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Interview with a writer: Jared Diamond

1 March 2013

10:55 AM

1 March 2013

10:55 AM

In his latest book The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond analyses the behavioral differences between human beings in tribal stateless-societies and those living in bureaucratic nation states. Diamond says that if states only came into existence 5,400 years ago, and agriculture in the last 11,000, human beings have been wandering nomads for most of history. Therefore, if modern nations are relatively new concepts, we have much to learn from traditional cultures.

Drawing on his experience of 50 years of field research in New Guinea, Diamond attempts to prove his thesis with a mixture of personal anecdotes and academic research. He claims the way people in traditional societies raise their children, spend their leisure time, and communicate, are often superior to normal practices in the West. But because traditional societies lack the vast bureaucratic apparatus of the state, its people are in a chronic cycle of war.

The 75-year-old polymath and popular science writer spoke to me about practices in traditional societies that may seem shocking to some Westerners.

You describe in the book how deplorable acts of cruelty — such as the strangling of widows, and leaving old people to die — are part of the circumstances people in traditional societies have to deal with? 

Yes, traditional societies do things that we disapprove of. Some of them abandon their elderly, and others kill their babies, if they happen to be weak.  We in the West think that is terrible. These people do this not because they are evil, but due to particular circumstances. If you have a group of nomads who are going to shift camp every day, and then you have somebody who can no longer walk, the cruel reality is that you cannot carry old people with you. In our modern society we are not shifting camp every day — we are sedentary — so it is possible for us to retain our old people.

You say that 96 percent of the top psychology journals in the world are from Westernized industrial countries. Does that mean that our perceptions of human psychology are deeply flawed?

They are very skewed because they are only based on a narrow section of humanity. Most psychological studies, if they are done in the UK, or the US, are usually only carried out on subjects from that particular country. They are always done with societies that have a state government: where every single person in that state is used to dealing with strangers. You and I have been talking now for three and a half minutes. I can promise you that I have not made a move to kill you yet. I haven’t detected any move on your part to kill me. But in a traditional society, by now either one of us would have killed each other, or else we would have run away. Those are the prime examples of the differences that psychology studies in the West are missing.

New Guinea is home to 1,000 of the world’s 7000 languages:  is it because of its geographical location, or its lack of a centralized bureaucracy that gives it such a rich culture and linguistic variation?

Both of those things are important. Once you get a centralized state, it needs a language for bureaucracy. Therefore states tend to promote convergence of language. New Guinea never had a state government until modern colonial times. It’s also a very mountainous country. So people in each valley developed their own society. But each society is intermittingly at war with other societies. People have been in New Guinea for 46,000 years, so there has been a lot of time to develop languages.


Could you talk about the difference between state and non-state justice systems?

Well the state always has its own interest at heart. Namely the state wants to preserve peace. It doesn’t want its citizens to take the law into their own hands, and to go around killing each other. The state justifies this by saying it’s doing it for the benefit of its citizens, and that is true.

The reason that the state makes an effort to ensure that if I have an argument with you, I don’t kill you — but instead call the police — is because the state wants peace. It wants peace for the good of its citizens. But in order to maintain that peace, the state has to have a monopoly on force. It cannot let individual citizens go applying force to other individual citizens. The state has to be seen to be punishing wrongdoers, and to set an example to other members of the state. So if you commit murder you go to jail.

And in a traditional society…

Well first of all there is no state, with self-interest. Also, there are not strangers in these societies. So if it’s a dispute, it’s going to be with someone that you have known for your whole life, and that you will have to deal with for the rest of your life. Therefore the main thing that counts is to finish the dispute in such a way that you will be able to get along with that person. So the issue in traditional societies is not about right or wrong, or laws. The main focus is on restoring a relationship.

Could you talk about the main differences between the ways we look at war in the two respective societies?

Let’s take Germany as an example of a state society. It was at war for ten years of the 20th century. The deaths caused by Germany being in two World Wars were horrible, but they were averaged out in a century in which they were in no war for 90 years.

In traditional societies, without a state government to declare war and then to sign a peace treaty, wars tend to be chronic. If you are not fighting with a certain group, then you go and make peace, and fight with others.

So are you saying the percentage death toll ends up being higher in non-state societies?

Yes. In state armies, the average age consists of men: mostly from 18 to 22. While in non-state armies, men range from 10 to 70. In state warfare it is considered bad and evil to kill women and children. Even in the Second World War, the policy for the Germans on the western front — the eastern front was another matter — was not to kill women and children. But in traditional societies, it’s routine to kill women and children in war. So the outcome overall is that the death toll in traditional societies is much higher than in state societies.

Why do you believe that religion has brought a force of good to societies everywhere?

It is striking. An evolutionary and common sense perspective should confirm that religion has given no benefits to society. There is a lot of variation among societies, and you would expect that some of them would abolish religion. You would even expect atheist societies to gain an advantage over religious societies. But every society that we know about has had religion. This then suggests that there is an advantage to having a religion. I argue that the advantage with religion has changed over time as societies have developed. For example, before there was science, religion played a big role in explanation: to explain clouds and tides and so on.

What function does religion have today?

Well one good function could be dealing with anxiety. There is a part in my book that discusses an Israeli village near the Syrian border: who were being subjected to rocket attacks. It turned out that those Israelis who were chanting Psalms, managed to defuse their anxiety and they didn’t explode in anger and do stupid things.

You’ve spent many years in New Guinea doing research: what are your impressions of the country and its people?

The place is just so vivid and beautiful. It’s a jungle, not grey with buildings like we are used to in the West. It’s so varied: it’s like going from the equator, where there is tropical rainforest, to the North Pole, where there are glaciers, all in the space of five miles. And there are thousands of different tribes with their various languages, which are all drastically different from each other. When the people there are talking to me, they are not glancing at their cell phones, or interrupting the conversation by sending an email. Full attention to conversation is given all of the time.


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