In Conversation Jared Diamond: full transcript

Friday, Mar 1, 2013, 11:48 PM | Source: The Conversation

Peter Christoff

AAP/Lloyd Jones

Peter Christoff: Your book, The World Until Yesterday, is really the third in a series on societies and their futures.

Guns, Germs, and Steel was really a short history of everybody of the last 13,000 years. It discussed why civilisations and societies succeed and, in particular, how European societies managed to colonise the planet. Then Collapse looked at how and why societies fail. It examined those failures for lessons given our current circumstances with globalisation and climate change.

And this latest book, The World Until Yesterday, which has the subtitle “what we can learn from traditional societies” again is providing us with a series of opportunities to learn from past examples, and clearly that is its intention.

It’s a very large book, engagingly written and crammed with anecdotes. It reminds me of Tim Flannery’s Throwim Way Leg and it is intrinsically interesting for what it tells us, in particular, about your time in New Guinea. But it also goes much beyond those examples: it too is global in its range, panoptic in its engagement with social behaviours and a range of social issues, like war and other forms of social conflict, child rearing, care for the aged, paranoia, multi-lingualism and so on.

The book is built around many examples of the contrast between traditional and modern societies.

I want to ask, first of all, why did you write a book about contrasts between traditional and modern societies?

Jared Diamond: Each of my books has been on whatever subject felt most fascinating to me at the time. When I finished my third book, The Third Chimpanzee, it was immediately clear to me what I next wanted to write on: Guns, Germs, and Steel which was on the different histories of continents, and when I finished that I immediately knew I wanted to write Collapse because I had been interested in these romantic mysteries for a long time.

But when I finished Collapse, it was not yet clear to me what I wanted to write. My first thought was I would do a book on the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, which I loved dearly and would sell them to wide audience until my publisher told me, “Jared, no matter how well written it is, there aren’t going to be that many people who will buy a book on the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach.”

So my next thought was to an autobiographical account of my time in New Guinea, but my editor said, “Jared, people are use to world-wide books from you, can’t you give a broader perspective.”

So that is why this book has ended up discussing traditional societies and our world. Taking case studies people have studied from 39 societies on all the continents. And then to illustrate the phenomenon I also discuss my own experiences in New Guinea.

If you were to write about everything important in human societies, then I would have to write a 30,000-page book that no-one would read. Therefore I had to select what I thought people would read. I’d have people asking me, “Jared, how can you discuss art and not discuss gender relationships?” and all I could say was be glad I couldn’t discuss all those things because a 500 page book is still long.

In fact I selected range of subjects, some of them things about traditional societies we don’t want to adopt for ourselves, and other things about traditional societies that we can adopt individually, such as not spanking our kids and not eating salt.

While other things about traditional societies that we could implement require changes in our whole society, such as our court system and our system of justice. So that’s why I chose the particular set of topics I’ve gone with.

Peter Christoff: How do you understand a traditional society, because it seems that the term is quite flexible, and finding evidence of “traditional practices” has always been problematic, given pre-contact and contact histories of cultural destruction, and post-contact cultural transformation - something you touch on in the book.

Jared Diamond: It’s a good question, it’s a key question, and somewhat similar to a question as the difference between baroque music and romantic music, when in fact there is no difference, they just grade into each other.

First, the word “traditional” implies human societies as they have existed for the 6 million of years of human history up until relatively recently.

But what has not changed is that traditional societies were all small, a few dozen to a few hundred people, the fact that they were all small meant they didn’t have the need or support to build a government and therefore don’t have political centralisation. The fact that they’re small means everybody knows everybody and even the people in the next valleys, even if they’re the enemy.

There wasn’t the phenomenon of dealing with strangers and there wasn’t the phenomenon of thousands of people who are strangers and having to get along because they’re members of your own society.

Then comes the question like baroque and romantic, when do things change?

Well, 11,000 years ago was roughly the beginning of agriculture and population growth. You began to get more populous societies. With populous societies, you have increased political centralisation, but it’s not the case that traditional societies are frozen models of humans 60,000 years ago. There has been 60,000 years of stuff that happened since then.

