Sunday, January 6, 2013

Jared's Diamond's World of Yesterday

Jared Diamond is something of a folk hero to the philosophy known as neoprimitivism. Neo-primitivism holds that modern mass civilization is actually a huge mistake, and that it is essentially dehumanizing, alienating, unsustainable, and unhealthy for people and the environment. They point to things like wars, slavery, oppression, wealth concentration, interpersonal conflict, mental illness, pollution, and out-of-control population growth as problems that cannot be solved within the bounds of technological society, because they are inherent to them. The argue that our technological capacity has far outrun our social evolution, with dire, and possibly suicidal, consequences. And they do not see the possibility of "reform" of such a society, since its destructiveness stems from a basic mismatch between who we are as a species, and the societies we have constructed with our technology - we have "stone-age minds in a space-age universe." Their view of innovation is hardly complimentary; rather than seeing innovation as exclusively a boon, they see it as a desperate necessity forced upon us by earlier mistakes, which often lead to less than optimal outcomes and even worse problems to solve down the road (and ever-bigger consequences if we fail). They agree with Alfred North Whitehead that necessity is not the mother of invention, but rather of "futile dodges."

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 (

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.

"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.
Explains a lot, doesn't it?


  1. "If you've read Diamond's books, and I've read all of them"

    Including "The Third Chimpanzee"?

    Also, I have another link for you and your readers.

    NBC News: 'Collapse' in Congress: Lawmakers should learn from tribal elders

    1. Thanks for the link, it put it and the NPR articles it linked to in the post in case people miss the comments section.

      While Diamond's talking about traditional "primitive" hunter-gatherer societies, it strikes me that you could just as easily have written a book about what we gave up leaving traditional agricutural societes, like those that were over the entire world until just a couple of hundred years ago. For example, you could write a book about what we could learn from medieval society, with its communal nature, sense of wonder, craftsmanship, numerous feast days, social stability and webs of intedeprendance, while acknowledging the downsides of things like serfdom, superstition, rigid class structure and lack of medicine. Lewis Mumford, William Morris and John Ruskin are some people who come to mind who have made these points in the past, so too does James Kunstler in his own way. We shouldn't have to just look to the remote past for answers; we can also look to the more recent past, which has even closer to us in time and culture.

      I also recall reading in one of these articles how murders were resolved by payment of goods to the aggreived party in New Guinea (e.g. two pigs for a slain family member). It's intereting to note that this is the exact same as European societies of about the sixth centuray A.D. - the Salic Law specificed weregeld payments for murder to aggreived parties (with a sliding scale based on the importance of the deceased, natch). David Graeber talks about how this idea of putting prices on human life led to the development of money economies in Western society, a leap the people of New Guinea appear not to have made. Still, it illustrates that we are not as far way from these "traditional" cultures in time as we flatter ourselves to think.

      P.S. I read TTC probably about ten years ago now.

  2. "problems that cannot be solved within the bounds of technological society, because they are inherent to them" -
    but we could imagine a society restricting material consumption beyond basic needs by strong negative feedbacks, and encouraging voluntary participation in non-material consumption activities for common good by positive feedbacks
    what we need actually is restricting material consumption, concentration of wealth and birthrates and reconcentrating on other values
    that such a society could or couldn't become a reality - that's a question, but i don't see it as theoretically impossible

    1. I don't either, but I think primitivists would say we're incapable of cooperating on that level due to our hard wiring. We're designed to exploit windfalls to the max by evolution, and we're designed to only cooperate with kin, or something like that. I'm not endorsing the primitivist view, just describing it because I think Diamond's book is something that ties into that narrative.

  3. There's also a chicken-and-egg problem: any nation or people who decided to try a new path which did not overvalue technological innovation, economic growth, and weapons of war would find itself at the mercy of other states or peoples who did.

    Also, the types of societies that can merely survive in today's world need elites and warriors around to protect them: elites and warriors who themselves usually exhibit sociopathic and narcissistic traits that tend to proliferate over time, because others inevitable mimic their behaviors as much as they can.

    Can Democracy counteract such trends? It's failed here. Jeffersonian democracy lost to a combination of Hamiltonian centralization and wealth concentration, with some Jacksonian detours into greater participation by white men, at first, then everyone else. The Hamiltonian system won in the end, though, especially once modern propaganda was developed as a method of controlling the masses, so that we now actually believe that what is best for our elites is best for ourselves, even as we sink into poverty and despair.

    Collapse seems to be the only way to jumpstart a new way of living the world, but that is not a workable solution for most people, because they no longer have the tools, community-building skills, or social networks necessary to survive a real collapse event.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.