Interview: Jared Diamond, Author Of 'The World Until Yesterday' | Lessons For The Modern World In his new book, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond argues that traditional societies have much to teach the modern world about different ways to eat and stay fit, and how to raise children and resolve conflicts.
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Lessons For The Modern World From The Societies Of 'Yesterday'

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Lessons For The Modern World From The Societies Of 'Yesterday'

Lessons For The Modern World From The Societies Of 'Yesterday'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In the wee hours, the U.S. Senate passed a fiscal cliff deal, a bill that may now be in trouble in the House of Representatives, and we're already in overtime. We technically fell off the cliff at midnight last night. All of this raises a question: Why do we put up with all these political shenanigans? Why do we have a centralized government to begin with?

In his new book, UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond reminds us that states only began to emerge about 5,000 years ago, a blink of an eye compared to the millions of years that we humans lived in small groups as hunter-gatherers and garden farmers in traditional societies that he argues have much to teach us about different ways to eat and stay fit, about how to raise our children and employ the wisdom of age and about other lessons from the thousands of experiments in different ways to organize society.

If you've spent time in traditional cultures, what lessons have you brought home? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, what the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished 150 years ago today and what it didn't. But first, Jared Diamond joins us from his home in Los Angeles. He's geography professor at UCLA. His brand-new book is "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies." And he - congratulations Professor Diamond, Happy New Year, and nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

JARED DIAMOND: Thank you, it's nice to be back with you, and Happy New Year to you.

CONAN: One of the stories you tell is about a researcher who rushes off after hearing about a previously uncontacted band in New Guinea to find on arrival that half of them had already moved into town.

DIAMOND: Yeah, that happened to a friend of mine who had heard about some uncontacted group which excited him greatly, and he went out there, pushed his way through a jungle, forced his way up streams with a bush knife and arrived at what was left of the group. And sure enough, the others had moved into town explaining that they did it because they liked rice and safety and T-shirts.

CONAN: Rice and safety and T-shirts. Of those, safety it turns out, you argue, is one of the reasons we have centralized societies to begin with.

DIAMOND: That's true. Once you - when you have a small society of a few dozen or a few hundred people in a band or a tribe, everybody knows everybody else. There are no strangers. Once you get to a large society of several thousand people, then you can't reach decisions without some central authority. You can't just sit down face-to-face when you have several thousand people.

It's also the case that in a large society, if there is some young hothead who isn't satisfied with peace, the king can restrain the hothead, but that's not true in a small society. So ironically, even after the 20th century of atomic bombs and the concentration camps, the level of violence in traditional society is on the average higher than in modern, state-level societies.

CONAN: Nevertheless, you suggest that we have things to learn about conflict resolution. You tell the story of a traffic accident, a young boy killed crossing the street. It was not the driver's fault, really, but within a few days, all of this had been resolved.

DIAMOND: That's unthinkable in California. I don't know how it is in Washington, D.C. Perhaps you are more civilized people there...

CONAN: I doubt it.

DIAMOND: But here in California, we are a litigious group, and certainly if someone kills my son, there is not going to be a peaceful resolution. You can bet at minimum that there is going to be a civil suit for damages, and there's going to be hatred for the rest of our life.

In a traditional society, though, where everybody knows everybody else, and you are going to be living next to them for the rest of your lives, you have to be able to settle disputes in a way that deals with the feelings. And so in the case of a friend of mine, who was involved in a traffic accident where a kid got killed, incredibly five days after the accident, the employer and the friends of the killer sat down for a meal with the father and mother and uncle and relatives of the dead boy.

They ate together. They cried together. They said how sad it was to lose the dead boy. And they reached emotional reconciliation. Well, our legal system is aimed at determining right and wrong but not at emotional reconciliation.

CONAN: As you point out also, the state in these matters has interests of its own that don't coincide either with the aggrieved or the injuring party.

DIAMOND: That's particularly true in criminal cases, where the state aims to set a lesson. That's, say, in the case for example of Roman Polanski, who fled the United States in connection with a case of abuse of a minor, eventually the minor reportedly forgave him, but the state of California didn't care about that. The state of California still wanted him to come to jail because the state of California cares about the lesson for society, doesn't care about the feelings or the satisfied feelings of the victim alone.

CONAN: And we could admire the speed with which the resolution was reached in that car accident case you mentioned in New Guinea. We can admire the emotional resolution that was achieved, but not to put rose-colored glasses on it, you do point out again that if resolution is not achieved, then you can get into tit-for-tat killings, which can get out of hand.

