Although Jared Diamond's latest book, The World Until Yesterday. What can we Learn from Traditional Societies?, might sound like a clarion call to leave our desk jobs and set up communes in remote hinterlands, Diamond is no malcontent advocating a return to the old ways. After decades studying the traditional societies of New Guinea, the 75-year-old physiologist-turned-ecologist-turned--geographer just feels that certain aspects of tribal living could be adopted by Western individuals and states in order to improve and enrich their societies,
'I'm not a utopian,' he says. 'This is the best time to live. I enjoy my life in Los Angeles and the time I spend in New Guinea. I have good medical care, I can teach at a good university. There are things about living [in the Western world] that you can only say "Thank God" [for]. Thank God, that most of our children will survive and outlive us, that we aren't trapped in endless cycles of tribal warfare, that we don't have to kill our parents when they become old.
'I'm not romanticising traditional lifestyles,' he continues. 'And I've never been tempted to, because when you've lived there, you see right from day one what is unhappy and what is difficult.' In his book, he relates a disturbing story about a linguist who was studying the Piraha Indians of Brazil. One day, he heard a woman giving birth alone on the beach shouting for help and tried to go to her aid but was stopped by the other tribespeople because they believed that individuals must be strong and get through difficulties alone. Both the woman and the baby were found dead the next morning.
Diamond doesn't believe that there's anything to be gained from such practices. Instead, he's advocating that the West maintains many aspects of the societies it has developed over the past few hundred years, while at the same time opening itself up to wisdom that has evolved in traditional societies over thousands of years in order 'to enable us to deal with universal human issues in our own societies', such as child care, geriatric care, danger anticipation, our justice systems and health.
And, although that might sound rather experimental, or even whimsical, Diamond reminds us that thanks to the range of traditional communities found around the globe, the beta-testing phase for many adoptable practices is already complete. 'If you wanted to find out if it was a good idea to spank children, you could carry out an experiment and spank all of the children in East Anglia and none of the children in Cornwall, and come back in 40 years and see which kids had turned out better,' he explains. 'But traditional societies have already done this, not just spanking, but all sorts of other things too--in effect, 10,000 experiments have been carried out across the world over the past few thousand years.'
GALL BLADDERS TO GEOGRAPHER
When I meet him, Diamond definitely comes across as a man who likes a hypothesis that has been thoroughly tested under a variety of conditions. Diminutive, in a wine-coloured blazer and matching tie decorated with a small ibis, he seems to be amiable but considered--a gentle, cultured man who retains the logic of a scientist.
So what lured him away from the lab, and his interest in the micro, to study the more macro subjects of geography and sociology? 'The birth of my twin sons in 1987/he says. 'Up until that point, I had been more interested in things that couldn't be seen, but when they arrived, I became more interested in people and human societies.'
And so, in his 50s, the man who had begun his career studying the gall bladder and gone on to become a professor of physiology at UCLA, began to study geography academically. Within a decade, he had become one of the USA's most respected popular-science writers, through titles such as Collapse and Gun, Germs and Steel, which won him the Pulitzer prize in 1998. …