Scientist illuminates worth of traditional societies today

by Tetsuji Ida

Kyodo

Modern societies may have developed powerful political governments and more advanced technologies, but at the same time valuable wisdom and lessons accumulated through human history often become a forgotten past.

Drawing on his decades-long career of extensive research in biology, cultural anthropology and other fields, American scientist Jared Diamond suggests in his latest book “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” that the modern world has much to learn from traditional societies, such as differing approaches to resolve universal human problems like child-rearing, treatment of the elderly and conflict resolution.

“Traditional societies constitute thousands of experiments in how to run a human society, thousands of different ways in bringing up children and in treating old people,” Diamond said in a recent interview when the book came out in Japanese.

He noted that the birth of modern civilization and establishment of the nation-state, which are taken as a matter of course nowadays, are only very recent events in terms of human history.

There is much to learn from the experiences of traditional, small-scale societies that have existed extensively around the world until virtually yesterday, he said.

For example, old people have lost their traditional value in society, Diamond said, describing this as an “enormous” loss for modern society.

“If in Japan you want to know what is the capital of France, you don’t walk down the street until you find someone 80 years old and ask him what’s the capital of France,” he said. “Instead, you’ll look it up in a book or you’ll Google it. So, old people have lost their value that they had in preliterate societies as repositories of knowledge.”

“But . . . they are the best teachers, they are the best administrators, they are the best advisers,” he said, referring to their wisdom on dealing with difficult life situations and so forth.

Therefore, compulsory retirement is “a terrible disadvantage for the Japanese society to throw away your oldest, most experienced members,” he said.

His book explores other examples, such as how babies in Papua New Guinea spend 90 percent of their first year after birth in physical contact with their mothers and other caretakers, or how elderly women of hunter-gatherer tribes in Tanzania spend an average of seven hours a day in forests gathering honey and fruits.

Born in Boston, Diamond studied biology and physiology at Harvard University and other institutions.

He first developed an interest in traditional societies when in New Guinea for research on birds. Since then, he has authored a number of books combining a rich variety of fieldwork and research he conducted around the world.

Among his well-known best-sellers are “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” and “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”

Diamond is currently a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. At 75, he continues to conduct fieldwork in New Guinea.