Book review: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? By Jared Diamond

THE custom among the Piraha Indians of Brazil is that women give birth alone. The linguist Steve Sheldon once saw a Piraha woman giving birth on a beach, while members of her tribe waited nearby.

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? By Jared Diamond

Allen Lane, 512pp, £20

It was a breech birth, however, and the woman started crying in agony. Sheldon went to help her, but the other Piraha stopped him, saying that she didn’t want his help. The next morning both mother and baby were found dead. The Piraha believe that people have to endure hardships on their own.

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It might seem odd, then, that in his latest book, Jared Diamond holds up tribal societies as a mirror for our own lives. Through the millennia, he argues, they have in effect conducted a series of experiments on how to solve essential human problems. What have they discovered and what might we learn from them?

The most obvious difference between us is that pre-state tribal societies are just a lot more violent. Especially in fertile areas where land is valuable, people often can’t wander beyond closely prescribed borders. The cycle of raids and revenge-driven counter-raids goes on and on.

Diamond describes a 1961 war between two tribal alliances in New Guinea. The individual battles don’t seem ferocious. Groups of 400 or 500 warriors faced off at a distance of 65 feet. They threw spears and shot arrows at each other in uncoordinated fashion. Frequently there would be an ambush and, sometimes, a massacre of women and children.

The problem is that the warfare was constant, and over time the casualties added up, running at a higher rate than anything suffered in Europe, Japan, China or America during the world wars.

In the arenas of child-rearing, treatment of the elderly and dispute resolution, however, Diamond argues traditional societies have much to teach us. We live in codified, impersonal societies. They live in uncodified more personal societies. When we have a dispute over a traffic accident, we settle it in court and the goal is to arrive at some “just” solution, based on the degree of fault and so on. When people in traditional societies have an accident there is a series of ritualistic face-to-face meetings. The goal is not so much to find fault, but to restore the relationship that has been marred by the accident.

We sit around on our commute lost in our thoughts and smartphones. But people in traditional societies converse constantly, learning from one another and sharing. Diamond writes that it was sometimes hard for him to sleep during his research trips because the New Guineans he was staying with would awake in the middle of the night and resume the conversation they had left off a few hours before.

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Modern mothers tend to breast-feed children on a schedule. But mothers in traditional societies nurse on demand and spend almost all their time having skin-to-skin contact with their babies, often carrying them in a sling, with the child placed vertically and facing forward, which Diamond suggests might be why babies from certain tribal societies develop neuromotor skills faster than western infants.

“Loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies,” Diamond observes. “People spend their lives in or near the place where they were born, and they remain surrounded by relatives and childhood companions.” Identity isn’t a problem either. Neither is moral confusion. Or boredom. Diamond says life is more vivid in tribal societies. “Being in New Guinea is like seeing the world briefly in vivid colours, when by comparison the world elsewhere is gray.”

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Diamond’s knowledge and insights are still awesome, but alas, that vividness rarely comes across on the page. His writing is curiously impersonal. We rarely get to hear the people in traditional societies speak for themselves. We don’t meet any in depth or get to know their stories or about their religions; how they conceive of individual selfhood or what they think of us. In this book, geographic and environmental features play a much more important role in shaping life than anything an individual person thinks or feels.

The people Diamond describes seem immersed in the collective. We generally don’t see them exercising much individual agency or trying to improve their own lives, alter their destinies or become a more admirable people. Many books have been written comparing the hyper-individualism of today’s society with the more communal patterns that have been left behind. It is hard to learn from this one because the traditional people, at least as described here, feel so different from us.