The World until Yesterday

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In the prologue Jared Diamond comes as usual straight to the point. This is a small book about a big subject: potentially all aspects of human culture, of all peoples around the world, for the last 11,000 years. Yet the subtitle of the book makes perfectly clear what his real purpose was when he set out to write a sequel to ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ and ‘Collapse’: What can we learn from traditional societies?
In eleven chapters Diamond discusses nine topics through which we may find potential lessons both for individuals and for society as a whole.
Traditional societies represent thousands of millennia long natural experiments in organizing human lives. We can’t repeat those experiments by redesigning thousands of societies today in order to wait decades and observe the outcome; we have to learn from the societies that already ran the experiments. When we learn about features of traditional life some of them are ones that we feel relieved to be rid of, and that make us appreciate our own societies better….
When we learn about traditional dispute resolution, child-rearing, treatment of the elderly, alertness to dangers and routine multilingualism, we may also decide that some of those traditional features would be desirable and feasible for us to incorporate.
In part one Diamond discusses the boundaries and concludes that traditional societies of the past behaved like tiny nations. They maintained their own territories, visited and received visitors from the outside and defended and patrolled boundaries as rigorously as do modern nations. However they were far more restricted in their knowledge of the outside world than are citizens of modern nations. Therefore they divided other peoples sharply into friends, enemies and strangers. They intermarried and traded with outsiders but political and social motives played an even larger role in these relationships than they do in ours. Generally speaking in traditional societies the networks of social relationships tend to be more important and longer lasting than in western state societies.
Part two deals with PEACE AND WAR and comprises three chapters on dispute resolution.
In the absence of centralized state governments and their judiciaries, traditional small-scale societies resolve disputes in either one of two ways, one of which is more conciliatory, the other more violent than dispute resolution in state societies….If a dispute in a small scale society is not resolved peacefully between the participants the alternative is violence or war because there is no state justice to intervene.
Justice in traditional societies tends to be the do-it-yourself variety arranged by the disputants themselves and by their respective supporters and focuses on compensation rather than retribution. The re-establishment of the relationship between individuals and their clans is more important than establishing someone’s guilt or negligence. Punishment is not the main issue.
The flip side of that overriding emphasis on social networks in traditional societies is our greater emphasis on the individual in modern state societies, especially in the United States. We not only permit, we actually encourage individuals to advance themselves, to win, and to gain advantage at the expense of others…Even children’s games in the U.S. commonly are contests of winning and losing. That is not so in traditional New Guinea society, where children’s play involves cooperation rather than winning and losing
The overriding goal of modern state justice is to maintain society’s stability by providing an established and mandatory alternative to do-it-yourself justice. Western justice is essentially a system to determine right and wrong according to a state’s laws. Diamond accentuates the difference by quoting Chief Justice Robert Yazzle of the Navajo nation, one of the largest native communities of North America:
Western adjudication is a search for what happened and who did it; Navajo peace –making is about the effect of what happened. Who got hurt? What do they feel about it? What can be done to repair the harm?
Diamond dedicates a short chapter to what he calls a ‘tiny war’, a series of battles and raids between different bands of New Guinea’s Dani people, who live in the densely populated Grand Valley of the Baliem River , as it was actually observed and even filmed by anthropologists from Harvard University in 1961. Among the Dani tribal warfare is a frequent occurrence.
Boys are trained already in childhood to fight, and to expect to be attacked. It is important to enlist allies, but alliances shift frequently…..Warfare involves the whole population rather than just a professional army of adult men…Military efficiency is low by the standards of modern warfare, as a result of the availability of only short-range weapons , weak leadership, simple plans, lack of group military training, and lack of synchronized firing. However because warfare is chronic, it has omnipresent consequences for people’s behavior. Finally absolute death tolls are inevitably low from the small size of the populations involved, compared to the populations of modern nations, but relative death tolls as a proportion of the population are high.
