In <i>The World until Yesterday</i>, Jared Diamond pays heed to traditional ideas, from which our 'weird' world could learn.

In The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond pays heed to traditional ideas, from which our 'weird' world could learn. Photo: AFP

SOCIETY
By Jared Diamond
Allen Lane, $29.99

I HAVE long lamented that anthropologists so rarely write for those outside their discipline, and never more so than on reading The World until Yesterday, in which Jared Diamond sets out to show us what we can learn from traditional societies. By ''we'', he means us in our ''weird'' - ''Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic'' - states. By ''traditional'', he means people living in ''low population densities in small groups'' as hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers, as in New Guinea, his primary example, where he has had 50 years of ''personal experience'' as an ornithologist.

The crux of his argument is that traditional societies embody thousands of years of ''natural experiments in organising human lives''. While there are some practices we can feel ''relieved to be rid of'', there are others we in the West could consider ''selectively adopting''. Traditional societies have been evolving for millenniums, he says, while we modern, state-based ''weirds'' have been around, comparatively speaking, for the blink of an eye. ''In some respects we are misfits'', out of kilter with our evolutionary past and the wisdoms of yesterday.

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He shows us that children in ''traditional'' societies are allowed to learn through risk, arguing that ''allo-parenting'' - a network of connected adults - produces secure and confident children. He contrasts our sidelining of the old with traditional practices that keep elders productive for longer, respected as repositories for cultural knowledge. He points out that traditional societies resolve disputes in ways that will restore relationships between people and communities that must continue to coexist, while the long and adversarial processes of ''weird'' justice, in contrast, are designed to rule between people who, for the most part, will never meet again. ''Weird'' justice may break the cycle of revenge killings, but it doesn't do away with the emotions of revenge, or offer those in dispute a meaningful ''closure''.

Diamond made his reputation on a capacity to synthesise difficult academic material and present it to a large audience through big, sweeping theories. Anthropologists dislike him for it, and it is indeed the case that the particular is more complex than the general. Yet Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) made the powerful case that the rise to wealth by some societies rather than others was due not to intrinsic capabilities (or superiorities), but to geography factors such as latitude and topography. True, it's an argument that leaves out the historical processes of power, capital and imperialism; nevertheless, it was a book that spoke to a large and receptive audience.

Collapse (2005) was a warning that societies are not always aware of the limitations of their own success; oblivious to their effect on the environment that sustains them, they can overstretch and collapse. Again, the details were questioned, including in a volume of essays by academic anthropologists, and again, as ''popular science'', it can be defended as a polemic we might well heed in our ''weird'' world of excess.

It is also a warning a writer might heed. In The World until Yesterday, the evolutionary approach that carried the earlier books founders on the contradictions inherent in the idea that a shared ''yesterday'' can be viewed ''today''. Nearly a century since the notion of ''cultural evolution'' has been discredited, to what extent can we consider ''yesterday'' to be shared?

Diversity is exactly that, not only in the realm of social organisation but also in the ways human life can be imagined and given meaning. Where we can learn from small-scale societies, as in the many examples Diamond gives, are we, in fact, looking at ''yesterday''? In a globalised world - Digicel mobile technology now covers much of PNG - is not ''today'' also today there? While the large message of The World until Yesterday posits a challenge to the ethnocentrism of the ''weird'' world, its ''first-hand picture of the human past'' emerges as a conceit that, by its nature, cannot take us far.

Diamond is impressed, for example, that his ''New Guinean friends'' don't sleep beside dead trees or trees with dead branches. While most trees will not fall, enough do, and as these men, over their lifetime, will spend a lot of nights camping out in the forest, they adopt a strategy of caution by never sleeping under one. In the anecdote about this, Diamond insists on having his tent put up under a dead tree while his ''New Guinean friends'' camp ''exposed in the open''. On another occasion, his bird-watching camp is visited in the night by a man who might be a sorcerer; he wakes the camp and vanishes into the forest. The next day Diamond walks far ahead of his guides, who stay in a protective group in case the man is still nearby. It's only later that Diamond realises his stupidity and learns the wisdom of ''constructive paranoia'', an attitude of mind lost from the ''weird''.

So far, so good.

But consider this story from the perspective of Diamond's guides, and it's a wonder that ''New Guinean friends'' take us ''weirds'' anywhere. And there's the rub. We pay. While Diamond might be gleaning ''traditional'' wisdom from his small-scale societies, New Guinea is, in fact, a state - or rather two; Diamond, to his credit, has worked both in Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Papua - and cash matters to its citizens, for most of whom it is hard to come by. PNG is awash with mining money, but not much of it gets down to those small-scale groups unless it is in compensation for forests that have been clear-felled, or rivers silted up. True, subsistence farmers might be spared type 2 diabetes and hypertension, but when there is medicine for infectious diseases and technologies for collecting clean water, who gets access, and who has the money for them?

Allo-parenting clearly has advantages, but when there is no money for education and the children grow into young men who go to town and find alcohol and no work, how confident and secure are they then?

Can we speak of the ''traditional'' today without understanding the impact and challenge of modernity? I'd be among the first to say there is a lot, especially here in Australia, we could learn from and about our Melanesian neighbours. But what, exactly, should we learn? At the beginning of the 21st century, is it really that we might be happier if we took notice of their child-raising, dispute-solving, elder-revering, exercising lives? Does Diamond really think we can reassess our risky behaviour with alcohol through a bit of constructive paranoia?

My dismay is that when New Guinea is so rarely written about for a large audience with serious intent, The World until Yesterday perpetuates one of the worst aspects of ''our'' ''weird'' thinking. It keeps ''us'', as always, at the centre of the frame, separated from ''them'' as not much more than relics of ''yesterday'', an opposition that makes little sense outside historical time, and is of limited use in the entangled present of the 21st century.

Drusilla Modjeska's novel, The Mountain (Vintage), is set in Papua New Guinea.