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In Conversation with Jared Diamond: “Traditional societies are not frozen models of the past”

American scientist and author Jared Diamond was recently in Australia promoting his 5th book The World Until Yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? Jared has worked extensively in New…

Jared Diamond has worked extensively in New Guinea, the foundation for his latest book on traditional societies and what they can teach us. AAP/Lloyd Jones

American scientist and author Jared Diamond was recently in Australia promoting his 5th book The World Until Yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? Jared has worked extensively in New Guinea, in ecology, ornithology, and environmental history. From his work and travels he has produced controversial books including The Third Chimpanzee (1992) on human evolution, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) on human history, and Collapse (2005) on the future of human societies. Guns, Germs, and Steel won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1998. Jared is currently Professor of Geography at University of California, Los Angeles. He sat down for a discussion with Associate Professor Peter Christoff from University of Melbourne.

Peter Christoff: ‘The World Until Yesterday’ is a very large book, engagingly written and crammed with anecdotes telling us in particular about New Guinea. The book provides many examples of the contrast between traditional and modern societies. It’s global in its range and panoptic in its engagement with social behaviours. It gets us to look at a range of issues - social conflict, child rearing, care for the aged, health, multilingualism and so on.

I want to ask first of all, why did you write a book about contrasts between traditional and modern societies?

Jared Diamond: Each of my books has been on whatever subject felt most fascinating to me at the time. When I finished Collapse, it was not yet clear to me what I wanted to write. [Eventually I] thought [to write] an autobiographical account of my time in New Guinea. But my editor said, “Jared, people are use to world-wide books from you, can’t you give a broader perspective?” So that is why this book has ended up discussing traditional societies and our world: taking case studies for 39 societies on all the continents people have studied. And then illustrating the phenomenon, I also discuss my own experiences in New Guinea.

I selected a range of subjects, some of them things about traditional societies we don’t want to adopt for ourselves and other things about traditional societies that we can adopt individually, such as not spanking our kids and not eating salt.

Other things about traditional societies that we could implement require changes in our whole society, such as our court system and our system of justice. So that’s why I chose the particular set of topics I’ve gone with.

Peter Christoff: How do you understand a “traditional” society? It seems that the term is quite flexible, and finding evidence of “traditional practices”, given the impacts of contact on those societies, has always been problematic - something you touch on in the book.

Jared Diamond: It’s a good question, it’s a key question, and for me somewhat similar to someone saying, “Please tell me the difference between baroque music and romantic music” when in fact there is no difference, they just grade into each other.

First, the word “traditional” implies human societies as they have existed for the six million of years of human history up until relatively recently. But what hasn’t changed is that traditional societies were all small, a few dozen to a few hundred people.

The fact that they were small meant they didn’t have the need to build a government and therefore don’t have political centralisation. The fact that they’re small means everybody knows everybody and even the people in the next valley - even if they’re the enemy.

There wasn’t the phenomenon of dealing with strangers and there wasn’t the phenomenon of thousands of people who are strangers and having to get along. They’re all members of your own society.

Eleven thousand years ago was roughly the beginning of agriculture and population growth. You began to get more populous societies. With populous societies, you have increased political centralisation. But it’s not the case that traditional societies are frozen models of humans 60,000 years ago.

Jared Diamond discusses traditional societies, violence and more.

Peter Christoff: How much of a problem is this issue of “traditional practice” for your book? In your book you make the point that the process of transformation has affected almost all the traditional societies that you discuss. They’ve been transformed profoundly. So, why are they robust examples to use as contrast to modern society?

Jared Diamond: Life is complicated and the material in my book is complicated. This book is not about what we learned from a time machine set up [to take us to] 40,000 years BC. What we’ve got is the traditional societies that exist in the modern world, modified by the modern world. What we’ve got is the oral memories of the people in these traditional societies of what it was like a couple hundred years ago and maybe before Europeans arrived.

Throughout the book I’m wrestling with the question: how much of what we see now has been modified by modern influence?

In my chapters on warfare I have to confront the question of the accounts of tribal warfare in the modern world and how much of that is an artefact of European contact. So I discuss cases in which it is clear that European contact decreases tribal warfare and cases in which European contact increases tribal warfare.

The traditional societies that we see today are not frozen models of the past, on the one hand. On the other hand, they’re not irrelevant to the past because they are still small-scale societies. And when you’ve got 200 people, and whether the 200 people are from today or whether the 200 people are from 30,000 years ago, there are some things that you have to have with 200 people. So in short, I think my book is faithful to the complexities of the problem.

Peter Christoff: The issue of warfare and violence is a very important one and you pick it up in your book. At one point in the book you make what appears to be a startling observation that tribal societies were much more violent than modern societies. Most people would find that counter-intuitive, given the nature of modern violence and the capacity for both genocide and total warfare, particularly of a vigorous and devastating sort. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Jared Diamond: As far as violence in the past is concerned, these are not original studies by me. There is a lot of information on the levels of violence, both in modern societies and past societies, and there are scholars who surveyed the entire literature quantitatively. The most detailed surveys have been by Samuel Bowles and Steven Pinker, and all the studies surveying the information came to the same conclusion.

