The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond

World Until YesterdayBY CARL L. BANKSTON III

Jared Diamond’s last two books aimed at accounting for the rise and fall of civilizations. Guns, Germs, and Steel offered a geographic and environmental theory of why complex societies arose in some parts of the world and not others and why Europe eventually dominated the globe. Collapse traced the fall of defunct complex societies and attributed their fate to human activities that led to environmental exhaustion. The characteristic that made these works interesting, the identification of a fairly simple pattern of causes and effects behind complicated developments across varied societies on a global scale, also made Diamond’s propositions highly debatable.

The World Until Yesterday is a different kind of book. It does rely on cross-cultural comparisons and the concern with development and its consequences are still present. But it does not indulge in the grand theorizing of the previous two books and it relies much more on Diamond’s personal experiences in New Guinea. He compares traditional societies, the foraging and simple horticultural bands and tribes that were the nearly universal forms of human organization for much of our existence, with modern, state societies. From the comparison, Diamond seeks to draw lessons about the relative benefits of the two social orders and to make observations about what those in state societies can learn from the others. The comparisons are often enjoyable, although not original.  The lessons seem worth considering, although I was frequently unsure whether or how these lessons can be applied to contemporary urban and suburban settings.Diamond divides the book into five topical parts: on the division of space into boundaries in territories; on peace and war; on child-rearing and roles of the elderly; on danger and responses to dange;, and on religion, language, and health.  In the first part, Diamond makes it clear that “inclusiveness” is a modern value. Traditional societies, he observes, have behaved like tiny nations, only with much more heavily defended boundaries than any modern society. “They,” he writes, “divided other peoples more sharply into friends, enemies, and strangers than does even North Korea today” (pp. 75-6). Trade among groups and across frontiers has always existed, but in the traditional societies it has often taken the form of exchanges of gifts to establish social relations, rather than utilitarian interchange.

Boundaries are connected to another universal of human groups: conflict and warfare.  Here, again, modern state societies have the advantage. Diamond argues that although warfare among traditional societies has resulted in much lower body counts than has warfare among better organized and more technologically proficient groups, the foragers and horticulturalists also have tinier populations, so that the slaughter among tribes and bands has been proportionally greater than any of our most wide-scale modern assaults on human life. In addition, Diamond maintains that colonial domination brought greater peace to many of the older social forms and he quotes tribal members who were grateful for that imposed peace. This is a point that those obsessed with the evils of European colonialism should consider very carefully. He does believe that traditional societies can teach us something about conflict resolution, though. He uses the example of a case of negotiation and compensation in the accidental death of a child in New Guinea to suggest that sometimes traditional approaches can do a better job of re-establishing social relations than criminal or civil law.

Diamond tentatively describes the “restorative justice” movement in the West as a way in which the better elements of traditional conflict resolution can be adapted to state societies. This was an intriguing recommendation, although I am unsure how applicable interpersonal conflict resolution can be in unavoidably impersonal social orders.

Diamond’s traditional societies differ greatly in their child-rearing. Some practice corporal punishment. Others don’t. Some allow their children extensive freedom, even allowing them to engage in dangerous activities. Many of them practice infanticide, particularly if they are nomadic and have to carry children. In general, though, Diamond finds that the traditional peoples give more on-demand nursing, have more physical contact with infants, use allo-parents (adults who act as parents to all children), employ play as a form of education, and have multi-age child play-groups.  We might profitably adopt several of these child-rearing practices, in Diamond’s view.  More physical contact with adults and carrying children facing forward might help the development of children. Allo-parents and multi-age play groups seem like useful practices, although I am not sure exactly how these could fit into the structures of our urban and suburban communities and our schools.

The traditional societies also vary in their treatment of the elderly. Some kill or abandon their elderly, usually because their environments require them to do so to survive. Diamond (age 75) does not recommend such practices. Others, though, cherish and revere their elderly. This is because older people are better at the types of things that require extensive experience, such as making baskets, and because older people can be very helpful in taking care of children. Most importantly, in pre-literate societies the elderly are valuable repositories of accumulated knowledge.  Diamond cites the shocked disapproval of individuals from several traditional societies who have learned of our abandonment of the elderly in nursing homes.  He suggests that we could make greater use of our own seniors in child-care (one wonders how many would jump at the chance) and cultivate the skills that come with age. As I read this part of the book, I found myself thinking about a possible future time when all of the computers go down, followed by a desperate search for ancient clerks who still remember the lost arts of manual record-keeping and filing.

Comparing dangers and responses to dangers, Diamond finds, not surprisingly, that different human societies face different types of threats.  Foragers and horticulturalists worry much more about wild animals, famine, and enemies. Those in developed societies worry about DNA technologies and the environmental effects of spray cans. Diamond believes that traditional people estimate their risks more accurately, perhaps because they learn about them first-hand, while information in developed localities may be filtered through mass means of communication. We tend to systematically underestimate the sources of our risks, generally failing to recognize automobile accidents as the single greatest threat to life that we face. Diamond suggests that we can learn from traditional societies how to be more realistic in assessing dangers and that we can adopt more of their “constructive paranoia,” a consciousness of low-level but continual dangers in everyday life.

The section on religion, language, and health is the loosest, apparently throwing together topics Diamond wanted to discuss but did not know where to fit. I was least impressed by the chapter on religion, which largely repeats the speculations of evolutionary psychology on the social functions of religion.  In the chapter on language, he observes that small-scale, traditional societies have much greater language diversity and argues for the benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism. He makes some interesting suggestions for preserving disappearing languages and promoting multilingualism. Health constitutes one of the big differences between the two types of societies. While people in developed societies enjoy much longer life spans, their general physical condition tends to be much worse than that of the foragers. While the latter are more prone to communicable diseases, the former suffer more from non-communicable illnesses, such as Type II diabetes, which often derive from fatty, salty diets. Diamond believes we can improve our eating habits by observing traditional models. This may be a good idea, although it is far from original.

It remains unclear to me how the author’s advice would be implemented or by whom. Some of the lessons Diamond takes from his comparisons seem to be policy recommendations, such as restorative justice programs, while others seem to be suggestions for individuals, such as carrying small children facing forward.  Often, his advice seems good, but unlikely to have any effect. I doubt that the drivers who tailgate me and make angry gestures when I’m driving only a few miles over the already suicidal speed limit will adopt an attitude of constructive paranoia toward the ubiquitous perils of death by automobile.

Ultimately, the big difference between traditional and state societies of the most recent sort may be that post-industrial people believe, rightly or wrongly, that they can control and re-make their own environments, including their social environments. It would make no sense to most !Kung foragers or to  Diamond’s friends in New Guinea to compare and contrast the ways of their ancestors with post-industrial ways and pick and choose which life patterns they think work best.  To the extent that anyone asks the kinds of questions Diamond does, that person has already left the traditional behind. It may be that the contemporary attitude that everything can be re-designed and that world cultures make up a shopping market of lifestyles that we can mix and match is at least partly an illusion. In any case, the idea that our way of life is not handed down across generations (the etymological sense of “traditional), but can be questioned and examined lies at the heart of the break from tradition.

The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Carl L. Bankston’s Page here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?

Copyright © 2012 Carl L. Bankston III.


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