What Can We Learn from Jared Diamond?

Jared Diamond is undoubtedly of the cosmographic bent. We get to be like Montaigne, interpreting this traveler’s testimony according to our own purposes.

By Andrew Benedict-NelsonAugust 22, 2013

    What Can We Learn from Jared Diamond?

    The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond. Viking Adult. 512 pages.

    SOMETIMES IT SEEMS as if Jared Diamond can’t help but take on the world.

    The physiologist-turned-ornithologist-turned-geographer-turned-"master storyteller of the human race," as the Daily Mail describes him, befuddles more than his fair share of readers with his ambition. Each of Diamond's works of popular science is, in one way or another, an attempt to capture the whole of human experience, with subtitles like "The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal," "How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," and "The Fates of Human Societies."

    The last one belongs to Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond's best-known book, which sought to answer how Western nations came to dominate much of the world. Diamond ultimately traces their success to the orientation of the Earth's landmasses — the continuous latitudinal stretch of the Eurasian landmass, he writes, allowed for the most efficient interchange of species, resources, and technology. This led to agriculture, writing, states, and you know the rest.

    Though Diamond won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Medal of Science for the book, he is not a professionally trained anthropologist. Many who are take issue with his theoretical perspective, which they dismiss as determinist or racist or neocolonialist or some other -ist. Others question his command of the facts, including his firsthand observations. His 2008 New Yorker article about an alleged clan war in Papua New Guinea was the subject of a 40,000-word rebuttal written by Rhonda Roland Shearer, the widow of the late naturalist and author Stephen Jay Gould. Diamond was even sued by the principal informant of the piece, a New Guinean tribesman who claimed his life was endangered by the publication (the suit has since been withdrawn).

    Sometimes when you take on the world, the world fights back.

    Reading about these high anthropological intrigues saddened me, because I remembered Diamond as an author not unlike Gould: genuinely curious, eclectically empirical, but above all committed to a kind of humanistic science writing that was not overly reductive of the human experience. (As he insists in his most recent book, “people aren’t Darwinian calculating devices.”) All of his works are populated with individual characters (especially New Guineans) and personal anecdotes. Even the illustrations in his books, many of them individual human faces, speak to this personal perspective.

    While its subject matter might be the collision of civilizations, Diamond wrote that he conceived of Guns, Germs, and Steel as a result of an encounter with one individual: the charismatic New Guinean political leader Yali. Diamond wrote that he spent 25 years thinking about "Yali's Question": "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?

    Whether Diamond’s world-encompassing claims are a coherent reply to Yali is up to each reader to judge (Yali himself died before the work appeared.) The point is that even if you agree with the critics who judge Diamond to be some sort of latter-day imperialist raining judgment upon the peoples of the world from his citadel at UCLA, he means well. He expresses empathy with the people and places that have ended up on the wrong side of "Yali's Question" — in particular, New Guinea and the New Guineans. He says as much in his newest book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? published last year:

    Physically, I spend about 93 percent of my time in the US and occasionally in other industrialized countries, and about seven percent of my time in New Guinea. Emotionally, I still spend much of my time and thought in New Guinea, even when I am physically in the US … Being in New Guinea is like seeing the world briefly in vivid colors, when by comparison the world elsewhere is gray.

    As this passage suggests, The World Until Yesterday is a departure. While he never takes on his critics directly, Diamond’s book could be viewed as a showcase for the author’s sincere admiration of traditional peoples and the way they see the world. Instead of taking on the whole world, Diamond takes on this other world as his own. And the book’s value depends on the question of whether taking on another’s world is really possible.


    At first glance, The World Until Yesterday is a guide to how people in industrialized societies can add to their cultural “repertoire” by studying hunter-gatherers and other traditional peoples.

    Diamond suggests that we, as Americans, can add moves to this “repertoire” in several ways. Some lessons are not unlike those one derive from any encounter with human diversity, like a year abroad in Paris or Tokyo — they just do things differently there. But Diamond suggests that even those of us who have enjoyed such sojourns still have a lot to learn. That's because societies such as France and Japan are still centralized states, whose institutions grew out of Western agriculture and its concomitant technologies — the Guns, Germs, and Steel of Diamond's previous work.

