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Why I Want My Students to Read Jared Diamond’s Latest Blockbuster, Part 1

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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During my seven years at Stevens Institute, I’ve often asked students to write a response to the following query: Would you rather have lived in the Stone Age than today? Why or why not? It’s my way of getting these young people, most of whom plan to become engineers and scientists, to think about the pros and cons of modern industrial society.

The vast majority, not surprisingly, would prefer to be alive today, in the era of microwavable pizza, toilets, hot showers, smart phones, train planes automobiles and all the other perks of civilization. I feel the same way. I’m especially grateful for technologies that have made my job easier. I’m writing this column on a laptop linked via wifi to a virtually infinite reservoir of information, including a couple articles mentioned below. I’ll post the piece on the internet and start getting blowback (I hope) almost immediately. Cool!

But the kneejerk preference for modern life of me and my students is based in part on ignorance of alternatives. And that’s why I’m thrilled by The World Until Yesterday, the latest bestseller from Jared Diamond, who will be speaking at my school on Friday, January 18. Diamond’s title at UCLA is professor of geography, but he is knowledgeable about history, anthropology, sociology, biology, ecology and other fields related to the great human adventure.

In his previous books, notably Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, Diamond gazes across the span of human evolution and draws conclusions about why different societies follow such different trajectories. Why did some groups become more warlike and imperialistic than others, or pursue science and technology more aggressively? Why did some societies thrive and others fail?

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? is a natural follow-up to Diamond’s previous two blockbusters. As the subtitle suggests, Diamond examines what used to be called “primitive societies,” which are thought to resemble those in which our ancestors lived before the rise of states. Traditional societies often lack not only iPhones, microwave ovens and electricity but also police, courts, large-scale agriculture and writing.

Diamond examines traditional societies around the world, in South and North America, Africa, Australia, Eurasia and the Pacific Islands. He dwells especially on tribal people in New Guinea, in part because he knows that region best. Diamond has been traveling to New Guinea to study people and other fauna there for decades.

He notes, moreover, that New Guinea “holds the largest number of societies that still lay beyond the control of state government or were only recently influenced by state government. Its populations span a range of traditional lifestyles, from nomadic hunter-gatherers, seafarers and lowland sago specialists to settled Highland farmers, composing groups ranging from a few dozen to 200,000 people.”

Many traditional habits are not worthy of emulation, Diamond acknowledges. Until the late 1950s, a New Guinea people called the Kaulong practiced widow strangling, in which a widowed woman is strangled—usually voluntarily!–by the brother of her deceased husband. Tribal societies in New Guinea and elsewhere have also become mired in protracted blood feuds. But Diamond is impressed by other traditional practices involving child rearing, diet, conflict resolution and treatment of the elderly.

Scientists whose work is ambitious, multi-disciplinary and wide-ranging often become targets, especially if they enjoy popular success. Diamond is no exception, as my friend George Johnson pointed out in 2007. Anthropologist Wade Davis, reviewing World Until Yesterday in The Guardian, accuses Diamond of perpetuating “the Victorian notion of the savage and the civilized, with European industrial society sitting proudly at the apex of a pyramid of advancement that widens at the base to the so-called primitives of the world.”

Actually, Diamond does precisely the opposite of what he is accused of by Davis. Diamond challenges the kneejerk sense of superiority of those of us in WEIRD—that is, Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic—societies. Diamond notes that traditional societies “have come up with thousands of solutions to human problems, solutions different from those adopted by our own weird modern societies.”

To my mind, Diamond is a treasure, one of those rare scientists who knows how to write about big, topical issues for a popular audience while maintaining rigorous scholarly standards. I like what Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer says about World Before Yesterday; in fact, I may cite Shermer’s blurb when I introduce Diamond on Friday. Shermer calls Diamond’s new book an apt successor to Guns and Collapse, a “magnificent concluding opus on not only our nature and our history, but our destiny as a species.” I agree, and that’s why I’m urging all my students to read Diamond’s book and come hear him speak on Friday.

Addendum: George Johnson and I talk about Diamond (and more) on Bloggingheads.tv, posted today.

 

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. bloomingdedalus 4:59 pm 01/14/2013

    Stone age, people today are more primitive and draconian than ever.

    Link to this
  2. 2. gesimsek 5:20 pm 01/14/2013

    I am a fan of Prof.Diamond, yet, his predictions on future may not necessarily come true. We are about to face three bottlenecks for humanity’s future; energy, knowledge and ethics. The solution to all these three does not necessarily require us to go back to pre-industrial period, let alone to stone age.

