The World Until Yesterday
By Jack Feuer
Published Jan 1, 2013 8:00 AM
Learn how to avoid diabetes. Or heart disease. Realize that religion is not just theology. And make sure your children speak more than one language. There is much in traditional societies that those of us in advanced cultures can adopt to live better as nations and individuals, says famed UCLA Professor of Geography Jared Diamond — author of the acclaimed mega-bestsellers Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel — in his new book, The World Until Yesterday.
Q: Why choose this topic?
A: Because it's what I've lived for the last 50 years of my life. Since 1964, I've been working on the island of New Guinea in cultures that were and partly still are traditional, small-scale cultures without centralized government, without law courts, and doing many things in traditional ways that have all these fascinating differences from our own ways. They settle disputes in different ways, they have different attitudes towards danger, they raise their children differently, they treat their old people differently and their health is very different.
Some of those ways horrified me, but some of them were wonderful, and I've incorporated them into my own life. So my book originated from what I learned from my New Guinea friends, but then it broadened into a survey of traditional societies around the world.
Q: In the book, you talk about the shortcomings of research that's limited to what you call "WEIRD" societies.
A: It's an acronym coined by a former UCLA grad student named Joe Henrich M.A. '95, Ph.D. '99 and his colleagues, and it stands for "Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic." The essence is that when we talk about human societies and we make comparisons, usually the comparisons are [between such nations as] Germany, Japan, the United States, Argentina and Indonesia — advanced, industrialized, educated societies. And such societies didn't exist until 5,000 years ago, so they are just a narrow slice of humanity. Worse yet, most studies by psychologists are just on American college undergraduates who major in psychology. It's a "WEIRD" sample.
Q: You note in The World Until Yesterday how fast traditional societies often become Westernized. Does that have any bearing on the lessons we can learn from them?
A: In the case of New Guinea, on the coast, Europeans started prowling around in the 1600s, but the first colonial government wasn't set up in coastal New Guinea until the 1880s, so Westernization there has been going on very slowly. It's only been in the last few decades that the [Westernized] epidemic of diabetes started, so that has taken 400 years. In the highlands, Europeans didn't arrive until the 1930s and 1950s. I met highlanders who had only come under European influence five years before I met them, and yet they're already speaking pidgin English and some of them were writing. So there's enormous variation in speed. My guess is the quicker the speed of change, the more drastic the changes.
Q: You chose nine broad fields to discuss in 11 chapters and left out others. Why those and not others?
A: Because if I included the other topics, the book would have been 7,000 pages long. ... I selected things into which I had some insight, a range of things to illustrate the differences between traditional and modern societies. Things that we can do ourselves, such as how we raise our children and our attitudes towards danger. Things that we want to get away from, like war. Things that we certainly want to emulate, like not dying of cancer, heart disease and stroke. There's also the issue of religion. And, of course, settling disputes.
Q: You break human organizations into four groups: bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states. Are there tribes that act like states and states that act like chiefdoms?
A: Even within the U.S., a WEIRD society, there's a lot that's essentially tribal. In small, rural areas where everybody knows everybody, if you have a dispute with your neighbor, you probably will not immediately hire a lawyer ... you probably work it out or find mediators. Or in downtown Los Angeles, when urban gangs have disputes, they don't go to a priest or a lawyer. They work out their disputes in traditional ways of compensation or retaliation. That's part of why the title of my book is The World Until Yesterday. Because yesterday is still with us.
Q: Other topics you explore include the elderly, languages and multilingualism. What can we learn from multilingualism?
A: We know that children raised multilingually do not suffer a disadvantage in learning language. They are not less effective at speaking English. They are more effective at learning other languages and then, the bombshell which has come out in the last five years is that the best protection that we now know of against Alzheimer's disease and other dementias of old age is to be multilingual. So that is a very strong argument for raising children multilingually.
Q: What can we learn from traditional societies about religion?
A: Religion is one of those things that differ so much between traditional and modern societies. Religion is often conceived as belief in the supernatural and God. But there is much more to it than that. In fact, I conclude my chapter on religion with the stories of three friends of mine in whose lives religion is important for reasons that have nothing to do with theology. Almost all of us go through a phase where we deal with religion; either we lose our original faith or we were brought up without it and we get interested and explore religion, or we change religions as one of my friends did. All of us inevitably try to figure out what religion means to us. I think it's valuable to realize that religion is not just a matter of supernatural beliefs.
Q: One of the most poignant parts of the book was when you talk about how quickly people who come here from traditional societies begin to develop Western diseases. Why is that such a pernicious effect, and does the trend work in reverse?
A: Absolutely. There are lots of people who choose the reverse trend in the U.S. or elsewhere. Americans who have learned about traditional diets or are overweight and beginning to develop diabetes or heart problems may be able to avoid these problems by watching what they eat and by exercising. Whole countries have adopted these ideas as matters of national strategy, and the results are dramatic.
Q: In this book and throughout your work, you say there's no magic bullet. If you don't handle every aspect of a problem, you don't solve the problem. Given that, how do we fix things in our societies?
A: People often ask me, "What is the one most important thing that our society needs to do or that I need to do in my own life?" And my flip but accurate answer is, "Learn not to look for the one most important thing to do." For instance, you often hear people ask, "What's the one most important requirement for a happy marriage?" Anyone who asks that question is bound for divorce. To have a happy marriage, you have to get 37 things right: sex, money, children, values, religion, inlaws, and 31 other things. If you agree about all of them but the in-laws, that's enough to get you divorced.
Q: Then what problem do you tackle first?
A: We don't do things "first" in life. We multitask. It's not like I'm going to devote the next two years of my life to solving my genetic heritage. And then two years from now, I'll get to culture. The reality is that, of course, we deal with things simultaneously.
Q: You're a National Medal of Science winner. You have a doctorate in physiology. Why write books about popular science?
A: Academics are not supposed to write books for the general public. They're supposed to write research papers on gall bladders and other arcane subjects. But American science has severe financial problems. Lawmakers do not understand the importance of science. And they're not going to understand it until we, the faculty, explain these things in terms that the general public can understand.