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Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond on what we can learn from traditional societies.

The Basarwa are the last of the original inhabitants of a vast area stretching from the tip of South Africa to the Zambezi valley in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Their rock paintings, wildlife knowledge and ability to survive in one of the harshest environments on earth have fascinated scholars. (AP)

The Basarwa are the last of the original inhabitants of a vast area stretching from the tip of South Africa to the Zambezi valley in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Their rock paintings, wildlife knowledge and ability to survive in one of the harshest environments on earth have fascinated scholars. (AP)

Pulitzer Prize-winning geographer Jared Diamond got the world’s attention and made us think big with “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” his blockbuster book on the fate of nations.  Now he’s out with another big take on how humans live and die.

For six million years, we were hunters and gathers and herders.  “Primitives,” we used to say.  A very few still are.  Traditional societies of loin cloth and spear, outside modernity.

What can we learn from them, on life and survival?

This hour, On Point:  Jared Diamond on life lessons for us – for you – now from the world’s oldest, close-to-the-earth cultures.

-Tom Ashbrook


Jared Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California- Los Angeles. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Guns, Germs, and Steel, his new book is The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

From Tom’s Reading List

Newsweek “On one of my visits 
to New Guinea, I met a young man named Enu, whose life story struck me then as remarkable. Enu had grown up in an area where child-rearing was extremely repressive, and where children were heavily burdened by obligations and by feelings of guilt. By the time he was 5 years old, Enu decided that he had had enough of that lifestyle. He left his parents and most of his relatives and moved to another tribe and village, where he had relatives willing to take care of him. There, Enu found himself in an adoptive society with laissez-faire child-rearing practices at the opposite extreme from his natal society’s practices.”

Smithsonian “The author of the prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel is no stranger to sweeping assessments. Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, is a macro examination of what Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic societies (WEIRD is Diamond’s handy, oft-repeated acronym) lack compared with traditional societies. His argument is presented as a series of studies grouped around themes—child care or diet, for example.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/stefpix Stefano Giovannini

    I wish On Point was still on WNYC FM, but they changed their schedule and have included that vapid Q rather than the pungent and interesting On Point… a shame!

    • Henryfromwayland

       if you have broadband, you can listen to it on Internet @ wbur.org

      • http://www.facebook.com/stefpix Stefano Giovannini

        Thanks – I subscribed to the podcast, but often I enjoyed On Point while driving somewhere. Just disappointed by some editorial choices by WNYC. I can’t fathom why they got rid of On Point and broadcast Q. 

        • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

          Hi Stefano, thanks for your support! You can listen on WNYC AM at 8pm, too if that’s any help. http://media.wnyc.org/media/resources/2012/Sep/14/wnyc-schedule.pdf

  • stillin

    I learned in the Caribbean, and not the rich, tourist part, people I had never met, opened their home to me when I had no flight home , fed me, treated me like a queen and got me to the airport at 3 in the am when they finally came up with a plane…vs here where people will commonly shut their doors and offer nothing to a stranger. These were people who had about 20 family members living in a one bedroom cement box. I have never forgotten it as it cemented my perception of wealth.

    • http://www.facebook.com/stefpix Stefano Giovannini

      I had similar experiences!

  • Roy-in-Boise

    (Typo alert: Dr. Diamond is a Professor or Geography not Geology.)

    • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen


      • 1Brett1

        Happy New Year, Sam!

        • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

          You too!

  • wauch

    Saw Professor Diamond give a talk at the 2012 EcoSummit in Columbus, OH and while I greatly respect the UCLA professor it was just a retread of his books. On a positive “note Guns, Germs, and Steel” is a masterpiece and I look forward to this latest book.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sage.radachowsky Sage Radachowsky

    Is there a “human nature” and how does it fit in with our WEIRD society?  Is our WEIRD culture out of step with a more natural human nature?

  • J__o__h__n

    Societies end when they are annoyed by useless pop-ups.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    We’re still mostly hunters and gatherers and herders – it’s just the infrastructure that’s changed.

    • Fredlinskip

      Hunters, gatherers and hoarders?

