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.

What Causes Civilization to Collapse?

collapse

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive

Jared Diamond

Penguin Books (2005)

Book Review

This book was very different from what I expected. I anticipated an account of the environmental mismanagement that caused the collapse of prehistoric civilizations such as Easter Island. Collapse is actually a detailed historical analysis of a wide spectrum of both failed and successful societies. In addition to Easter Island, Diamond also covers the vanished Anazazi civilization in New Mexico, the Mayan civilization, the Viking settlements of Iceland (which persists to the present day), Greenland and Vineland (present day Newfoundland and New Brunswick), pre-1853 Japan, the New Guinea highlands and modern day Rwanda and Australia (the modern society he describes at highest risk for collapse).

Diamond’s thesis is that the ability of any society to meet the survival needs of its members depends on certain basic preconditions. He maintains historical forest management is the most critical – deforestation features in every historical collapse he mentions. Forests are not only essential to provide fuel for cooking, heating and refining metal, but loss of forest cover leads to soil erosion and destruction of topsoil, as well as decreased rainfall and fresh water shortages.

In some societies Diamond analyzes, collapse was the direct result of environmental mismanagement. In others, the odds of survival were extremely low to begin with, due to low rainfall, a cold or windy latitude or poor soils. In many cases, a political factor such as war, lack of external supports (eg trade), overpopulation and/or a greedy ruling elite diverting resources to luxuries were important contributing factors.

The section I found most interesting concerns the New Guinea highlanders, who (prior to the arrival of Europeans) maintained an environmentally sustainable civilization via bottom up direct democracy for over 46,000 years.

The Hidden Sugar in Processed Food

That Sugar Film

Directed by Damon Gameau (2014)

Film Review

Last night Maori TV showed the Australian documentary That Sugar Film. So far it’s the best documentary I have seen about the western world’s sugar addiction and the 50 years of fake science (sponsored by the food industry) resulting in the cult of the “low fat diet.” Sadly the low fat diet – the major culprit in our current global epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer – continues to be promoted by many western doctors and public health officials.

The film starts by tracing the original domestication of sugar in New Guinea. From New Guinea sugar cultivation traveled to India, which would be colonized by the British in the 1600s. During the 17th century, sugar was a status symbol for royalty.

Sugar consumption in western society was fairly moderate until 1955, when President Eisenhower’s heart attack highlighted the growing incidence of heart disease. Battle lines were drawn in the scientific community between the American Ancel Keys, who blamed increasing heart disease on fat, and British scientist John Yudkin, who blamed it on sugar. Thanks to a small fortune the food industry spent on studies demonizing fat and lionizing sugar (and major donations they made to US politicians and advocacy groups such as the American Heart Association), by the 1970s Keys had won out and the cult of the low fat diet was institutionalized.

Despite the total absence of independent research, doctors, dieticians and public health officials persuaded millions of patients to eliminate fat from their diets. Owing to shocking levels of sugar in processed foods, the vast majority inadvertently replaced the fat with sugar.

Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau replicates this process through an experiment in which he replaces the fats in his diet with supposedly “healthy” processed foods such as low fat yogurt, muesli (granola), fruit juice and smoothies and beans on toast (a favorite comfort food in Australia and New Zealand). The conditions of his new diet are that he must consume 40 teaspoons of sugar a day without eating any candy, deserts or junk food.

His doctor monitors him very closely throughout the experiment. In less than a month he has put on significant weight (without increasing his caloric intake) and is showing signs of liver damage. He is also experiencing major mood swings and bursts of hyperactivity similar to children with ADHD.

Available on the Maori TV website for the next two weeks: That Sugar Film