Jared Diamond, traditional societies and myths of the future

Civilisation’s gains and losses.

Chief Joe of the Insect Tribe from Papua New Guinea at a farmhouse in Wales, 2009. Photograph: Muir Vidler

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
Jared Diamond
Allen Lane, 512pp, £20

From the standpoint of anthropology, a distinguished practitioner of the discipline once told me, modernity is an unnecessary concept. It was a striking observation. The idea that modern human beings are vastly different from those who came before is central to the way that many people now think of themselves and, for most of them, it seems obvious that being modern is an unmixed blessing. Economists and some historians tell impressive-sounding stories of how humankind has struggled to leave behind the darkness and misery of pre-modern times to achieve its present level of wellbeing and enlightenment, while “modernisation” has been the rallying cry of generations of politicians.

To be sure, the meaning of modernisation has changed over time. If practically the entire political class today understands being modern to mean that society must adapt itself to the market, many were equally convinced until only a few decades ago that no society could be truly modern until market forces had been replaced by collective planning. Again, nowadays everyone equates being modern with acceptance of democracy and liberal values; but during the interwar years fascism was perceived as a thoroughly modern movement. Everybody celebrates modernisation and understands it as the passage to a better world but ideas of what it means to be modern are like the advertisements you watch on television – quickly dated and soon forgotten.

“‘Modern’ conditions have prevailed, even just locally, for a tiny fraction of human history,” writes Jared Diamond. “All human societies have been traditional for far longer than any society has been modern.” Diamond begins his inquiry with the wise observation that no society is fully modern. “Billions of people around the world today still live in traditional ways,” he writes, and traditional ways of life persist within the most modern societies. In the Montana valley where Diamond and his family spend their summer holidays, he tells us, “Many disputes are still resolved by informal social mechanisms rather than by going to court.”

Many Europeans who grew up in the 1950s had childhoods not unlike those Diamond has studied in traditional New Guinea villages: “Everyone knew what everyone else was doing and expressed their opinions about it, people married spouses born only a mile or two distant, people spent their entire lives in or near the village except for young men away during the world war years and disputes within the village had to be settled in a way that restored relationships or made them tolerable, because you were going to be living near that person for the rest of your life.” When a society becomes modern, older ways of living don’t altogether vanish. “The world of yesterday wasn’t erased and replaced by a new world of today: much of yesterday is still with us.”

Modernity isn’t, for Diamond, a condition that should triumph completely but this is not because he romanticises traditional ways of living. Much of The World Until Yesterday is an account of the drawbacks of life in traditional societies, some of it deriving from the author’s experience during periods of fieldwork. He describes vividly how on one of his first trips, when he spent a month with a group of New Guineans studying birds on a forest-covered mountain, his companions became agitated and refused to sleep in a beautiful valley where he had selected a place to set up camp at the base of a giant tree. The campsite was dangerous, the New Guineans explained, because the tree was dead and might fall over and kill them all. After a number of other incidents, including one in which he nearly drowned, Diamond came to see their response as an example of what he calls “constructive paranoia” – a sense of danger that comes with living in environments that are chronically unsafe for humans.

Rightly, Diamond thinks that we may have something to learn from this attitude; but he underscores clearly how it is a response to living in a world that, in some important respects, is more insecure than the one that has been built in modern times. Without modern medicine, accidents are more easily fatal or permanently disabling – and there is no place in traditional cultures for the severely impaired. As Diamond notes: “Some traditional societies, especially nomadic ones or those in harsh environments, are forced to neglect, abandon or kill their elderly.”

The paranoia he describes has another source in how, in traditional communities, encounters with strangers are infused with peril. When New Guinean Highlanders had their first sight of a European in 1933, they wept in terror. Reflecting this horror of outsiders, their relations with other tribal groups were governed by more or less continuous warfare. These are not the innocent primitives of Rousseauesque mythology but nor are they the bloodthirsty savages of Victorian imperialist folklore. Living as everyone lived until around 11,000 years ago, they are human beings in many ways like ourselves.

When a 50-year-old Yahi Indian from Northern California gave up his huntergatherer life to live in San Francisco, Diamond tells us, he was deeply impressed by matches and glue, thinking them the most admirable modern inventions (later he became attached to running water, flushing lavatories and railway trains, among other amenities). The Yahi admired these modern inventions for the same reason Europeans invented them: they add to the ease and enjoyment of life.