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  3. 3. sault 5:38 pm 01/14/2013

    Nobody seriously debating these issues, especially Dr. Diamond, is saying that we need to go back to the stone age. What they are trying to say is that “pre-state” people and the societies they live in aren’t all primitive and misguided. In fact, they may be able to teach us WEIRDos a thing or two on solving some of our problems.

    Mr. Horgan brings up several issues where Dr. Diamond is “impressed” by traditional cultures’ practices in he areas of “child rearing, diet, conflict resolution and treatment of the elderly.” Considering we have an obesity / metabolic syndrome epidemic, a school dropout problem, have the highest incarceration rate of ANY country and are having major issues taking care of OUR elderly, maybe some of the practices of these traditional cultures can provide some insight. I haven’t read the book, but “Collapse” and “Guns, Germs and Steel” were very thought-provoking. I might have to check this book out too.

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  4. 4. david123 7:28 pm 01/14/2013

    I know he’s not saying “let’s go back to the stone age”, but I’m going to say this anyway:

    Let’s go on to Mars.

    Maybe we can learn from our stone age cousins, maybe we can’t. But that “yesterday” is gone. Let’s go forward to tomorrow. Let’s go on to Mars. With all our problems and iPads and everything else that makes us modern… and capable of doing things like… going on to Mars.

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  5. 5. davidbofinger 7:33 pm 01/14/2013

    “But the kneejerk preference for modern life of me and my students is based in part on ignorance of alternatives.” This is a bit like the line in _Apocalypse Now_: “Sir, don’t you think the LZ’s a little insecure for surfing?” “Captain, you’re from Kansas, what do you know about surfing?” We don’t need to know much about surfing to know we don’t want to do it while being shot at, and we don’t need to know much about traditional societies to know we’d rather live in ours.

    It’s a pity the article doesn’t give an example of something worthy of emulation, instead of a behaviour we wouldn’t want to emulate.

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  6. 6. LarryW 9:31 pm 01/14/2013

    I may have to disagree on the results of today’s problems. A back-of-the-envelope calculation says:

    1) 300 million Americans
    2) America uses 25% of the world’s resources each year
    3) 1.2 Billion people living and wasting at America’s level would use 100% of the world’s resources.
    4) The world population is 7 billion.

    Okay, anyone see the real problem?

    Link to this
  7. 7. JeraldHanteng 10:37 pm 01/14/2013

    Grayson. I see what you mean… Francisco`s posting is something… on tuesday I got a great new Ford Mustang after having earned $4399 this last four weeks and-over, $10 thousand lass-month. with-out a doubt this is the most comfortable job I’ve ever done. I began this 3 months ago and pretty much straight away started to make over $69, per-hr. I went to this site,,…. BIT40.ℂOℳ

    Link to this
  8. 8. Carlyle 6:15 am 01/15/2013

    Guns Germs & Steel was interesting & gave believable explanations for the way human history & technological advancement has unfolded. Not too sure about this one. The noble savage or back to utopia theme does not excite me. This does not suggest though that we have nothing to gain by studying these societies. Learning to live more frugally & cutting out waste are a couple that come to mind. Earning your place in society rather than being a passenger is another. I’ll think about it.
    There was & is also much to be abhorred. A really informative insight into primitive societies, mostly not stone age but not modern either, can be read in the twelve volumes ‘Backwood’ Tales from Outposts. Gives a real insight into the British Empire days & these societies as they existed in the 1880s & up until the 1930s. These books give a great insight into many of today’s trouble spots. Should be required reading for diplomats & policymakers who have to deal with these societies today. This would also lead to more realistic policies in the Middle East, Afghanistan &Tibet among many others. It is a shame that so much experience & knowledge has been lost. Out of print mostly for 70 years but can still be picked up from second hand booksellers. I guarantee a good read for those looking for insights into the past & present. You do not have to endorse the attitudes of the day.

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  9. 9. Carlyle 12:24 am 01/16/2013

    That should read ‘Blackwood’ Tales from the Outposts.

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  10. 10. cccampbell38 3:58 pm 01/21/2013

    We in WEIRD, or should we say large, densely populated, complex, post industrial, technologically advanced societies have not yet found a good, truly workable way of governing ourselves.

    As Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried”.

    Perhaps we can learn from our ancestors, both past and those living now. After all, they have managed somehow to survive for several hundred thousand years.

    We, on the other hand, are on the verge of destroying ourselves and our planet after fewer that 5,000 years of “civilization”.

    Link to this

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