Maybe one of the reasons I was never a big sci-fi fan is because I have always preferred to direct my imagination backwards rather than ahead in time, spinning the time-traveler dial to the left, not right.
Or perhaps it is that my head looks forward while my heart’s reins are held by a past which often seems ineffably pure and simple, without pretense and unclouded by the complexity of modern life.
Don’t get me wrong. While I find myself yearning for a simpler life, I do appreciate and value the benefits a modern life affords. In fact it was thanks to modern technology (a few clicks via my library’s online database to request a book which lived on shelves in another library nearly an hour away) I was able to get my hands on a book about the past. Well sort of about the past…
Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist and author of the book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies, seems to get me and all the others who look with yearning to the past. At the same time, though, he reminds us that while we look at the past and at its reflection in the traditional societies which flourish outside of our little urban affluence circles, we must do so with clear vision and honesty.
“Perhaps we could benefit by selectively adopting some of those traditional practices. Some of us already do so, with demonstrated benefits to our health and happiness. In some respects we moderns are misfits; our bodies and our practices now face conditions different from those under which they evolved, and to which they became adapted.
But we should also not go to the opposite extreme of romanticizing the past and longing for simpler times. Many traditional practices are ones that we can consider ourselves blessed to have discarded—such as infanticide, abandoning or killing elderly people, facing periodic risk of starvation, being at heightened risk from environmental dangers and infectious diseases, often seeing one’s children die, and living in constant fear of being attacked. Traditional societies may not only suggest to us some better living practices, but may also help us appreciate some advantages of our own society that we take for granted.”
This is a lengthy and fascinating work, which touches on all aspects of life, from birth to death and everything in between, exploring how we interact with one another and our world and the structures and traditions which dictate and reflect our beliefs.
Of particular interest to me was the third part of the book, in which he discusses how we birth and rear our children and how we treat our elderly. In “Bringing Up Children,” he points out that most commonly accepted theories regarding what makes children tick (including those proposed by Piaget, Freud, Erikson) are based on studies of and by weirdoes. Well no, he didn’t really say that, but I did smile at his acronym WEIRD (Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic), and how little this population has to do with the rest of the non-weird world. The value, he reminds us, of looking towards traditional societies is that through them we can inform our own decisions on how to better understand and develop self and society.
In our world we often forget that not that long ago we were all hunter-gatherers. Indeed Diamond notes that these societies existed for tens of thousands of years before the development of farming some 11,000 years ago, and the first state government and writing approximately 5,400 years ago, all of which brought about, at least in some societies, relatively rapid change.
Relatively rapid, but not nearly as shockingly rapid as that of the Highlands of New Guinea, first visited by Diamond in the early 60’s. His opening paragraphs describe what one might have found there in the early 1930’s when this area was basically untouched and isolated from the world as we know it, which he contrasts with what one finds there now. A mere 75 years ago the New Guinea Highlands lacked basically all that we associate with modernity (or better said, all that we take for granted about it), which includes not only material possessions, but also money, metal, schools, writing, and a centralized government. In the span of just one generation they have progressed at lightning speed through the processes of development which took other societies thousands of years to reach, with results understandably both positive and negative.
Throughout the book is the simple equation we all know about how a little exercise, eating real food and spending time with people, not screens, can not only enhance our lives, but prolong them. But even beyond that, Diamond uses the nearly forty traditional societies he studied and discusses to illustrate not only our differences but also our similarities, to remind us of what we have discarded in our race to have more, be more, make more, and how we might just want to retrace our steps and reconsider what we’ve left behind. We have a whole world and its histories to offer us insight into ourselves where we might indeed find more commonality than with the results of experiments performed on test groups of white educated college psych majors. As Diamond says in his conclusion…
“The societies to which most readers of this book belong represent a narrow slice of human cultural diversity. Societies from that slice achieved world dominance not because of a general superiority, but for specific reasons: their technological, political, and military advantages derived from their early origins of agriculture, due in turn to their productive local wild domesticable plant and animal species. Despite those particular advantages, modern industrial societies didn’t also develop superior approaches to raising children, treating the elderly, settling disputes, avoiding non-communicable diseases, and other societal problems. Thousands of traditional societies developed a wide array of different approaches to those problems.”
There is so much about ourselves and others we don’t understand, so many ways to look at the roots of our behavior and our societies and how we might better them. So it’s not unwise to turn the hands of time to the left, for looking back can actually help us gain better purchase on the often rocky road ahead.