For Diamond, the modern world is a patchwork of such inventions but their overall impact on human well-being has been complex and mixed. The domestication of plants and animals, the emergence of large human settlements along with formal systems of justice, the expansion of states, the spread of literacy, cumulative innovation in science and technology – these are some of the developments that together produced the way we live today.

Along with their undoubted benefits, modern societies have their distinctive disorders, including the epidemic spread of diseases such as diabetes and hypertension that are unknown in traditional societies, unremitting time-scarcity and the cultural and cognitive losses that go with vanishing languages (one of the remaining 7,000 languages that are still extant disappears every nine days, Diamond tells us). As he sees it, modernity is not a unique transition that some societies have experienced at various times during the past few centuries; it is an ongoing process whose upshot is uncertain and insecure.

The fragility of civilisation is a theme that runs through much of Diamond’s work. His bestselling books Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005) have given him the reputation of being something of a doommonger. This is only to be expected, since Diamond points to an undeniable but unwelcome truth. Modern societies are no more immune from environmental collapse than the many that have disappeared in the past – having become so closely interconnected, they are in some ways more at risk. Yet Diamond’s work is about much more than the vulnerabilities of advanced societies and it would be more accurate to describe him as inquiring into the environmental conditions that shape human communities.

One way or another, most theories of human development privilege the kind of society in which the theorist lives. Where 19th-century racial theories posited the biological superiority of Europeans, the triumphal celebrations of unending economic advance that filled the airport bookstalls in the 1990s invoked the cultural superiority of American individualism – something of which we hear rather less now that the financial crisis has shown reckless debt rather than bourgeois virtue to be the chief source of America’s apparent economic outperformance in recent times.

Diamond’s divergence from such ways of thinking is bracing and deeply instructive. Arguing that, “The explanation for the differences in types of societies existing in the modern world depends on environmental differences,” he suggests that human groups in the relatively few regions of the world with plants and animals suitable for domestication had a major advantage over others. Food surpluses led to population growth, which in turn led to political centralisation and social stratification, the growth of cities and the rise of industrial production. Rather than any built-in biological or cultural advantage, it was this environmental head start that eventually produced the modern societies we know today.

Diamond is one of our most consistently illuminating thinkers and The World Until Yesterday is a compelling account of the gains and losses that go with modern living. But if Diamond is impressive in deconstructing simple-minded ideas about what it means to be modern, he does not explain why modernisation has become such a powerful myth. Recent history is littered with vast political experiments aiming to impose models of modernisation on refractory societies, often incurring huge human costs. Not only in Russia and China in the communist era but also in many emerging countries, millions of lives have been lost or ruined by the imposition of crudely schematic plans of development. If Nazism is included as a modernist ideology aiming to remake the world on a hideous new model, probably more human beings were killed in the 20th century for the sake of a vision of the future than for any other single reason.

At this point, the scales tilt against modern societies. Traditional cultures may live in a state of continuous warfare with each other, while genocide is not unknown. No traditional people has attacked and murdered its own members on anything like the scale perpetrated by some modern states. No doubt one reason for this is that traditional societies lack a state apparatus, one of the preconditions of industrial-style killing. Yet there may be a more fundamental reason why traditional peoples do not engage in large-scale slaughter of their own members. Partly because of their non-linear, cyclical understanding of time, traditional cultures lack the idea that a new world can be brought into being by human action. To sacrifice the present generation of human beings for a hypothetical future would be literally inconceivable to them.

Traditional cultures have many disadvantages but it is silly to think of them as being simply backward when the belief that we are forever on the brink of a new world has led to so many disasters. Think of the experiment in financial deregulation that resulted, only a few years later, in an unprecedented bust in the global banking system. Undoubtedly, part of the pressure for deregulation came from selfinterest – if anyone has benefited, it is surely bankers and those with substantial financial assets. Yet the experiment could not have been attempted if an ideology that envisioned the future in terms of a self-regulating global market had not been widely promoted and accepted by mainstream politicians. We had entered a “great moderation”, we were assured, in which the buffering institutions of earlier times – a welfare state, full employment policies –were obsolete. The results of chasing this fantasy can be seen all around us.

As much as the inventions that Diamond describes, it is myths of the future that have come to drive modern life. The self-regulating market was only the latest version of a dream in which the cycles of history have been left behind. If we’d retained some of the constructive paranoia of traditional cultures, we might still not have been able to prevent the neoliberal experiment; but we would have been better prepared for the fiasco that has ensued.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His next book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, will be published by Allen Lane in February