    Looking at “non-state societies,” as Diamond calls them, does more than add chapters to our personal encyclopedias of human diversity. It also helps us to see other ways the story could have turned out. In these cases, Diamond tends to emphasize the ways in which human behaviors relate to various social and environmental constraints. Diamond calls these varied outcomes "natural experiments," arguing that it is instructive to compare them with states, the control group that came to control the world.

    Yet in other cases, Diamond treats these "natural experiments" as ways of accessing our common human history. After all, every person alive today is ultimately descended from hunter-gatherers. It was the form of subsistence that evolved along with the first modern humans and that carried them all over the world, long before the rise of agriculture, states, and written history. Evolutionary psychology assumes that it is the set of conditions in which the human personality originally formed — the "world until yesterday" of Diamond's title.

    If you detect some inconsistencies in methodology, you're right. Diamond has picked a grab bag of subjects in which he feels citizens of states could learn from traditional societies, including conflict resolution, child-rearing, aging, religion, diet, and more. In each chapter, he explores the range of attitudes that non-state societies have adopted toward a given topic, drawing examples from several dozen societies on all six inhabited continents. His descriptions rely on classic works of anthropology peppered with examples from his own experiences in New Guinea. He then contrasts these stories of traditional societies with his own (sometimes rather selective) ethnographic take on the industrialized world. Finally, he shares what he thinks we can learn from the comparison, choosing whichever of the above methods seems most useful from the grab bag of convenience.

    Diamond best delivers on the book's promise when writing about practices that could be directly adapted from non-traditional societies to industrialized ones, as with the chapters on child-rearing and multilingualism. He writes admiringly of hunter-gatherer children, for "the independence, security, and social maturity of children in traditional societies impress all visitors who have come to know them." He hypothesizes that this general self-confidence is the result of several child-rearing practices common to nearly all hunter-gatherer societies, from a longer period of breastfeeding to multi-age playgroups to more extensive alloparenting (giving relatives other than parents a significant role in raising children).

    Of course, some of the practices Diamond describes would be difficult to import directly into America and the West. For example, Diamond writes that when he first visited New Guinea, he was surprised by the number of people with burn scars on their faces. It turns out that many of them had fallen into fires as children — not only had their parents chosen not to keep them at a safe distance, but they actually felt it was beneficial for them to experience the consequences of such actions. Even the most well intentioned parents who tried this in the US would likely receive a call from Child Protective Services. Other practices that can be found in traditional societies, like selective infanticide or the giving of child brides, disgust most of the industrialized world.

    Nevertheless, Diamond articulates some coherent standards for adding hunter-gatherer habits to one's parenting "repertoire." At the very least, he argues, the experience of so many people in such different cultures shows us that these parenting practices won't turn children into sociopaths. The author makes a similar case for allowing multilingualism. A typical hunter-gatherer child is raised speaking two or more languages and doesn’t turn into some sort of creole crackup. As it turns out, multilingualism may even enhance executive function and serve as a defense against Alzheimer’s. Speaking more than one language brings the human brain to its best.


    Reading these chapters may provide parents with some new tips and tricks, but their cumulative effect is actually to make them less afraid of doing things that might come naturally. For example, Diamond passionately makes the case that immigrant families should teach children the languages of both their forebears and their neighbors, resisting the pressure to simply assimilate. But as Diamond’s descriptions wander further from our existing “repertoire,” their utility for improving our society becomes less clear. It’s easy to say we can learn from people who have been raised differently. It’s harder to determine how those lessons should be applied.