DIAMOND: That's right. We shouldn't romanticize traditional societies. We shouldn't condemn them as brutes and barbarians. But there are things that are wonderful, and there are things that are dreadful about them. In this particular case of the kid who was killed, yes, an agreement was reached, and everybody cried together and exchanged food, and there was compensation and reconciliation after five days. But if an agreement had not been reached, then there would have been demand for revenge and an attempt to kill either the driver who had killed the kid or relatives of the driver, and it could have gone on for decades.

So that's an example of how our modern state societies do some things well and other things badly compared to traditional societies.

CONAN: And the analogy you draw is to a form of conflict resolution called restorative justice. It doesn't act as quickly, perhaps, as the conflict resolution there in the case of New Guinea, but can achieve some of the same ends.

DIAMOND: Yeah, that's an interesting case. It's an example where our modern state-level society is attempting to incorporate something from traditional societies. It involves bringing together the perpetrator of a crime and the victim or relatives of the victim of a crime if they're willing to do so.

The reality is that any of us who have been involved in a criminal case - if for example a high school friend of mine, his sister was murdered, and now - and the murderers were sent to jail. But that's not enough. That does not bring emotional closure. Sixty years after the event, my friend is still tortured by the memories.

Well, in this system of restorative justice, if the two parties are willing, you bring together the victim and the perpetrator, and they can see each other as people suffering people. For example, I discuss in my book a case where the widow of a man who was run over while bicycling was brought together with the driver, who had in fact admitted that he had run over the guy intentionally.

And it was a gut-wrenching discussion in prison, but at the end of it, the widow felt that she had achieved clearance to show her feelings to the killer, and the killer felt that a burden had been taken off him. So that's restorative justice, attempting to incorporate something of traditional societies into modern state-level operation.

CONAN: And it's interesting to me, one of the most convincing points you make in the book is that all of these thousands of traditional societies, from a few dozen to a few tens of thousands of people, that all of them have conducted these effective experiments in the human condition that of course we can't replicate any other way.

DIAMOND: Sure. Just for example suppose we were listening to the usual argument about whether it's better to spank children or not to spank children. Well, if we could do experiments, we'd settle it quickly. We'd designate 25 American states where parents are required to spank their kids and 25 American states where they're absolutely forbidden to spank their kids, come back 30 years later and see in which states the kids are healthier and more self-confident and creative and all that stuff.

Well, one can't carry out an experiment like that, but the experiment has already been carried out. There are thousands of societies which for thousands of years have either been spanking or not spanking their kids, and we can see what the outcome is.

CONAN: And it's not just spanking, it's all kinds of things, child-raising in many respects. As you point out, there are parts of traditional societies we would not want to emulate. You talk about one group of people I think on Bougainville, an island not far from New Guinea, where there was a tradition of widow strangling.

DIAMOND: That's right. That's an island near Bougainville called New Britain, where among the Cowlong people it was customary that if a man died, his widow was strangled and not against her will. She expected it. She would call out to her brothers to strangle her. If the brothers were not around, she would call out to her son to strangle her because she had seen this happen to other women, and now she expected it for herself.

To us it sounds horrible, and I have to say I don't see any benefit to it. It again underscores the point that there are wonderful things we can learn from traditional societies, and there are also things where we can say thank God we're past that.

CONAN: And one of the other things you point out is that children in these societies, particularly the ones you were in in New Guinea, grow up, well, multilingual doesn't begin to explain it.

DIAMOND: Yeah, that's been a real eye-opener for me over the last 50 years, watching the kids in New Guinea. I've been impressed, and I think every visitor not just to New Guinea but to Africa and other traditional societies, is impressed how self-confident and independent the kids are even at a young age.

I remember once in New Guinea where I needed porters, and I was in a village, and there weren't many people. There was a 10-year-old kid who volunteered to be a porter for me. He volunteered to go off for a week, and the week turned into a month. His parents weren't there. So he didn't ask permission of his parents, but he just went off with me.

And when his parents came back, they would be told by someone else that their son had gone off with some unknown white man for some unknown length of time. Well, in New Guinea you assume that kids are independent, they can make their own decisions, and the result is that they're more autonomous, self-confident people. That was something that I kept in mind, my wife and I kept in mind in bringing up our own kids.

