All roads lead to to­mor­row

The World Un­til Yes­ter­day: What Can We Learn from Tra­di­tional So­ci­eties?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

By Jared Di­a­mond Allen Lane, 500pp, $29.99

IN hunter-gath­erer so­ci­eties, where peo­ple move camp reg­u­larly to fol­low game and sea­sonal plants, there is lit­tle room for cos­set­ing. Lack­ing pack an­i­mals, adults must be able to carry ev­ery­thing on them: food and water, weapons, tools, ba­bies. Chil­dren learn self-re­liance early.

In his new book The World Un­til Yes­ter­day, Amer­i­can sci­en­tist and Pulitzer Prize-win­ning au­thor Jared Di­a­mond traces the im­pli­ca­tions of th­ese ex­is­ten­tial re­al­i­ties in de­tail.

In New Bri­tain un­til the 1950s, for ex­am­ple, the Kau­long killed wid­ows im­me­di­ately af­ter their hus­bands’ death, the job fall­ing to the women’s brothers or sons.

In the Banks Is­lands, the sick and the old asked to be buried alive, their rel­a­tives help­ing as a mat­ter of kind­ness. In other places, the un­fit are sim­ply aban­doned, some­times with­out a back­ward glance.

The !Kung in Africa’s Kala­hari Desert leave in­fan­ti­cide to the mother’s dis­cre­tion. She gives birth alone, well away from the vil­lage, even if she ends by dy­ing of it, and that gives her prac­ti­cal, as well as mo­ral, ju­ris­dic­tion over her new­born. A de­formed child or both twins are costly to main­tain and dis­posal is her call. In other so­ci­eties, ba­bies are not de­lib­er­ately killed but al­lowed to die from ne­glect. Mur­der sounds the bet­ter deal.

Prag­ma­tism colours war too. More peo­ple die, per capita, in the con­tin­u­ous war­fare be­tween armed groups in hunter-gath­erer so­ci­eties than died in Europe in the calami­tous 20th cen­tury. What’s more, in the West we are taught to ab­jure and ab­hor killing one minute, con­scripted to war the next, and ag­o­nise over the mo­ral dis­so­nance that re­sults. In hunter­gath­erer so­ci­eties, war­fare is un­am­bigu­ous, if un­pleas­ant, and killing an un­con­tro­ver­sial corol­lary of it.

Di­a­mond’s sur­vey is threaded through with the sub­stan­tive ques­tion of the sub­ti­tle, What Can We Learn from Tra­di­tional So­ci­eties? Very lit­tle, I would sug­gest, con­tra Di­a­mond, from read­ing his book.

Di­a­mond achieved hy­per-celebrity in 1997 with Guns, Germs and Steel, which buried any no­tion of the in­her­ent su­pe­ri­or­ity of Euro­peans. He ex­plained that ge­og­ra­phy, and only ge­og­ra­phy, de­cided the speed of tech­no­log­i­cal and so­cial change, and hence the peck­ing or­der, of dif­fer­ent so­ci­eties.

The book was trans­lated into dozens of lan­guages, sold mil­lions, won the Pulitzer and be­came widely in­flu­en­tial. Some schol­ars de­murred: such Big His­tory ig­nores ex­plana­tory nu­ance and dumbs down the dis­course, they said. An­thro­pol­o­gists thought his ar­gu­ments un­pleas­antly anachro­nis­tic. No mat­ter: Di­a­mond’s rep­u­ta­tion soared and no aca­demic nit­pick­ing could fell it.

Di­a­mond’s next book, Col­lapse, pub­lished in 2005 and an­other in­ter­na­tional best­seller, ex­plained what causes civil­i­sa­tions to fail. It fit­ted the apoc­a­lyp­tic, post-9/11, Chi­naeye­ing mood of the decade and helped ramp up the cli­mate-change de­bate. Both books had com­pelling through-ar­gu­ments. What­ever you thought of those ar­gu­ments, they were agenda-set­ting.

The same can­not be said of his new book. His de­scrip­tions are fas­ci­nat­ing, if sketchy: he jug­gles dozens of hunter-gath­erer so­ci­eties, though none with the warmth and de­tail of the New Guineans he knows well. Some sec­tions, such as one in which he al­most drowns on a boat trip, come heart-stop­pingly alive.

Mostly, how­ever, de­spite ref­er­ences to ‘‘ friends’’ of ev­ery na­tion­al­ity, age and pro­fes­sion on al­most ev­ery page, Di­a­mond’s sub­jects are card­board cutouts, ex­em­plars of a point rather than mo­ral agents in their own right. And he is black and white about what he sees as the ex­treme ends of the spec­trum of pos­si­ble so­ci­eties: hunter-gath­erer good; na­tion-state bad.

He doesn’t tease out why state so­ci­eties dis­carded prac­tices that con­tinue in hunter­gath­erer worlds. He seems un­aware of, or un­in­ter­ested in, the his­tory of ideas. This comes out par­tic­u­larly in his chap­ters on re­li­gion, war and risk. Un­con­nected to any of his spe­cial­ties, they are a muddy amal­gam of ba­nal­ity and re­cy­cled ideas de­spite the wealth of re­search avail­able in each realm.

It doesn’t help that he has ban­ished foot­notes to mak­ing read­ing eas­ier: it’s hard to tell if he’s para­phras­ing au­thor­i­ties or mak­ing it up as he goes along. (His sources are on­line, but what’s the point of curl­ing up with a pa­per book if you have to keep one hand on a key­board?)

Take the fact that peo­ple from hunter­gath­erer so­ci­eties have ‘‘ come in’’, at least in part, to the main­stream for very sen­si­ble in­stru­men­tal rea­sons: eas­ier ac­cess to food, to state-en­forced law, which makes life safer, and to mod­ern medicine. Di­a­mond’s scat­tered

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