A New Guinea friend of mine said to me, “Jared, you shouldn’t talk about traditional societies, but talk about transitional societies, because all of these so-called ‘traditional societies’ are still in the modern world, like New Guinea and in the Amazon.” They have all been influenced to a degree, by modern societies.

Peter Christoff: How much of a problem is this issue of “traditional practice” for your book? In your book you do make the point that the process of transformation has affected almost all of the societies that you touch on.

Although the examples from New Guinea that you use are almost pristine, and most recent, all the societies that you draw from have been transformed, quite thoroughly and quite brutally by the forms of contact they engage in, by diseases, commodification, conquest, and so on.

Given that the examples you draw on are hardly unchanged, why are they robust examples to use as contrast to modern society?

Jared Diamond: Life is complicated and the material in my book is complicated. This book is not about what we learnt from a time machine set up to 40,000 years BC.

What we’ve got is the traditional societies that existed in the modern world, modified by the modern world.

What we’ve got is the oral memories of the people in these traditional societies of what it was like a couple hundred years ago and maybe before Europeans arrived.

What we’ve got is the accounts of the first Europeans to arrive in Australia or New Guinea and they were not trained anthropologists and they didn’t come out with a list of questions. They just described what they saw.

What we’ve got is archaeology that describes the world as it was 5000 years ago or 12,000 years ago before Europeans started running around.

So, you’ve got to be sure that what you’re seeing then is not being influenced by the wide world. But in archaeology you don’t have the names of people and you don’t have the motive.

So we have these four different approaches and we have to compare the results of the different approaches. If they agree we have confidence and if they disagree we have to figure out where the disagreement arises from.

Throughout the book I’m wrestling with the question: how much of what we see now has been modified by modern influence?

I talk about the Heisenberg principlethat the more finely you can observe the more perturbation there has been.

In my chapters on warfare I have to confront dead-on the question of the accounts of tribal warfare in the modern world and how much of that is an artifact of European contact.

So I discuss cases in which it is clear that European contact decreases tribal warfare and cases in which European contact increases tribal warfare.

So that’s a long-winded answer and it boils down to traditional societies that we see today are not frozen models of the past on the one hand. On the other hand, they’re not irrelevant to the past because they are still small-scale societies. And when you’ve got 200 people, and whether the 200 people are from today or whether the 200 people are form 30,000 years ago, there are some things that you have to have with 200 people. So in short, I think my book is faithful to the complexities of the problem.

Peter Christoff: The issue of warfare and violence is very important one which you reflect on in your book.

At one point you make what appears to be a startling observation that tribal societies were much more violent than modern societies. Most people would find this counter-intuitive given the nature of modern violence and the modern capacity for both genocide and total warfare.

Could you talk a little bit about that contrast?

Jared Diamond: A couple of things there. First of all, some people might get the impression that this book is about violence in the past. But in fact, there are only two chapters about violence in the book and there is one long chapter about the peaceful settlement of disputes in the past and then there were eight chapters on other things.

As far as violence in the past is concerned, these are not original studies by me. There are a lot of information on the literature on the level of violence, both in modern societies and past societies, and there are scholars who surveyed the entire literature quantitatively and the most detailed surveys have been by Samuel Bowles and Steven Pinker, Lawrence Kelly and Richard Ran.

All the studies surveying the information came to the same conclusion that levels of violence in the past were higher than today and were expressed by the following statistic: the percentage of people who died violent deaths.

Now, when you say that, ten years ago I would have immediately rebelled against that as obscenely untrue, because we’re living in the century of Hiroshima, Dresden and Hamburg. When at a push button in Tokyo, you can kill 100,000 thousand people without looking them in the face.

So there is no doubt that modern society achieved far higher death tolls, but then they have far higher populations to kill.

