recognizes why it has been so readily abandoned for the advantages of the modern world, notably modern medicine and an end to chronic warfare. Showering without having to keep one’s lips pressed tight to avoid catching an infection also has its appeal.

As Diamond was readjusting to L.A., my overall sense was of the considerable extent to which “traditional society” still underlies what we do in WEIRD societies today, whether in the ongoing tribal-like conflicts between nation-states, the extensive networks of shared child care, our maladaptive eating habits, or the persistence of the class system in the UK. Our evolved habits seem desperate to resurface whenever given a chance, such as by Facebook and Twitter. Few have the opportunity to spend time in both Western and traditional societies, and even fewer have the vast erudition to write about such a wide range of subjects as found in The World Until Yesterday. I often wanted Diamond to go further in his reflections on the modern world and to explore it more thoroughly. I ended up doing a little of that myself. That, I guess, is the sign of a great book.

  • Email
  • Print