Weapon of Choice: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
By: Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography, University of California, Los Angeles
There still exist in this world very small groups of people living in the stone age. Through luck and circumstance, they have narrowly missed being flattened by the agricultural and industrial revolution – twin juggernauts that radically reconfigured human life on planet earth for 99.999% of the population. Time is running out though for these stone age people and their way of life. Modernity’s magnetic pull is too enticing for them to resist, and in a few decades, those lifeways and the profound collective wisdom they contain, will be gone forever. What’s at stake is the loss of a fragile time portal through which we can catch glimpses of our Paleolithic pasts.
Obviously, governments need to avoid hastening the demise of these fragile cultures, but as a Plan B we also need to learn as much as possible from them before they disappear. Small-scale traditional cultures can illuminate ways of living that are most consistent with our human natures; they also provide a refreshing new appreciation for the marvels of modern life.
This is the focus of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
What is a traditional hunter-gatherer society anyway?
We can think of them as small-scale societies living in ways that pre-date the agricultural revolution. They generally fall into two categories:
Bands: the simplest type of society, usually nomadic, consisting of several extended families. Our ancestors started living in bands millions of years ago, and most humans still lived in bands as recently as 9000 BC. Today, there are precious few band societies left, and those that remain are shrinking fast. The two most well-known are the !Kung (aka San) and Andaman Islanders.
Tribes: consist of hundreds of individuals, hunting, gathering, and often herding and farming to support their higher population densities. Tribes began developing around 13,000 years ago, and are still widespread in very remote parts of New Guinea and Amazonia. Examples include: Dani (New Guinea), Kirghiz (Afghanistan), Kaulong (New Britain).
The bands and tribes that still exist are confined to harsh remote environments like freezing tundra, scorching deserts and impenetrable rainforests. Why? Because these are places that no one was interested in conquering or developing until very recently. This meant that they were able to continue their lifeways without outside interference. The resulting isolation kept these people relatively frozen in time, and they now act as a fragile time portal we can look into to catch glimpses of our Paleolithic pasts. These tiny groups are precious, priceless cultural treasures whose value we probably won’t truly appreciate until they are gone.
The modern hunter-gatherer lifestyle has been in play for something like 100,000 years. 100,000 years = thousands of generations of trial and error on how best to live in the world. The results of these natural experiments are recorded in the language and practices of traditional people, like the !Kung. We ignore taking lessons from the lifeways of these people at our peril.
Some of the most profound and interesting practices of traditional societies have to do with raising children. Advantages gained in childhood pay dividends throughout adult life, and interestingly, traditional child-raising practices are the ones that are most easily implementable in our modern world. They give the biggest bang for your paleo-buck.
Anthropologists have long noted the precocious development of social skills among children in hunter-gatherer societies. The independence, security and social maturity of these children never fail to impress visitors. Moreover, adolescents don’t go through the volatile identity crises that plague many/most Western teenagers.
But why? And how?
Some possible reasons include longer nursing periods in traditional societies, more adult role models (all adults in traditional societies are considered aunts and uncles), more physical contact with caretakers, and instant caretaker responses to a child’s crying. I remember my Polish grandmother telling me that she was very afraid of spoiling her children with affection, so she would ignore them. From the hunter-gatherer perspective, this kind of thinking is totally bonkers.
It’s also been noted that children in traditional societies have advanced neuromotor development relative to American children. Why is this so? One explanation is that infants in traditional societies aren’t transported in strollers and car seats. Rather, they are carried upright and facing forward, seeing the same field of view that the caretaker sees. This is certainly more stimulating for an infant than staring at the inside of a stroller.
Children in traditional societies also don’t have manufactured “educational toys”, video games and other pre-packaged entertainments. If they want toys, they need to create them themselves. Building toys from scratch bolsters intellectual development, teaching children about the mechanics of things (e.g., how wheels and axles work) and by allowing their imaginations to fill in the blanks that many children have filled in by video game graphics.
There’s lots of other stuff too, but read the book.
The Irresistible Charms of Modern Life
There are many, many great things about traditional societies that we need to pay close attention to and that could dramatically improve our modern lives. Governments should do everything in their power to avoid hastening the demise of the world’s traditional bands and tribes. Once these cultures are gone, they’re gone forever and humanity will have lost its priceless paleo-looking glass.
But before we go romanticizing the virtues of a tribal lifestyle and begin plotting our return to a hunter-gatherer existence (as I’m guilty of on almost a weekly basis), it should be said that the modern living is awesome. The advantages greatly outweigh the benefits of traditional societies. It’s for good reason that hunter-gatherers and tribal people are leaving their stone-age ways behind in favor of the modern society and its conveniences.
What is it about modern society that is so appealing to them?
Reasons given by tribespeople include access to formal education, jobs, medicines, hospitals, less violence, less danger from the environment, and a lower chance of seeing your children die. Fair enough.
Other less obvious reasons include access to salt, pepper, soft beds, umbrellas, matches, pots, lanterns, and good clothes. Many traditional people also want to trade in their spears and nets for guns, to more easily kill the shit out of the biting, kicking, scratching, charging prey animals.
People who have left the tribal life behind note the anonymity of city life as a powerful draw, as well as access to information and opportunities to interact with people other than your family. Again, fair enough. The freedom to read a newspaper in a café on a busy street without being besieged by acquaintances asking for help with their problems is a luxury most city-slickers take for granted.
When we encounter a stranger in public, we don’t need to make a split second decision to either run or fight. Not so in many traditional societies. If you come across a stranger, 9 times out of 10 it means they are trespassing on your territory, or you on theirs. Either way, there will be fightin’ words.
The homicide rate for the !Kung in Africa works out to 3 times the rate for the United States, the most gun-happy country in the developed world. So much for the idyllic lifestyle I fantasize about when the public transit is at a standstill on a Friday afternoon.
When murders do happen in tribal societies, they risk sparking spirals of progressively lethal revenge killings, a process that is devilishly hard to stop once it gets going (think of the sectarian violence in Iraq).
A huge advantage of living in a state is that citizens are deterred from using violence against each other by cops and the army. Governments have the biggest, thuggiest gangs on their payroll and you happily pay taxes to support those gangs, because you know that they preserve peace, which is probably one of the most important functions a state has. Consider your taxes the cost of protection. Trust me, the alternative is way worse.