  • pwparsons

    Gloucester, MA, “the Nation’s Oldest Fishing Port”, known, worldwide, thru Rudyard Kipling’s  CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS, evolved and maintained an ingenious, productive, basically “hunter/gatherer” culture for nearly 400 years. Like the Plains Indians, with the ruthless expansion of “white culture” and the slaughter of the buffalo, Gloucester’s traditional culture is on the verge of extinction, ironically vulnerable to the “forces” of gentrification, “One per center/developers” and the economic crisis that seemingly nullifies effective Federal intervention to preserve a basic PROTEIN RESOURCE. Gloucester’s resilience, pride and stewardship of our vulnerable ocean resources have been worn thin and denigrated by rampant “free market capitalism”. And grinding “depression”. How can this CULTURE and economy be respected and restored within the current political economy?

  • homebuilding

    As a former middle school faculty member, I was often dismayed to learn that some students had no responsibilities at home and were clearly not spending apprenticeship time with the various adults ‘in their circle.’

    Some middle school students had not yet mastered safe street crossing, independently.

    I believe that Diamond didn’t mention the dual roles that ‘safety preoccupation’ and ‘entertainment uber alles’ play very significant roles in many overly dependent adolescents

  • Jillian Nowlin

    I have my Master’s Degree in Africana studies and I’ve studied in Ghana, and I have to say that based on my experience living with Ghanaian they certainly have a richer social life than I would say most Americans do. There was an inherent belief in social responsibility and unity in most of the Ghanaians I met. They were giving and hospitable. I felt secure in that society. Its certainly something that I believe Americans and other Westerners could learn from. We’re so individualistic in America- to the extreme and I think its a cause of a lot of our economic troubles, our environmental troubles, and the ever growing violence we experience in our society. We’re very disconnected from each other as a society and I think that is becoming dangerous.

    • http://www.facebook.com/steev.lynn Steev Lynn

      Don’t just concentrate on the beneficial side of this; there is also a big downside – see my remark above.

  • http://wh.gov/IVp4 Yar

    Your shower example is confusing causation with correlation.  The shower is not the cause of death, the unsteady human is the cause, the shower is only the filter that shows the unsteadiness. 

    Do people fall and break a hip, or does a hip break and cause people to fall.  The fall did not cause the hip to be weak.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002595936029 Chuck Clemens

    A whole lot of this look at the TRIBAL experience is novelized in the ISHMAEL books of Daniel Quinn. To Quinn its a matter of “Leavers” and “Takers”

    A group who works inside nature as a leaver. And outside it is a taker.

    You hear this reach out for emotional recognition in our children but dismiss it in our adults. Adults need to feel good or cry about loss. Our world would be so much better if we could acknowledge those feelings.


  • http://wh.gov/IVp4 Yar

    Look at resource density.  The more concentrated the resource the more likely to have conflict.  Cows don’t fight over grass, they have to put their heads down to eat.  Lions fight over territory to protect resources.

    In human societies we call it the resource curse.  The 38th parallel is the most fought over land on earth. Why?

    • homebuilding

      I believe you mean north latitude.   North of 38, the winters get progressively longer–go south toward the equator, and the heat gets progressively oppressive.  (insects and disease become more difficult to control as there is no seasonal ‘freeze out.’)   When you look at the globe, you might expect that the ‘most fought over’ designation should fall at about 38–28 is clearly too hot and 48 is too cold.  (thinking historically, before heating and airconditioning, of course)

      The water, both above ground and under–the flora and fauna, all suggest that human existence could be more readily sustained around this latitude.

  • L armond

    I love Jared Diamond’s work and thought.  On PTSD, I just heard one returning soldier talk about his awareness of danger being a good thing, and I agree that alertness in general can create thoughtfulness in all aspects of life, but one notices more the lack of thoughtfulness of other, and that can be distressing on the homefront.
    In addition, there is the kinesthetic sense of exsposure because one does not have one’s tachtical vest on any longer.  So I suggest finding a substitute if one can.  And for the women to get sports bras and strong support with at least 3 hooks and extend protection down the  spine with cotton quilted place mats.   All other advice applies as well, but a walking cane, or umbrella with wooden tip and handle is good psychological as well as physical protection, teaching one how to pivot and protect oneself from the elements, the ice, and those who are intrusive.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lisa.s.timbers Lisa Schmidt Timbers

    I’d like to know what Jared Diamond thinks about our society’s obsession with world problems and it’s consequences…particularly in comparison with traditional society’s much smaller world of their own communities.

