A podcast discussion of this book is also available here:
Table of Contents:
PART I: AN INTRODUCTION TO TRADITIONAL SOCIETIES
1. Studying Traditional Societies
2. Hunter-Gatherer Bands
3. Tribes and Chiefdoms
PART II: COOPERATION, CONFLICT AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Section 1: Conflict and Cooperation in Traditional Societies
4. Conflict in Traditional Societies (Beginning with Hunter-Gatherers)
- a. Inter-Group Conflict and Violence
- b. Intra-Group Conflict and Violence
5. Cooperation in Traditional Societies
Section 2: Conflict Resolution
6. Conflict Resolution in Traditional Societies
7. Conflict Resolution in Modern Societies: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?
PART III: CHILDHOOD AND OLD AGE
8. Parenting and Childhood
- a. Infancy
- b. Allo-Parenting and Multi-Age, Multi-Sex Playgroups
- c. Sharing, Autonomy and Responsibility
9. Old Age
- a. Old Age in Traditional Societies
- b. Old Age in Modern Societies: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?
PART IV: HEALTH AND LANGUAGE
10. Health and Mental Fitness (via Multilingualism)
- a. Health
- b. Mental Fitness (via Multilingualism)
PART IV: THE TRANSITION FROM TRADITIONAL SOCIETIES TO STATE SOCIETIES: SOCIAL STRATIFICATION AND RELIGION
11. The Origin of States
The onset of agriculture and farming some 11,000 years ago (termed the Neolithic Revolution), is arguably the most significant turning point in the history of our species. Agriculture induced a major population explosion, which then led to urbanization; labor specialization; social stratification; and formalized governance—thus ultimately bringing us to civilization as we know it today. Prior to the Neolithic Revolution—and extending back time out of mind—human beings lived in a far different way. Specifically, our ancestors lived in small, largely egalitarian tribes of no more than 50 to 100 individuals, and hunted and foraged for their food.
The transition from our traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle, to early farming (and herding), to civilization as we know it now (which, on an evolutionary time-scale, occurred but yesterday) has certainly brought with it some very impressive benefits. Indeed, many of us today enjoy comforts and opportunities the likes of which our more traditional ancestors would never have dreamed of. However, it cannot be said that the transition from traditional to modern has left us without any difficulties. Indeed, some would go so far as to say that the problems that civilization has introduced outweigh the benefits that it has brought; and even the most unromantic among us are likely to agree that our experiment in civilization has not been an unmitigated success.
This then brings us to the problem of solving the difficulties that civilization has left us with. Now, when it comes to solving our problems, it is without a doubt the spirit of our age to look ever forward for solutions—by which I mean we tend to look for new technologies and hitherto untested arrangements to help us out of our current predicaments. However, when we consider that our traditional lifestyle served us well for millennia on end, and that it was under this lifestyle wherein we underwent much of the biological and psychological evolution that lives with us to this day, we can begin to see how it may be fruitful to look back at this traditional lifestyle for possible solutions to the problems we now face. (This idea is not new; indeed, the ‘state of nature’ has traditionally been of great interest to philosophers—for it has been thought that understanding how we lived by nature may serve as a guide to help us design the most fitting political communities given our present circumstances).
Also of interest here—and deeply connected to the more practical goal mentioned above—is that investigating our traditional way of life promises to shed light on our underlying human nature in a way that is not possible when we look at ourselves through the obscuring artifice of civilization. It is these things that we stand to gain by learning about traditional societies, and it is this very project that geographer Jared Diamond takes up in his new book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
Diamond is certainly not one to deny that civilization has brought with it many important benefits over our traditional way of life (the most important of which, according to the author, being that state governments are much more effective at ending the cycles of violence that tend to plague traditional societies). However, Diamond does contend that there are many areas wherein traditional practices represent an improvement over how we do things in the modern world, and that these practices could (and should) be incorporated into our modern way of life (both at the personal and societal level). Specifically, we could afford to learn a thing or two from traditional societies when it comes to conflict resolution (how to re-establish and mend relationships); raising children (that it really does take a whole village to raise a child); treating the elderly (that they are deserving of respect, and are still capable of contributing to the community in many important ways); approaching risk (with extensive caution); communicating (in a face to face way, and with multiple languages); and in diet and exercise (favoring natural foods, reducing salt, and sugar intake, and adopting a more active lifestyle).
In the course of his exploration of traditional societies, Diamond also delves into why and how our ancestors transitioned from traditional societies to civilizations (with a focus on such areas as social, economic and political stratification, and also religion).
Here is Jared Diamond introducing his new book:
*To check out this book at Amazon.com, or purchase it, please click here: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? The book is also available as an audio file from Audible.com here: Audio Book
What follows is a full executive summary of The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond
PART I: AN INTRODUCTION TO TRADITIONAL SOCIETIES
1. Studying Traditional Societies
Ever since civilization first reared its head, states have continued to expand and encroach on lands originally occupied by hunter-gatherers and other traditional societies (meaning small farming and herding communities). This is the inevitable result of the fact that states are far larger and more powerful than traditional societies, together with the inevitable struggle over limited land resources (loc. 477).
Nevertheless, a handful of traditional societies do yet exist, and we can therefore learn about them by way of studying them directly (loc. 635). Still, it is naive to think that their current way of life is a fully accurate representation of how such societies operated prior to the emergence of states (loc. 638). The fact is that all extant traditional societies have been exposed to extensive contact with state societies, and are influenced in many ways by their laws and policies, people, and products (loc. 638). Nevertheless, it is clear that traditional societies continue to live in a way that is far different from those of us who live in states, and certainly highly reflective of our traditional way of life.
What’s more, there are other means we can resort to to gain an even more accurate picture of how traditional societies operated in their natural state. To begin with, we may refer to the accounts of those who made first contact with traditional societies (granted, many of these accounts came from people who were far from scientific in their approach, but regardless, their observations do provide us with an important bit of evidence here) (loc. 641). And over and above this, we can glean much about our traditional way of life from archaeological digs and finds (loc. 644).
So, what do these sources tell us about traditional societies? Let us find out.
2. Hunter-Gatherer Bands
Today there are but a smattering of hunger-gatherer societies that remain, and these are primarily in lands that have been found to be relatively unproductive and/or unfit for agriculture (loc. 409). They include “the !Kung of Africa’s Kalahari Desert, the Ache and Siriono Indians of South America, [and] the Andaman Islanders of the Bay of Bengal” (loc. 409).
These hunter-gatherer societies generally divide themselves into bands of a few dozen to about 100 individuals, “many of them belonging to one or several extended families (i.e., an adult husband and wife, their children, and some of their parents, siblings, and cousins)” (loc. 399).