    Take, for example, the several fascinating chapters on violence and dispute resolution in non-state societies. The core of Diamond's argument is that traditional systems of dispute resolution have different goals from modern trials. They seek to restore relationships rather than find the truth or mete out punishment. But as the author goes on to explain, these practices take this form because, in tribal societies, people are likely to remain in contact with the same small group for their entire lives. While repairing those relationships through reconciliation may make people feel better, their crucial purpose is to stave off cycles of retributive violence. By contrast, most Western legal disputes occur between strangers who never have to see each other again when the matter is through, and who probably won't consider killing each other in any case. If the two parties do know each other, our mobile society gives them as much leeway to become future strangers as they would like.

    So by the time Diamond decides that traditional non-Western methods of settling disputes could "inspire" new forms of mediation here, the addition to our "repertoire" seems rather deracinated. The question of exactly how citizens of states should learn from traditional societies is left unresolved. Do existing forms of mediation really count? Can such forms of mediation really deliver just outcomes in a system where the side with more money is likely to win? Diamond zestfully engages these questions, considering everything from European systems of prison rehabilitation to the question of who should pay for trials. But in doing so, he ends up pretty far afield from the stated subject of traditional societies. Or, at least, pretty far afield from a workable merging of the two.

    Diamond also struggles to apply the lessons derived from treating hunter-gatherers as our proxy ancestors. This is most apparent in the book's chapter on diet and disease. Diamond recalls how, upon first encountering traditional New Guineans, he was impressed with their overall physique. Not one person he saw was overweight or obese. One cause of this was plain old hard work — in hunter-gatherer societies, no able-bodied person's labor can be spared.

    But another factor was diet. In traditional societies, people have few opportunities to eat in excess of their nutritional needs. The meals they're eating are also fresher and healthier, lacking the salts, sugars, and fats that permeate the industrial-agricultural food supply. As Diamond explains, our cravings for these substances developed when they were both rare and highly valuable as part of a nutritional survival strategy. But today the same genes that helped our ancestors store food more efficiently are the ones likely to lead to heart disease, diabetes, and the like. He writes: "Note the evolutionary irony: those of us whose ancestors best coped with salt-deficiency problems on Africa's savannas tens of thousands of years ago are now the ones at highest risk of dying from salt-excess problems today on the streets of Los Angeles."

    Diamond's inquiry into food yields some interesting contrasts between traditional societies and our own. For example, he discovers that a pan-fried noodle dish at a Chinese restaurant near his house contains more salt than a typical Yanomamo Indian would consume in a year (not surprisingly, these are the people with the world's lowest blood pressure). But this segment of Diamond's story is mostly about populations. He recounts the demographic transitions that have passed over the human species: increases in crowd diseases as we increasingly moved into cities, the elimination of infectious diseases throughout much of the industrialized world, the rise of chronic diseases as principal killers now that most folks in the West live long enough to get them. He raises the alarm on the epidemic of diabetes now sweeping through nations adopting the Western lifestyle and diet, explaining how these populations will have to genetically adapt in one generation to transitions Europeans and Americans experienced over centuries. He even hypothesizes that early modern Europe experienced a "hidden" wave of diabetes as famines gradually became a thing of the past.

    It's all very interesting, but by the time we flip through all the charts and graphs, the idea that we’re learning food habits directly from Papua New Guineans is as absurd as two debutantes discussing their “paleo diet.” Diamond is delivering modern nutritional science, plain and simple. The compilation of the information he presents depends entirely on the data-gathering institutions the sociologist Bruno Latour called “centers of calculation.” And those centers depend on states (or their empires, or the leftovers of their empires). He never suggests we adopt a New Guinean diet of sweet potatoes and pigs.

    While we may admire traditional ways of eating, adopting the literal conditions that lead hunter-gatherers to them, including a total lack of food storage and diets adapted for famine season, would be self-destructive even if we could conceivably try it. And one of Diamond’s few first-hand observations on hunter-gatherer views of food confirms that we can’t. He recalls being lulled to sleep one night as two of his friends yammered on about yams for hours. Such dedicated attention to a single foodstuff is almost unimaginable in our on-demand omnivorous reality.