The measure of violence is the percentage of people who die violent deaths. There, the evidence is clear that traditional societies on average, with exceptions, have a higher percentage of people dying violent deaths then even the most violent modern societies like Germany and Russia during the 20th century. The reasons become understandable; it’s not traditional people …

Peter Christoff: Even if you include the Holocaust and the Second World War, Stalin’s various pogroms, the great famine in China?

Jared Diamond: Even if you include the worst of the worst in the 20th century, such as Russia, Germany and Poland and societies about which I know a good because my wife is a survivor of what happened in Poland, and I lived in Germany, and I have friends who were in Russia.

So I know about the awful stuff and the big numerical death tolls, but the fact remains that, let’s take one of the worst of the worst, Germany in the 20th century was at war from 1914 – 1918 and 1939 – 1945 and was not at war the rest of the time. So during the world wars Germany suffered horrendous death tolls of a couple of million people. But then you add another 91 years without those deaths tolls.

Where as traditional societies, they are almost chronically at war, because there is not a mechanism for imposing peace. There isn’t a centralised government that can constrain the hot heads, and so, war tends to be chronic at what we would call a low level.

Other differences of traditional societies: the people who are fighting are not a professional cohort of young men aged 18-24, but all able-bodied men and women and children are sucked in.

In my chapter on Dani war, in New Guinea, there’s an account of Dani children on both sides shooting bows and arrows. So in traditional war, not just young men, but men of all ages and women and children get killed.

In modern warfare it is considered horrible to kill prisoners, that’s considered a crime against humanity, because we have the facilities for keeping, guarding and economically exploiting prisoners. Whereas in traditional societies there is no mechanism for restraining prisoners and no mechanisms for using them.

So for all these understandable reasons it’s not that traditional people were intrinsically nasty or mobile, it’s that the different conditions of society meant that the average, the percentage death toll of violence in the past in traditional societies was higher than in modern societies.

But there were exceptions and we can understand the exceptions.

Peter Christoff: To stay with the problem of why you’ve used traditional societies as your counterpoint to modernity, from which to draw different types of behaviour…

People might expect the book, judging from its sub-title, to be a romantic set of homilies about traditional societies. Yet throughout, and particularly in the epilogue you are quite clear about that not being the case. For instance, you write that “traditional life should not be romanticised and the modern world offers huge advantages. It’s not the case that citizens and Western societies are fleeing in droves from steel tools, health, material comfort and state-imposed peace and are trying to return to a hunter and gather lifestyle. That’s certainly and clearly not the case.”

So why then look to traditional societies as the place for alternatives. Isn’t there still a Romantic impulse - a creeping form of Primitivism - hidden in there, seeking to recover what seems to be a simpler, more straight-forward, face-to-face way of communicating, co-habiting and so on. Those are the examples that you dwell on most powerfully in the book.

Jared Diamond: The reason I wrote the book was because it’s just so fascinating. My experiences in New Guinea I found fascinating. My experience of others who work in traditional societies was fascinating.

Perhaps the essence of my fascination was that in sense, people are people. I cry, laugh, I get angry, I’m scared at the same time as the New Guineans are who are with me. I understand them well, they’re people. But the other side of it is, they are people who are very different and some of the differences are clear immediately.

My first morning in the New Guinean islands, there was a game going on. The game was not hopscotch, but it was war. Other differences were the ones that took me quite a while for me to notice.

So part of the reason for writing the book is this. Even if there is nothing useful in it, it’s still fascinating. I personally have learnt a lot that has influenced my life from traditional societies. And lots of other people have as well.

The things I’ve learnt from traditional societies that I found useful were things about raising children, considerations of growing older and I was very influenced by New Guineans clear thinking behind danger in contrast to American’s attitude towards danger.

So, there are things we can learn, but as soon as you say that what has to be clear is what goes on in traditional societies is not what we want for ourselves.

The fact is, I’ve chosen with my feet that I live in LA and spend about 5% of my time in New Guinea, I could have lived in New Guinea and spent 5% of my time in L.A but I like to live in LA and travel to New Guinea because I like to have a life expectancy of 90 rather than 41. And I like to have medical care and I like my children to have higher education and I like the music of Bach so it means I’m a middle-of-the-roader, and when you’re a middle-of-the-roader that means your going to get hated on both sides.

