Jared Diamond doesn’t think small. At various points a
physiologist, ornithologist, ecologist, historian and geographer,
Diamond gained renown in 1997 with his book Guns, Germs and Steel,
for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. That book took on the whole of
human history, with the thesis that societies evolved at different rates
because of their climates. His 2005 book, Collapse, examined why some societies fail and others don’t. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies,
published last year, is comparatively a more intimate affair,
describing the practices of traditional societies to see what modern
societies might learn from them. WW talked to Diamond about shower habits and smothering babies.
WW: I enjoyed your new book.
Jared Diamond: Good. You’re obviously a person of discriminating taste.
Glad to hear you think so. So before we dig in, I’ll mention some of the criticism the book’s received from advocates for traditional societies.
Why don’t we start with something more pleasant? They're not worth wasting your time on. The criticisms don’t come from tribal advocates. They come from people who claim to be advocates of traditional societies, who’ve given realy vicious criticism, but if you look on my website, jareddiamond.org, you’ll see my response.
The traditional practices you describe—resolving a fatal car accident by sharing grief and giving “sorry money” in New Guinea, for example—can seem relatable to Western readers despite being very different from our own.
There is a certain incommensurability between cultures. [New Guineans] are not wearing manufactured clothes; they don’t write. But you find that people are very much like other people. They cry, they laugh, they’re scared in the same circumstances. In other cases, they act very differently—like the wonderful way they resolve disputes—but there are reasons for this. They’re doing different things. There are reasons why we’re behaving one way and they’re behaving another way. It’s often something we can learn from.
Are there practices you’ve adopted?
Loads of them. Just as an example I was talking to somebody this morning who asked what I eat for snacks while I’m writing. It’s simple. I don’t take snacks. While I’m writing or not writing. I’ve learned not from traditional societies to overeat, not to be obese, not end up with diabetes and heart disease. And let’s talk about danger. I
have already done the most dangerous thing I will do today: I’ve taken a
shower. Were you very careful when you took your shower today about
holding onto the bars or stepping on the rough tape on the bottom of the
I have neither of those things.
In that case, this interview is going to change your life
in a good direction. One of the things I learned in New Guinea is that
these homely, banal things that we do every day are the most dangerous.
I’m 76 years old and you might say, what are the chances I will fall in
the shower? Say one in a thousand. And I’ll say, one in a thousand,
that’s horrible! I’ve got 15 years of life. That’s 5,475 showers. At my
age, you’re going to kill yourself five times before reaching your life
expectancy. And at your age you could have lots more opportunities to kill
yourself. You would be surprised at the number of people who fall in showers.
Well: It's the importance of thinking about repeated events. Each time you do them
the chances of hurting yourself are low, but you do them often enough the tree
can fall on you. That I learned from New Guinea.
You referred in your book to a paranoia that New Guineans have about sleeping under dead trees that might fall.
Right. The term I used was constructive paranoia. Paranoia is a psychiatric condition. If someone says you’re paranoid, it’s true, you need to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist. So paranoia is not a good quality. It’s exaggerated fears. I use the term constructive paranoia for what seems to other people like exaggerated fears, but they’re actually appropriate fears given the number of times you do something. And so the reason why you should put bars in your shower is actually a constructive parnaoia for which everyone who loves you should admire you.
You make the point that there's a broader range of traditional societies than there is modern societies—sort of a toolbox of societal solutions.
You got it: It’s a toolbox. It’s a toolbox for which modern
society has only a number 7 wrench. No other wrench. Traditional societies have
wrenches of all sizes and 27 other tools. Traditional societies are far more
diverse than our modern state societies. No matter whether we’re in Canada or
Israel or Germany or the United States: All state societies are similar in that they have
centralized leadership and court system and they have police. All are similar
in that repsect, whereas traditional societies are far more varied. So if you
want to see the results of thousands of different experiments in how to raise
your children, look at traditional societies because they are just far more
varied. You look at which way suits you best, or that you think is best, and then learn
In a city like Portland, we often look to traditional ways of doing things—but for us it’s more like 100 years ago.
Sure. It’s a matter of looking at alternatives. The conditions 100 years ago were different from conditions today. The conditions 200 years ago were different from conditions 100 years ago. You look at the past of Oregon society, you find different ways of doing things; that’s not to say that all of those things are good. You might say, that’s terrible. That’s life without antibiotics. Similarly with traditional societies, some things I see in traditional society are terrible, like strangling widows. If I die, I’m not going to ask my wife to call on someone to strangle her. But there’s a lot that goes on in traditional societies, whether Oregon societies of the past or traditional societies today, that are wonderful and we can learn from them.
Some traditional practices might be difficult to implement in modern society.
Lots of examples. Just
because something that works well in a traditional society and because you
admire it, doesn’t mean it can be adopted immediately in modern society without
making some changes. In traditional societies, all parents
sleep in the same bed with their children. There are modern Americans
who’ve learned from this practice. But traditional beds are hard mats.
You are unlikely to roll over onto your baby, because you feel the baby.
In a soft, modern bed, you roll over onto the baby and you don’t feel
the baby. You smother your baby. If you like the idea of sleeping in the
same bed as your baby, then by all means. But be sure to get a firm
It seemed like a lot of the complaints of people from traditional cultures about American society were very similar to complaints we have about ourselves. For example the loneliness of life in cities.
Certainly for older people, old age is a disaster area in
American life. The reason why the average American, as they get old, gets lonely, is that they move every five years. Which makes it virtually certain
you're going to end up your life far removed from the friends of your
childhood. Maybe even from your friends and your relatives. In traditional societies this is not the case. So as opposed
to people who move, you’re almost certain to end your life not at all
lonely but surrounded by people who are your friends in youth and people who
are your relatives.
What’s your next project?
National crisis. How people respond to national crises by either changing or failing to change. And the United States has plenty going on today that’ll constitute a crisis if we don’t fix it.
Any initial observations?
I’m just at the beginning of work on that book. So I’d say, come back in four years and we’ll talk.
GO: Jared Diamond speaks at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 248-4335, on Wednesday, Nov. 6. 7:30 pm. $28.