This reputation comes especially from an article Diamond wrote for Discover Magazine some years ago called "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race." This article runs down the recently inverted scholarly view that rather than a great leap forward which gave humans a reliable, steady source of surplus calories, agriculture was actually a desperate adaptation to cope with a changing climate and rampant overexploitation of natural flora and fauna (i.e. about as helpful as Mao's Great Leap Forward). Human health, stature and well-being took a nosedive overnight, and a whole raft of new diseases came to afflict humans, from cavities to smallpox to amenia, and the so-called "diseases of civilization" like cancer, diabetes and obesity (in modern times). If the diseases weren't enough, outstripping what the earth could provide led to the excruciating deaths of thousands (and even millions) of poor subjected to frequent famines. Societies became top-down oriented and oppressive, with their kings and nobles, serfs and slaves, armies and empires, crime and punishment, overcrowding and squalor, wealth and poverty, and the whole lot. Plus, you jump on the never-ending Malthusian treadmill of trying to keep ahead of the population growth engendered by earlier successes. And agriculture, based around monocrops of annual plants, stripmines the soil, eliminates biodiversity, and sucks up water, leaving deserts in its wake. These ideas have now become common knowledge among the neoprimitivist and permaculture communities.
These points are well made. Diamond is much better known, however, for being the major proponent of describing human cultural development using geography. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, he pointed out that domesticable plants and animals are hardly widespread, but occur in some locations and not others, and these gave certain areas a "head start" in the development of civilization. As we noted above, that may not have been a good thing, but it did mean that those cultures were able to overwhelm and conquer those around them thanks to their larger numbers of people and more technological innovations (thanks to all those people who no longer had to spend all their time getting food). Lather, rinse, repeat. This idea has been taken up by later writers, notably Ian Morris. It seems to have already become part of the conventional wisdom.
His next book seized upon the collapse zeitgeist (appropriately entitled Collapse), describing how overexploitation of the natural environment was a root cause of civilizational collapses throughout human history, and that societies that developed ways to live in harmony with, and within the the limits of, the environment in which they found themselves usually succeeded where others did not (hence the subtitle, "How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed"). Clearly there was a message to a wider audience here. His first popular book, The Third Chimanzee, is a highly readable account of human evolution, and inspired a short story of mine which I may post here someday.
If you've read Diamond's books, and I've read all of them, you know that his personal experiences in the islands of New Guinea play a subtle role in all of them. While they may play a background role in his other works, here they take center stage. And it's manna from heaven for the neoprimitivist school, for he singles out the very qualities of the hunter-gatherer societies that neoprimitivists look to in their critique of modern mass society.
But in doing so, he skirts a dangerous road. Writers trying to find anything praiseworthy about pre-agricultural (or even preindustrial) societies are always caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of two major school of thought which date back to the European Enlightenment. These fall into two camps: believing that primitive societies were ideal states of nature, free from violence, oppression and conflict, the "Rousseau fallacy," or that they were all "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," the "Hobbesian fallacy." There is a lot of political investment in either of these two viewpoints, so endorsing neither of them is sure to piss off somebody. This binary logic has been the downfall of everyone who dares venture into this area, and I think that only a scholar of Diamond's stature and reputation has the clout to take it on. From the reviews I've read, he seems to tread carefully, following a middle ground of not sugar-coating the often ugly elements of traditional cultures, while pointing out the logical reasons why they do what they do and what we can learn from them about living in harmony with our fundamental nature as a species. In doing so, he points out that these "traditional" societies worked well for thousands of generations, with agricultural and herding societies only working for the last several millennia, and even less in most places. (It must be noted that industrial societies have only been around for about two hundred years, and the prognosis is not looking so good).
So I'll be looking forward to reading it. Diamond's a good scholar but an often tedious writer, with even genuine fans like me finding his books kind of a slog, but we'll see. As regular readers know, one of my major themes is the mismatch between the world we've created for ourselves, and human happiness and thriving. Thus, I have a great sympathy with the neoprimitivist critique, and a preconditioned bias toward what Diamond is saying. I tend to hold a more Mufordian approach, though. Whether a hunter-gatherer society is better or worse is a moot point, as it is not possible to return to anything like it at the current time for most of us (you can't unbake a cake); what is important is developing a society reasonably conducive to human happiness and welfare for all, rather than mindless productivist expansion, technical innovation for its own sake, and glorification of a tiny elite, while keeping within environmental limits so that we can use our technological capacity to eliminate a world of booms and busts rather than enhance them by running human society as one continuous ongoing experiment with all of us as unwilling participants. To that end, I think Diamond's book is useful and timely advice that gives us much to ponder about how we've constructed our modern world, and that maybe "progress" isn't all we imagine it to be.
Jared Diamond: what we can learn from tribal life (The Guardian)
Tales From The World Before Yesterday (Edge.org)
Jackson Lears reviews Jared Diamond (Bookforum)
'The World Until Yesterday' suggests modernity could learn from traditional societies (Chicago Tribune)
Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers (Newsweek)
'Collapse' in Congress: Lawmakers should learn from tribal elders (MSNBC) hat tip Pinku-Sensei
Lessons For The Modern World From The Societies Of 'Yesterday' (NPR)
Excerpt: The World Until Yesterday (NPR)
UPDATE: Modern Parenting May Hinder Brain Development, Research Suggests (Science Daily)
Social practices and cultural beliefs of modern life are preventing healthy brain and emotional development in children, according to an interdisciplinary body of research presented recently at a symposium at the University of Notre Dame.Explains a lot, doesn't it?
"Life outcomes for American youth are worsening, especially in comparison to 50 years ago," says Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame professor of psychology who specializes in moral development in children and how early life experiences can influence brain development.
"Ill-advised practices and beliefs have become commonplace in our culture, such as the use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms or the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby will 'spoil' it," Narvaez says.
This new research links certain early, nurturing parenting practices -- the kind common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies -- to specific, healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood, and has many experts rethinking some of our modern, cultural child-rearing "norms."
"Breast-feeding infants, responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development," says Narvaez.
Studies show that responding to a baby's needs (not letting a baby "cry it out") has been shown to influence the development of conscience; positive touch affects stress reactivity, impulse control and empathy; free play in nature influences social capacities and aggression; and a set of supportive caregivers (beyond the mother alone) predicts IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy.
The United States has been on a downward trajectory on all of these care characteristics, according to Narvaez. Instead of being held, infants spend much more time in carriers, car seats and strollers than they did in the past. Only about 15 percent of mothers are breast-feeding at all by 12 months, extended families are broken up and free play allowed by parents has decreased dramatically since 1970.
Whether the corollary to these modern practices or the result of other forces, an epidemic of anxiety and depression among all age groups, including young children; rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency in young children; and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, among college students, are shown in research.