On the one hand I get disliked by people who regard traditional people as barbaric brutes from whom there’s nothing we could learn. After all they strangle their widows. What can you learn from a society like that?

And on the other hand, I also get flack from modern, ultra-liberals who romanticise traditional societies and consider people in traditional societies as greenies living in peace with nature, compared to whom we are the brutes. Because I steer middle course and I see people as people, anyone at either of those extremes is not going to like me.

Peter Christoff: Your narrative is bracketed by your anecdotes of arriving and leaving, of flying into and flying out of New Guinea. There is that sense of the loss of a timeless or a more organically organised society, New Guinean society. The sun comes up and you do what you do. Weather drives and almost determines your outcomes. The ways in which people interact are far more casually organised, though more subtly structured in some ways by immediate social contacts …

One of the things that struck me about the book was the way in which your description of the bridging between two worlds is similar to the way in which certain Indigenous people in Australia describe the problem of living between to cultures.

We have talked a bit about how problematic that category of “the traditional” is. Let me turn to the issue or the problem of the “modern”, because I think, the “modern” is also problematic, and perhaps in ways that you don’t quite recognise or acknowledge in the book.

You talk about the WEIRD - Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic societies. WEIRD is a very nice term for it, and you contrast traditional societies with this WEIRD version of modernity.

You are doubtless aware of the work of Anthony Giddens, who has written extensively on modernity. He talks about the characteristics of modernity which set themselves in powerful contrast with traditional or “non-modern” societies. The fact that modern societies operate with particular sorts of abstractions – abstract forms of exchange like monetary exchange, which you talk about.

Writing and recording, commodification. The fact that we have contracted space and time through travel, trade and through communication. The understanding that we have about space and time is fundamentally different to what you would find in a traditional society.

We also have new forms of risk and trust (I want to come back to the issue of risk.) And of course, there has been the rise of science and technology, formal employment, new categories of labour and so on.

Modern society is clearly very different from traditional society, and yet you perhaps present it in a fairly unexamined way. It almost becomes an assumed or cliched set of categories.

The interesting thing for me about modern society, and for a lot of sociologists, is that it is so full of its own un-modern richness. Modern society is fascinating because even in the globalised world, it carries with it a lot of highly mythified, highly traditionalised ways of behaving.

In fact the term tradition clearly is not something confined to traditional societies of the past. It is infused with lingering pre-modern cultural codes, patterns of behaviour, traditions to do with gifts and obligation, to do with reciprocity, to do with violence.

For instance, the state has never had a monopoly on violence. You just have to go to Italy and look at the way the mafia operates, or gun culture in the United States or indeed other parts of the world.

So I get the feeling, that modernity is much more complicated and contradictory than you allow it to be in order to set up the contrast that you’re running with. Again, why diminish modernity in the way that I think you might have done in the book?

Jared Diamond: I’d agree with half of what you say, that modernity is complicated and it’s diverse. And traditional societies are complicated and diverse.

Peter Christoff: That modernity is un-modern in many many ways….

Jared Diamond: That’s true and I discussed examples in my book of the un-moderness of modernity. I point out the distinction between modernity, between modern societies and traditional societies is not an either or. But I go though some examples of what is embedded within modern society is a lot that is still traditional.

For example: rural areas of modern society, Montana where my wife and kids and I spend our vacations. When Montana ranchers have a dispute they don’t call a lawyer, they don’t call police they deal like New Guineans because they know that that rancher has been there for 20 years. That rancher his or her children could be there for the next 50 years.

Right or wrong what the cow did on that particular day, that’s secondary. You got to deal with the rancher for the next 50 years. And so the focus is on dispute resolution in a traditional way where the goal is to re-establish a relationship and to maintain the ability to interact with each other, rather than right or wrong as the law states in a society.