CONAN: When we come back after a short break, more with our guest, Jared Diamond, and we want to hear from you. If you have spent time in traditional cultures, what lessons have you brought home? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. We'll be asking Jared Diamond about a condition he calls constructive paranoia. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Jared Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize for "Guns, Germs and Steel." You may have also read about his book called "Collapse." Through both of those books, you will learn that Jared Diamond spent many years in New Guinea researching birds but also observing traditional societies.

His new book came out yesterday. It's called "The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies." If you've spent time in traditional societies, what lessons have you brought home? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join us on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jared Diamond is on the phone with us from his home in Los Angeles. He's a professor of geography at UCLA. And let's see if we can start with Reed(ph), Reed's on the line with us from Sacramento.

REED: Hi, I spent two years in West Africa, in Niger, one of the poorest countries on the planet. And I saw very happy, well-adjusted people who had absolutely nothing, kind of the anti-Kardashian effect. You don't need that much stuff to be happy. That's what I learned.

CONAN: And Jared Diamond, I think it's fair to say that's a conclusion you came to, as well.

DIAMOND: Yeah, that's an interesting point that Reed makes, and it fits with what a friend of mine, who's worked in Africa in another poor country of Africa for several decades, has said. My friend summed it up I think in the spirit of Reed's comment. My friend said: Africans are poor in material respects, but they're rich socially compared to Americans.

And by that my friend meant that Africans spend far more time with other people. They have far more friendships. They keep those friendships. They live near their relatives for their lives. And so socially they have richer lives than us Americans.

CONAN: Was that your experience, Reed?

REED: Yes, it was.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the phone call.

REED: Sure.

CONAN: Jared Diamond points out in his book that there are parts of even rural America that are not so different from those kinds of friendships, but loneliness, you say, that's one of the things that you don't experience so much in tradition societies that is an affliction of our modern times.

DIAMOND: Loneliness, one's never going to be lonely in New Guinea. Where I am in New Guinea, constantly when I'm out bird-watching, I'm with New Guineans. And so all the time I'm either talking with a New Guinean, or I'm ready to talk with the New Guineans. And we're talking with each other. We're not distracted by our cell phones. We're talking directly, face to face. We're not communicating via email or via text messaging.

So there's this constant contact, and there's not the loneliness that is a problem for many Americans of all ages but particularly for older people who, as they move and as their children and friends move, are likely to end up far removed from their children and the friends of their life, and if they're lucky, they'll see their - among my friends, one of them sees her mother once a week, and another sees his father once a year.

Well compared to New Guinea, that's dreadful.

CONAN: And though I must say there was an interesting story about a New Guinean who moved to the West and said one of the things she loved about it was the feeling of anonymity, that she could sit down and read a newspaper in peace.

DIAMOND: Yeah, that's the flip side of it, again illustrating that let's not bash American society completely. There are lots of good things about American society or about Western society in general. And one of them is, as my New Guinea friend said, the anonymity. As she put it, what she really loved in the United States is to be able to go to a café, sit at an outdoor table, enjoy her coffee, read the newspaper and not be bothered by friends and relatives who want something from her.

The downside of all those social contacts in New Guinea is that an individual who gets something, has a good job, is constantly pestered by friends and relatives to share with them. And so there are also advantages to the loneliness in the United States.

CONAN: Share, there was another story of a young, ambitious, young New Guinean who was making some money and wanted to plow it into a business and better his life. It sounded like the American dream.

DIAMOND: Yeah, that was a New Guinea friend of mine. In fact he had worked for me, and so I paid him at the end of work, and I asked him: So what are you going to do with the money that you've earned? And he said he's going to buy a sewing machine in order to fix clothes and charge people for the clothes.

But the cruel reality was that the people he would be charging for fixing their clothes on a sewing machine are his own relatives and friends, and they would be utterly outraged if he charged them for fixing their clothes because they've contributed to his bride price, they helped buy his wife. They've supported him in other ways. And so they expect him to return the favor and not to strive to get ahead for himself.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Loni(ph), Loni is from Waikoloa. Am I pronouncing that anywhere close to right?

LONI: You're close. It's from Kamuela on the Big Island.

CONAN: OK, go ahead.

LONI: Well, my observations are much more limited. I have not had the kinds of wonderful experiences that Jared Diamond has had. But I've had a life that's been spent in (unintelligible) in the Pacific, specifically in Micronesia as an OB/GYN and getting to know the difference in their perception of individuality and group.

It's a different kind of experience than a Judeo-Christian sense of, say, genes and ownership of children and also ownership of property. And so I just share my limited observation, and that is that in Micronesia, if you come to live under my roof, you are my brother. It is not about who fathered you. In fact, many times in a family, because it's a matrilinear line, there might be a number of different fathers and that that became irrelevant because property wasn't inherited through the men, it's inherited through the women's line.

