Anthropology, Book review, Jared Diamond, tribal peoples

Supplementary: The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond (2)

The central premise of this book is simple – there are tribal societies remaining in the world today that are similar to the way people lived before the rise of states (approximately) 11,000 years ago. We can learn lessons from these tribal societies that will help us live more successful, safer, longer and happier lives. So far so good – it would be surprising if we could not learn anything, even if to just thank our lucky stars we live in a world of antibiotics and flush toilets. But is what we learn original or useful? At two thirds of the way through the book (450+ pages plus notes) I have to say the jury is still out.

One of the reasons I enjoy books of this kind is that every few pages I read something that not only did I not know before, and that I find interesting, but that also makes me want to go off and read something else. A good example is Diamond’s account of war in tribal society. Diamond argues that these “wars” (and the appropriateness of the term in the first place is unconvincing) are more lethal per head of the population per year than modern society. His manipulation of statistics to make this point creaks alarmingly, and the case is unconvincing. Which is a pity, because the underlying point – that life in modern society is a lot less violent that earlier forms of society – is demonstrably the case. For me, tribal war contains a lot of “theatre”, posturing and demonstrating that you would not find in modern war. Even if we wanted to replicate this behaviour at a state level (as opposed to for example in the way gangs resolve their differences, which is much closer parallel) we could not. But the chapters on this topic still inspired me to read more on the tribal forms of warfare, and summaries of Steven Pinker’s book on the changing prominence of violence in society.

Tribal people resolve their disputes in ways that “us moderns” (as Diamond telling puts it on page 348 of the Penguin edition) could learn from, but only by some very careful cherry-picking – circumstances force tribal people to look at conflicts in a very different way from complex societies with all their apparatus of judges, police, lawyers etc. Most of these techniques can be summarised as ways of avoiding the other chap killing you, usually by running away or killing him first. Imperfect though our dispute resolution (and avoidance) processes are, I think I prefer them to that.

If you hadn’t read this book and asked yourself what aspects of tribal culture could tell us about our behaviour towards the elderly, I suspect you would attempt something about respect for their wisdom and knowledge and the tendency in the first world to consign the old to homes and then avoid visiting them. But that would be both wrong and to miss the point. Wrong, because although these things do happen from time to time, generally older people have fantastic life compared to even one or two generations earlier. They also wield considerable influence – for example the average age of Presidents of the USA on taking office is 54, not old in our terms I appreciate, but not young either. But the real point is that what we mean by old is completely different from how a tribal person would use the term. Obviously there are exceptions, but life expectancy in tribal society is around 40, almost half that of the West. Life expectancy in the West is increasing year on year, and accelerating. 54 for a tribesperson wouldn’t be unheard of, but it would undoubtedly be very old. In any event, there is no commonality between the way old people are treated in tribal society, ranging as it does from virtual gerontocracies to active killing of the old, so we can pick and choose what version we want to learn from. It was in this discussion that I expected Diamond to return to “widow strangling”, and indeed he did, in a section of the murder or killing by neglect of old people as a form of ensuring others do not die of starvation, very much in the same manner as infanticide is (he claims) widespread in tribal society. But there is very little additional commentary, just a reassertion that it was widespread until the 1950’s, with one supporting quote from Jane Goodall. I remain unconvinced that the active co-operation of the widows was as simple or common as he suggests.

Care of the young is another unsatisfying chapter. Just as with the old, children are cared for in a very wide range of ways, across the whole spectrum from swaddling for months at a time to letting them wander completely unsupervised, taking alarming risks without the capacity to learn from experiences. It is not surprising that we see children in a different light from tribal societies; our conception of what defines childhood is not fixed and changing every generation (compare the 19th century approach to childhood that had no problem is sending working class children up chimneys or down mines with the differing approaches to childcare adopted today). Can a comparison with tribal societies teach us anything about how better to raise children? If we can Diamond doesn’t present this convincingly.

Finally, thus far, there is a chapter on what Diamond terms “constructive paranoia”. He doesn’t define this term clearly, but it seems to mean little more than being careful with every day activities such as crossing the road. There is a strong hint in a reference to how his meticulous approach to every day life infuriates his friends and family that this is a personal issue, if not crusade, for him. The examples he provides where being careful was important are not very useful, to say the least, unless you habitually trek in virgin jungle. There are definitely different ways of looking at risk and probability, and I agree that we are unable to process these issues sensibly in the West (if we could we would never buy a lottery ticket). Nonetheless this felt like a frustratingly incomplete consideration of the psychology of risk.

Overall there is more than enough interesting content here to keep me reading, even if the overriding argument is far weaker than this book’s predecessor.