I also discuss an instance of tradition embedded with a modern society. I lived in the UK for four years in the 1950s and 1960s and when I first went to the UK in 1950 there was a lot that was still traditional, particularly in the rural areas. People didn’t move much, the men might have gone off to the World War and then they’d come back and spend the rest of their lives within a mile or two of where they were born as in a traditional society.

So what this means is that embedded within a modern society with its diversity is a lot that is traditional. A New Guinean friend of mine who read the manuscript said, “You shouldn’t talk of traditional societies, you should be talking about transitional societies”.

She pointed out entirely correctly all the so-called traditional societies that we have left in the modern world have been influenced by modern state level societies.

Nevertheless it is a 500-page book and you have to use shorthand. I define the shorthand, I have a couple of long tortured prose and footnotes in the prologue of the book to define my terms. And then I get on with the book, then later in the book I don’t stop with a page and a half as a disclaimer.

Peter Christoff: I remember hitchhiking around England in the late seventies and I’d headed down toward Cornwall and a person asked me where I’d come from and I said I’d left from London at the start of the day and he said, “London? I’ve never been there.” It probably still is the case too.

But this leaves us with a problem I think in that the big puzzle for sociology since the nineteenth century onward has been how modern society has evolved, what drives it what makes it change. The thing that Durkheim and Marx and others obsessed over.

And clearly the problem of deeply entrenched patterns of behaviour and the slowness or the unevenness with which they transform themselves is one of the great puzzles and features of modern societies.

What strikes me about your book is that you almost level that out and simplify it to the point where it becomes easier for people in the modern society to simply learn. So it seems the conception you offer up in the book is of a modern society that is “thin” and very rational, in which we are able to pick up a pattern of behaviour from a traditional society and pick it off the shelf like a behavioural or “lifestyle” commodity. Superficial changes - taken out of their meaningful cultural context - are much more easily accessible if adopted in a modernity which is presented as a much more flexible and thinner form of association than it may be in reality. Is that unfair?

Jared Diamond: These are problems that concern me a lot in writing the book. That is, that it is not a simple matter to go to a traditional society and go “I like that, and that and that” and let’s transfer it into our modern society. There are difficulties.

Part of the reason for my selection of the topics that I put in the book is to mirror the range of difficulties and the range of possibilities of borrowing.

Some of the easiest things to borrow, some of the things that my wife and I were able to do as individuals is we decided that we would not smack or spank our kids, and that’s something we can do regardless of whether our neighbours are smacking or spanking their kids.

We decided that we would not have a saltshaker in the kitchen and we can do regardless of whether our neighbours have a saltshaker in the kitchen.

But let’s now talk about salt. A problem in the modern world is the non-communicable diseases associated with changes in diet and lifestyle, some of them being due to our increase salt consumption. Well sadly it’s turned out I naively thought a decade or so ago that by getting our saltshaker out of our kitchen that I may have lowered my salt consumption, and that’s nonsense.

The reason is that more than half of our salt intake in the United States and in the UK and in China and Japan more than half of our salt intake is cryptic, it’s not salt we voluntarily add in the kitchen but a lot of it has been added by food manufacturers during the manufacturing process for a number of reasons. When you add salt it binds water, and so you can sell 1kg of chicken as 1.2kg of chicken when the 0.2kg is added water.

Food manufacturers add salt as it improves the taste in food that would not be very palatable otherwise becomes palatable with added salt.

So the result means that if you want to reduce hypertension and stroke and take advantage of the success of traditional societies that have avoided these issues that are a major killer in Japan and US and Australia, it is not enough to act as individuals, there are things that are difficult to do and that require action from the whole of society.

But in fact Finland, Portugal and some provinces of China decided that they would do what an individual could not do: reduce the salt in the supermarket by working with food manufacturers. And if they simply said, “You food manufacturers let’s get the salt out of our food tomorrow” everybody would notice the next day and would demand the salt back in their food. But the arrangement reached in Finland and Portugal and so on was to reduce the level of salt by 10% in one year and so on but after about thirty decades the level of salt in the food in Finland and Portugal was reduced to the point where the frequency of cardiovascular disease reduced by about 70%.