In terms of the political organization of these groups, they are relatively egalitarian in nature. As Diamond explains, “the band members are sufficiently few in number that everyone knows everyone else well, group decisions can be reached by face-to-face discussion, and there is no formal political leadership or strong economic specialization. A social scientist would describe a band as relatively egalitarian and democratic: members differ little in ‘wealth’ (there are few personal possessions anyway) and in political power, except as a result of individual differences in ability or personality, and as tempered by extensive sharing of resources among band members” (loc. 404).
Speaking of resources, when it comes to their acquisition, men are normally responsible for hunting, while women are responsible for foraging; however, in many of these societies it is not uncommon for women to help out with the hunt, at least occasionally.
The food that may be yielded from an environment through hunting and gathering is far more limited than what may be generated through farming, of course, and it is this that keeps the population of hunter-gatherer bands so low. In fact, the food that may be foraged from most natural environments is so low that most hunter-gatherer societies are and were necessarily nomadic: the food available in one area is not sufficient to feed a band sustainably, and so they must continually move from one area to another, once the food supply in each area becomes depleted. Still, some environments are so stocked with food supplies that some hunter-gatherer bands could afford to be sedentary; and a certain handful of these environments were so productive that that they could support populations extending into the hundreds (thus effectively making these populations tribes, rather than bands [more on this in a moment]).
3. Tribes and Chiefdoms
In addition to the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies, there also remain a handful of societies that exist at various transition points along the band-state continuum. These are classified as either tribes (of a few hundred individuals [loc. 412]), or chiefdoms (consisting of thousands, tens of thousands, or even a few hundred thousand individuals) (loc. 428, 621, 864). Mostly these transitional societies practice some form of agriculture (or herding) (loc. 415), but their farming tends to be non-intensive in nature (such as slash and burn agriculture) (loc. 376, 482, 935), and/or employ less sophisticated tools than those used in modern states (i.e., their tools are made of wood and stone, as opposed to metal, and are driven by animals, as opposed to inanimate forms of power—such as fossil fuels) (loc. 205, 220, 255, 286).
Extant tribal societies include: “Alaska’s Inupiat, South America’s Yanomamo Indians, Afghanistan’s Kirghiz, New Britain’s Kaulong, and New Guinea’s Dani, Darbi, and Fore” (loc. 429). The world’s few remaining chiefdoms include “Mailu Islanders and Trobriand Islanders of the New Guinea region, and the Calusa and Chumash Indians of North America” (loc. 458).
By contrast with both band and tribal societies, chiefdoms feature a formal social and economic stratification, as well as a redistribution of economic goods managed by a centralized leadership. As Diamond explains, “an economic innovation of chiefdoms is termed a redistributive economy: instead of just direct exchanges between individuals, the chief collects tribute of food and labor, much of which is redistributed to warriors, priests, and craftsmen who serve the chief… In addition… chiefdoms pioneered the social innovation of institutionalized inequality. While some tribes already have separate lineages, a chiefdom’s lineages are ranked hereditarily, with the chief and his family being at the top, commoners or slaves at the bottom, and (in the case of Polynesian Hawaii) as many as eight ranked castes in between. For members of high-ranked lineages or castes, the tribute collected by the chief funds a better lifestyle in terms of food, housing, and special clothing and adornments” (loc. 452).
Though Diamond does discuss all sub-state societies in his book (and considers them all to be ‘traditional,’ in the sense that they may be contrasted with civilized states), he generally focuses on the smallest of them—meaning small farming and herding communities, and especially hunter-gatherer societies. The reason for this, Diamond explains, is because these societies “are more different from, and can teach us more by contrast with, our own modern societies” (loc. 679).
PART II: COOPERATION, CONFLICT AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Section 1: Conflict and Cooperation in Traditional Societies
4. Conflict in Traditional Societies (Beginning with Hunter-Gatherers)
a. Inter-Group Conflict and Violence
As mentioned above, the hunter-gatherer societies that remain today are divided into bands of a few dozen, to about 100 individuals, consisting of a handful of extended families (loc. 399). Archaeological evidence indicates that “probably all humans lived in such bands until at least a few tens of thousands of years ago, and most still did as recently as 11,000 years ago” (loc. 474).
Of course, hunter-gatherer bands (and tribes) did not limit their numbers willingly. As Diamond explains, “except in harsh fluctuating environments whose conditions keep human populations periodically or permanently low, human groups grow in size to utilize their land and its resources, and can then increase further only at the expense of other groups” (loc. 2822). In other words, population dynamics are such that hunter-gatherer groups naturally fanned out into unoccupied lands over time, and where unoccupied lands were unavailable, conflict with neighboring groups became inevitable. Not surprisingly, archaeological finds indicate that war was a common part of life for the world’s hunter-gather societies long before the emergence of farming, let alone states (loc. 2363-94).
In fact, evidence drawn from both extant and past hunter-gatherer societies indicates that the mortality rate due to war is and was higher for these societies (in term of the % of the population killed) than for modern states (loc. 2444-66). This is primarily because, as Diamond explains, “state warfare is an intermittent exceptional condition, while tribal warfare is virtually continuous” (loc. 2466). The reason for this has to do with a traditional society’s reduced ability to negotiate and maintain a peaceful settlement with a rival neighbor. As the author explains, “in any society, whether a tribe or a state, there will be individuals who are dissatisfied with any peace agreement, and who want to attack some enemy for their own private reasons and to provoke a new outbreak of fighting. A state government that asserts a centralized monopoly on the use of power and force can usually restrain those hotheads: a weak tribal leader can’t. Hence tribal peaces are fragile and quickly deteriorate to yet another cycle of war” (loc. 2595).
Interestingly, traditional societies who have adopted some form of agriculture tend to have war-related mortality rates that are much higher than either states or hunter-gatherer societies (as much as 4 times higher than the latter) (loc. 2447). This is because these societies have more stores of food to fight over than hunter-gatherer societies (loc. 846, 874), and, like hunter-gatherer societies (but unlike states), they also practice continual warfare (loc. 2466).
A general atmosphere of hostility between traditional communities that neighbor one another is in evidence even today (loc. 951-74, 991). Exceptions occur only in cases where these groups have no neighbors, or where the neighbors live in an area that is relatively unproductive, and therefore not worth warring over (loc. 2735). As Diamond explains, “a small minority of traditional societies have been… peaceful for understandable reasons. Greenland’s Polar Eskimos were so isolated that they had no neighbors, no outside contacts, and no possibility of war even if they had wanted it. Absence of war has been reported for quite a few small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers living at very low population densities, in harsh unproductive environments, with large home ranges, with few or no possessions worth defending or acquiring, and relatively isolated from other such bands. These include the Shoshone Indians of the U.S. Great Basin, Bolivia’s Siriono Indians, some Australian desert tribes, and the Nganasan of northern Siberia. Farmers without a history of war include Peru’s Machiguenga Indians, living in a marginal forest environment not coveted by others, without pockets of good land and sufficiently dense or dependable to warrant war or defense, and with currently low population density” (loc. 2741).
