Friday, February 14, 2014

Living in the Past (2014)

Book Review from the February 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Jared Diamond: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Penguin £8.99.

This is another wide-ranging book by Diamond, following Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. By ‘traditional societies’ here are meant those living in small groups and subsisting by hunting-gathering or agriculture. This covers a spectrum from bands with just a few dozen individuals, through tribes with hundreds of people, to chiefdoms with several thousand people and more complex social organisation. All humans lived in one of these systems till around 11,000 years ago (which, in evolutionary terms, really is ‘yesterday’) and many have done so far more recently.

Traditional societies of course differ, and not just in terms of the size of the group. Thus many such societies have engaged in quite bloody inter-group warfare, but plenty have not, and Diamond argues, ‘All human societies practise both violence and cooperation; which trait appears to predominate depends on the circumstances.’ War may take place over resources such as land (and women). But nobody fights all or even most of the time, whereas we have to co-operate in order to survive. And even those who fight have to co-operate with each other against the enemy.

This theme of co-operation is returned to when discussing childhood and play: ‘Whereas many American games involve keeping score and are about winning and losing, it is rare for hunter-gatherer games to keep score or identify a winner. Instead, games of small-scale societies often involve sharing, to prepare children for adult life that emphasizes sharing and discourages contests.’ This illustrates one of the book’s strengths, its recognition that the way people live now is absolutely not the only possible way.

Diamond does claim, though, that almost all human societies have had religion or ‘something like it’. Religion is claimed to fill various functions, such as providing comfort (‘the heart of a heartless world’, as Marx said), which may explain why, on the whole, poorer countries tend to be more religious than wealthier ones. The US, of course, is an exception to this tendency.

In his epilogue, Diamond makes the point that modern-day hunter-gatherers who encounter Western life-styles are keen to adopt them, as they are understandably attracted by material goods, education, healthcare, longer life-spans, and so on. And some traditional life-styles have advantages and shortcomings which may be two sides of the same coin: nobody is lonely but there is little room for personal privacy.  So earlier social forms were not versions of paradise. But, for instance, traditional societies had few or none of the non-communicable diseases that kill most Westerners today, such as hypertension and heart attacks.
Paul Bennett

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