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Jared Diamond: The World Until Yesterday – What can we learn from traditional societies?

Jared Diamond
On 27 September, Pulitzer Prize-winning polymath, author Jared Diamond, gave the first talk in the Bristol Festival of Ideas series, in conjunction with the Cabot Institute, to promote the paperback release of his new book “The world until yesterday”. The book surveys 39 traditional societies and their attitudes to universal problems such as bringing up children, treatment of the elderly and attitude to risk. The aim of the book is neither to idealise nor disparage these traditional societies, but to investigate what lessons can be learned from unindustrialised peoples.

Constructive paranoia

Photo©JahodaPe­ (Papua Guide)
One such tribe was the Dani whom Diamond lived with while studying local ornithology in Papua New Guinea. He opened his talk with a tale of the fear and trepidation that the New Guinean tribe showed when he suggested making camp under a dead tree in the jungle. Their “constructive paranoia” – while completely at odds with Diamond’s own Western attitude – was essential to their survival in an ecosystem rife with environmental dangers. Diamond mused that not only were accidents caused by the physical environment less frequent in Western society, but the consequences were less likely to be fatal or permanently disabling, due to our healthcare system. This alters our perception of the risks associated with hazardous behaviour.

Perception of risk

We worry too much about dangers that do not kill many people – like terrorism, nuclear accidents, plane crashes and DNA based technologies – but are comparatively blasé about the risks of alcohol, smoking and cars. Westerners tend to overestimate the risk of things beyond our control; things that are unfamiliar; that kill many people at once or in a spectacular way, while we underestimate risks that we encounter every day but assume “It will never happen to me”. This can be demonstrated by comparing personal ratings of danger with the number of actual deaths, but this does not take into account changes in personal behaviour to protect against significant risks. Diamond recounted another tale of a tribe living in close proximity to a pride of lions. Though the risk of being killed by a lion was very real, few tribes people were actually killed due to the various precautions taken such as travelling in groups and making a lot of noise so as not to startle the lions.

Conflict management

Image from Penguin Books
Jared also briefly covered further topics from the book, such as our treatment of the elderly, whose collective wisdom and knowledge is now usurped by the rise of the world wide web. He also examines differing strategies for dealing with conflict. While in the West we concentrate on perceived wrongs, and who is “in the right”, more traditional societies contend with disputes with those who they will continue to live with and trade with for the rest of their lives. Their model for conflict-management more closely resembles the idea of ‘restorative justice’, where victims and perpetrators meet to discuss the incident. The emphasis is on restoring a working relationship rather than assigning blame or retribution.

“The world until yesterday” goes on general sale by Penguin Books in paperback on 29 October 2013.

This blog has been written by Boo Lewis, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.
Boo Lewis, Cabot Institute blogger

Watch the Jared Diamond event again online.

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