Thus it cannot be said that human being are either warlike or peaceful by nature. Rather, as Diamond explains, “it appears that societies do or don’t resort to war, depending on whether it might be profitable for them to initiate war and/or necessary for them to defend themselves against wars initiated by others. Most societies have indeed participated in wars, but a few have not, for good reasons” (loc. 2745).
b. Intra-Group Conflict and Violence
Still, even in those traditional societies where war is uncommon or unknown, intra-group violence (including homicide) nonetheless exists (loc. 2745). In fact, homicide rates in traditional societies once again (like war-related mortality rates) tend to be higher than homicide rates in state societies (loc. 4914, 4952). To take just one example, the homicide rate among the !Kung society of hunter gatherers over the course of half a century (between 1929 and 1970) was reported to be “29 homicides per 100,000 person years, which is triple the homicide rate for the United States and 10 to 30 times the rates for Canada, Britain, France, and Germany” (loc. 4914).
The main reason why homicide rates tend to be higher in traditional societies is because there is no effective state government to punish offenders—which punishment not only deters offenders, but also snuffs out retaliatory killings (loc 4886, 4930). Indeed, the majority of the murders in traditional societies tend to be revenge killings meant to redress past offences (the other major cause being adultery [loc. 4949]). To return to the !Kung example, as Diamond explains, “most of the !Kung killings (15 out of 22) were parts of feuds in which one killing led to another and then to yet another over the course of up to 24 years” (loc. 4945).
When the !Kung did finally come under the control of a state, the government stepped in and began prosecuting and jailing offenders. This effectively ended homicide among the !Kung. As Diamond explains, “the last homicide reported… occurred in the spring of 1955, when two !Kung men killed a third !Kung man. The two killers were arrested by the police, put on trial, and jailed, and did not return to their home area. This event occurred only three years after the first instance in which the police intervened to jail a !Kung killer. From 1955 until… 1979, there was no further homicide… This course of events illustrates the role of control by a strong state government in reducing violence” (loc. 4930).
Incidentally, it is the state’s ability to control violence within its borders which also partly explains the reduction in war-related mortality rates at the state level. Specifically, state governments suppress violence between competing groups within its boundaries (due to the fact that this violence tends to compromise the goals of the state, whose effective administration depends on peace [loc. 2322, 2632, 6820]), thus leading to less inter-group violence (states continue to fight one another, of course; but again, these wars tend to be intermittent, and have limited goals—unlike traditional warfare, which is continual, and often has the aim of wiping out rival neighbors altogether [loc. 2119, 2230, 2371, 2474, 2558-77, 2588]).
Of course, it is not as though traditional peoples want or are in favor of violence. Indeed, the reduction in violence that state societies bring in their wake (both at the personal and group level) is often a great relief to them. As Diamond explains, “when tribal warfare is finally ended by forceful intervention by colonial governments, tribespeople regularly comment on the resulting improved quality of life that they hadn’t been able to create for themselves, because without centralized government they hadn’t been able to interrupt the cycles of revenge killings” (loc. 2610). Diamond concludes by saying that this “illustrates how they had come to appreciate the biggest advantage of state government: the bringing of peace” (loc. 2623).
*For more on this topic, you may wish to consult my Summary of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
5. Cooperation in Traditional Societies
While it is certainly the case that violence and hostility are familiar features of traditional societies (both between groups, and among members of the same group), we should in no way draw the conclusion that fellow-feeling and cooperation are absent here. Quite the contrary. Indeed, it is clear that there is far more fellow-feeling and cooperation in traditional societies than hostility and conflict.
To begin with, there is much less mobility in traditional societies than in modern states (loc. 7817). Thus families tend to stay together, and their bonds remain especially tight. Indeed, Diamond argues that one of the main advantages of traditional societies over modern ones is that the familial bonds tend to be particularly strong therein, and the people hardly ever experience the kind of loneliness and alienation that is common in state societies (where people commonly move several times in the course of their life, and are often separated from their family and friends by long distances) (loc. 7817-21).
What’s more, when it comes to cooperation among group members, this is often absolutely essential in non-state societies, and is very widespread and highly valued therein. For instance, the men in hunter-gatherer groups will often hunt together (loc. 3753); and even when they do not, the variability of success in hunting (and the fact that a kill is capable of feeding far more than a single person or family—and will rot if it is not eaten directly) makes it such that the best strategy is simply to share all and any kills that are made between all members of the group (loc. 5140). Great variability in success is also found in foraging, and so hunter-gatherers will also often share the spoils thereof (loc. 5140).
Cooperation in small-scale farming societies is just as prevalent and important (loc. 5144). Indeed, families understand that each of them could sustain a bad crop at any time (as farms at varying elevations and locales may experience varying levels of productivity in any given season [loc. 5201]); and, therefore, mutual sharing is often welcomed, as it acts as a kind of insurance policy (loc. 5143, 5177). It is only when communities grow so large that its members do not all know each other that these patterns of sharing and cooperation begin to break down.
Traditional peoples also understand that it is best to maintain cooperative, or at least peaceable relationships with one’s neighbors (where possible). For instance, traditional peoples will often (although certainly not always) allow members of neighboring groups to pass through their territory unhindered (so long as permission is requested first, and so long as the trespassers do not reap the land’s resources on their way) (loc. 822, 839). What’s more, neighboring groups will often trade with one another (with one of the principal ‘commodities’ being marriageable women [loc. 1288, 96]), and these trading relationships are often maintained with the chief purpose of upholding peaceful relations between the groups (loc. 1196, 1237-44, 1340-74).
In certain societies, and under certain circumstances, traditional peoples will even allow neighboring peoples to reap resources from their territory (loc. 903-37). For example, “neighboring !Kung bands can readily obtain permission to use each other’s n!ore for… purposes.. such as obtaining water, nuts, beans, and melons—but they must ask permission, and they incur an obligation to reciprocate later by permitting the hosts to visit the visitors’ n!ore. Fighting is likely to break out if they don’t ask for permission” (loc. 905).
Section 2: Conflict Resolution
6. Conflict Resolution in Traditional Societies
As strong as are the forces in favor of cooperation, though, it is also the case that other forces exist that pull in the opposite direction (as we have seen). Thus human beings ever, as now, were constantly pulled back and forth between cooperation and hostility—both with relation to other members of the same group, as well as members of other groups.
Nevertheless, because of the value of maintaining peaceable relations in traditional societies, efforts were virtually always made to resolve disputes peacefully. For Diamond, the strategies of conflict resolution as practiced by traditional societies carry some of the most important lessons that these societies have to bring us.
