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Book Review: The World Until Yesterday

The World Until Yesterday23bDiamond.jpg

by Jared Diamond

Viking, 2012

The World Until Yesterday, the latest lump of congealed pseudo-intellectual suet from Jared Diamond, has a publication date of 31 December, 2012 – too late for all the “Worst Books of the Year” lists that were wrapping up by then, and too late also, oddly, for the holiday book-buying rush that has always embraced the particular brand of three-card-monte bunkum that is this author’s stock-in-trade. Ever since his Guns, Germs, and Steel (a thin scrim of incoherent nonsense purporting to be an examination of European hegemony) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, Diamond has enjoyed primus inter pares status among the successful purveyors of the easily refuted to the easily impressed. A.J. Jacobs, Mark Penn, Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner can only dream of one day equalling his cache; he comes up with a washed-out TED-style bullet point, overdresses it in “now hold on just a minute” rhetorical bloat, and serves it forth to a waiting machinery that generates softball talk show appearances, lucrative conferences, and blurbs from all the right quarters. For this latest book, Skeptic magazine publisher Micheal Shermer tells prospective readers “Jared Diamond is the Charles Darwin of our generation” (one can only assume there were alarming photos, now safely destroyed).

Jared Diamond is not the Charles Darwin of this or any other generation. The “fieldwork” his publisher is claiming he’s known for, in such disparate places as the Pacific Islands, the Kalahari Desert, and the Amazon rainforest? It never happened, unless we stretch the definition of “fieldwork” to such a point that pushing your shopping cart down the aisle at Tesco qualifies. The “study” this book purports to be? It isn’t, since studies have supporting data that can be consulted independent of the author’s conclusions; The World Until Yesterday has no critical apparatus at all, because Diamond knows he doesn’t need to produce one in order to sell stacks of hardcovers at Barnes & Noble. So instead of impersonal data, readers get personal dicta:

Modern Americans often assume that multilingualism should be discouraged, because it is supposed to hinder child language acquisition and immigrant assimilation. However, recent work suggests that multilingual people gain important life-long cognitive benefits. Nevertheless, languages are now disappearing so rapidly that 95% of the world’s languages will be extinct or moribund within a century if current trends continue.

Not only no specifics, no actual facts of any kind, but not even the whole-hearted commitment to not having facts: “modern” Americans – so excluding who? and why? – “often assume” – so maybe not usually? so maybe definitely not always? – “recent work” – whose? where? and what’s recent? – “important life-long cognitive benefits” – so there are comparative cognition studies on multilingual people, carried out over years? is there even one? does it have a name? 95 % of the world’s languages will be extinct within a century? Again, is there a single study that concludes this? And more, even to the layman, does it seem even remotely likely to be true?

The point of the straw man (all those ‘modern Americans’ whose kids somehow aren’t being taught Spanish in grade school every day; all those ‘modern Americans’ you and I both know who think it’s bad for their kids to learn another language) is to highlight what passes for Diamond’s point this time around. The small-scale statement of that point, made in specific reference to this a mean-spirited monoglot West, is: “members of many such [small-scale hunter-gatherer] societies are routinely multilingual.” Members of small-scale hunter-gatherer societies mostly certainly are not, but it doesn’t matter: Diamond’s quasi-thesis in The World Until Yesterday is helped by such twaddle.

Although he writes, “we should not naively idealize small-scale societies,” the quasi-thesis of this latest book is that we should find ways to do exactly that. Focusing mainly on some primitive tribes in New Guinea, Diamond stresses that until the advent of agriculture roughly 11,000 years ago, all human life was organized into those ‘small-scale’ ‘hunter-gatherer’ ‘traditional’ societies (he practically herniates himself in the course of the book to avoid using the word ‘primitive’). His notion this time around is that perhaps those ‘small-scale’ societies have some things of value they can teach the modern, industrialized societies of the modern world. He isolates some areas – childrearing, care of the elderly, law & order, organized violence, activity & nutrition, etc. – and inquires as to whether or not there’s long-precedented value that the headstrong modern world has unwisely abandoned.

