Open Book

Is Now Really Better?

Lessons from Traditional Societies

Magazine Issue
May/June 2013
Open Book, May/June 2013

“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.

How is this applicable for the West? Putting reconciliation and mediation first surely could serve families in civil law cases having to do with divorce, family inheritance feuds, and other domestic issues, Diamond suggests. “Far from helping to resolve feelings, court proceedings often make feelings worse than they were before.” As he points out, “All of us know disputants whose relationship became poisoned for the rest of their lives by their court experience.” It’s a sentiment with which many psychotherapists and lawyers would heartily agree, and which some states have already signed on to, in terms of requiring mediation prior to divorce. This is an area that cries out for more study by both the legal and the psychotherapeutic communities.

Moving on to family life, Diamond notes that children in hunter-gatherer societies seem more emotionally secure, independent, and curious than kids reared here—not just to him, but to other Westerners who’ve spent time in traditional cultures. He has no studies to back up this impression, but he nonetheless wonders if this greater self-confidence is due, at least in part, to such traditional practices as “the long nursing period, sleeping near parents for several years, far more social models available to children through allo-parenting [provided by adults in addition to the biological parents], far more social stimulation through constant physical contact and proximity of caretakers, instant caretaker responses to a child’s crying, and the minimal amount of physical punishment.” Despite the lack of scientific proof, he avers that the long-term success of these methods in these societies makes them worth a try. In this, he seems a bit behind the Western “now,” where some of these practices have been gaining traction for decades.

At the same time, unfortunately, too many of the current realities in Western life—parents’ overly long working hours, the lack of funding for community support systems, and overuse of digital games that double as babysitters—make the goal of more interactive parent–child time seem admirable rather than realistic. One possibility: take a lesson from the positive ways in which some traditional societies value their elders and organize programs that regularly bring seniors into more direct contact with young people to be potential mentors. It would be a new twist on allo-parenting that could be beneficial to many generations simultaneously.

Diamond is particularly persuasive in his case for a mindset he calls “constructive paranoia.” The idea is that it’s self-protective to become vigilant to the signs of the many low-risk but frequent hazards we face repeatedly. For traditional societies, this encompasses the possibility of lion attacks, dead trees falling over, or an enemy ambush in the forest; for us, traffic accidents, heart attack warnings, and icy sidewalks. While traditional societies learned the importance of continuous awareness to potential danger from life-and-death experiences, too often we in the West take our continued well-being for granted—at our own peril. We assume that we won’t fall asleep at the wheel, no matter how little we’ve slept the night before, or that the taxi will stop at the red light, rather than speed through and catch us, texting unawares, as we cross the street. Diamond speculates that, in addition to training themselves to be alert as a survival instinct, traditional societies further help guard against negative occurrences by continually and constantly talking to one another about every last detail of their daily lives, including minute observations about any change in behavior, weather pattern, strangers approaching, newly fallen trees, or animal tracks. Rather than being boring, such conversations serve up information that helps instill and refine the instinct for caution as they go about their lives. In our case, adopting such a mindset—and listening for nuggets of advice in someone’s seemingly endless tale of medical ills—might help us bypass an avoidable pitfall.

Diamond continues with a (literally) stomach-churning chapter about the public health crisis wrought in traditional societies by the Western diet. When he visited New Guinea in the early 1960s, Diamond reports, “The non-communicable diseases that kill most First World citizens today—diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart attacks, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular diseases in general, and cancers—were rare or unknown among traditional New Guineans living in rural areas.” But the introduction of Western lifestyles into many of these areas has brought, within decades, high rates of these diseases. The culprits, as he sums them up, are “salt, sugar, fat and sloth.”

We all need to teach—and learn from—each other to eat less, consume more healthfully, and exercise. How to do that is the subject for another book entirely. But in the meantime, the lessons Diamond distills in this book provide plenty of food for thought.


Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.