And the other brief observation I have is that also group identity manifests itself differently in terms of health. If I have someone who has had pneumonia, and we go in, and we go in, and we work with the health worker and ask what has been going on in his life. It may be that he has borrowed nets to capture fish, and he's either not shared the catch or not repaired the nets.

And it impacts his sense of health, and no amount of antibiotics that I'm going to give him is going to help until he goes through the process of making it right. There's a sense of that in Hawaii as well with (unintelligible). So I'll just share those two observations, one in terms of do we own our children, our blue eyes do not belong to us like furniture, everybody has blue eyes and our genetic sameness. So the identity of self and group is a different experience.

CONAN: Jared Diamond, that's something that I think sticks out throughout your book.

DIAMOND: Yeah, I can respond to what Loni said. Loni, those are very interesting points, and let me respond just to one of them, and that's what you term the ownership of kids. Yes, that's true in New Guinea. It has struck me. It has struck the children of American missionaries who've lived in New Guinea.

Instead of using the word ownership, in my book I use the word alloparent, that's to say an alternative parent. Here in the United States, overwhelmingly the most important influence on a child is the child's parents, occasionally baby sitters, et cetera. But in New Guinea and in other traditional societies, responsibility for kids is diffused over the other adults and the older siblings in the village.

So for example the son of an American missionary who had grown up in New Guinea told me that in the afternoon in New Guinea, he would have dinner not necessarily in his parents' house. He had dinner in whatever house he happened to be, whatever hut he happened to be near in the village. And so he referred to all adults as aunt and uncle.

And for him one of the biggest shocks in coming back to the United States was the loss of all these adult social models associated with what Loni calls the shared ownership of kids. But it means all these models means a lot more social stimulation and more models to choose among. So Loni, your point's very interesting.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

LONI: You're welcome.

CONAN: And the other point that I wanted to bring out of what she had to say is trying to find relatives in common, Micronesia, well, relatively small islands. You're not going to know anybody who's not off your island. You say in New Guinea, literally many of these small bands, they don't meet anybody in their life who is a stranger, who do they do not know or know of. And in fact if they meet a stranger, the first thing they have to do is sit down and try to figure out if they have any relatives in common.

DIAMOND: That's true. It's true in New Guinea. It's true among the Sand People of the Kalahari. It's generally true for traditional people, namely they're sedentary, they know the people in their group, they know the people in the neighboring groups who may be either their friends or their enemies, but there aren't strangers.

And on the rare occasions when there is a stranger, it is dangerous because if a stranger is in your territory, it probably means bad stuff. It probably means the stranger is there either to scout you out to a raid or to kidnap one of your women. Whereas, in the United States, a stranger, for us, is a business opportunity.

And so in New Guinea, if by chance, you are in the jungle and you ran across a stranger and you're in a position where neither of you can run away, then you - the two of you sit down and you may have a conversation for two or three hours in which each of you recites all your relatives and your cross cousins and your great uncles, in the hope that you can find a relative that you share in common. Because once you've got a joint relative then you have a bond. The person is not a stranger. But if after a couple of hours you can't find a joint relative, then either he will try to kill you or you'll try to kill him, or both of you run away.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you, maybe one of the most personal parts of your books is your discussion of constructive paranoia. And I'm going to ask you to define the term in just a moment. But do so, if you would, by telling us the story - you locate to a mountain camp, high up. Don't see anybody around. It's not an area that appears to be controlled by anybody. But given that story of strangers you just told, it's dangerous to go some place where you don't have the permission of those who believe they're in ownership of that place, that its theirs, to go there and visit without their permission. Doesn't seem to be anybody around, but one of your - the people you're working with notices something unusual.

DIAMOND: Yeah. In New Guinea, to be on land where you have not obtained permission, from the land owners, to be there is an absolute no, no. If you're caught on somebody else's land, there is going to be big trouble. And on the case that you are referring to, which I described in my book, I was doing a bird survey in what I thought was an uninhabited mountain range. So there was nobody from whom I could as permission. Nobody whom I knew that I could permission. We flew in there by helicopter.

And on the first day, when I and a New Guinea friend were making a trail, we came across what looked a stick in the ground. I thought the stick was just a branch that had fallen down from a tree overhead. My New Guinea friend said, no, a stick wouldn't do that. Look, the stick has been inserted in the ground. We sat there and discussed the stick for an hour because it might have meant that there were owners in the vicinity. And if so, and if they caught us there, there would be big trouble.

