Friday, February 8, 2013

The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond

Viking, ISBN 9780670024810, December 2012

In what ways are traditional societies similar to each other, and modern state-based societies similar to each other? In what ways do modern and traditional societies resemble and differ from each other--and is there anything that we can learn from the surviving traditional societies before they disappear?

Jared Diamond takes an in-depth look at what distinguishes traditional from modern societies, and what we can learn from them. This is not a hearts & flowers mash note to traditional societies; he's at some pains to make clear that the lives of traditional peoples, whether hunter-gatherers or farmers, are generally harder, shorter, and more dangerous than modern, state-based societies. Injury and disease are far more likely to be crippling or fatal. Death from violence, whether by murder or in war, claims a much higher percentage of the population, despite fond illusions of "the gentle !Kung" and the notion that war is a modern invention.

Diamond spent much of his career studying birds in New Guinea, and in the process found it necessary to become very familiar with the traditional-living peoples of New Guinea--hunter-gatherer bands and farming villages, groups strongly connected to the Papua New Guinea state and groups still living with relatively little contact with that state.

Some of the areas of human social behavior he examines are child-rearing, treatment of the elderly, dispute resolution, religion, and language. The subject of dispute resolution is especially important. Without a state-based legal system to use, individuals must settle disputes among themselves. On the positive side, the first step is nearly always an effort at peaceful resolution, even in very serious cases such as when a child is killed accidentally. When it's successful, the result is not a simple right/wrong determination with damages paid by the side at fault, but rather a resolution that addresses the aggrieved party's feelings of hurt, anger, or being wronged, and restores the relationship between the parties that existed before the dispute. When it fails, though, the result can be a series of tit-for-tat revenge killings or outright war between two clans, bands, or tribes. Diamond looks at the ways we might borrow from traditional people's peaceful dispute resolution methods, potentially relieving stress, anger, and expense in civil and sometimes even criminal disputes without weakening the state justice system structures that largely protect us from the danger of revenge-cycle killings and violence.

It's a fascinating and thoughtful book, and Diamond gives us his experiences of living between modern and traditional societies, and a glimpse of the world as it looks through traditional eyes. I've barely touched the surface; you need to read this one.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley from the publisher via NetGalley.

Jared Diamond on The Colbert Report