    This is not to argue that traditional societies have nothing to teach us about food or health — as Diamond points out, children in these cultures can name hundreds more varieties of plants than you'll ever know. But these chapters on diet and health show the shortcomings of the idea of a cultural “repertoire” as an organizing concept to apply to our lives. Whether we're talking about Kung warriors or the immigrant family that just moved in next door, we can't simply go shopping inside the catalog of other cultures and drop their most interesting customs into our carts. Such behavior changes require not just deep knowledge of other cultures, but emotional experiences that prompt us to identify with another way, reflect accurately upon our own society, and then reach inside ourselves to creatively bridge the gap between the two. Most of the time, Diamond's methodology is too detached to model this exchange in a way that could be meaningful. And even when we find some aspect of traditional societies we admire, we find ourselves stuck in the same old state, the thing we can’t unsee.


    Yet there is one oddball chapter where Diamond solves the problem of adapting lessons of traditional societies to our own lives, and it's the key to wresting meaning from the book. Like the sudden appearance of the first-person plural in the Book of Acts, the seventh chapter of The World Until Yesterday jars the reader with unexpected personal participation. And it’s also got a shipwreck.

    This chapter, a sort of novella set into the rest of the work, consists of three stories explaining how Diamond came to adopt a New Guinean attitude he terms "constructive paranoia." In his bird-spotting voyages to the Pacific, Diamond had noticed that the island's inhabitants displayed a particular kind of caution in some very specific situations. For example, they would not sleep under a tree if it displayed any signs of age or instability, no matter how small. When Diamond would skip stones on a river — a harmless activity if there ever was one — he was advised to stop because he might fall in. And so on and so forth.

    Diamond writes that like many Westerners, he initially thought of the New Guineans' behavior as some sort of superstition. It took a life-changing incident for him to see things from the other side. One day Diamond and several of his companions were out on a hired boat. The boat's operators turned out to be clumsy and inexperienced. They allowed the boat to flood and capsize, forcing everyone aboard to abandon ship. Diamond recalls in vivid detail how he and his comrades reacted:

    The canoe's other seven people besides Malik and me — the other four passengers and three crew — were now all sitting on or clinging to the front of the cone's upside-down hull. The Ceram passenger made several dives under the canoe to look for anything useful, and he succeeded in pulling out the canoe's three life preservers … The Ambon passenger was weeping and repeating, 'I can't swim, we are going to die!' The Javan passenger was reciting prayers. The Chinese fisherman said that he was afraid of rain and big waves if we were still afloat and alive after sunset; 'God help us then!' he added. Malik said that, if we were not rescued within the hour or so remaining before sunset, there would be no hope for us.

    When Diamond was finally rescued and brought back to land, he spent several days recuperating, reflecting upon what was probably his closest brush with death. Trying to come to terms with what happened, he went out one night to watch the sunset (ever the naturalist, he hoped to see what time it went down, thus gauging how close he and his friends had come to their demise). As he turned over in his mind his feelings of helplessness and resentment toward the boat's crew, he encountered a man who had also come out to watch the sunset. The man told him that he had actually been scheduled to travel aboard the same vessel. But he had observed that the crew was young and cocky; instead of risking his life, he decided to wait until the next ship arrived.

    Diamond takes the man's words as a revelation:

    I hadn't been helpless after all! The cocky crew weren't the only people who had come close to throwing away my life. I was the one who had stepped into their canoe; no one had forced me to do it. The accident had ultimately been my responsibility […] The man who had chosen to wait for a larger boat had exercised New Guinea-style constructive paranoia, and he had thereby escaped being traumatized and nearly killed. I should have exercised constructive paranoia myself, and I would now do so for the rest of my life.

    He goes on to explain how "constructive paranoia" has made him more cautious about all sorts of minor dangers, from climbing stepladders to driving on the freeway. He says that while he does not necessarily react to every situation in New Guinea the way the locals do, he has a much greater understanding of their attitude. And he claims that this new outlook has benefited him in various other ways.

    Diamond has gained notoriety for arguing that technologies like agriculture spread through conquest rather than cooperation. I would similarly suggest that it is in such moments of chaos and confusion, not those of analytical calm, that we are most open to adding strangers' ideas to our "repertoire.


