I have spent less than three minutes in the company of Jared Diamond and he assures me that he does not pose a threat to my life.
“I can promise you that I have not made a move to kill you yet. Nor have I detected any move on your part to kill me. But in a traditional society both of us would have made a move to kill each other by now, or else run away,” he says solemnly.
Over a light breakfast in a hotel lounge in central London, the Pulitzer Prize-winning polymath, and popular science writer is talking about his new book The World Until Yesterday. The narrative looks at behavioural differences between human beings in tribal stateless societies, versus those living under the all-powerful bureaucratic system of the nation state.
Diamond’s argument is fairly simple: if states only came into existence 5,400 years ago, and agriculture in the last 11,000, humans have spent much of their time throughout history as wandering nomads. As modern nations are relatively new concepts, we have much to learn from traditional cultures.
Having spent the past 50 years visiting New Guinea on field research trips, Diamond, who was educated at Harvard and Cambridge, and is now professor of geography at the University of California, uses a mixture of personal anecdotes, and academic research, to prove his thesis. The ways in which traditional societies raise their children, spend their leisure time, and communicate, are often superior to normal practices in the First World, his argument goes. But his praise for the tribal lifestyle stops there.
“Traditional societies do things that we disapprove of,” he explains. “Some of them abandon their elderly. Some of them kill their babies if they happen to be weak. We in the West think that is terrible. But they do it not because they are evil, but simply because they are living under a certain set of circumstances.”
Diamond does not get involved in moralising. When I ask him whether human beings are bloodthirsty violent creatures, or gentle peaceful souls, he tells me, politely, that it is a pointless question. Human behaviour, he argues, is always a matter of circumstances.
In state societies, the institutions we take for granted, such as a police force, a justice system, and a functioning democratic government, all help to minimise violence, he claims. As traditional societies lack the vast bureaucratic apparatus of the state, its people, he says, are in a chronic state of war. He gives an example to back up this claim.
“Just look at the deaths caused by Germany participating in two World Wars in the 20th century. Although this was no doubt horrible, it was also averaged out in a century in which they were in no wars for 90 years. In traditional societies, without a state government to declare war, or to sign a peace treaty, wars tend to be chronic.
“In state warfare it is considered bad and evil to kill women and children. Even in Germany on the western front in World War Two — the eastern front was another matter—it was not the policy to kill women and children. But in traditional societies, it’s routine to kill women and children in war. So the outcome overall is that the death toll in traditional societies is 10 times higher than in state societies.”
Diamond does stress in his chapter on war that peaceful traditional societies do exist. Yet this has failed to stop a torrent of criticism from certain reviewers, as well as from organisations like Survival International, who fight to protect tribal people’s lands and livelihood.
The campaign group’s director, Stephen Corry recently lashed out at Diamond in an article in the Observer, calling his book “completely wrong— both factually and morally— and extremely dangerous”.
Diamond responds by saying that Survival International is trying to publicise its campaign.
Born in Boston in 1937, Diamond looks considerably younger than his 75 years. He is the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, who fled to the United States to escapes the pogroms.
For a man so interested in traditions, it grieves him that one in particular among Jews in America has declined — that of speaking Yiddish.
“It’s a terrible loss”, he says. “My father’s parents probably spoke Yiddish at home. That just shows the gap in the United States between immigrant parents and their children. The immigrant language is so often lost, and that is sad.”
Diamond specialises in bold statements, but sometimes his arguments suffer for a lack of nuance. For example, his claim that the state always has its own interests at heart is certainly true. But it is debatable that every state “wants to preserve peace”.
Many critics have spent considerable time focusing solely on his coverage of traditional societies. But his book touches upon other subjects, where his views are fascinating, albeit less controversial. Religion is good example.
As a non-practising Jew, Diamond says his wife still attends synagogue on the High Holy Days, while his two children chose to be barmitzvahed when they came of age. These family reasons could help explain why a rationalist atheist like Diamond affords religion such respect. It is more likely, however, that he thinks religion serves a very useful function in society.
“An evolutionary and common sense perspective would say that some societies would have abolished religion by now, that atheist societies should gain an advantage over religious societies. But this is not the case,” he says.
If religions’ role of explaining how the natural world works has been replaced by science, Diamond argues that it can still be effective in helping humans deal with stressful situations to defuse anxiety.
“In my book I discuss an incident in 2006 during the Lebanon War where people in an Israeli town of Sfat, near the Syrian border, were being subjected to rocket attacks.
It turned out that those Israelis who were chanting Psalms, managed to defuse their anxiety and they didn’t explode in anger and do stupid things.”
We have finished our breakfast, and Diamond is getting ready for an afternoon of lectures, interviews and more publicity. No doubt he will meet his critics throughout the day, but he does not seem too bothered. After all, it is not as if he will pose a threat to their lives.