To begin with, it is important to note that the main goal of conflict resolution, as practised by traditional societies, is to restore the pre-existing relationship between the parties involved. As Diamond explains, “disputes within the village ha[ve] to be settled in a way that restor[es] relationships or ma[kes] them tolerable, because you [are] going to be living near that person for the rest of your life” (loc. 295).
In order for a peaceable relationship to be restored, it is generally recognized as necessary that the parties be brought together, and that the offending party demonstrate a sincere regret for the damage and pain that they have caused the victim and/or their close relations (loc. 1564). In addition to this, it is necessary that some form of compensation be awarded to the victim and their family (loc. 1564). Part of the purpose of the compensation is, of course, to reimburse the victim for their loss (loc. 1495). However, an additional, and even more important purpose of the compensation is to validate the apology being made on the part of the offender, which works to establish emotional closure on the part of the victim and their family. As Diamond explains (referring to the example of a traditional society in New Guinea), “the peaceful process involves what is termed ‘compensation.’ (As we shall see, that usual English translation of a New Guinea term is misleading… The term in the New Guinea lingua franca of Tok Pisin is sori money, meaning ‘sorry money’ and that translation is more appropriate, because it correctly describes the money as being paid out of shared sorrow or apology for what has happened” (loc. 1427).
The entire process, involving both the formal apology and the awarding of compensation, is often mediated by a third party, as a way of diffusing some of the tension that exists between the parties involved (loc. 1630, 1699, 1760, 1779). Still, sometimes even this does not prevent the process from breaking down. Should this occur, and the pre-existing relationship fail to be re-established, this often means retaliatory action being taken on the part of the victim and their family. This, of course, quickly devolves into a cycle of retaliatory action, thus setting up a feud. As Diamond explains, “the compensation process is one prong, the peaceful one, of the two-pronged system of traditional dispute resolution. The other prong is to seek personal retribution by violence, tending to escalate into cycles of counter-retribution and ultimately war” (loc. 1536).
7. Conflict Resolution in State Societies: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?
Now let us turn our attention to dispute resolution in state societies. Like the process in traditional societies, the process here has two prongs. The first prong (as in traditional societies) is for the disputants to try to resolve their dispute privately, or with the help of a third party. As Diamond explains, “many disputes are handled outside the court system by third parties such as arbitrators, mediators, and insurance adjusters. Despite Americans’ reputation for being litigious, the great majority of civil disputes in the U.S. are settled outside the courts or before going to trial” (loc. 1764).
As hinted at, the second prong of the process (unlike in traditional societies) is for the dispute to go to court. The court system is divided into two branches, criminal and civil: “criminal justice is concerned with crimes against the state’s laws, punishable by the state. Civil justice is concerned with non-criminal injuries inflicted by one individual (or group) on another, and further subdivided into two types of actions: contract cases, resulting from breach of a contract, and often or usually involving money; and tort cases, resulting from injury done to a person herself or to her property through the action of another person” (loc. 1753).
In criminal cases, when an individual is found guilty and sentenced, the punishment is not meant to compensate the victim for the crime (though the victim may take some solace in the fact that the offender is being punished). Rather, as Diamond explains, “state criminal justice is concerned with punishing crimes against the state’s laws. The purpose of state-administered punishment is to foster obedience to the state’s laws and to maintain peace within the state. A prison sentence imposed upon the criminal by the state doesn’t, and isn’t intended to, compensate the victim for his injuries” (loc. 1910).
In civil cases, by contrast, if the offender is found guilty, they are often required to pay compensation to the victim. However, as Diamond points out, this compensation is meant only to reimburse the victim for their loss (loc. 1842); and is not, as in traditional societies, meant to re-establish a peaceable relationship between the parties. This applies even in cases where the parties are known to one another, and may be expected to have relations again in the future: “notably, divorcing couples with children, siblings in inheritance disputes, business partners, and neighbors” (loc. 1852). In fact, rather than helping to establish peaceable relations between the parties involved, Diamond complains that “court proceedings often make feelings worse than they were before” (loc. 1852).
For Diamond, this is a significant shortcoming of our modern justice system (loc. 1842). Indeed, Diamond argues that things would be much better if more effort were made to create conciliation between the parties in a civil dispute (as occurs in traditional societies). Now it is true that, recently, some measures and procedures have been taken to do just this. For example, mediation programs have been introduced into family law (loc. 1859). Diamond argues, though, that “we don’t have enough mediators and family-law judges, our mediators are undertrained, and our family courts are understaffed and underfunded” (loc. 1859).
What’s more, the author contends that more effort should be made to extend these types of programs to disputes where the parties are strangers to one another. As Diamond explains, “even if the parties in the dispute are not going to have any future relationship, successful mediation would decrease future burdens on the court system: burdens arising from the parties going to the expense of a trial, or else being dissatisfied with the decision and coming back to court with future complaints, or settling only after a long, expensive fight” (loc. 1869).
Beyond civil disputes, efforts have also been made recently to achieve more conciliation between the offender and the victim in criminal courts cases, through a program called restorative justice. As Diamond explains, this approach “views a crime as an offense against the victim or community as well as against the state; it brings the criminal and victim together to talk directly (provided that both are willing to do so), rather than keeping them apart and having lawyers speak for them; and it encourages criminals to accept responsibility, and victims to say how they have been affected, rather than discouraging those expressions or providing little opportunity for them” (loc. 1983).
As Diamond points out, preliminary trials with restorative justice in various countries (loc. 2003) have yielded promising results: “favorable results reported in cumulative statistical analyses of cases by some programs include lower rates of further offenses being committed by the criminal, less severe offenses if any are committed, a decrease in the victim’s feelings of anger and fear, and an increase in the victim’s feelings of safety and closure” (loc. 2010). For Diamond, these promising results argue that we should be doing more to incorporate restorative justice (which is highly reflective of our traditional dispute resolution procedure) into our criminal justice system (loc. 2013).
According to Diamond, though, it is important to recognize that the kinds of conciliatory dispute resolution procedures spoken of here are not a panacea, and will not work in all cases (loc. 2013). Specifically, they are bound to fail when either the offender or the victim is opposed to taking part (loc. 2013). However, the author does insist that more effort could be made to include these types of solutions into our modern justice system, wherever possible.
PART III: CHILDHOOD AND OLD AGE
8. Parenting and Childhood
Turning our attention now to the domestic sphere, we will next explore what can be learned from traditional societies in the department of raising children. Just at first glance, it appears that there is much; for, as Diamond reports, it is common for outside observers to be impressed with the precociousness and maturity of children and adolescents in traditional societies. For example, in speaking of traditional peoples, Diamond writes that “a recurring theme is that… other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children” (loc. 3596). So, to what can we attribute this apparent success in the development of children in traditional societies? Let us find out, beginning with infancy.
