LONDON — I’ve spent less than three minutes in Jared Diamond’s company when he assures me he doesn’t pose a threat to my life.
“I can promise you that I have not made a move to kill you yet,” the 75-year-old says solemnly. “Nor have I detected any move on your part to kill me. But in a traditional society, both of us would have made a move to kill each other by now, or else run away.”
A best-selling author and veteran member of UCLA’s geography department, Diamond would know.
Over a light breakfast at a central London hotel, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner is discussing his latest book, “The World Until Yesterday,” which examines behavioral differences between people in traditional, stateless societies and those in the modern, industrialized world.
Diamond’s argument is fairly simple: If states only came into existence 5,400 years ago, and agriculture began 11,000 years ago, humans have spent much of their existence as hunter-gatherers. There are lessons to be learned from that earlier way of life.
Bolstered by five decades of field-research trips to New Guinea, Diamond’s book relies on a mix of personal anecdotes and academic research to prove his thesis: that ancient forms of raising children, spending leisure time and communicating are often superior to their modern, First World counterparts.
But Diamond’s praise for the tribal lifestyle comes with provisos.
“Traditional societies do things that we disapprove of,” he notes. “Some of them abandon their elderly. Some of them kill their babies if they happen to be weak. We in the West think that is terrible. But they do it not because they are evil, but simply because they are living under a certain set of circumstances.”
Born in Boston and educated at Harvard and Cambridge, Diamond doesn’t get involved in moralizing, although his books often provoke ethical debate. His 1997 best-seller, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” was awarded a Pulitzer for asking a loaded question: why European civilization, and not other societies, conquered and dominated much of the world for centuries. (Diamond’s answer, convincingly argued over hundreds of pages, is provided by the book’s title.)
When I ask whether humans are inherently bloodthirsty or peaceful, he responds, politely, that it’s a pointless question. People’s behavior, he argues, is always a matter of circumstances.
In state-run societies, institutions such as the police, justice system and democratic government all help to minimize violence, Diamond claims. It’s a fascinating argument coming from a scholar whose father arrived in the United States to escape anti-Jewish pogroms in Ukraine.
Because traditional societies lack the vast bureaucratic apparatus of the state, he goes on, residents are in a perpetual state of war.
“Just look at the deaths caused by Germany participating in two World Wars in the 20th century,” he says. “Although this was no doubt horrible, it was also averaged out in a century in which they were no [other] wars [in Western Europe] for 90 years. In traditional societies, without a state government to declare war or to sign a peace treaty, wars tend to be chronic.”
“In state warfare,” he continues, “it is considered bad and evil to kill women and children — even in Germany on the western front in World War II.
“The eastern front was another matter, [but] it was not the policy to kill women and children. But in traditional societies, it’s routine to kill women and children in war. So the outcome overall is that the death toll in traditional societies is 10 times higher than in state societies.”
In his chapter on war, Diamond stresses that peaceful traditional societies do exist, an addendum that hasn’t stopped some critics from assailing the book anyway.
In a recent article in England’s Observer, Stephen Corry, an activist on behalf of “tribal peoples,” bashed “The World Until Yesterday” as “completely wrong — both factually and morally — and extremely dangerous.”
‘In traditional societies, it’s routine to kill women and children in war’
Corry’s London-based organization, Survival International, disputes Diamond’s findings, claiming the author cherry-picked his statistics.
The 75-year-old fired back, accusing the charity of indulging in a simplistic, antiquated worldview that categorizes people as either “noble savages” or “us, who are the real brutes.”
“The average percentage of people who die of violence in traditional societies versus state societies,” he reiterates, “is 10 times higher. The question one needs to ask, then, is why on earth is Survival International denying this fact?”
“As an organization,” he goes on, “they are saying traditional societies are not warlike. The reality is that they are. Essentially, we both have the same goals: to protect indigenous people. But tragically, they are founding those goals on a lie, whereas my argument is based on fact.”
Many reviewers have zeroed in on Diamond’s arguments about traditional societies, but the book touches on other subjects, including his views on religion.
While Diamond himself is a non-practicing Jew, he reports that his wife attends High Holiday services, and that his twin sons had bar mitzvahs.
He speaks proudly of his cultural background, despite his own atheism, calling his family’s transition from Yiddish to English “a terrible loss.”
Scheduled to accept Israel’s Wolf Prize from President Shimon Peres in May, Diamond has kept his eye on the Middle East, even drawing a bit of inspiration from the region for his latest work.
“In my book, I discuss an incident in 2006, during the Lebanon War, where people in the Israeli town of Safed were being subjected to rocket attacks,” he says. “It turned out that those Israelis who were chanting psalms managed to defuse their anxiety.”
“An evolutionary and common-sense perspective,” he says, “would say that some societies would have eventually abolished religion by now, that atheist societies should gain an advantage over religious societies. But this is not the case.”