A professor of geography at UCLA, Diamond has attracted criticism for his insistence that environmental factors explain the rise and fall of many great civilizations. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning“Guns, Germs, and Steel,” he argued that the advent of settled agricultural communities ultimately led to European dominance, while in “Collapse,” he contended that the downfall of great societies was linked to their failure to adapt to environmental changes.
His latest work moves away from environmental explanations and instead compares the lifestyles and customs of so-called traditional and modern societies. He aims to answer the book’s subtitle, “What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?,” with a range of evidence from several small-scale societies that have only recently begun to experience Westernization in earnest. Examining topics such as child-rearing, old age, conflict resolution, and nutrition and diet, Diamond asserts thatwhile humans basically benefit from modernity, there are a number of areas in which traditional societies may have an edge.
To better know ourselves, Diamond believes, we can study the features of the traditional societies that are still in existence. “The world of yesterday wasn’t erased and replaced by a new world of today,” he writes. “Much of yesterday is still with us.”
Until relatively recently, most humans lived in small communities where we knew everyone, and we rarely ventured beyond the confines of our villages or towns. Diamond reminds readers that “ ‘modern’ conditions have prevailed, even just locally, for only a tiny fraction of human history; all human societies have been traditional for far longer than any society has been modern.”
From 6 million years ago until roughly 11,000 years ago, humans were hunter-gatherers, foraging for food and living in small groups. Then farming appeared. Agriculture further enabled population growth, which ultimately necessitated governments, first arising around 5,400 years ago.
State societies, Diamond argues, brought law and order to conditions of great insecurity, in which vigilante justice often kept warring groups locked in cycles of violence. Most of us are glad to surrender some measure of our liberty for the protection of the state. Yet when crimes occur, the anonymity of court proceedings and their resolution can feel unsatisfying. One fundamental “defect of state civil justice,” Diamond writes, is “that it is concerned with damages, and that emotional closure and reconciliation are secondary or irrelevant.”
Instead, he suggests emulating traditional practices of mediation in Papua New Guinea, which bring together aggrieved parties not only for the purpose of compensation but also to promote forgiveness and emotional closure. He describes an incident in which a boy was accidentally struck and killed by a minibus driven by a member of a different ethnic group. A mediator brought together the deceased boy’s family and the driver, averting a possible revenge killing while also brokering “emotional reconciliation between the two sides, and restoration of their previous relationship.”