There has long been a debate in modern societies about just how to approach raising an infant. Specifically, the debate has been over whether we should be austere with our infants, feeding them on our time, having them sleep in a separate room, and responding to their cries with reservation; or whether we should be more responsive and constantly available to them. In traditional societies there is no debate, and the approach falls decidedly in the latter camp.
Specifically, very young infants are typically kept in constant contact with their mothers, even at night, and are fed whenever they fancy. For example, “in hunter-gatherer groups in which nursing has been specifically studied, it is often ‘on demand.’ That is, the infant has constant access to the mother’s breast, is held in contact with the mother during the day, sleeps next to the mother at night, and can nurse at any time it wants, whether or not the mother is awake” (loc. 3139).
In addition, when an infant cries, the custom is to attend to it immediately. To give a couple of examples, “if an Efe Pygmy infant starts to fuss, the mother or some other care-giver tries to comfort the infant within 10 seconds. If a !Kung infant cries, 88% of crying bouts receive a response (consisting of touching or nursing the infant) within 3 seconds, and almost all bouts receive a response within 10 seconds” (loc. 3311). In the short term, this certainly leads to less crying on the part of these infants. As Diamond points out, “because the responses of !Kung care-givers to crying by their infants are prompt and reliable, the total time that !Kung infants spend crying each hour is half that measured for Dutch infants. Many other studies show that one-year-old infants whose crying is ignored end up spending more time crying than do infants whose crying receives a response” (loc. 3314).
Still, the fear in modern societies has been that this quick-response approach will ultimately have negative consequences in the long-term, in that it will stifle autonomy and self-reliance in a growing child. As mentioned above, though, children in traditional societies are not known to be particularly needy and dependent—rather just the opposite is the case.
b. Allo-Parenting and Multi-Age, Multi-Sex Playgroups
It was mentioned above that mothers in traditional societies tend to be in constant contact with their newborns, and this is true, but as an infant grows older the responsibility for raising it tends to be increasingly shared by other relatives (including the father), as well as other members of the group. As Diamond explains, “in modern Western society, a child’s parents are typically by far its dominant care-givers. The role of ‘allo-parents’—i.e., individuals who are not the biological parents but who do some care-giving—has even been decreasing in recent decades, as families move more often and over longer distances, and children no longer have the former constant availability of grandparents and aunts and uncles living nearby… But allo-parenting is much more important, and parents play a less dominant role, in traditional societies… Hunter-gatherer mothers share care of infants with fathers and allo-parents, including grandparents, aunts, great-aunts, other adults, and older siblings… In many hunter-gatherer societies, older grandparents often stay in camp with children, enabling the parents to go off and forage unencumbered. Children may be left in the care of their grandparents for days or weeks at a time… Aunts and uncles also serve as important allo-parents in many traditional societies” (loc. 3246).
The reliance on allo-parenting in traditional societies not only benefits the parents, in that it takes a good deal of pressure off of them, but it also has positive benefits for the children. As Diamond explains, “allo-parents are… psychologically important, as additional influences and models beyond the parents themselves. Anthropologists working with small-scale societies often comment on what strikes them as the precocious social development among children in those societies, and they speculate that the richness of allo-parental relationships may provide part of the explanation” (loc. 3277).
Another part of the explanation here may have to do with the fact that children in traditional societies tend to form multi-age, multi-sex play groups. There just aren’t enough children around to form age-cohort or sex-cohort playgroups, and so all the children play together (loc. 3469). There appear to be several benefits to this arrangement. As Diamond explains, “in such multi-age playgroups, both the older and the younger children gain from being together. The young children gain from being socialized not only by adults but also by older children, while the older children acquire experience in caring for younger children. That experience gained by older children contributes to explaining how hunter-gatherers can become confident parents already as teen-agers… in a small-scale society, the teen-agers who become parents will already have been taking care of children for many years” (loc. 3472).
c. Sharing, Autonomy and Responsibility
Whether because their play-groups are multi-age and multi-sex (which is not conducive to competitive games), or because traditional societies tend to stress sharing much more so than competition and individualism (loc. 1604-27, 3532), the games that children play in traditional societies tend to be devoid of competition, and to feature cooperation and sharing instead. As Diamond explains, “a regular feature of the games of hunter-gatherer societies and the smallest farming societies is their lack of competition or contests. Whereas many American games involve keeping score and are about winning and losing, it is rare for hunter-gatherer games to keep score or identify a winner. Instead, games of small-scale societies often involve sharing, to prepare children for adult life” (loc. 3529).
And speaking of being prepared for adult life, another interesting feature of child rearing that comes out of traditional societies is that children are often treated as adults, or the next thing to it. For example, children are often given an enormous amount of personal autonomy (to the point of being allowed to play with or near dangerous things [loc. 2999-3003, 3420], as well as being permitted to show anger towards their parents without punishment [loc. 3375]), and they begin taking on adult work roles much sooner than children in modern societies. For example, “among the Siriono Indians of Bolivia, an infant boy only three months old receives a tiny bow and arrow from his father, although he will not be able to use it for several years. By the time the boy is 3, he begins shooting at non-living targets, then at insects, next at birds, then at age 8 the boy begins to accompany his father on hunting trips, and by age 12 the boy is a full-fledged hunter. By age 4, Siriono girls begin to play with a miniature spindle, spin, make baskets and pots, and help their mother at household tasks. The boy’s bow and arrow and the girl’s spindle are the only Siriono toys” (loc. 3518).
It is difficult to tell precisely what features of traditional child-rearing make for its apparent success, but Diamond concludes with the following bit of advice: “at minimum… one can say that hunter-gatherer rearing practices that seem so foreign to us aren’t disastrous, and they don’t produce societies of obvious sociopaths. Instead, they produce individuals capable of coping with big challenges and dangers while still enjoying their lives. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle worked at least tolerably well for the nearly 100,000-year history of behaviorally modern humans… The lessons from all those experiments in child-rearing that lasted for such a long time are worth considering seriously” (loc. 3613).
We shall shift our attention now from youth to old age.
9. Old Age
a. Old Age in Traditional Societies
There is a great degree of variability among traditional societies in how they treat their elderly. For example, on one extreme “in rural Fiji old people continue to live in the village where they have spent their lives, surrounded by their relatives and life-long friends. They often reside in a house of their children, who take care of them, even to the point of pre-chewing their food for an old parent whose teeth have been worn down to the gum-line” (loc. 3620).
On the other extreme, some traditional societies abandon, and even go so far as to kill the aged (loc. 3627). While this practice may strike us as completely barbaric, it is important to note that it only ever surfaces in societies where sparing the elderly would mean sacrificing the group. In other words, it occurs only where food supplies are so low, and periodic shortages so extreme, that there is simply not always enough food to feed all members of the community. As Diamond explains, “if there isn’t enough food to keep everyone fit or just alive, the society must sacrifice its least valuable or least productive members; otherwise, everybody’s survival will be endangered” (loc. 3687; see also 3734).
