Lessons on dispute resolution, parenting and risk from tribal cultures

What can we can learn about societal justice from hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers who still maintain their 11,000-year-old lifestyles in hidden pockets of the globe?

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

It's hard to decide what is most impressive about a book by Jared Diamond: his wide-ranging knowledge, his depth of research, his thought-provoking ideas, or his Indiana Jones-like anthropological adventures.

Diamond - the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel - provides all these rewards in his newest book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? This time, he roams across African deserts, Alaskan ice floes, New Guinea jungles, North American plains, and dozens of other locales in an effort to understand the hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers who still maintain their 11,000-year-old lifestyles in these hidden pockets of the globe.

He also has a practical goal, as the subtitle clearly spells out. Unlikely though it may seem, Diamond hopes that the modern world might glean some valuable advice on topics like conflict resolution and child care from people without antibiotics, written language and engines. After all, these supposedly antiquated practices kept humanity alive throughout most of our history, so presumably they have some usefulness. What is left unspoken is the second part of the book's goal: to gather this advice before the traditional populations are assimilated and their lifestyles disappear forever.

Not that Diamond is naïve - at least, not usually. (One exception will be discussed later in this review.) Indeed, one of the best aspects of The World Until Yesterday is the way it debunks romantic western images of peace-loving "natural" people, in harmony with the Earth and uncorrupted by civilisation. "Of course," Diamond writes, with the wry understatement that peppers the book, "I'm not suggesting that we adopt a traditional lifestyle wholesale, overthrow state governments, and resume killing each other, infanticide, religious wars, and periodic starvation." Almost all of the traditional practices he praises come with exceptions and limitations for today's world.

To discern which of these practices are worth emulating and which are best left behind us, the author explores the languages, diets, religions, judicial systems, family life, treatment of the elderly and attitudes toward war and danger, of more than three dozen groups of people living in what he calls small-scale or nonstate societies. He focuses on the smallest units - bands of a few dozen members and tribes of several hundred - because the contrast with the modern world is the greatest. These groups generally lack any formal governing structure or job specialisation, and everyone pretty much knows everyone else.

They also reflect the point in human history just predating the focus of Diamond's earlier bestseller, before farming societies became strong enough to colonise other territory.

Among the cultures studied are the !Kung and the Aka Pygmies of Africa, the Yanomami of Brazil and Venezuela, the Ainu of northern Japan, the Inupiat of Alaska, the Shoshone of the US Midwest and various Aborigines of Australia.

But the heart of the book is the traditional populations of New Guinea. Through nearly 50 years of visits - hiking, bird-watching, studying their culture and living with them for months at a time - Diamond has come to know and clearly like these people whom he repeatedly calls his friends. Thus, The World Until Yesterday does not simply analyse academic papers written by other experts (although it does that, too). This author literally risks his life for his research.

For instance, about 30 years ago, he nearly drowned off the coast of New Guinea when the overloaded canoe carrying him, "my New Guinea friend Franz," and four other passengers capsized. For more than two hours, Diamond clung to the slippery hull, wet and shivering, buffeted by waves, until the soggy survivors were finally rescued.

From these decades of research, Diamond - a geography professor at the University of California at Los Angeles - has discerned four areas where he thinks traditional practices can offer important lessons: child-raising, dispute resolution, attitudes toward danger, and diet.

In their approach to child raising, Diamond says that tribal societies manage to build close family bonds even while nurturing independence. He particularly admires the way multiple adults share responsibility, parents respond quickly to infants' cries, babies are carried facing forward, and youngsters invent their own games and play in multi-age groups. "Other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children," the author writes.

At the same time, he admits that childhood independence has its limits. One New Guinea Highlands society "considered that their child autonomy extended to a baby's having the right to touch or get close to the fire and to suffer the consequences." Not surprisingly, a lot of the adults have burn scars. Among the Hadza of Africa, "infants are permitted to grasp and suck on sharp knives".

Such obviously dangerous practices are easy to condemn. But Diamond shows some rare naïveté when he enthusiastically suggests that "grandparents offer advantages for solving the baby-sitter problem for modern working couples. Grandparents are highly motivated to care for their own grandchildren."

Actually, grandparents who have happily retired are not usually eager to take on another, even if it involves their beloved grandchildren. And as Diamond notes elsewhere, families no longer live near enough to each other to make intergenerational childcare feasible.

In discussing how nonstate societies settle disputes, the book starts with the story of a driver named Malo, who accidentally hit and killed a schoolboy named Billy in New Guinea. As Malo was driving colleagues home from their small office, the boy darted out from behind a mini-bus and across the road, to greet an uncle. (The book never explains what cars, buses, and an office were doing in a supposedly pre-industrial culture, but presumably the culture was slowly modernising.)

Did Billy's parents sue Malo and the company he was driving for? Did the TV news broadcast endless images of Billy's tear-stained mother? No. Malo's employer talked with Billy's father, two mediators negotiated a settlement of about US$300 (Dh1,102) plus food, and the deal was sealed within five days at a "compensation ceremony" that included a meal, both sides crying, and Malo's boss apologising.

Coming just a few months after a $1 billion verdict in one Apple-Samsung patent-infringement trial, with at least three more lawsuits still to be resolved, this tale might seem to provide a timely role model. "In our civil justice system we could invest more money in the training and hiring of mediators," Diamond suggests. "We could experiment more with restorative justice."

He concedes, however, that such mediation works best "when the disputants are not strangers but will remain locked in ongoing relationships after the dispute's settlement." Moreover, lacking a formal system of courts and police, the New Guineans' alternative to a Malo-Billy settlement is much worse than unending lawsuits - it is "to seek personal retribution by violence, tending to escalate into cycles of counter-retribution and ultimately war."

One of the author's most original insights involves the differing attitudes of the two worlds toward risk. Diamond says traditional people are much more realistic about gauging and prioritising the possibility of what might seem unlikely threats, whether it's a falling tree or a hostile stranger. But westerners, he adds, exaggerate the risk of dramatic dangers like a nuclear power accident while downplaying more common but mundane killers such as car accidents.

On the other hand, the chapter on food largely repeats well-known homilies about the developed world's unhealthful, fattening, salty diet and lack of exercise. Readers could easily skip pages 417 through 434 with no loss of content.

That illustrates the biggest flaw of The World Until Yesterday. Good as the book is, there can be too much of a good thing - in this case, about 100 pages too much, of padding and repetition. Does Diamond really need seven examples of languages that are now extinct or nearly so, or five examples comparing death tolls in modern versus tribal warfare?

The most important lesson of The World Until Yesterday is not how to carry an infant or what foods to eat, but rather, how to compare these two types of societies with clear-eyed practicality.

Certainly, humans have lost touch with some valuable attitudes toward nature and relationships in the thousands of years of our cultural development. Still, it is rather nice that nowadays we can meet a stranger without killing him. And this reviewer, at least, is grateful for penicillin, washing machines, sewage treatment plants, and the printing press that published this book.

Fran Hawthorne is an award- winning US-based author and journalist who specializes in covering the intersection of business, finance, and social policy.