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Why I Want My Students to Read Jared Diamond's Latest Blockbuster


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, posted today.


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

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