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Jared Diamond, traditional societies and myths of the future

Civilisation’s gains and losses.

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many were equally convinced until only a few decades ago that no society could be truly modern until market forces had been replaced by collective planning.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

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.