Traditional societies given modern treatment

JARED Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of multimillion-selling books Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, has again stirred anthropological controversy with his new work, The World Until Yesterday.

The book compares life in Western and ''traditional, small-scale'' societies (where people live as hunter-gatherers, or subsistence farmers), drawing largely on his own experiences with dozens of tribes in New Guinea, where he has spent more than 50 years working as an ornithologist.

Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, which campaigns for tribal peoples' rights worldwide, has criticised the book as being dangerous and ''completely wrong - both factually and morally'', for stating that ''tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace''.

Diamond explores what lessons we can learn from these societies, many of which live as we all did for millenniums - but also details aspects of tribal life ''that horrify''. It's his views on these aspects that have angered Survival International.

''It's … sad because Survival International has the same goals as I do,'' says Diamond, who is in Melbourne for a Wheeler Centre appearance.

''It's remarkable that [Corry] is the first person to discover that, after my book has been read by dozens of anthropologists and New Guineans, who you would think would be the first to discover my book is wrong.''

While Corry accuses Diamond of espousing misleading information, Diamond says Survival International ''romanticises traditional people''.

''They insist that traditional people are peaceful,'' Diamond says, ''because they're afraid that if it is known that traditional people are violent then that will be taken as an excuse to push them off their land.

''But the reality is that traditional people are, on the average, with exceptions, more violent than modern societies - for understandable reasons. They don't have state governments to make peace treaties, they're chronically at war and they kill women and children and they kill prisoners because they don't have facilities for taking care of prisoners.''

Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California Los Angeles, says The World Until Yesterday is ''middle of the road''. ''I don't consider traditional people as barbarians who should be exterminated or driven off their land and … I don't consider them noble, gentle savages.''

Among the facets of ''essential human problems'' Diamond investigates are child-rearing, conflict resolution, health (a distinct lack of diabetes and obesity due to simpler diets) and treatment of the elderly. Many tribes revere the elderly (''My New Guinean friends can't believe we put old people away in nursing homes, often far away from their relatives,'' he says) but others, particularly nomadic tribes, have no problem bumping them off when they're too heavy to carry from place to place.

The violence to which Diamond refers is, of course, among the most negative aspects of traditional life.

''We should be glad we're past some of the things they do - we're past buying women for pigs, widow-strangling, infanticide, warfare … thank God we're past dying at the age of 40, parents outliving more than half their children - but there's also a lot of traditional stuff we can learn from.''

While we wouldn't want to return to lawlessness of societies lacking state governments, Diamond sees some of these traditional behaviours being adopted again - a return to simpler diets, attachment parenting, sustainable farming.

''The book has been published in about 20 different languages and whenever I talk about it there are people interested in the chapters on old age, danger and bringing up children, so I do hope it might help bring about some change,'' he says.

And what do his New Guinean friends make of the book?

''I hope to go there in a couple of weeks and that will be first chance to tell them about it,'' he says. ''It'll be interesting because they'll say, 'Jared, we've been telling you that for 50 years!' ''

Jared Diamond will discuss The World Until Yesterday, followed by an audience Q&A, at the Wheeler Centre event at the Capitol Theatre on Thursday, February 21, from 7.30pm.

This story Traditional societies given modern treatment first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.