That’s a long-winded example but it illustrates the difficulty in adopting things from traditional societies to modern societies.

Peter Christoff: I think the chapter on the diseases of modernity is particularly powerful and any reader would sympathise with it immediately. But it also strikes to the heart of what I think is one of the problems of the book.

You’ve just skated around the issue of whether these are a set of problems of individual change, where culture is reduced to a matter of consumer choice, where a rational presentation of a good argument leads to a profound transformation of behaviour, or whether there is something much deeper and systemic about the modern systems that we’re dealing with.

And in your answer now you’ve talked more about the latter than the former. But you leave that issue to one side in the book.

A caricature critique of the book would say these are very fine examples, homilies for better behaviour, we’ve been given a self-help book now take it away and use it.. but but it fails to offer any guidance as to how these quite profound underlying social transformations should occur.

Jared Diamond: I would agree with you that that is a caricature, an inappropriate caricature of the book.

I throughout the book wrestle with the idea of what lessons one can learn at all and how one can learn those lessons. The chapter on diet is a particularly clear chapter but we’ll separate things out.

Let’s also talk about as another example where there’s not much the individual can do. The second chapter on the peaceful resolution of disputes. The fact is that in traditional societies without state government the focus on resolving disputes is focused on withdrawing the relationship and it’s not about right and wrong and sending people to prison and setting precedence. The result often is when it works it is emotional reconciliation.

Anyone who has gone through a divorce in the US and I think in Australia know that when the courts get involved to end the marriage the result is usually horrible. And it’s not an emotional reconciliation that allows the divorcing husband and wife to discuss calmly how to bring up the kids but the result is emotional churning for the rest of one’s life.

Similarly inheritance disputes of which through close friends I have close experience brothers and sisters involved in inheritance disputes, the last thing the American court system cares about is restoring good relations between the brother and sister and the result is the brother and sister don’t speak to each other for the rest of their lives.

So what can be done?

Given the court system in the US or Australia there are limits to which the individual can do but there are movements which I’ve heard a lot about during my week in Australia, there is the Restorative Justice movement in Australia, which I think is even bigger in New Zealand, and in the United States and even stronger in Canada.

This is a case where to bring the advantages of traditional society with all their diversity into modern society with all their diversity the individual alone can’t do much, it takes collective action but there is collective action going on in the Restorative Justice movement.

There is a lot of experiment going on. At what stage should the Restorative Justice set in? Should it set in before the criminal has been condemned? Or should it set in already when the criminal has been charged but not condemned? It’s clear it works in some cases but not in other cases.

If the accused does not want to participate in the Restorative Justice but is forced to do it it is of little benefit. So there is a lot of experiment going on.

But this then is an example in chapter two when there are areas of learning from traditional societies requires collective action. In fact that chapter, because my son is at UCLA law school in his last year of studies to be a lawyer, that chapter was read by three law professors at UCLA plus several friends who were in the area of law, and all of them had thoughtful suggestions on the difficulties and possibilities of incorporating some of the virtues of traditional dispute resolution into the modern system. In fact one of those lawyers had such good suggestions that in my book there is a page and a half quoted directly from a UCLA law professor Mark Grady because he summarised the difficulties and possibilities of it.

So it’s really about a cultural transformation that then affects the state. It’s trying to get the state to retreat in some ways from what would otherwise be a domain of face to face or community-based interaction.

You made the point that many of the interactions that occur between people in modern societies are very abstract and very distant but when they are more intimate and more engaged the state can really butt out of those sorts of relationships. That seems to be the consequence of that particular argument

I think that would be a good starting point for thinking about. That there is not just individual action, you used the word cultural, and some cases that’s appropriate, in other cases the appropriate word would be the political process.

Peter Christoff: Let me talk about another area in which the state is profoundly engaged and where I think its involvement is clearly both requirement and deeply problematic.