Levels of violence in the past were higher than today and were expressed by the following statistic: the percentage of people who die violent deaths. There, the evidence is clear that traditional societies on average, with exceptions, have a higher percentage of people dying violent deaths then even the most violent modern societies like Germany and Russia during the 20th century.

Peter Christoff: Even if you include the Holocaust and the Second World War, Stalin’s various pogroms, the great famine in China?

Jared Diamond: Even if you include the worst of the worst in the 20th century, such as Russia, Germany and Poland.

Alternatively, traditional societies are almost chronically at war, because there is not a mechanism for imposing peace. There isn’t a centralised government that can restrain the hot heads, and so, war tends to be chronic, at what we would call a low level.

[There are] other differences in traditional societies. The people who are fighting are not a professional cohort of young men aged 18-24, but all able-bodied men and women and children are sucked in. It’s not that traditional people were intrinsically nasty; it’s that the different conditions of society meant that the average, the percentage death toll of violence in the past in traditional societies, was higher than in modern societies.

Peter Christoff: Modern society is clearly very different from traditional society, and yet you perhaps present it in a fairly unexamined way. The interesting thing for me about modern society, and for a lot of sociologists, is that it is so full of its own un-modern richness. Why diminish modernity in the way that I think you might have done in the book?

Jared Diamond: I discussed examples in my book of the un-moderness of modernity. I point out the distinction between modernity, between modern societies and traditional societies is not an either/or. But I go through some examples of what is embedded within modern society: [there’s] a lot that is still traditional.

I also discuss an instance of tradition embedded with a modern society … I lived in the UK for four years in the 1950s and 1960s and when I first went to the UK in 1950 there was a lot that was still traditional particularly in the rural areas. People didn’t move much, the men might have gone off to the World War and then they’d come back and spend the rest of their lives within a mile or two of where they were born as in a traditional society. So what this means is that embedded within a modern society with its diversity is a lot that is traditional.

A New Guinean friend of mine who read the manuscript said “you shouldn’t talk of traditional societies, you should be talking about transitional societies”. She pointed out entirely correctly all the so-called traditional societies that we have left in the modern world have been influenced by the modern state-level societies.

Peter Christoff: I think the chapter on the diseases of modernity is particularly powerful, but it also strikes to the heart of what I think is one of the problems of the book. A caricature critique of the book would say these are very fine examples, homilies for better behaviour, we’ve been given a self-help book now take it away and use it … but without any guidance as to how these quite profound underlying social transformations should occur.

Jared Diamond: I would agree with you that that is a caricature - an inappropriate caricature of the book. I throughout the book wrestle with the idea of what lessons one can learn at all and how one can learn those lessons. Let’s also talk about another example where there’s not much the individual can do - the second chapter on the peaceful resolution of disputes.

The fact is that in traditional societies - those without state government - the focus in resolving disputes is on withdrawing the relationship. It’s not about right and wrong and sending people to prison and setting precedence. The result, when it works, is emotional reconciliation. For example, inheritance disputes: the last thing the American court system cares about is restoring good relations between the brother and sister and the result is the brother and sister don’t speak to each other for the rest of their lives. So what can be done?

There is the idea of restorative justice. To bring the advantages of traditional societies with all their diversity into modern society with all its diversity, the individual alone can’t do much: it takes collective action. But there is collective action going on in the restorative justice movement. There is a lot of experiment going on.

At what stage should the restorative justice set in? It’s clear it works in some cases but not in other cases. If the accused does not want to participate but is forced to do, it is of little benefit.

So it’s really about a cultural transformation that then affects the state.

Peter Christoff: You also talk about a sort of intuitive resistance to the possibility of danger - about “constructive paranoia” - and I love the term. The risks you describe in traditional life are reasonably straightforward. The risks we face in modern society are by definition much greater and much more problematic: risks that come from technological systems that can fail; problems of unforeseen consequences of production like DDT, thalidomide, nuclear accidents and global warming; the possibilities of pandemics; through to global war and species self-annihilation.

These comprise a different category of risk from risks in traditional societies. Constructive paranoia doesn’t really provide you with the tools to deal with these risks.

Jared Diamond: I think you’re probably correct in making the distinction between those risks that we can address with our own personal constructive paranoia and those risks that seem to be beyond our constructive paranoia.

In the first category, what I’ve learned to be very careful about is taking showers. I eventually realised at the age of 75 that when you read the obituary columns in the newspaper on any day you will see that a common cause of crippling or death in older people is slipping in the shower, on the sidewalk, stepladder or on the stairs.

I’m going to have 5475 showers and if my risk of slipping is one in one thousand means that I’m going to kill myself five and a half times before I reach my life expectancy of age 90. So there’s a case of a risk about which I can do a great deal by my individual behaviour.

Now of the opposite extreme, and this may be what you’re thinking of, things in society as a whole that are beyond my individual control include things such as widely present carcinogens. Now I can be really careful and eat organic food but I’ve still got to breathe and drink water.

So there would be a good example of what I think you’re talking about, these risks that are not controllable by our constructive paranoia but really like the case of salt put in by food producers, these are things that can only be dealt with only by society or through the political process.

Read the full transcript of interview here.