Well, for 17 days, we were ultra cautious. It turned out that the owners never showed up. I still don't know how that stick got into the ground, whether it just fell from the tree. But the episode illustrated to me how ultra cautious New Guineans are about any sign of there being caught trespassing, because it's dangerous.

CONAN: And because the consequences of any altercation or any accident are so dire.

DIAMOND: Yeah. The consequences are likely to be that you are killed for trespassing.

CONAN: And even if you're just injured, being uncautious, falling out of a tree, you can't just go to the hospital and have a doctor or surgeon resent your leg.

DIAMOND: That's a big difference between New Guinea and United States - the approach to dangers, in general. Here, if something goes wrong, usually you can go to the hospital and get it fixed. Twice I'd had a finger tendon broken, and my finger got splinted for six months by a hand surgeon and got fixed. One I broke my foot - so I called up my father who is a doctor and he bailed me out. But in New Guinea, if you do something to a finger or your foot, you're likely to be crippled for the rest of your life. And so, you learn to be ultra cautious.

Just as an example: so here it is, midday in California, and I've already done the most dangerous thing that I'll do today, and that was to take a shower. If you read the obituaries and you see that, perhaps, one of the biggest dangers for all the people is falling down, including falling down in the shower. Well, each time that I take a shower, the chance is maybe one in a thousand that I'll slip and break my hip. But I intend to take more than thousand showers in the rest of my life, so I got to make sure that my chances of falling down in the shower are less than one in a thousand. I term that constructive paranoia - being ultra cautious to the point of being paranoid, so as to avoid this rare risks, which you do something often enough, will eventually catch up with you.

CONAN: Our very clean guest today is Jared Diamond. He is the author most recently of "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?" You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we go next to Scott. Scott with us from Elk Grove, in California.

SCOTT: Yeah. The only dealings I've had with what you would call traditional societies has been a bit of time in Iowa, dealing with the Amish sometimes buying poultry from them, for example. But I did some reading, and one thing I've come away with is how, in our society, there is this great disconnect between what we'd like to call government on one hand, and the private sector on the other. Whereas, of course, seem I think, fair to say, traditional society, those two realms are intermeshed inextricably. And I think that's the way this human nature dictates that. And I think for us to reconsider these two realms, private sector, government and try to think of them as a network, I think that we're (unintelligible) a long way.

CONAN: Is that a fair conclusion, Jared Diamond?

DIAMOND: Yes. Scott, that's a good point. Interesting way you phrase it. Just as an example, a vignette that happened to me my first year in New Guinea - I was living in a village of a few hundred people, and there came a time where a decision had to be made.

In the United States, the decision would be made by the mayor of Los Angeles. It's not the case that all seven million citizens of Los Angeles sit down and have a discussion. But in this village, everybody did sit down and have a discussion. There was not the polarity that Scott mentions between us and them, between the decision makers and the private sector. The decision makers are everybody. That's possible if you've got a few hundred people.

But once you got 300 million Americans, you cannot sit down and have a discussion. You've got to have us and them, the government, making the decisions, even if the government is elected.

CONAN: And, Jared Diamond, as might be expected, there is a wealth of interesting stories and interesting ideas in this book. But you're constantly mentioning the fact that you're going out and discovering more and more about birds. Where do we read about your research on birds?

DIAMOND: Oh, I've written a couple of hundred papers on birds. I've written some books on birds. I've written a highly technical book about the birds of the eastern highlands of New Guinea, which has sold a grand total of 700 copies for everybody who wants to read the gory details of every New Guinea bird species.

CONAN: Well, so it's all available.

DIAMOND: Yes, it is indeed available.

CONAN: Well, I'm glad to hear it. The new book is available too. It came out yesterday. It's called "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies." One last quick email question. This is from Matt in Oakland: Don't leave us hanging. What's the result of comparing societies that do and don't spank their children?

DIAMOND: Oh, societies that don't spank their children, that contributes to the self-confidence of kids. On the other hand, in societies of herding people, where the kid who makes a mistake and let the cows out of the gate, you've got to spank your kid. So it depends.

CONAN: Jared Diamond, thanks very much for your time as always. Good luck with the book.

DIAMOND: Thank you.

CONAN: Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, joined us from his home in Los Angeles. Coming up, we'll be talking about the Emancipation Proclamation, which turns 150 years old today. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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