Jared Diamond speaks on lessons learned in New Guinea
Unity Temple, 875 Lake St., Oak Park
7 p.m. Jan. 10
After the program, a reception and signing will be held at the Oak Park Library, 834 Lake St. Admission is $21.50. To purchase tickets, visit jareddiamondinoakpark.eventbrite.com
Author Jared Diamond has been observing traditional tribal societies of New Guinea for almost half a century.
Now 78, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Collapse, has a new book, The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies. In it, he has used his New Guinea studies, along with research into many other traditional cultures, to examine what modern societies have gained and lost by comparison.
The author presents his new book Jan. 10 at Unity Temple in Oak Park. Pioneer spoke with Diamond about his work and observations in New Guinea.
Q: When you first went to New Guinea, were you already thinking of comparing their culture to modern society?
A: I did not remotely have that in mind when I went to New Guinea in 1964. At the age of 26, frankly, I was looking for adventure in what seemed like a wild place. But I also went there to because the people had the reputation of not being technologically advanced and I was curious about what that would look like.
I didn’t consider it as an idea for a book until recently, but I had been impressed for a long time by the differences between traditional New Guinean society and western society.
Q: Would you say that the lives of the people you’ve observed in New Guinea are fundamentally the same as ours or fundamentally different?
A: I went through several phases of thinking about that. When I went out to New Guinea for the first time and woke up for my first morning in the village and saw kids playing war outside the hut and shooting at each other with real bows and arrows, my first thought was, “These people are fundamentally different from us.”
Then, after I had spent some years there and realized they were happy and sad and scared at the same time I was and interested in sex and sports and birds and other things the same as I was. I thought, “They’re fundamentally the same.” Finally, after spending some more time there I realized they are indeed different from us in fundamental things such as their attitudes toward friendship and danger, and I decided it’s not all one way or the other. In some respects they are fundamentally the same and in others they are fundamentally different.
Q: One thing you emphasize in your book is how much we could learn from the way New Guineans assure their elders of a valued position in society. How would we go about that?
A: In modern American or western society, the challenge for us is to figure out what older people are still useful for and provide them with opportunities for fulfilling those uses so they can feel valuable and continue to lead satisfying lives. It’s not enough to expect people to suddenly start respecting their elders, given American culture’s focus on youth. We have to recognize the useful things they have to offer. For example, they are valued increasingly as child care providers, considering the real problems concerning day care in this country. They may also have experience of past events such as wars or financial crises that can be valuable for younger people who don’t. Ideally, change should come from a mixture of appreciating older people for usefulness and values that are independent of practical concerns. For example, in China and East Asia, the Confucian tradition of filial piety says that children should honor parents independent of services they can provide.
Q: How much do you think modern societies have gained, or lost, in comparison with traditional cultures?
A: We’ve gained a lot and we’ve lost a lot. In my book I tally up the pluses and minuses, but I don’t come down to saying there are more of either. The reality, though, is that whenever people in traditional societies have the chance, they join modern industrial societies, while almost no one would consider doing the reverse. The reasons for that are obvious. In a modern society, one has a steady food supply, one isn’t exposed to constant danger from violence in the absence of a police force, there are doctors and the opportunity to provide schooling for your children. There are also matches, steel axes and clothing. The fact it is that people in traditional society want to gain at least something from modern society.
Nevertheless, there is still a lot we can learn from traditional societies. Those are the eye-openers in my book: learning about how to bring up children, learning about treatment of old people, learning how to avoid heart attacks, cancer, stroke and diabetes with a healthy diet. Those are just a few examples.
Q: Aside from material advantages, are there any concepts or practices from our culture that might be useful for a traditional society?
A: Yes. A prime example of something that already has been useful to New Guineans is the way we’ve helped end the previously endless cycles of revenge warfare — war, revenge and counter-revenge. In traditional New Guinea, because there’s not a state government with central authority and a police force, it was impossible to end wars. If one had a war with a neighboring tribe, there might be a temporary peace, but then some hot-headed young men in the tribe would decide to start the war again. And there was no central authority that could restrain them.
That changed when the colonial governments came in — the Australians and the Dutch — and said ‘Stop fighting now’ and sent a few patrol officers to enforce it. Those patrol officers gave the New Guineans an excuse to do something they saw would be of great benefit — putting an end to tribal warfare.
Q: If you could choose one thing from traditional societies to transplant to modern America, what would it be?
A: I’ve already chosen three things from traditional societies to transplant into my own life. The New Guineans taught me to think clearly about the genuine dangers I face. Dangers arising from everyday events that might not seem threatening, but when you do them a thousand times the risk eventually catches up with you. Taking a shower is a prime example for me. Now that I’ve grown older, when I take a shower, I think ‘This is the most dangerous thing I’ll do today’ and I proceed accordingly. The fact is that most older people face a real risk of falling in the shower and crippling or killing themselves.
I also learned valuable things from them about bringing up my own children. I never, ever spanked or hit my children and I gave them as much freedom as they were able to handle.
Finally, I learned to pay attention to my diet. I don’t overeat, I don’t use salt at all and I use sugar almost not at all. So I hope I’ve reduced my risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.