You talk about “constructive paranoia” and I love the term. About a sort of intuitive resistance to the possibility of danger and you talk about the ways in which that operates in traditional society and the difficulties you personally, and others, could get into if they didn’t pay attention to those hints from mother nature or those around them.

The risks you describe in traditional life are reasonably straightforward: you talk about environment hazards, human violence, the risks from disease, the risks of starvation. The risks we face in modern society are by definition much greater and much more problematic and there is a powerful tradition of examination associated with those risks.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck talks about us living in a “Risk Society” in which the inadvertent risks of normal processes of industrial production and consumption and co-habitation deliver to us unforeseen consequences that are profoundly human-generated but are also global in their consequences.

So there are risks that are based on large, indeed global, abstract systems. Risks that come from technological systems that can fail, anything from computer crashes through to the structural flaws that can bring down Wall Street.

The problems of unforeseen consequences of industrial production, such as DDT, thalidomide, nuclear accidents and global warming; the possibilities of pandemics occurring as a result of the compression of space that comes with rapid globalised travel; through to global war and species self-annihilation.

These comprise a different category of risk from risks in traditional societies. And “constructive paranoia” doesn’t really provide you with the tools to deal with these risks. Both in terms of understanding the complexity of the risks and also being able to respond to them. Short of individually retreating into these sort of traditional societies that you describe - an almost counter-cultural approach to modern society.

Now that clearly isn’t what you advocate. But you don’t talk about how we then handle this other category of human generated modern risk which almost seems overwhelming at least in some areas of current modern existence.

Jared Diamond: I think you’re probably correct in making the distinction between those risks that we can address with our own personal constructive paranoia and those risks that are beyond, we’ll come back to this, that seem to be beyond our constructive paranoia.

In the first category, what I’ve learnt to be very careful about is taking showers because. I had a recent editorial on this in the New York Times. I eventually realised at the age of 75 that when you read the obituary columns in the newspaper on any day you will see that a common cause of crippling or death in older people is slipping in the shower, on the sidewalk, stepladder or on the stairs. I just spoke on the phone to my wife an hour ago and my wife told me of three more friends of ours who have been crippled or sent to the hospital by slipping after the age of 70.

Peter Christoff: Traditional British society clearly was well adjusted to the problems of the shower? Go on….

Jared Diamond: I have intense experience of that…

So as far as the risk of slipping in the shower is concerned, that is under my control but most Americans don’t think about this. And my experience in New Guinea, particularly my experience of the camping out under the dead tree and then doing the resulting numbers was an eye-opener for me.

After I passed my seventy-fifth birthday a physician friend pointed out to me, “So Jared, life expectancy for a man is 78, but that doesn’t mean that on the average you have three years to live. Because that’s life expectancy at birth. Because, Jared, you are already 75, your life expectancy is 90.”

So we’ll now do the numbers. You might say, “Jared, you are crazy and paranoid to worry about slipping in the shower, your risk of slipping in the shower is only one in one thousand.”

Peter Christoff: You’ve worked out how many showers you’re going to have between now and ninety?

Jared Diamond: That’s right, I’m going to have 5475 showers and if my risk of slipping is one in one thousand means that I’m going to kill myself five and a half times before I reach my life expectancy of age 90. So there’s a case of a risk about which I can do a great deal by my individual behaviour.

Now of the opposite extreme, and this may be what you’re thinking of, things in society as a whole that are beyond my individual control, substantially beyond my individual control, include things such as carcinogens, widely present carcinogens. Now I can be really careful and eat organic food but I’ve still got to breathe and drink water. So there would be a good example of what I think you’re talking about. These risks that are not controllable by our constructive paranoia but really like the case of salt put in by food producers, these are things that can only be dealt with only by society or through the political process.

Peter Christoff: Let me end with a comment that I think follows on from that last point. It struck me that, in reading and reviewing Collapse, that Collapse was profoundly engaged with the modern condition as we see it now - it was powerfully concerned with the ecological crisis which we are currently confronting and with the ways in which a globalised cluster of modern societies are driving us toward a profound unforeseen and potentially quite tragic consequences. The drivers such as consumerism and the reconstruction of individualised identities that seek satisfaction in ways that are profoundly different from those of people living in traditional societies.

