All roads lead to tomorrow
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
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