Indeed, in such societies not only geriatricide, but even infanticide is also sometimes practiced, for it is recognized that it is pointless to allow an infant to live when there will simply not be enough food around in order to feed it through its first year—let alone support it to adulthood (loc. 3064-78).
Returning to the elderly, outside of the extreme cases, traditional societies tend to have a great deal of respect for, and to treat their older members very well. A big part of this has to do with the fact that the elderly are recognized as having unique qualities that allow them to contribute greatly to group life. Chief among these qualities is the great store of knowledge that older people have built up over the course of a lifetime. As Diamond explains, “in literate society the main repositories of information are written or digital sources: encyclopedias, books, magazines, maps, diaries, notes, letters, and now the Internet. If we want to ascertain some fact, we look it up in a written source or else online. But that option doesn’t exist for a pre-literate society, which must rely instead on human memories. Hence the minds of older people are the society’s encyclopedias and libraries. Time and again in New Guinea, when I am interviewing local people and ask them some question to which they are unsure of the answer, my informants pause and say, ‘Let’s ask the old man [or the old woman].’ Older people know the tribe’s myths and songs, who is related to whom, who did what to whom when, the names and habits and uses of hundreds of species of local plants and animals, and where to go to find food when conditions are poor” (loc. 3777).
In addition to this, the experience of the aged makes them particularly skillful in numerous areas. As the author explains, “other areas in which abilities grow with age include medicine, religion, entertainment, relationships, and politics. Traditional midwives and medicine men are often old, as are magicians and priests, prophets and sorcerers, and the leaders of songs, games, dances, and initiation rites” (loc. 3768).
Beyond this, the elderly are also extremely valuable as care-givers. Indeed, it was mentioned above that grandparents in traditional societies often have an extensive role to play in caring for their grandchildren, and the value of this role cannot be overstated. The elderly not only provide the young with an important role model, but their care allows the children’s parents to venture out unencumbered, and thus to generate far more resources (loc. 3246).
And speaking of generating resources, the elderly also often continue to contribute here in whatever way they can. For example, “Ache men continue to hunt and gather into their 60s by concentrating on small animals, fruit, and palm products and breaking trail when the band shifts camp. Older !Kung men set animal traps, gather plant food, and join younger men on hunts in order to interpret animal tracks and propose strategies. Among Hadza hunter-gatherer women of Tanzania, the age group working the hardest consists of post-menopausal grandmothers, who spend on the average seven hours a day foraging for tubers and fruit—even though they no longer have dependent children of their own to feed. But they do have hungry grandchildren, and the more time that a Hadza grandmother spends foraging for food, the faster her grandchildren gain weight as a result” (loc. 3755).
b. Old Age in Modern Societies: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?
Whereas most traditional societies view the elderly as still being quite useful, modern state societies tend to view them as far less so. Now, it is true that there are several aspects of our culture that render the elderly less valuable than they are in traditional societies. For one, the fact that we have access to recorded information (not to mention publicly-funded teachers) means that we do not, as in traditional societies, have to rely on the built-up knowledge and memories of the elderly (loc. 4057). In addition, the pace of change in our society far exceeds that found in traditional societies, which makes it such that the knowledge and experience of the elderly is of far less value than it is in traditional societies, where life changes little from one generation to the next (loc. 4057).
Nevertheless, Diamond argues that the elderly in modern societies can still make many important contributions, but that this often goes unacknowledged. To begin with, though the knowledge of the elderly may be of less value in our society than it is in traditional societies, this does not meant that it is useless. Indeed, there are always many important events that elderly people have lived through that it would be of great benefit for younger people to hear about first hand (take WWII, for instance). And indeed, there are programs even now that “bring together elderly people and high school students, for the students to hear and learn from vivid accounts of events that prove to hold lessons for them” (loc. 4109). For Diamond, more such programs could be established, and more effort could be made to bring the stories of the elderly to the young.
Second, it is the case that older people in our society are valued for their role as grandparents (as they are in traditional societies). However, Diamond argues that this role tends to be much larger in traditional societies than it is in ours, and that all would benefit if the role of grandparents were expanded in our society. As the author explains, “grandparents offer advantages for solving the baby-sitter problem for modern couples. Grandparents are highly motivated to care for their own grandchildren, experienced from having raised their own children, able to give quality one-on-one undivided attention to a child… Within my own circle of friends are grandfathers and grandmothers retired from many work backgrounds… who love being regular care-givers for their grandchildren, while their daughters, sons, sons-in-law, and daughters-in-law hold jobs outside the house… It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved: for the grandparents, the parents, and the child” (loc. 4086).
Finally, when it comes to paid work, it is true that many elderly people enjoy their retirement, but it is also the case that many older people are capable of, and want to continue working, but are thwarted by ageist business policies as well government-imposed mandatory retirement ages. Here is what Diamond proposes: “the problem for society as a whole is to use older people for what they are good at and like to do, rather than requiring them to continue to put in the 60-hour work weeks of ambitious young workers, or else going to the opposite extreme of stupidly imposing policies of mandatory retirement at some arbitrary age (as remains regrettably widespread in Europe). The challenge for older people themselves is to be introspective, to notice the changes in themselves, and to find work utilizing the talents they now possess” (loc. 4122).
PART IV: HEALTH AND LANGUAGE
10. Health and Mental Fitness (via Multilingulaism)
One area where modern societies do apparently have an advantage over traditional ones is in health and longevity. Indeed, life expectancy is much higher in the modern world than it was in traditional societies—as much as twice as high (loc. 3981, 4177, 4627). What’s more, we have eradicated many of the threats and diseases that plagued the traditional world. As Diamond explains, when it comes to traditional peoples, “the diseases that killed them, along with accidents and interpersonal violence, were ones that have by now been largely eliminated as causes of death in the First World: gastrointestinal infections producing diarrhea, respiratory infections, malaria, parasites, malnutrition, and secondary conditions preying on people weakened by those primary conditions” (loc. 7013).
However, in the transition from traditional to modern we have exchanged these causes of ill-health and death for others which were never seen in the traditional world. As Diamond explains, “major non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the current wave include various cardiovascular diseases (heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular diseases), the common form of diabetes, some forms of kidney disease, and some cancers such as stomach, breast, and lung cancers. The vast majority of you readers of this book—e.g., almost 90% of all Europeans and Americans and Japanese—will die of one of these NCDs… All of these NCDs are rare or absent among small-scale societies with traditional lifestyles” (loc. 7035).
