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Jared Diamond Compares Traditional Societies To WEIRD Nations

November 7, 2013 1:16 p.m.


Jared Diamond is a Pulitzer Prize winning author. His latest book is, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?

Related Story: Jared Diamond Compares Traditional Societies To WEIRD Nations


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Ever since a man in tribal New Guinea asked Jared Diamond why people in the West had so much more cargo than his people, Diamond has set out to settle several big issues. He traces the elements that led European nations to world dominance. It explores the way societies have succeeded and failed through history. He compares life in traditional societies to life in Western educated industrialized bitch and democratic nations. He will be speaking about the new book in San Diego this Sunday. Jared, welcome to the show.

JARED DIAMOND: Thank you. I think it's a pleasure to be with you and to have the prospect of revisiting San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There is an acronym for weird. I wonder if many ways you think that is accurate.

JARED DIAMOND: The acronym is accurate. We live in a democratic society that is weird. By the standards throughout history and through most societies throughout the world, we are very weird. That is to say our practices and how we bring up children and deal with our people and recognize danger and stay healthy, or get sick are very unusual by the standards of most societies and so we can lose learn from human societies. See when you say that we have forgotten some of the fundamental skills that people in tribal communities now. What are some of the skills?

JARED DIAMOND: Here is a very banal example. How should you carry your baby court when I was growing up you carry your baby and it may be Carriage. He carried your baby in a baby carriage nowadays a fair number of Americans carry babies vertically. And usually the baby is carried backwards. In most societies babies are carried looking forward vertically and so the baby sees what is happening around it and the baby gains at a sense of independence and gains more rapid development and it's simple and easy to do. Carry your baby vertically and throwing away the baby carriage.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the book, you spend quite some time talking about a tragedy that happened within the tribal community, that death a child named Danny. And how the people responded to that and how the results conflict over that. Can you explain what it is that you find in that that is a message to us?

JARED DIAMOND: That was an incident in New Guinea in which a kid was struck by a car and killed. It was a tragedy. In the United States if the kid is caught in a serious car accident? The result will be a criminal trial in a civil lawsuit in which the victim is is sues for damages and if they get damages they will be turned up for the rest their lives with anger about what happened and they will hate whoever it was that killed her child. In traditional society, the emphasis is not on getting punishment is on vacation and I see emphasis of traditional justice and Western justness of move towards the store to restorative justice that brings together if they're willing criminals and victims or divorcing couples were brothers and sisters in an inheritance was. The person with you have a dispute who killed your kid, what counted was to restore the relationship.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In your book you point to a number of different things. The community nobody finds themselves isolated, the price of food and in many instances treatment of elderly. The knowledge in the book that there are a lot of things the modern world would not want to emulate in society, what are those things?

JARED DIAMOND: There a lot of things that we do not want to emulate. Check societies of people and I can encrypt fifty something that seem admirable and that seemed terrible. What I would not emulate that some traditional societies have to abandon or killed over people work I hope that twenty years from now when I'm old and infirm that might sound will not take it upon themselves to kill or abandon me. It's also the case of New Guinea societies when a man dies his widow calls upon his or her brothers to strangle her with her consent. Should I die before my wife I hope my wife does not call upon her brothers to struggle her. Things that I think we can emulate is the way that traditional societies bring up their children's to be independent make their own decisions and be self-confident in ways that they stay healthy and never get heart attacks or type II diabetes until they adopt the Western lifestyle. Ways in which the provider value in social ties to the people. Those are examples of things that we can usefully learn something from.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Professor Diamond, there is some criticism about the assumption made in the title of the book. The notion that today's tribal societies are like the ones that existed thousands of years ago. Many anthropologists said that is not so.

JARED DIAMOND: Yes there has been criticism of book by people who have not read it here reason I say that is on page 6 of the prologue I go through that point in quite some detail that point out that all traditional societies to think that they are surrounded by the month world and have been modern modified by the world and are not frozen examples of what traditional society years ago and they always have asked ourselves what is changed as a result in a friend of mine said that talking about traditional societies should talk about transitional societies because they're all in a state of change even if they're using stone axes. It is not the case of lots of anthropologists criticizing because anyone who has read my book would not make that criticizing. Several people do fall into that trap who have not read my book.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: More more question about criticism, there been criticism of your other work and say that conclusions that you draw based on evidence that is to show what you say that?