Like in the realm of law. Diamond readily admits that state-run organization of legal punishment and recompense are preferable to the generational violence and blood feuds that tend to constitute legal proceedings in primitive societies. But he notes that such societies – lacking an over-arching state apparatus, still conducting all interactions on a face-to-face basis – have ‘facilitators’ that the modernized world lacks, go-betweens whose role is to soften the disruptions antisocial acts cause in the fabric of the community. Primitive societies still have a concept of ‘restorative justice,’ in which the individual humanity of both the wrongdoer and the victims is kept in mind. Diamond contrasts this with the elaborate machinery of modern jurisprudence:

I hope that, with wider knowledge of how small-scale societies resolve disputes, legal scholars may figure out how better to incorporate those admired procedures of small-scale societies into our own systems.

But these procedures aren’t ‘admired’ – they’re disastrous: in ‘small-scale’ societies the only truly abiding law is retribution, delivered at various speeds and at various temperatures. The victims have families; the wrongdoers have families; and everybody has children who are inevitably instructed in blood-grievances large and small. ‘Facilitators’ only exist in such circumstances in a desperate attempt to stop feuding from consuming the entire society. No group that could ever abandon such barbarities would ever voluntarily resume any portion of them.

That’s really the damning crux of the entire issue Diamond raises: once the members of any primitive society begin to haul themselves out of the violence, savagery, tedium, and rampant coercion in which they originally found themselves, they universally refuse to go back. All the indigenous peoples among whom Diamond has done his vacationing – the Lapps of Scandinavia, the nomads of the Kalahari Desert, the Indians of South America’s rain forests, the Yakut of Siberia, the various peoples of the South Pacific islands, for example – want nothing more than leave their “traditional” (another misnomer, equivalent to calling childhood “traditional” adulthood) ways behind forever, to embrace music on demand, refrigeration, pay-financed leisure, and a surplus of food. They don’t care one traded goat for “facilitators.” They want iPads.

And well they should, since the alternatives are colossally bleak and brutal. Every one of the above-mentioned primitive societies (and many more besides, including virtually all of the American Indian tribes prior to their loss of the continent) practice infanticide on a regular basis, abandon their sick and elderly, mock and often ritually execute their mentally retarded, torment and ostracize their dissenters, and so on. They do this partially because small hunter-gatherer societies live constantly on the knife-edge of their very survival and can’t afford unproductive members. But it’s important to remember what Diamond continually forgets: they also do this because they don’t know any better. They’re locked in a pitiless provincialism that utterly excludes excess compassion. They can’t afford pluralism and so don’t countenance it.

Diamond is on slightly more solid ground when he discusses some of the superiorities primitive societies enjoy when it comes to the physical metrics of life. Small-scale hunter-gatherer societies don’t have to worry about epidemics of obesity or diabetes; they don’t have to watch their polysaturated fats and refined sugars, and since everybody in these societies works all the time, their members are generally fit. The non-communicable diseases so rampant in the modern world, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, are greatly worsened by the modern world’s wretched diet, and Diamond sees here things primitive cultures could teach:

Non-communicable diseases associated with the Western lifestyle offer perhaps this book’s most immediately practical example of the lessons that can be extracted from traditional lifestyles. By and large, traditional people don’t develop the set of NCDs that I’ve discussed, while by and large most Westernized people will die of these NCDs. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we adopt a traditional lifestyle wholesale, overthrow state governments, and resume killing each other, infanticide, religious wars, and periodic starvation. Instead, our goal is to identify and adopt those particular components of the traditional lifestyle that protect us against NCDs.

But even here, there’s a thick larding of nonsense. True, primitive societies don’t have to worry about obesity – but as noted, most of them don’t need to worry about old age either, even if they’d very much like to. There is no conscionable trade-off here, no matter how diffidently Diamond might suggest one; yes, NCDs are a serious problem among the world’s growing modern societies, but that problem (and problems like it) can no more be solved with “paleo-dieting” nonsense than a chill at night can be solved with a mastodon pelt. Education only moves in one direction. Education should only move in one direction.

The scarcely-concealed tone of yearning in Diamond’s book is easily its most troubling aspect, this sense that if we could all just return to some prelapsarian state of grace – where we only ate what we needed, and we respected the wisdom of our elders, and we sat in the village sauna with the man who killed our dog – we could shed some of the ultra-modern and impersonal noise that surrounds us all today. It’s dangerously fatuous – sanitation, jurisprudence, and the rule of law are unequivocal advances mankind should be proud of, not queasy about. But enough Americans, at least, are queasy about them just the same, and that’s the making of a bestseller.

It’s also the livelihood of the bestselling author – a oddity conspicuously absent from ‘traditional’ societies. So maybe they’re a little bit enviable after all.

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