    As Diamond's example shows, learning from other cultures can occur personally and suddenly in response to specific challenges. But just as importantly, it also requires a great deal of reflection and creativity about which our peers in the other society may not be aware. In fact, Diamond gives no indication that any New Guinean ever explicitly identified the practice of "constructive paranoia" or advised him to adopt it. It may be that if they read about the idea, they would think it is as batty as some Western readers surely must think. And of course, Diamond is still probably up for skipping rocks.

    But does it really matter? Must our adaptations from other culture’s “repertoires” be exact to be legitimate? Try telling it to a drowning man.

    I would instead argue that creative adaptation and re-purposing are an irreducible part of borrowing from anyone’s repertoire of behavior, be it a single individual or a New Guinean tribe. It’s not that in coming to learn from constructive paranoia Diamond makes a leap from one end of the spectrum to the other, from throwing caution to the winds to extreme conservatism. But he does get somewhere, and he does end up better off. And in fact, some of the most rewarding moments from Diamond’s book are when he engages in just such speculative adventures.

    He recalls, in one memorable chapter, how development experts attempted to “improve” the land management of peasant farmers in the Andes. Generations of small deals and inheritances had left most of the farmers with widely scattered lands. Farmers sometimes had to walk all day just to work two small plots on opposite sides of the community — horribly inefficient.

    Outsider agricultural experts recommended a land-swap program that would help the Andeans maximize their returns over time. But when archeologist Carol Goland studied the situation in greater detail, she realized that the scattering of land had a deeper purpose. While yields might not be the most efficient over time, the scattered lands also prevented individual families from starving when a natural disaster or disease destroyed a group of plots. Diamond favorably contrasts the Andeans’ attitude with the overconfident managers of his alma mater’s university endowment: “In retrospect, Harvard’s managers should have followed the strategy practiced by so many peasant farmers.”

    I wish we could see more of this Diamond. In his endorsement of the book, Dr. Paul Ehrlich wrote that The World Until Yesterday is Diamond’s “most personal” work yet. But if in fact the ways we adapt one culture’s ideas to another are inevitably individual and idiosyncratic, the book could have benefited from an even more personal touch. In the scope of the entire book, the insights on drowning and Harvard’s endowment are few and far between. Diamond recently said in an interview in The Guardian that he had attempted to raise his twin sons using many of the ideas he’d picked up from traditional people in his travels. Why not share those struggles in the same way he shared the story of “constructive paranoia”? Instead of speculating about what the legal system could learn from the disputes of traditional New Guineans, why not reflect on what one can learn from actually being sued by them? Diamond comes across as remarkably sincere when he claims New Guinea as his adopted homeland. Why not tell the story of what one can learn from a decades-long love affair with a place, rather than a somewhat arbitrary global grouping of peoples? It may be wishful thinking to tell Americans to go and learn from other peoples’ ways of living en masse. But Diamond’s personal lessons show actual change.


    In his essay “Of Cannibals,” Michel de Montaigne reflected upon the significance of the recently discovered New World and its allegedly flesh-eating inhabitants. Of course much of Montaigne’s information was wrong; in the essay itself he acknowledges the problem, explaining that most of what he knows of these distant lands came from “a simple, crude fellow.” Yet he accepted the man’s testimony for what it was, writing, “I content myself with his information, without inquiring what the cosmographers say about it.”

    Jared Diamond is undoubtedly of the cosmographic bent, always trying to explain the whole world. But he’s not so general as to be useless. We have a choice to be like Montaigne, interpreting this traveler’s testimony according to our own purposes. And we can choose to see him like Montaigne: eclectic and erudite and elegant, yes, but most interesting when he allows himself to be vulnerable, candid, and human.


    Andrew Benedict-Nelson is director of content for Insight Labs.

    LARB Contributor

    Andrew Benedict-Nelson is an author and consultant based in Gardner, Kansas. His work has addressed the social determinants of health, how to improve patient experiences, and the professional development of nurses. He is currently working on a book that will help readers develop more effective strategies for social change.


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