Diamond then dedicates a longer chapter about the many wars that have been and are still being fought by state governments. He discusses the different forms of warfare, the mortality rates, and the difficulties of ending warfare but there is no great lesson to be learned from the Dani in the Papua Highlands, who mainly fight their wars over women and pigs and often personally know their opponents.
The taunts that Dani warriors shouted at each other in the battles included personal insults…Readers of the Iliad will recall how opposing Greek and Trojan leaders addressed each other by name before attempting to kill each other in battle – a famous example the speeches of Hector and Achilles to each other just before Achilles fatally wounded Hector.
This may be a small book about a big subject but while Jared Diamond applies a wonderfully wide-angled view to history he does focus very precisely on the essential elements of our human existence and to me the most important lessons are in part three of this book that deals with YOUNG AND OLD, bringing up children and the treatment of old people. There are so many valuable lessons here that I find it impossible to summarize the substance into a few sentences. I must urge you to buy the book. You may end up to purchase several copies and give them away to your friends.
In the course of a thorough comparison of current child-rearing practices in western countries against those in traditional societies Diamond first discusses the differences in weaning and birth interval, the on-demand nursing and the infant-adult contacts of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
In hunter-gatherer groups in which nursing has been specifically studied it is often “on demand”. That is, the infant has constant access to the mother’s breast, is held in contact with the mother during the day, sleeps with the mother at night, and can nurse at any time it wants, whether or not the mother is awake….Nursing hunter-gatherer mothers usually do not conceive for several years after a child’s birth, even if the mother resumes sexual activity. Evidently something about on-demand nursing acts as a contraceptive….
When moving around, nomadic hunter gatherer mothers had to carry an under-three-year old child, probably a load of wild vegetables, several ponds of water plus some utensils as well, so it was physically impossible to care for more than one child less than two years old simultaneously.
A cross cultural sample of 90 traditional societies identified not a single one with mother and infant sleeping in separate rooms…virtually all infants in human history until the last few thousand years did sleep in the same bed with the mother and usually also with the father…
One of the commonest Western devices for transporting the child is the stroller which provides no physical contact between baby and the care giver. In many strollers the infant is nearly horizontal and sometimes facing backwards. Hence the baby does not see the world as the caregiver sees the world…In contrast, traditional carrying devices such as slings, or holding a child on one’s shoulders, usually place the child vertically upright, facing forward, and seeing the same world that the care giver sees…raising-kids-the-primitive-way
The investment of fathers in caring for their offspring varies greatly among animal species and among human societies there is also much variation in the involvement of fathers, partly related to a society’s subsistence ecology. Paternal involvement is highest in societies in which women spend time obtaining most of the food.
While in modern Western societies a child‘s parents are typically by far its dominant care givers in hunter-gatherer bands others are involved within the first hour after birth.
Newborn Aka and Efe infants are passed from hand to hand around the campfire, from one adult or older child to another, to be kissed, bounced, and sung to and spoken to in words that they cannot possibly understand….Hunter-gatherer mothers share care of infants with fathers and grandparents, aunts, great aunts, other adults and older siblings…Thus a major difference between small-scale societies and large state societies is that responsibility for children becomes widely diffused beyond the child’s parents in the small scale societies.
Philosophies about how to respond to crying infants differ among western countries and differ from generation to generation within the same country but it will come as surprise to most people that observers of children in hunter-gatherer societies commonly report that if an infant begins crying, the parents practice is to respond immediately…
Related to the debates about spoiling a child by promptly responding to its crying are the familiar debates about spoiling a child by avoiding punishing it…
As for variation between contemporary neighboring societies consider Western Europe today. Sweden forbids spankings; a Swedish parent who spanks a child can be charged with the criminal offense of child abuse. In contrast, many of my educated liberal German and British friends and American evangelical Christian friends believe that it is better to spank a child than not to spank….Describing the practices in traditional societies Diamond notes that there does seem to be a broad trend: hunter-gatherer bands do minimal physical punishment of young children, many farming societies do some punishment and herders are especially likely to punish.