So what is it that explains why the aforementioned NCDs will kill 90% of us in the modern industrialized world, while they are rare or non-existent in the traditional world? Without question it has to do with our lifestyle: “that lifestyle includes many components occurring together: low physical activity, high calorie intake, weight gain or obesity, smoking, high alcohol consumption, and high salt consumption” (loc. 7054). Essentially, we treat our bodies in a way that does not square at all well with the kind of lifestyle that our bodies were designed for (namely, that of a hunter-gatherer).
To begin with, the life of a typical hunter-gatherer is very active: the men hunt and the women forage. They are up and moving about (often vigorously) for a large portion of every day. Many of us, by contrast, sit in front of a computer all day, and a T.V., or other screen in the evening. In addition, the average diet of a hunter-gatherer consists largely of fiber and protein, and much less in the way of carbohydrates and other sugars. For example, the diet of a hunter-gatherer contains anywhere from 15% to 55% carbohydrates, while many of the foods that we eat contain between 71% and 95% carbohydrates and other sugars (loc. 7315). Consider this: “around the year 1700 sugar intake was only about 4 pounds per year per person in England and the U.S. (then still a colony), but it is over 150 pounds per year per person today. One-quarter of the modern U.S. population eats over 200 pounds of sugar per year” (loc. 7318).
The high carbohydrate and sugar content of our diet is troublesome in itself; for it leads to high blood sugar levels which is a direct cause of Type-2 diabetes (not to mention tooth decay and cavities) (loc. 7344-58, 7320). Type-2 diabetes has reached epidemic levels in developed nations, and the problem is only getting worse. As Diamond explains, “the world epidemic of diabetes today far eclipses the AIDS epidemic in its toll of death and suffering. Diabetes disables its victims slowly and reduces their quality of life. Because all cells in our body become exposed to sugar from the bloodstream, diabetes can affect almost any organ system. Among its secondary consequences, it is the leading cause of adult blindness in the U.S.; the second leading cause of non-traumatic foot amputations; the cause of one-third of our cases of kidney failure; a major risk factor for stroke, heart attacks, peripheral vascular disease, and nerve degeneration; and the cause of over $100 billion of American health costs annually (15% of our costs due to all diseases combined)… The growth rate in the number of diabetics is about 2.2% per year, or nearly twice the growth rate of the world’s adult population: i.e., the percentage of the population that is diabetic is increasing. If nothing else changes in the world except that the world’s population continues to grow, to age, and to move to cities (associated with a more sedentary lifestyle and hence increased prevalence of diabetes), then the number of cases predicted for the year 2030 is around 500 million, which would make diabetes one of the world’s commonest diseases and biggest public health problems” (loc. 7338).
Also at issue with a diet high in carbohydrates and sugars (as well as fat), is that such a diet tends to lead to obesity (especially when said diet is supplemented with a sedentary lifestyle) (loc. 7563). And obesity is a major risk factor for numerous health problems in its own right (loc. 7120). This is ironic because in our traditional environment—where periodic food shortages were not uncommon—the ability to store excess food as fat would have been a great boon (and, indeed, this explains why our bodies evolved the ability to do this in the first place [loc. 7555-63, 7609-19]). However, in an environment such as ours, where food is readily available, the process of turning excess food into fat stores is a recipe for disaster (loc. 7563, 7619).
Now, not only do we tend to have diets that are much higher in carbohydrates and sugars (and fat) than our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but we also have diets that are much higher in salt. Indeed, whereas most hunter-gatherers consume less than 3 grams of salt per day (loc. 7089), in modern societies “the average daily salt consumption… is about 9 to 12 grams, with a range mostly between 6 and 20 grams (higher in Asia than elsewhere)” (loc. 7079).
The reason for the massive discrepancy here is simple: the foods that hunter-gatherers traditionally ate are very low in salt (loc. 7082), and convenient salt sources were not readily available. By contrast, “with the rise of state governments, salt became widely available and produced on an industrial scale (as it still is today) from salt-water drying pans, salt mines, or surface deposits” (loc. 7107). This has made salt readily available (not to mention cheap), and indeed virtually every home in the developed world has a salt-shaker on their kitchen table. Interestingly, though, only 12% of our salt intake comes from the familiar salt-shaker (loc. 7259). Another 12% of our salt consumption comes from that which is found naturally in the foods that we eat (loc. 7263). Shockingly, “the remaining 75% of our salt intake is ‘hidden’: it comes already added by others to food that we buy, either processed food or else restaurant food to which the manufacturer or the restaurant cook respectively added the salt” (loc. 7262).
The negative health effects of a high-salt diet are clear and staggering. As Diamond explains, “high salt intake is a risk factor for almost all of our modern non-communicable diseases. Many of these damaging effects of salt are mediated by its role in raising blood pressure… High blood pressure (alias hypertension) is among the major risk factors for cardiovascular diseases in general, and for strokes, congestive heart disease, coronary artery disease, and myocardial infarcts in particular, as well as for Type-2 diabetes and kidney disease. Salt intake also has unhealthy effects independent of its role in raising blood pressure, by thickening and stiffening our arteries, increasing platelet aggregation, and increasing the mass of the heart’s left ventricle, all of which contribute to the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Still other effects of salt intake independent of blood pressure are on the risks of stroke and stomach cancer” (loc. 7120).
On the bright side, all of the negative health effects brought on by our modern lifestyle can be obviated by way of taking the appropriate measures. Specifically: “not smoking; exercising regularly; limiting our intake of total calories, alcohol, salt and salty foods, sugar and sugared soft drinks, saturated and trans fats, processed foods, butter, cream, and red meat; and increasing our intake of fiber, fruits and vegetables, calcium, and complex carbohydrates” (loc. 7716).
b. Mental Fitness (via Multilingualism)
When it comes to mental fitness, traditional peoples also appear to have an advantage here in at least one area; and that is in the fact that they very often speak multiple languages (loc. 6293-6300). The reason for this multilingualism is that traditional communities that neighbor one another commonly speak different languages, and the frequent contact between them requires that their members speak the language(s) of their neighbors (loc. 6293, 6354).
While many in modern societies worry that teaching their children multiple languages will lead to less proficiency in their main one (loc. 6583), the evidence shows that this is not the case (loc. 6603), and that learning multiple languages does in fact have distinct cognitive benefits.
The main benefit here appears to come from the fact that speaking multiple languages requires the speaker to flip back and forth between the different language paradigms (loc. 6623-40). This exercises the executive functioning of the brain, which then leads to improved executive functioning in other, related areas (loc. 6610, 6643-68, 6693). This exercising of the executive functioning of the brain also appears to have a positive effect in staving off dementia, as well as dementia-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease (loc. 6706-30).
