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Jared Diamond in the field (Handout)
Jared Diamond in the field (Handout)

REVIEW: NON-FICTION

Jared Diamond takes us forward to the past Add to ...

  • Title The World Until Yesterday
  • What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?
  • Author Jared Diamond
  • Genre society
  • Publisher Viking
  • Pages 486
  • Price $38

I have been reading this book while wandering through India, and am now writing this review in a small and isolated village in southern Tamil Nadu. And even though I am insulated from many of the harsher realities of the country by my circumstances – not the least of which is my white, Western skin – I am more than able to recognize each day some of the inner wisdoms that are related in Jared Diamond’s clever and instructive The World Until Yesterday: that India, and most particularly a rural community such as the one in which I am staying, has a great deal to teach me, and that we would all do well to learn from societies that outwardly appear less advanced and sophisticated than our own.

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Each morning, for example, I get up early in the cool before dawn and stroll through the dusty lanes, making way for the cows wandering aimlessly down from their byres. I come because there is a ritual to see. Outside just about every doorway in the village, a woman in a sari will be bent over, painstakingly drawing with coloured sands a complex pattern on her threshold. The one I chose to watch this writing-morning involved sand images of ducklings, flowers and water lilies, etched onto the ground in a symmetrical pattern four feet wide, and made for no more urgent a purpose than to greet all those who might arrive this day into the family home.

No one demands that this ritual be done, and only tradition suggests that women are the more adept to perform it. All who take part appear cheerful as they work, and proud when finally, after 15 minutes or so, each stands back and admires the results of her toil. And those crude wandering Westerners like me who are lucky enough to see their handiwork – the making of the kolom, as it is called down here, or the rangoli, as it is known in similar villages farther north – are sometimes minded to wonder at the comparison of an Indian morning with our own. For what true life purpose is our ritual rush of caffeine and muffins and crowded trains, when it might otherwise be the creation of a morning painting, the making of a piece of art that transforms for a brief while a small corner of the world into a better and a better-looking place?

Jared Diamond is a geographer extraordinaire at UCLA and a justly revered Thinker of Big Thoughts about the human condition in such bestsellers as Guns, Germs, and Steel. Though he does not offer himself up as a particular expert on India, he would recognize the teachable wonders of my moments in Tamil Nadu. But it is from his experiences in the forested corners of Papua New Guinea that he has studied for the past 40 years, as well as from his knowledge of remote tribes and bands in Africa, Australia, Brazil and the Arctic, that he draws many of the examples that underpin his thesis.

Which is this: After considering aspects of behaviour, attitudes, customs and diet in all of these societies – societies which he calls traditional and which most of us would wrongly label as primitive – he suggests to us, with a gentle, reasoned and sometimes too-dogged persistence, that we might instructively copy some selected practices of theirs, thereby bringing ourselves some greater measure of peace, good health and a generally more fulfilling existence.

Diamond is not a peddler of some kind of woolly-minded idealism – the kind of idealism that I fully admit, infects someone like me while watching a young Indian woman painstakingly making her morning image in the dust. Rather, he looks with a cool academic detachment at the benefits and the ills of the world’s tucked-away peoples, and offers from their menu of behaviours a small sample that he suspects might do us good. He does not subscribe to any fashionably correct mantra of the grass-huts-good, skyscrapers-bad kind; he knows that jungle huts become infested with germ-carrying mosquitoes, and that temperature-controlled environments allow their inhabitants to be more creative and productive. But he also knows that grass huts survive earthquakes, while concrete towers get swiftly reduced to rubble.

He ranges widely – and in truth a little exhaustingly – in order to sustain a thesis that could perhaps be made to sound plausible with somewhat greater economy. Geographically, for instance, he sashays from considering the Inuit of Alaska’s North Slope to the Machiguenga of the upper Amazon, by way of no fewer than 10 New Guinean peoples, seven aboriginal groups in Australia and a cluster of African peoples that includes one whose tribal name foxes all indexers by beginning with a punctuation mark, the !Kung of Botswana.

Historically, he charts the development of human habits over more than 5,000 years. He proceeds from what is known of the necessarily austere survivalism of the first organized states of the Fertile Crescent, and carries his analyses right down to the consumerist, sharp-elbowed, unkind, cancer-suffering, diabetic and gun-toting nastinesses that afflict so many of the supposedly advanced and civilized among us today.

And in terms of behaviour, he looks at such matters as: how we each raise our children, how we deal with our elderly and with strangers, how we punish one another, how and whom and what we worship, and (hoping no doubt to appeal to the television interviewers) how we eat.

From this one area of study, he offers an almost bewildering catalogue of fascinations. In particular, I was happy to learn that a Big Mac contains as much salt as a rain forest Yanomamo Indian eats in a month, and that people from Akita in northern Japan love piling so much of the white crystals onto their plates that in one meal they eat more than the same Yanomamo ingests in three months. Not surprisingly, the Japanese hold the Olympic gold for death from stroke, while the Venezuelans meet their various makers by catching foul infections, getting bitten by snakes and monkeys, and falling out of trees.

So, what can we learn from all these places and all these peoples? This, the very nub of the book, is unhappily also perhaps its weakest part. Its weakness begins with what I dislike as a moment of sheer silliness – Diamond’s made-for-TV suggestion that we greedy and sophisticated folk should henceforth go by the acronym WEIRD – for White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.

And so what leaves should we WEIRD ones take from the jungle playbooks? Well, I think I am not being altogether glib by summarizing them as follows: Treat your granny better, stop being so belligerent, chide your offspring intelligently, eat less salt, try not to get bitten by a monkey and cling tightly to any trees that you climb. All good common sense, blindingly obvious to some and maybe even a little banal – and perhaps all to be understood without having to slog through so many hundreds of pages as Diamond and his small army of researchers have compiled.

Had I first known the slightness of the conclusion, I might not have bothered – except that each of the pages of this remarkable book happened to be, in and of itself, quite infuriatingly interesting. And a very good read to boot, in my hammock in that primitive, but oh-so-instructive little village in southern India

Simon Winchester has just published Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley’s Curious Collection. His book The Men Who United the States will be out this year.

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