JARED DIAMOND: Nonsense. Fortunately there has been criticism of all my previous books and then admits a lot of praise which shows that people are reading the books, even the Gospels have been criticized your as for the claimants Shallowness, my books are typically 500 pages long I've never heard that came claim of shallowness of anyone who is struggled through the 500 page books. Actually if you are summing up the natural history of the past dozen years yet to omit certain details because you have two thirds of the page to devote to the history of one constant. But my books to hit the high points of what is happened in the last 10,000 years and what does things have happened.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Going back to previous book on the steel, do you think the tribal culture is being revered more now as people understand that European dominance was a matter of luck rather than spirit of superiority?

JARED DIAMOND: Interesting question. The answer depends on the person. People go to either of two extremes a lot of us are in the middle. There are still a lot of people in the even more century ago who view tribal societies as primitive barbarians who should be exterminated. The face of the earth or dragged into the modern world. And as quickly as possible. There are still some of that going on today for example in areas of Brazil and there are Brazilian ranchers who would like to push the Indians off of the land or hire murderers to go kill them. That is one extreme point of view. Another point of view opposite among well-intentioned liberal intellectuals is to idealize or romanticized reportable societies as being useful and gentle in harmony with nature. Selling can't settling conflict easily. Where is like where his bike where is by comparison we are evil in modern society. Unfortunately we're in the middle immediate criticized from both groups of extremists and since I get criticized by both I know that I'm the center and I must be right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is one thing that you don't single out as an improvement in the modern world and that is the status of women. Going to your book, though many tribal societies women have a very important place, it's usually a secondary place in their subject to male authority. One who weighed in going to more in the book.

JARED DIAMOND: There are two reasons why I did not have a chapter on the book on gender relationships in the role of women. There are lots of important aspects of society that I didn't discuss my book. Role of women in art is another music and dance are others and with one asked me why do not have chapter on women? And art my first answer is be grateful because my book is 500 pages long, and some might books complain we can't read your book because it's too heavy, for added chance chapters on all these other things and to be heavier and more expensive no one would buy it. In the case of the role of women in the reality is that there been studies looking at the role of women in traditional society and the role varies among traditional societies even within the oversight of the it's not uniform. Women have more authority in some areas and less than others. Every document it society on the average men have more power than women in the most egalitarian societies gender wise are those existing today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One move ahead in our society it seems we leave something behind. Why is it important to us now to incorporate some of the traditions of the past?

JARED DIAMOND: One could use the word why is it important, but when you tell someone it's important for you to do this usually that makes the person raise their hackles to be told they should do something you're so telling someone it's important to understand traditional societies I would say original sites IDs written present accent Experiments and how to do it society and representing us to ourselves. If you wish to you can look at what goes on in traditional societies and maybe you'll find some things that you would admire that you can adopt in your own life just as I have adopted in my life and I've learned from my friends things about bringing up my own children and I've learned about recognizing danger and thinking clearly about danger, I've learned about staying healthy and avoiding risk factors for heart attack or diabetes and stroke. Any of our listeners and readers who choose to do so can exercise the option of improving their lives are learning about the results of these experiments that the people of carried out.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As you mentioned, you spent many years among people in New Guinea. Would you be coupled comfortable exchanging your word life with a member of that trouble society?

JARED DIAMOND: No. I live in Los Angeles and teach as a professor of geography at UCLA. I like to come to send you on a choose to live in California and take trips to New Guinea and I've chosen not to live there. I'd obviously rather have a larger life explicit like to expand sincerely like medical care. I like the opportunity to travel and get on planes and guilds in New Guinea and could Europe? I like the cultural opportunities of living in the member states. I like the food security and the fact that I'm not that risky for starving. So I've chosen to live in the United States but I've learned a lot from New Guinea that keep going back until I'm dead and crippled.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: His book is The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn From Traditional Societies. Thank you so much.