Sunday Times, 07 January 2013
The World Until Yesterday: What we can learn from traditionla societies
by Jared Diamond
It is nice to walk along with your baby in a buggy or sling gazing adoringly into your eyes. It is good to feed him/her on schedule rather than on demand. It is best to put your aged grandmother in a home among her own kind. And you shouldn’t talk too much or worry about the future.
Wrong! Absolutely, incontestably wrong. Babies should gaze outward at the world and see what their parent sees. They should be fed on demand. Grandmothers are useful, not useless, talk is good as it helps you assess risk and an attitude of “constructive paranoia” about the future will, one day, save your life. Oh and, finally, exercise, eat slowly and talk to your friends over meals and you will avoid the partly self-inflicted ailments — diabetes, heart disease — of contemporary life. So, at least, goes the thinking in this comparative study of the differing ways of living in western and primitive societies.
We in Britain are Weird (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) and such societies are the most successful in history. Weirdos are richer, healthier and live longer than any previous humans. This all happened quickly. Until the mid-18th century economic growth was virtually unknown; since then industrialised societies have been growing at a consistent 2% a year. So we are doing some big things right, but the pace of change has also meant we are doing many little things — child and geriatric care, for example — wrong.
Jared Diamond has earned the right to instruct us on these matters. He is a master of at least nine academic disciplines, from anthropology to ornithology, and the subject matter of his books is never less than everything. His Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), in which he explains why some civilisations are more effective than others, is one of the most successful and influential science books of our time. Diamond is now 75, and The World Until Yesterday may be seen as a kind of summation not just of his theories, but of the ways in which we should live.
We in Britain are Weird (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) and such societies are the most successful in history. Weirdos are richer, healthier and live longer than any previous humans
In order to grasp what he is doing here, you need, first, to redefine the word “modern”. Probably you think modernity began in the 20th century or, perhaps, in the 18th with the industrial revolution. In fact, the modern world began 11,000 years ago when humans first became herders or settlers rather than hunter-gatherers. A few thousand years later they began to form states and, a little later, they joined Facebook. This stretch of time is short relative to the 6m years of mankind’s evolutionary history or the 100,000 years of the distinctively human story.
Even 11,000 years is not long enough to adjust to modernity. Genetically, psychologically, we remain pre-modern, a species designed for the African savanna rather than the global megacity. Luckily we can bridge this abyss between what we are and what we have become because many human beings alive today haven’t adjusted to modernity at all. In Indonesia, Africa, Amazonia and — Diamond’s favourite — New Guinea, some humans still live as they have lived for 100,000 years. We don’t need archeology to see ourselves as we used to be, we just need stout boots and mosquito repellent.
Diamond has spent his lifetime doing just this and, first and foremost, this book is a memoir of his adventures. He has many tales to tell and they all have morals. He spends pages on a horrific canoe trip that ends with him clinging to the upturned boat as night descends. Later, he realises that he should have spotted the cowboy attitude of the crew. Similarly he cannot understand why a group in New Guinea refuses to camp under a dead but sturdy tree. Then he notices the sound of dead trees falling all around him.
We don’t need archeology to see ourselves as we used to be, we just need stout boots and mosquito repellent
The point here — and it is a big one — is that modern man has lost the caution that once came naturally to us. Diamond’s guides in New Guinea had a lively awareness of the dangers of low risk — high-frequency activities such as boarding a boat with a dodgy crew or sleeping under a dead tree. They knew there may only be a one in 1,000 chance of dying, but if you do these things 1,000 times you are taking a huge risk. Diamond returned from New Guinea with a new philosophy — constructive paranoia about the future — and became so risk averse about things such as speed limits that it irritated his friends.
None of which is to say that Diamond is a back-to-nature sentimentalist. He notes that, after contact with the Weird way, many, perhaps most, pre-modern people want to seize the chance to become westernised. They are also not as peaceable as some accounts suggest. His analysis of war shows, in essence, that death rates in tribal warfare may appear low compared with the total wars of the Weirdos, but, allowing for the relative size of the populations, pre-modern wars are more, not less, fatal. He concludes that “modern states have more successfully imposed peace on their populations than pre-modern societies”.
He is also selective about what we can learn from these people. Care for the old, he says feelingly, is “a disaster area of modern life” — and lots of his friends in the jungle do it much better, with grandparents being respected and constantly employed as child carers. On the other hand, some tribes simply kill their old when they become infirm. Also, he does not advocate blithely letting babies play with sharp knives or fire on the basis that it will toughen them up as some tribes do. But he does notice the value of letting the child see what you see as you move about the world — hence his disapproval of the reverse baby buggy or sling.
This, therefore, is a likeable book but not a convincing one. Part of the problem is the contrast between the Weirdos and the primitives. There are, in fact, many ways of being modern or pre-modern, and flattening all these variations into one simple binary view goes against everything we know of the human world. Further, cruising round the pre-modern supermarket tossing habits of which we approve into our trolley is hardly scientific; rather, it is a way of consumerising alien cultures by turning their habits into our own preferences.
That said, this book need not be read in that way, but, rather, as a series of warm reflections on the world by a man who has had a great, adventurous life and earned his place in the pulpit. And, in the end, he is, of course, right. There are obvious things we have lost that we can relearn, not just because they are good for us but also because they are what life should be about — exercising, eating slowly and talking, always talking.