Thursday, May 09, 2013

Diamond - The World until Yesterday

(I’m beginning a new era in my reading as a result of a family birthday present – a kindle. So, now I can download my books for easier reading. However, when I quote I’ll only reference the % of the book completed for page citations.)

Jared Diamond’s life among the native peoples of Papau New Guinea provided a great backdrop from which to explore the attributes of traditional societies that might have merit in the modern day. The point he makes is not that we should attempt to turn back the clock but that we should look at the positive attributes of traditional societies and consider how their strengths might add to the quality of contemporary life for all.
When we consider that 96% of the subjects studied in the top journals of psychology in 2008 lived in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democrat) societies, thus establishing the perceived world-wide standard of how human beings function, is it not possible, and even likely, that we are missing qualities of the many other people who do not inhabit these WEIRD environments? WEIRD societies are based on the concept of a nation state when many of the people of the world are organized in bands, tribes, chiefdoms, or other emerging organization types. Diamond explores how traditional societies look at space, handle disputes, engage in war, how they view childhood and old age, danger, religion, language diversity, and health. Diamond commented at the end of his introduction (8%) that, “those of us who have grown up in modern state societies, modern conditions of life are so pervasive, and so taken for granted, that it’s hard for us to notice the fundamental differences of traditional societies during short visits to them.” When Diamond returned to live in LA after immersing himself in New Guinea, he was deeply struck by the differences between WEIRD environments and those of many societies around the world. And, he recognized the potential merit of adopting/adapting some of the approaches of these traditional cultures.
Diamond writes in vivid detail from his own experience in New Guinea and he broadens from his own experience by referring to numerous other anthropological and archeological studies of traditional cultures. The details of his analyses are fascinating and enjoyable to read and come down to several recommendations in his Epilogue. When looking at traditional practices that would have merit in modern times:
  • Instead of assuming that modern technology holds the answer for rearing children, might we look at traditional practices that encourage strong family bonds and natural development of youth toward adult responsibility?
  • Instead of insisting on shared nation-state languages, might we encourage bi and multi-lingual practices that preserve languages and nurture cultural pride?
  • Instead of blithely accepting the risks of the modern day, might we consider what things place us at repeated risk and adopt select constructive paranoia for these situations?
  • Instead of withdrawing from inter-faith dialogue, might we curiously delve into understanding each other’s religious views related to the search for satisfying explanations of ultimate questions about the physical world, dealing with anxiety and stress, and the need to make sense of death?
  • Instead of pushing more fast food to the developing world, might we explore how nutrition varies by cultural group and what can be done to reduce health problems that are the result of mass production and availability of food?
  • Instead of marginalizing elders, might we consider approaches to extend their working life and engage them in advising and coaching others with less experience?
  • Instead of relying on modern adversarial judicial practices, might we consider using systems based on informal mediation, emotional clearance, and reestablishment of relationships in disputes?
The bottom line of Diamond’s book is perhaps a quote from one of his American friends, “Life in Africa is materially poor and socially/emotionally rich, while U.S. life is materially rich and socially/emotionally poor.” (87%) Perhaps a critical look at the mix of benefits across cultures could create wellness and a good life for all.