There are a couple of things that strike me in the book as absences, then. One is the absence of a discussion of consumerism and overproduction as an issue. I was curious as to why that was the case and also why the book seemed strangely less engaged with the current crises of modernity, particularly its ecological crises. Why?

Jared Diamond: Both of those things are true. The reason is I had already written Collapse, about problems facing the modern world and about consumerism. This book is a different book - it’s on a different subject. I’m not going to repeat what I already wrote. I’m not going to devote space in this book which is already too long to repeat things or take a fresh look.

Peter Christoff: Though in Collapse you looked at societies that had failed to pay heed to science, and this book is about learning, it’s about providing positive examples drawn from traditional and other sources.

They were different projects, Collapse and this book? One’s more about warning and this is about learning and teaching by examples.

Jared Diamond: They’re different books. In this book, you’re correct, the focus is much more about traditional societies. This is not a book primarily about modern societies except insofar as they differ. Because modern societies are familiar to the people reading this book.

That’s not to say the problems of Durkheim and so on have been solved. There are plenty of problems about modern societies. But unfamiliar to most of my readers would be the things including the fascinating things about traditional societies.

I’ve found in all of my books that an occupational hazard of writing about big subjects for a broad public is that there are inevitably people that say, “How could you write a book about this subject without ‘derderderderder’.” And some of the comments I’ve had for this book have been, “How could you write a book about traditional societies without mentioning marriage and relationships, which are surely fundamental? How could you write this book without discussing gender relationships that are surely fundamental? How on Earth could you write this book without discussing art?”

There reasons I didn’t discuss say art is that I tried to, I had an initial chapter on the subject but I didn’t have enough worthwhile insight into art.

My main answer would be that this is the best I could make out of this subject matter and I’d ask my readers to be grateful that I didn’t discuss those other subjects and expand 500 pages into 30,000 pages. Inevitably there are things missing that anybody would want and that anybody would consider essential in which case I encourage them to write a book with a different focus from mine.

Peter Christoff: Last question, have there been any reviews from people who currently live in indigenous societies, who are grappling with the sort of transition that you point to and talk about?

Jared Diamond: Yes, although this is not a published review. One of the eight people who read the entire manuscript and scrutinised it in detail was a close friend of mine from the highlands in New Guinea. And she was the one who pointed out the choice of the term transitional rather than traditional societies. She offered me profound insight as what she liked most as a New Guinean about living in the US where she has lived for a dozen years and what she’ll miss going back. And one of the things she’ll miss most about the US is getting away from social relationships. And she loves being able to sit on a sidewalk cafe on the streets of Washington drink a coffee and read a newspaper and not being besieged by friends and relatives with their problems. So she’s one who gave the most detailed review.

Others, people who are in effect members of traditional societies… The children of American and German missionaries and business people who grew up in New Guinea and in effect, as they put it themselves, are New Guineans with white skin but they think like New Guineans and they came back to the United States as teenagers and they told me and I have some of their stories there of their impressions, the shock for them in coming back from the United States. What they liked but especially what really upset them about society. So yes, the book has been read thoroughly by that one New Guinean and by this batch of white skin New Guineans.

Peter Christoff: How do you think the book will be received? Who is going to be its audience?

Jared Diamond: The audience is educated curious people around the world. To a minor degree scientists because the book is likely to be adopted by some cultural anthropology courses, but much more of the sales will be from the general public who share my fascination with traditional people and who may want to try what I tried.

As for its global audience, the book is already appearing in 19 countries in 19 editions and they range all the way from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Brazil to the usual European countries, east to Russia and Turkey.

At first approximation the readership will be similar to the readership as my previous three books, a broad educated public plus scientists but mostly the readers will be non-scientists, who are educated. Like you, except that you are scientists as well.

Peter Christoff: Thank you.

Jared Diamond: Thank you for your really interesting, challenging questions.

The Conversation

Peter Christoff does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.