The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, by Jared Diamond, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Viking, RRP$36, 512 pages
For most of our species’ history, all human beings lived surrounded by people they had known since childhood. Meeting strangers would have been rare and exciting; depending on local customs, newcomers would perhaps have been invited in for food and rest, or perhaps killed on the spot. But they would never, ever have been simply ignored.
What is now normal in cities around the world actually runs deeply against our nature – which might explain both why my four-year-old daughter has a tendency to stop strangers in the street to say hello, and why many grown-ups who have learnt to suppress this instinct suffer from chronic loneliness.
This is an example of how we might better understand ourselves by looking at our origins. Our experience as hunter-gatherers, herders and subsistence farmers has shaped us genetically and culturally, argues Jared Diamond in The World Until Yesterday. We must therefore understand these ways of life in order to solve modern problems such as loneliness, obesity or the unhappy condition of many elderly people.
To help us in this endeavour, he suggests, we can look to those living societies that are least changed by modernity. Diamond, a biologist, geographer and best-selling author of sweeping studies of civilisation, has spent a good deal of his career in the thickly forested mountains of New Guinea. The inhabitants include some of the last in the world to have made contact with Europeans – one sizeable group of Stone Age subsistence farmers and hunters, the Dani, were first discovered by westerners in a remote valley in 1938.
In his new book, Diamond uses his own experience of life with New Guinean villagers as well as other accounts of traditional societies to draw conclusions about what we in the developed world have gained, what we have lost and what we might do about it.
He begins by comparing tribal dispute resolution mechanisms with those in centralised states such as the US, his own native country. “Late one afternoon towards the end of the dry season,” he writes, “a car driven by a man named Malo accidentally struck and killed a young schoolboy, Billy, on a road in Papua New Guinea.” No one present disputed that Malo was blameless and the accident had been just that. But revenge killings were common, particularly – as in this case – when those involved were from two different ethnic groups. A spiral of violence threatened.
Malo took shelter in the relative safety of his home village, while his boss, on whose business Malo had been driving, took charge and engaged another employee to mediate between the two parties. A sum (about $300) of “sorry money” was agreed, which was to be handed over at a compensation ceremony. This involved all of Billy’s family with Malo and all his colleagues. The hosts talked about the dead boy and how much they missed him; the visitors about how sorry they were and how they tried to imagine the bereaved family’s grief. Everyone cried. They then had a simple meal together, shook hands and agreed that neither party would give the other any trouble.
As Diamond explains, this process brought about a speedy, peaceful resolution and – crucially – an emotional reconciliation that would allow all those involved to continue to live alongside each other as neighbours. This is in stark contrast with state-organised proceedings in most western countries, which seek to establish who was in the wrong and to enforce retribution. Such trials might be sufficient when those involved will never see each other again, but for disputes involving family or neighbours, Diamond argues, we could learn from these traditional mediations.
This example illustrates both the appeal and the drawbacks of Diamond’s approach in this book. The attraction is in the tales, which are moving, well-told and fascinating to those of us who would otherwise know little of New Guinea and other such traditional societies.
The first problem, however, is that Diamond’s conclusions – here, that divorces are better settled through mediation than acrimonious court cases – are hardly ones that require a sweeping anthropological study to reach. The second problem is that the stories frequently contain unexplored shadows that call into question their relevance for us: in this case, the role played by the lurking threat of lethal violence that drove Malo to pay (for him) a large sum as recompense for something that was not his fault.
This undercurrent of violence is brought out into the open in a subsequent chapter on war, which describes the “virtually continuous” state of tribal conflict in New Guinea. The Dani lose 1 per cent of their population per year to such ongoing feuds, six times more than the 20th-century average for Germany despite the casualties of two world wars. Diamond does not attempt to justify or explain this away: in this regard, as Steven Pinker aimed to show in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), modern industrial states are just better.
Diamond goes on to explore differing approaches to raising children, looking after the elderly, managing risk, religion, multilingualism and food. His mission is admirable: traditional societies offer a great variety of solutions to life’s problems from which we might learn, and our material success should not make us too arrogant to seek those lessons. His actual conclusions, however, are disappointingly bland: that we should eat less salt and processed sugar, for example, or involve grandparents more in child-raising. Readers hoping for the boldness of his best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) will be disappointed.
Nonetheless, Diamond successfully steers his narrative to be respectful of cultural diversity without romanticising traditional societies, and the wide scope of the book means that almost everyone will find something of interest. For example, he gives a captivating account of the sheer emotional intensity of living in a small community with no privacy and no entertainment other than talking. It casts a new light on the causes of loneliness and depression in modern urban societies – and also makes me wonder if it is not so bad after all that my daughter talks to strangers.
Stephen Cave is author of ‘Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilisation’ (Biteback/Crown)