The World Until Yesterday

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Jared Diamond

"Parents should carry babies upright" - this is the parenting advice of Jared Diamond in the Telegraph last month. Diamond is perhaps more familiar to readers of Socialist Review as the author of Collapse and the Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel. In his latest book he points out that there are societies in the world today with widely varying approaches to raising children. Some keep them close all the time; others let children play on their own near sharp knives and fire. They learn about the world by making their own mistakes.

It has always been possible to interpret Diamond's work as anti-racist. All humans are considered as biologically similar; there is no racial explanation for why some live in state societies and others live in smaller bands, tribes and chiefdoms. This is a useful challenge to anyone who suggests that capitalism reflects our human nature. In terms of the whole of human history, the types of societies that Diamond refers to as "modern" - organised into states with large populations and centralised bureaucracies - are a recent phenomenon.

Humans have the potential to live very differently. If I go to a shop to buy something it is because I want that product and can't make it myself but the!Kung people of the Kalahari desert have a different understanding of trade. Men exchange arrows with each other that are pretty much the same as the ones they make themselves. They trade to maintain a relationship rather than because they need the arrow.

Hunter gatherer societies tend to be egalitarian and to involve everyone in decision making with differences in wealth between individuals and differing roles for men, women and children corresponding to the introduction of settled farming or herding practices.

Diamond relies on what he describes as natural experiments. We can't carry out a controlled experiment to test different ways of bringing up children, for example, but the various groups of people that do raise children have done the experiment for us. We can learn by observation - mostly, it seems, by living with tribal groups and coming back with anecdotal evidence. Much of the book is based on such anecdotes, particularly accounts of the Dani tribes of New Guinea who Diamond has lived with for months at a time - initially as a field ecologist observing bird species.

If this sounds like the way people did anthropology in the 1960s that's because much of it is the anthropology of the 1960s. The book has been condemned by Survival International for uncritically accepting assumptions made by others. Diamond repeats descriptions of Brazil's Yanomami people from a widely discredited 1968 book by Napoleon Chagnon which portrays them as trapped in a constant cycle of revenge based warfare. These arguments have consequences. Survival claims that efforts to defend the Yanomami have been held back. It was argued that they would only "exterminate one another" if given any aid. In fairness, Diamond has responded by arguing that it is unhelpful to suggest that people in tribal societies are all pacifists. However, he makes some troubling conclusions - at one point arguing that tribal people tend to be grateful when their violent disputes are "ended by forceful intervention by colonial governments".

Diamond's own arguments suggest a wide range of different possible lifestyles. However, he ends up filing all societies under one of two headings - either "modern" or "traditional". Critics have responded by arguing that tribal societies are just as modern as any other - all humans have had to adapt to changing environments. This is not so much the world until yesterday as the world today - but in other places. Tribal societies shouldn't be romanticised - life expectancies are short, women frequently die in childbirth - but there is no reason to suggest that a centralised state represents a natural progression from such societies.

Like many of Jared Diamond's books, The World Until Yesterday has inspired wide ranging criticism. However, it is very readable. The stories are fascinating, and a reminder of the huge diversity of humanity. It is also Diamond's most personal work - he claims that his research has influenced his own lifestyle choices (although it remains to be seen whether New Guinean parenting styles will be adopted by Telegraph readers). He argues that there are aspects of the way different groups of humans live that we can pick and choose from for ourselves but ultimately that those of us who live in state societies should be thankful for what we have.

Camilla Royle
The World Until Yesterday is published by Allen Lane, £20