How many times have you read about advanced industrial cultures like ours being in a state of crisis? In spite of breathtaking medical heroics and compared to small-scale traditional societies, we no longer know how to eat properly in order to keep healthy; we have forgotten how to care for our infants, feeding them with formula instead of letting them enjoy years of breastfeeding; and we are socially alienated, with our digital lives taking precedence over face-to-face human contact.
But is it fair to romanticise small-scale traditional societies? In some of these cultures it was traditional to kill babies who had been born as a twin or if they were too close in age to their siblings, making it hard for parents to hunt, gather and carry everything on their backs, including non-ambulant children. Sometimes old and infirm people who had reached the end of their productivity were abandoned or expected to remove themselves from the group and go off to die. Sometimes the cycles of payback for crimes meant generations of feuding and war.
The book I’ve chosen for us to discuss this month is Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday.
He marshals examples from many anthropological studies of small-scale societies and larger sociological studies of what he calls WEIRD (Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic) societies to ask questions about the way humans have approached a series of situations. These include how to manage disputes from accidents and murders to wars over territory; how to bring up infants and young children; how to manage the infirm and old aged members of the group; different attitudes towards safety and danger; how we approach food and nutrition and deal with multiple health issues; and managing several languages and systems of belief.
Having set out the different approaches (natural experiments, in fact) that have been taken in small-scale societies and comparing these to our own, Diamond asks what they might have to learn from us and what we might learn from them.
Not without his critics, Jared Diamond has been accused of generalising from a small group of studies, and of assuming that small-scale societies represent the way that our hominid relatives lived from the dawn of time, as if they have not been evolving like the rest of us.
I’ve chosen this book because I’ve had a long interest in anthropology and geography and have been reading and interviewing Jared Diamond for many years. He is a fine communicator of complex questions, and he is addressing the kinds of questions that thousands of self-help books try to answer.
Jared Diamond is currently a professor of geography at UCLA. You might have read his 1997 blockbuster Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. In that book he wrote about a question he’d been asked by a friend he made during his 50 years of fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, who wanted to know how why advanced technologies and differences in power favoured Diamond’s society and not his. In Guns, Germ and Steel Diamond was arguing that these differences didn’t arise from biological or even cultural factors but from where on the planet people happened to live and what was at hand for them to use: an environmental explanation for societal difference.
In his book Natural Experiments of History, a collection of essays co-edited with a professor of government at Harvard University, James A Robinson, who is an economist and political scientist, Diamond presented some case studies in “natural experiments”. This is a common approach in sociology, archaeology, anthropology, political science and economic history, which looks for two situations that are very similar but differ with respect to some variable of interest. One example is the effect of two different colonial powers – French and Spanish – on a single geographical location, the island of Hispaniola on which the Dominican Republic and Haiti sit side by side.
His is a transdisciplinary career. He started with a PhD in physiology and membrane biophysics, and then he specialised in ornithology, particularly in New Guinea, and he has for many years been an environmental historian, giving him a unique perspective from the cellular to the global in one working life.