PART IV: THE TRANSITION FROM TRADITIONAL SOCIETIES TO STATE SOCIETIES: SOCIAL STRATIFICATION AND RELIGION
11. The Origin of States
Given the advantages of traditional societies, we may find ourselves wondering how and why the transition from small-scale societies to state societies occurred in the first place. As Diamond puts the question: “full-time political leaders don’t grow their own food, but they live off of food raised by us peasants. How did leaders convince… us to feed them, and why do we let them remain in power?” (loc. 2598). For Diamond, posing the question in such a way is somewhat misleading, because the simple fact of the matter is that states did not (and do not) emerge as the result of a social contract between leaders and commoners. Rather, as the author explains, “in all the cases of state formation now known to historians, no such farsighted calculation has ever been observed. Instead, states arise from chiefdoms through competition, conquest, or external pressure: the chiefdom with the most effective decision-making is better able to resist conquest or to outcompete other chiefdoms” (loc. 2604).
In other words, chiefs are naturally interested in maintaining (and sometimes extending) their power base, and those chiefs who happened to hit on (or copy) the methods now employed by successful states (such as “figuring out how best to recruit an army, settle disputes, incorporate defeated chiefdoms, and administer… territory” [loc. 2607]) managed to outcompete their rivals, thereby setting up states. Thus the process was more evolutionary, than contractual in nature.
One of the more interesting aspects of the transition from traditional societies to state societies is the corresponding changes that take place in religion. We shall conclude with a look at this topic.
Religion is one of the more perplexing aspects of the human experience (when looked at from a naturalistic point of view). It is universal among human societies (from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states), and yet nothing like it is found anywhere else in the animal kingdom (loc. 5657). Interestingly, religion tends to change as societies grow in size and become more hierarchical, and technologically advanced (loc. 5504), and a look at the changes that occur here offers much illumination about both human nature and human societies themselves.
It will help to begin by way of defining the features of religion that pick it out from other phenomenon. As Diamond explains, “the components commonly attributed to religions fall into five sets: belief in the supernatural, shared membership in a social movement, costly and visible proofs of commitment, practical rules for one’s behavior (i.e., ‘morality’), and belief that supernatural beings and forces can be induced (e.g., by prayer) to intervene in worldly life” (loc. 5597).
So, beginning at the beginning, how did religion originate in the first place? For Diamond, it is likely that religion first arose as an extension of our natural disposition to look for causes (and especially intentional causes) of the events and phenomenon that we observe (loc. 5729). This disposition of ours served us very well in the environment in which we evolved, for it allowed us to better understand other intentional agents, and to negotiate our social relationships with them (loc. 5742) (and it also helped in understanding animals, whom we hunted, and also sometimes had to escape from [loc. 5742]).
However, the disposition itself is so strong that it tends to make us see intentional causes even where none are to be found (loc. 5739): “for example, hunter-gatherers overgeneralize agency and extend it to other things that can move besides humans and animals, such as rivers and the sun and moon. Traditional peoples often believe those moving inanimate objects to be, or to be propelled by, living beings. They may also attribute agency to non-moving things, such as flowers, a mountain, or a rock. Today we label that as belief in the supernatural, distinct from the natural, but traditional peoples often don’t make that distinction” (loc. 5755).
Once supernatural beings are postulated to explain natural events and phenomenon, religion gets its first foothold in human societies. Supernatural forces can then be extended to explain all other matters for which we cannot easily find a cause, such as illness (loc. 5767); where the dead go when they die (loc. 5787); and the origin of the world, a people, and their language (loc. 5893). Coming up with a cause for such events eases existential angst, and therefore, it would have been natural for early humans to do so.
Existential angst is further eased with the belief that we can influence supernatural beings, thus helping to explain the birth of prayer and other rituals meant to win the gods’ favor. As Diamond explains, “all of those measures are scientifically ineffective at producing the desired result. However, by preserving the fiction that we are still doing something, aren’t helpless, and haven’t given up, we at least feel in charge, less anxious, and able to go on to make our best effort” (loc. 5913). Scientific studies bare this theory out (loc. 5917-26).
As societies grew in size, and increased in social stratification, religion came to take on still other functions. For one, it was now used to justify the inequality that could be observed. The question is this: “how does the chief or king get the peasants to tolerate what is basically the theft of their food by classes of social parasites… The solution devised by every well-understood chiefdom and early state society—from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, through Polynesian Hawaii, to the Inca Empire—was to proclaim an organized religion with the following tenets: the chief or king is related to the gods, or even is a god; and he or she can intercede with the gods on behalf of the peasants, e.g. to send rain or to ensure a good harvest. The chief or king also renders valuable services by organizing the peasants to construct public works, such as roads, irrigation systems, and storehouses that benefit everybody. In return for those services, the peasants should feed the chief and his priests and tax collectors” (loc. 6084).
In addition to this, it is also at this time that religions begin to incorporate moral strictures with regards to the treatment of strangers (such as the 10 commandments) (loc. 6097, 6117). Prior to the onset of large chiefdoms and state societies, rules of behavior were governed by the nature of the personal relationships between parties (and everyone knew everyone else personally) (loc 6100). As societies grew to a size such that people no longer knew every other member of their community, the need arose to find a way to govern this new relationship (or non-relationship) (loc. 6107). Moral strictures were thus added to religion in order to preserve peace and order in society (now made up largely of strangers) (loc. 6107-17).
Of course, this left a problem. For while states needed their citizens to behave with civility towards each other, they also needed them occasionally to behave with brutality against the citizens of other states (i.e., in war) (loc. 6127). Thus while religions began to incorporate moral strictures meant to apply to strangers within one’s own state, they also began to take on strictures that required adherents to despise the members of other states (and religions) (loc. 6134-48).
More recently, states have come up with alternative, more secular means to ensure civil behavior between citizens, and occasional brutal behavior towards the citizens of other nations (loc. 6090). In fact, several other original functions of religion have also recently begun to wane. For example, as we have increased our scientific understanding of the world, and have gained more control over the environment, the explanatory and angst-easing functions of religion have subsided some (loc. 5895, 5929). Still, we have not come to have complete control over our environment, and there are many existential questions for which the scientific answer does not provide the kind of ‘meaning’ and solace many people are looking for (loc. 6279); and so for these reasons, Diamond argues, religion continues to play a role in human societies, and will likely continue to play a role into the future (loc. 6275-79).
The best and most informative documentary on traditional societies that I have yet come across (not to mention an excellent introduction to ethnography) is this one, about the Yanomamo, by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon (it is in 3 parts; links to parts 2-3 are available below the video window):
Studying traditional societies offers us an illuminating window into our shared human nature. In addition, the practices of traditional societies—adapted over the ages, and having withstood the steep test of time (and thus showing themselves to have worked well with our shared human nature)—deserve our respect and consideration. Adapting traditional practices to our modern world may not always be easy, or straightforward, but the careful effort to do so stands to yield great benefits.
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