  • Jack Acme

    Tom, Ask Prof. Diamond what he thinks of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ “The Old Way.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000623890045 Barbara Dyson

    We would know this type of natural living had we not as a country done away essentailly with the way of Native Americans lived here in North America.  I just completed a course on Native American Studies at the University of Southern Indiana with Dr Kristalyn Sheveland and was very humbled and ashamed by their treatment by our government.  I now have more respect for them and wish they could have continued their way of life and passed on their knowledge.
    Barbara Dyson, (soon to be) Bach of Science History

  • stillin

    I liked the caller’s point on the family bed. I too , when my husband and I raised our kids, used the family bed. I have three very independent, very confident kids. I wore them when they were little, on my hip…breastfed all of them until they wanted food. I have no regrets on those decisions. My kids also had a lot of freedom with the belief they will know best with some dialogue on what to do with it. Lastly, as a teacher, I sadly believe we are now raising a lot of chowder heads, due to their adults constantly thinking for them, directing, spoon feeding and helicoptering around them. It does them NO good, trust that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steev.lynn Steev Lynn

    Someone remarked about the cohesion of African villages. True, there is a much more solid safety net among neighbors and family in African villages, but there is also a huge downside. Too many people rely on the generosity of others; it provides an incentive not to produce, both for those who mooch off their neighbors and family, and for more productive members of society who know that if they work hard and produce more, it will just be sapped away by the moochers. It’s one reason for much lower standards of living.

    • Gene_from_Btown

      I don’t think neighbors helping neighbors in Africa is a reason for lower standards of living. Respectfully, it sounds as if you got this talking point from the Free Enterprise Institute. “Don’t help out too much or you risk creating a society of moochers.”

      Scholars who study African societies (and keep in mind Africa is a huge continent and thus contains many diverse societies that should not be lumped together) refer to it as ‘reciprocity’. Reciprocity is an important value in balancing out the give and take amongst people within a community. It is expected that those that receive help, reciprocate it when they can. They may not be in a position to reciprocate today, and when they can, they may not be able to help out as much as others, but they are expected to do their part and not become moochers. I’m not saying they are completely free of moochers, but moochers and lack of initiative due to social cohesion is hardly the reason for lower standards of living.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002595936029 Chuck Clemens

    I am the bed guy…. The freedoms we give our daughter is pretty well right up to a visit to the ER. So long as we can put a bandaid on her and she will be alright to try and do whatever it is that she wants to.  Just like running ahead of me in the city and playing with knives (supervised). She knows what she needs to do and when she does not she ASKS me!! A rare thing for modern western children who are sheltered and “protected.”  

    • http://twitter.com/baseballpajamas The Other Rob Ryan

       Hi Chuck, we did the family bed thing with both of my kids. For us, it simply made sense, and I still cherish the occasional night when our nine year old climbs in with us. I would like to think this approach has helped our kids feel confident, loved, and secure. However, it’s worth noting that our youngest is significantly more self-assured than our oldest. Kids are very individual; mileage may vary.

  • stillin

    The caller from Ghana who has been here for 27 years was right on…loved hearing it.

    • janem03

      absolutely. i totally related to him. i had many african patients at a free clinic here, and the whole family would come in together and sit and wait patiently while just one member of the group was seen and treated. one for all and all for one. so different from my personal experience in the u.s.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002595936029 Chuck Clemens

    One more thing and I will shut up about my daughter. Calling the show was incredibly nerve wracking for me. She would not have had one problem talking to TOM what so ever. She has already been interviewed by local news programs and was not intimidated in the least.

