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Is Now Really Better?

Lessons from traditional societies

By Diane Cole

The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
By Jared Diamond
Viking. 499 pp.
ISBN: 9780670024810
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“NOW IS BETTER.” The bold logo, emblazoned on a stylish tote bag, caught my eye recently at a favorite museum shop. The tote cleverly served as both self-help logo and advertisement for the contemporary art exhibition I’d just viewed. The high-concept show had centered on the psychology of human happiness, and this was one of its chief precepts. But as appealing as the slogan was at first sight, upon further reflection, it seemed insufferably smug.

I’d just read the multidisciplinary scientist and bestselling author Jared Diamond’s provocative new book, The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? and one of his first lessons is that we don’t all live in the same “now”—or even necessarily share the same psychological assumptions or expectations. Indeed, he writes, “Psychologists base most of their generalizations about human nature on studies of our own narrow and atypical slice of human diversity.” As a result, he continues, “Most of our understanding of human psychology is based on subjects who may be described by the acronym WEIRD: from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies.”

By contrast, his decades of living for extended periods among traditional peoples in isolated regions of the Pacific Islands has taught Diamond just how weird Western societies can seem when seen through the lens of small-scale societies. To begin with, he writes, “Many of my New Guinea friends count differently (by visual mapping rather than by abstract numbers), select their wives or husbands differently, treat their parents and their children differently, view danger differently, and have a different concept of friendship.”

To Diamond, who’s a serious scholar (a professor of geography at UCLA) and a master of making scholarly ideas accessible (as in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel) these differences provide an opportunity to rethink how our particular WEIRD “now” evolved—and the benefits and losses incurred in that journey. Yet Diamond’s purpose in taking us with him as he explores the organizational structures, cultural practices, and ways of living that have been forgotten or just plain jettisoned by Western modernity is neither to wistfully romanticize traditional cultures as “simpler” nor to discredit Western progress as soulless consumerism. He’s not about to advocate that we give up modern hygiene and medical resources, and has no desire to revive indigenous practices that strike us as nothing less than heinous—like infanticide, strangling widows, or abandoning the old to die when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

His goal is to sift through old ideas for reconsideration, with clear eyes and an open mind. With one foot planted in the “now” of Western culture and the other spanning the traditional cultures he’s studied, he makes a compelling case for the ways in which reincorporating at least some of these old ways can pay off—in wisdom and perhaps even economically—in our modern-day world.

He begins with the ways in which small-scale societies of New Guinea maintain law and order and regulate disputes, both among members of one tribal group and between different groups. Precisely because these societies are so small, both parties in a dispute—whether related to land, theft, or accidental death—are likely to know each other, and may even be members of the same extended family. Unlike in litigation in large cities, where the two parties will most likely be strangers, in these villages, the disputants will continue to encounter each other and farm, hunt, or trade together in the normal course of daily life. That’s why, in these societies, pointing blame, deciding who’s right or wrong, and meting out punishment through the kind of lengthy, adversarial trial system we practice in the West would be counterproductive. It would likely divide village members against one another, disrupt the smooth functioning of the community necessary for its survival, and even risk a cycle of revenge killings.

Instead, for New Guineans, finding “justice” hinges on restoring the previous relationship to what it had been before, with both sides being able to save face, reconcile, and clear the air so they can get on with their individual and communal lives. To avoid lingering grievances, this all should happen as quickly as possible, through mediation (often with the help of mutually respected leaders) and rituals of compensation—such as gifts of food and goods, or a shared feast.

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