A typical hunter-gatherer band numbering around 30 people will on the average contain only about a dozen pre-adolescent kids, of both sexes and various ages. Hence it I impossible to assemble separate age-cohort playgroups, each with many children as is characteristic of large societies. Instead all children in the band form a single multi-age playgroup of both sexes…

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In such groups both the older and the younger children gain from being together. The young children gain from being socialized not only by adults but also by older children, while the older children acquire experience in caring for younger children. That experience gained by older children contributes to explaining how hunter-gatherers can become confident parents already as teenagers. While Western societies have plenty of teen-aged parents, especially unwed teenagers, western teenagers are suboptimal parents because of inexperience. However, in a small society, the teenagers who become parents will already have been taking care of children for many years.

In addition Diamond points out that generally speaking people in small time societies spend far more time talking to each other than we do and spend no time at all on passive entertainment such as television, smartphones or books. They are forced to start honing their social skills from an early age and the adolescent identity crises that plague Western teenagers are not an issue for hunter-gatherer children.
In Chapter 6 Diamond discusses the Treatment of Old People and accentuates the choices starkly in three single words: Cherish, Abandon or Kill?
Obviously there is no universal definition of the age at which one becomes ‘old’. It varies among societies and with one’s personal perspective. In most countries that Diamond describes by the acronym WEIRD, (that is: Western, educated, rich and democratic) the government generally defines old age as beginning at age 65 but the author juxtaposes his personal perspective as follows:
When I was in my teens, I looked up to people in their late 20s as being seemingly at their peak of life and wisdom, people in their 30s as already middle aged, and anyone from 60 onward as old. Now that I am 75 years old I regard my 60s and early 70s as the peak of my own life, and old age as likely to start sometime around 85 or 90, depending on my health. In rural New Guinea however, where relatively few people reach the age of 60, even 50 year-olds are regarded as old.
Diamond extensively describes the harsh realities in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands where old people become a serious handicap endangering the whole group’s safety to the point of being neglected, abandoned, or worse. This represents a moral choice that has not entirely disappeared in modern times.
In fact many of you readers of this book have endured or will endure a similar ordeal when you find yourself forced to decide whether to tell the physician caring for palliative care.
Yet even in many traditional societies the elderly do remain useful. One important service they render is babysitting, which frees their children and children-in-law to spend more time foraging or hunting. Usually the elderly are also skilled in making tools, weapons, baskets, pots and woven textiles.
Other areas in which abilities grow with age include medicine, religion, entertainment, relationships, and politics. Traditional medicine men and midwives are often old, as are magicians and priests, prophets and sorcerers, and the leaders of songs, games, dances and initiation rites. Pre-literate societies must rely on human memory so old people are the main repositories of information.
Compared to the status of the elderly in traditional societies older people today enjoy on average longer lives, better health and far less grief from deaths of their children than at
Life expectancy averaged over 26 First World countries is 79 years, with the highest expectancy of 84 years in Japan – approximately double the value in traditional societies…
The problem for society as a whole is to use older people for what they are good at and like to do, rather than requiring them to continue to put in the 60 hour work weeks of ambitious young workers, or else of going to the opposite extreme of stupidly imposing mandatory retirement at some arbitrary age (as remains regrettably widespread in Europe. The challenge for older people themselves I to be introspective, to notice the changes in themselves, and to find work utilizing the talent that they now possess.

Part Four deals with DANGER AND RESPONSE and if you believe that it is a real risk that you would become the victim of a terrorist attack yourself you should definitely read what Diamond has to say about ‘constructive paranoia’.

Part Five deals with RELIGION LANGUAGE AND HEALTH and if you are intrigued about the heading of chapter nine: “What Electric Eels Tell Us About the Evolution of Religion” you should definitely read this book.
The heading of chapter ten is “Speaking in Many Tongues”. If that happens to be your thing, as it is mine, Diamond’s reflections on the multilingualism in traditional societies will cheer you up, as may reading about the reports that life-long bilingualism seems to protect against Alzheimer symptoms.
Chapter eleven deals with “Salt, Sugar, Fat and Sloth”. No good, cut down on the first three and do not indulge in the fourth. This article is already much longer than I intended it to be so I shall not repeat what Diamond says about hypertension and diabetes.

Yet I am pleased to finalize by reporting that I have reverted to a sleeping habit similar to the rhythm of our pre-electricity ancestors. First sleep nine to twelve; second sleep one to five; a good nap in the afternoon. I can recommend this to everyone.

3 thoughts on “The World until Yesterday

  1. I had some extra time on my hands,so I’d spent it reading your survey..!!! Very interesting,very concise,very informative..!!! Many thanks,greetings,best wishes for the week ahead,as usual…:)

  2. This is a fun read and the author an engaging, creative personality, up until he gets to the chapter on religion, when he gets somewhat disdainful. Is it really possible to dismiss God in a chapter?

    1. I was not born into any religion and am not a man of faith myself, but I have learned to have tremendous respect for those who are believers. I do not feel Diamond is expressing extreme contempt either. In any case thank you very much for commenting. Peace and goodwill.

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