  • http://twitter.com/baseballpajamas The Other Rob Ryan

    If I’ve heard correctly, Professor Diamond describes traditional societies as being socially rich, and (war aside) relatively safe and content. I wonder if this is partly because they are so busy staying alive (finding food and shelter) that they don’t have time to worry about all of the things that weigh down “modern” peoples lives.

  • DeboraLI

    I was curious about the issue of mental illness in these traditional societies. Since there seems to be a better sense of security, social acceptance and better social skills from early on in their lives, would it be safe to say that “nurture” is a big positive defense against the onset of mental illnesses?  

  • Roy-in-Boise

    The disintegration of the extended and now micro-family is a real stresser on our so called advanced way of life. Hopefully a certain level of social cohesion will return and our human future might be a bit brighter.

  • anamaria23

    I wonder how much of social cohesion was  somewhat based on need.
    Growing up in a lower middle class neighborhood with mostly stay at home mothers and one car,  neighbors depended upon each other, borrowed from one another, from a cup of sugar to a wheelbarrow. It usually evened out.   Though not without it’s
    downsides, jealousies, etc,  good will won out because of an established support system.  Given an opportunity to move to a nicer house and more affluent neighborhood, my mother refused, so valuable were her
    neighbors to her.  
    In my current, more affluent, neighborhood, if I am short a cup of sugar, I jump in my car and go to the store.  Additonally, there is often no one home next door,( including at my house) We seldom socialize with one another,  able to seek out those of our “feather” rather than endure conflicting viewpoints. 
    I know there are still cohesive  groups, but I do notice a greater individuation based on lack of  need.

    • stillin

      just what I see here too, same scenario…everybody is around but no one hangs out together, sits out together, everybody is inside or in their own world moving quickly …absolutely no unity in this community you could say.

    • anon

      If you’re looking at American culture, maybe, but I don’t think that applies everywhere. I live in Kuwait, which is a very affluent society, but social ties are very strong. Extended families still live together, and the entire family gets together at least weekly. When someone dies, the family sits for three days and large numbers of people come to pay condolences – basically, anyone who knows anyone in the extended family of the deceased. When a woman has a baby, relatives, friends, co-workers come to visit… the same thing happens when someone is in the hospital (hospital rooms in private hospitals are huge, with sofas to hold many people, family members or waitresses serving tea, coffee and sweets…), someone comes back from hajj, etc.

  • Mike_Card

    Did Diamond say “frontiers like western Mass or Montana, where we spend out vacations”?  So he would also say something like “urban centers such as Butte or Boston”?  Good-bye, credence.

  • jgrosh

    I enjoyed the background music/chants about 11 minutes into today’s broadcast. The recording is from “Voices of the Rainforest.” (by ethnomusicologist  Steven Feld, I believe) The recording was made among the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea, a mostly traditional society. I spent a couple of weeks living with the Kaluli people twenty years ago while visiting my brother and his family.

  • http://hammernews.com/ hammermann

    Diamond is a true brilliant visionary who may be the world’s most important writer: GGS told us how we got here, and Collapse explains why some societies commit suicide by stupidity and why some survive by finding sustainable models. With the cracker Repubs, who had to declare their denial of evolution to run for Prez (let alone AGW), we- America, and so the world, are firmly in the former stupid camp… heading straight for a catastrophic collapse when the AGW famines hit. His book details again and again how humans overbreed, thinking everything will continue as usual; when climate change, or a disappearance of resources, or a war with neighbors hits… there is a massive die-back.

  • ExcellentNews

    I think there ARE many controlled experiments on the relative merits of Western vs. “traditional” societies. Every time the latter has met the former, it has adopted its lifestyle. Why? Because it has far better quality of life on average. So, yes – the “primitives” have voted. It makes me wonder why we are so naive as to romanticize and think that reverting to a primitive lifestyle is a solution to the problems we have. More civilization, not less, is the answer for mankind.

    • Rousseau

      Your comment loses value when you resort to gross over-simplification. Jared Diamond is not at all proposing to revert to traditional lifestyle but identifying a few elements of traditional cultures which might be useful. On an unrelated note, look up the meaning of controlled experiments for better understanding.

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