Jared Diamond interview: Why tribal societies are healthier than ours

Adam Forrest Oct 14, 2013
The Huli Wigmen tribe in Papua New Guinea

Pulitzer prize-winning scientist Jared Diamond argues that first world humanity needs to relearn the wisdom of the tribe

So Jared Diamond, we obviously know a thing or two in the West. Can we really learn anything important from these tiny tribes?
When I first travelled to New Guinea, the people were exotic to me in some ways – using stone tools, not writing and so on. But very quickly my impression was: they’re people, they do things people do, like people everywhere. They get scared, they get excited, they cry. Then slowly you discover the basic, significant differences. There are differences which you wouldn’t want to adopt, such as the custom of the Kaulong of straggling widows, which I don’t recommend. But some of the things of raising children, looking after old people and spotting dangers – those I have personally learned a lot from. So what we can do is learn from the experiments those small societies have, in a sense, already run. Some of the things they do are wonderful and we can adopt them.

Isn’t there a danger of romanticising tribal life?
People studying human societies – whether they call themselves anthropologists or travellers – risk swinging between two extremes. One is, as you say, idealising traditional societies and saying: those people are good, peaceful, tree-hugging environmentalists and we’re the evil ones. The opposite extreme is thinking of traditional people as primitive barbarians who should be driven off their land. The reality is they are people, people like us who face many of the same problems and solve some of those problems in different ways.

So what can we learn from the way traditional societies deal with disputes?
It operates on the basis that anyone you have a dispute with is someone you’ll have to deal with for the rest of your life. If there’s a dispute the overwhelming focus is on establishing peace or trying to restore relationships. In states like ours... anybody that’s been involved in a divorce or inheritance dispute knows the state doesn’t care one bit about whether the parties loathe each other and are churned up with anger for the rest of their lives. The state’s main goal is to be seen to administer justice. So the idea of restorative justice is to bring some of the traditional advantages into the state system by inviting the two disputing parties or criminal and victim to try to at least understand each other… [to get] some emotional clearance.

Interesting. What about raising children? We seem to have lost the value of extended family – in the West all the pressure falls on the parents.
That’s one of the things. The focus on two parents means children have two role models, they don’t have 35 role models. Not surprisingly they learn much less about dealing with people, whereas in traditional societies the responsibility is more diffused, not just to the grandparents and older siblings but to others too. In a troupe of African pygmies, when a baby is born it is immediately passed around for everybody to kiss.

And traditional societies are better at allowing children to explore and experiment?
Kids building their own toys is a useful kind of play we’ve lost… We’ve lost something very elementary. We micromanage our kids. At 3.30pm they finish school, then football practise, then at 5.30pm they come home and do homework and, yes, you can watch television at 7.45pm. We do all that and then we expect children to grow up as independent, self-confident people who make their own decisions, even though we do everything possible for 17 years to deny them making their own decisions. In New Guinea, a child, at five years old, is experienced at negotiating with an adult. They are socially more skilled. They have a much richer understanding of what people are like.

Is this something you’ve adopted with your own sons? Have you practised what you preach?
My wife and I gave our kids as much freedom as was safe. As a consequence my son Max, at aged three, saw a dead snake and it was love at first sight. He demanded a pet snake, then another, and ended up with 147 pet snakes. Eventually he grew out of his snake phase. After he graduated he called us up and said he had decided to become a chef. It’s stupid to plan your child’s life. He or she is best placed to decide and he or she then takes responsibility.

What about the treatment of older people? It seems to me the knowledge elders offer in traditional societies just isn’t relevant to us.
Yes, it’s fair to say elders have lost some value as a repository of information. If you forget the capital of the UK, you don’t wander the streets looking for a white-haired person to tell you – you Google it. But older people are living far longer than in the past. It means there are a lot of people around who have 60 years of adult experience instead of 30 years, people best qualified to be advisers, supervisors, teachers, administrators. They can advise without ego getting in the way.

Is the way we cut older people off from their children and grandchildren cruel?
Old age is often a tragedy – the most miserable time in life in the first world. It’s sad for old people but it’s also sad for young people who could gain so much more. What a friend of mine from Fiji most loathed about the US was that, as he put it: “You throw away your old people.”

It seems incredible but you say small tribes are in some ways healthier than us. Why are they better at avoiding the non-communicable diseases we struggle with?
Lifestyle. I’m afraid 95 per cent of your readers are going to die of non-communicable diseases: type-2 diabetes, stroke and hypertension, heart disease and cardiovascular diseases. Whereas in traditional societies literally nobody dies of these diseases. We know what’s bad for us: lots of salt, lots of sugar, eating lots of calories, eating not enough fibre, eating too much easily digested starch, eating more than we need and leading relatively sedentary lives. The traditional lifestyle is physically vigorous, low salt, essentially no sugar, lots of fibre. People in the first world who go on this kind of diet reduce these symptoms and lower their blood pressure.

So this is not about simply living longer in western states?
Correct. People frequently misunderstand and say: “The reason they don’t get heart disease is they don’t live long enough.” You make the comparison at the same age. If you compare 40-year-old New Guineans with 40-year-old Germans, the Germans have a higher incidence of heart disease.

You’ve written about why societies collapse. What about our own current potential for failure? Will we have to relearn traditional practices again in a post-collapse society?
There’s no reason why we have to unlearn the knowledge we’ve gained. Only in a worst case scenario is it that we get ourselves in a situation where we need to learn how to use stone tools again. If first-world society collapses, New Guineans will go on fine because they know how to do it. Some may conclude from that – well, we should start learning how to use stone tools. But I would say no, we should not get ourselves into that situation. We have the knowledge to manage resources sustainably. The obstacle is the political will. If we make the right decisions, we’ll go on eating salmon, herring and even Mediterranean bluefin tuna 50 years from now. If we make the wrong decisions – stone tools (laughs).

Are you pessimistic about our future?
I’m 51 per cent optimistic, 49 per cent pessimistic. There are many bad signs. As an American, all you have to do is look at my government at the moment and see how we struggle to get our act together. But the signs I find encouraging are that more and more young people are concerned about the state of the world. Teenagers come home and tell their parents: “What are you doing That’s terrible.” That affects parents, to be told that.

The World Until Yesterday (Penguin, £8.99) is out now

Photo: Wade Davis/Getty Images

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