What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

By Jared Diamond

Penguin Books (2012)

Book Review

In this book, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond examines dozens of traditional societies that have persisted into the modern era. Diamond subdivides these societies into “bands” consisting of a few dozen hunter gatherers; “tribes” consisted of a few hundred farmers, herders or farmer/hers; and “chiefdoms,” consisting of thousands of farmers/herders ruled by a single chief.

All humans lived in hunter gatherer “bands” until the agricultural revolution 11,000 years ago. At this point, “bands” slowly evolved into “tribes.” Aground 5,500 BC, larger food surpluses caused “tribes” to evolve into “chiefdoms.” Most “chiefdoms” were held together by shared religious beliefs enabling strangers to trust thousands of people they didn’t know personally. Until the advent of colonialism, “chiefdoms” were still widespread in the Americas, Polynesia and much of sub-Saharan Africa.

In many regions of the world, “chiefdoms” evolved into states around 5,000 years ago. States were characterized by still greater food surpluses, increased technological innovation, economic specialization, standing armies, and bureaucratic governance.

Diamond draws most of his examples of contemporary traditional societies from New Guinea, the main focus of his field work. However he also includes numerous examples of traditional societies studied by other anthropologists.

He strongly advocates for the role of the state in reducing the violence human beings inflict on one another. From the statistics he offers, there seems to be a big drop in homicide and intertribal violence (ie war) when traditional societies come under state control. Unfortunately this view directly contradicts recent studies published in the American Journal of Public Health. They refer to 190 million deaths directly and indirectly related to 20th century wars – more than the previous four centuries combined. (See AJPHA Publications)*

At the same time, Diamond has has identified many features of traditional societies that could potentially benefit modern industrialized society. Examples include many aspects of traditional childrearing (including demand feeding**, co-sleeping***, reduction or elimination of physical punishments, and an increased role for alloparenting****). Diamond also identifies clear cognitive benefits from the multilingualism that characterizes many traditional societies, as well as strong health and social benefits from restorative justice,***** the paleolithic diet (see Mayo Clinic Paleo Diet), and systematic efforts to incorporate elder wisdom into community life.


*Unfortunately Diamond’s research is strictly limited to patriarchal societies. They include no matriarchal societies in which women’s prominent leadership role helps to reduce social violence.  See Oxford bibliographiesl  For example the Nagovisi in modern day New Guinea (Modern Societies Where Women Literally Rule).

**With demand feeding, infants are fed when they experience hunger, rather than at parental convenience,

***Co-sleeping is a practice in which babies and young children sleep in the same bed or close to one or both parents, as opposed to in a separate room. In New Zealand, co-sleeping is common in Maori culture and the Ministry of Health issues pepi pods (which eliminates the risk of a parent rolling over on a small infant). See Government to Fund Pepi Pods for Every Family That Needs It

****Alloparenting is a term used to classify any form of parental care provided by an individual towards a non-descendant offspring.

*****Restorative justice is an approach to criminal offending involving mediation between the victim and the offender, sometimes with representatives of the wider community.

2 thoughts on “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies

  1. Good review. I’ve read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” and “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” and I’ve been impressed with the amount of research he puts into his books. However, I, too, have noted he tends to have a predilection for patriarchal societies, and for centralized power. His Western, urban, ivory-tower elitist attitude can be infuriating, at times, but I have to admit his books–especially “Guns, Germs, and Steel” which I just finished a couple of months ago–provide a wealth of thought-provoking ideas about how societies have evolved.

    Like

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