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Jared Diamond: The World Until Yesterday

By Clare S Ryan, on 15 February 2013

Are you over 65? Intend to live past 65? Have parents or grandparents who are 65 or above? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, this lecture is of interest to you.An elderly couple

Jared Diamond is an anthropologist and best-selling author, perhaps most famous for his book, Guns, Germs and Steel. His latest book, The World Until Yesterday, explores what tribes can teach us about the millions of years of human society that preceded the emergence of government.

The book has been widely reviewed, and attracted praise and criticism – notably from the organisation Survival International.

Diamond has spent much of his career conducting field work with tribes in New Guinea. This lecture took a particular look at how tribes treat older members of their societies and what lessons, if any, we can learn from them.

Large societies, permanent housing, living in close proximity to strangers, governments and eating food that we haven’t grown are all things that did not exist until (at the earliest) 11,000 years ago with the advent of farming. Most of them have only emerged in the past few hundreds, or even tens, of years.

Diamond argues that societies large enough for there to be strangers are all inherently similar to each other. In contrast, all tribes are a variation on how to organise a society – a kind of natural experiment.

So, how do tribes deal with older members of their group? At first, the outlook doesn’t look good. Tribes have five traditional ways of getting rid of older people:

  1. Starve them (something that was more common in tribes living in marginal environments)
  2. Abandon them when you move
  3. Encourage them to commit suicide
  4. Encourage them to consent to being murdered (until the 1950s, newly widowed women from the Kaulong people of New Britain were strangled by their husband’s brothers or, in their absence, by one of their own sons).
  5. Kill them without their consent

So, pretty serious. But this is not the whole story; for example, in New Guinea there are also tribes where the adults pre-chew food for their toothless older relatives and then spit it into their mouths to help them eat. Not too pleasant by our standards, but better than being strangled by your brother-in-law.

And tribes have several uses for old people. Grandparents are pretty good at producing food – what they lack in strength, they make up for in experience at finding roots, or tracking animals. They are also skilled in making tools and textiles, and are the natural choice (as in large societies) for political and religious leaders.

Finally, in the absence of written language or records, older people in tribes are valuable as repositories of information. Their knowledge of rare events (which may have occurred once in the past 50 years) may be the difference between survival and destruction of the entire society.

In the US, as in the UK, old people tend to have low social status as shown by numerous examples of reduced job prospects and access to healthcare.

This is explained by, in the US especially, a very strong focus on self-reliance, independence and the cult of youth. How many pensioners have you seen in a Coca-Cola commercial?.

Old people are also far more numerous in western society, suffer from disintegrating social ties (the typical American moves every five years on average) and enforced retirement, with associated loss of self-esteem and relationships.

No longer an information repository, they are the victims of the rapid pace of technological innovation, which makes their knowledge largely redundant.

So, facing this, Diamond has highlighted the benefits to western society of older people. A quite obvious example is in providing childcare – they’re pretty reliable and, let’s face it, grandparents are unlikely to quit the job for a better position.

Older people also tend to be better at synthesising lots of information, advising and making decisions – making them natural leaders and politicians.

But thinking more broadly, it is perhaps in adopting the thought patterns of tribes that we can learn the most – old or young.

For example, in tribes, children are parented by all the adults in a social group and tend to be more rounded, have more role-models and are less likely to be damaged if their biological parents are bad at the job.

Tribes also have a different way of thinking about risk. They can think much more clearly about immediate dangers, without being distracted by remote risks that we tend to get worried by such as terrorist attacks, flying etc.

In Diamond’s own life this translates to a keen realisation of his most dangerous activity: showering.

Consider this. The risk of dying in the shower is one in a 1,000. Diamond is 75 years old and hopes to live for another 15 years. In that time, he will have had 5,500 showers and has the potential to die five and half times over that period.

Intend to live past 65? If tribes can teach you anything, it might be this: watch your step.

One Response to “Jared Diamond: The World Until Yesterday”

  • 1
    Catherine Delaney wrote on 19 February 2013:

    It’s a shame that this blog post doesn’t elaborate more on the criticism of ‘The World Until Yesterday’.

    For more about the controversy raging between Diamond and Survival International, see their press release, which answers Jared Diamond’s response to their director’s critique.


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