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Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ Is Completely Wrong

Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, is completely wrong, writes Stephen Corry. According to Diamond, they need, and welcome, state intervention to stop their violent behavior. Corry argues that this is merely a political opinion, backed by questionable and spurious data. He sees Diamond’s position as one of supporting colonial ideas about ‘pacifying savages’ and says it is factually and morally wrong.

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Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, is completely wrong, writes Stephen Corry, Trailer Park Proyects

Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, is completely wrong, writes Stephen Corry. Diamond argues that industrialized people  (‘modern’) can learn from tribal peoples (‘traditional’) because they show how everyone lived until a few thousand years ago. Corry agrees that ‘we’ can learn from tribes, but counters they represent no more of a throwback to our past than anyone else does. He shows that Diamond’s other—and dangerous—message is that most tribes engage in constant warfare. According to Diamond, they need, and welcome, state intervention to stop their violent behavior. Corry argues that this is merely a political opinion, backed by questionable and spurious data. He sees Diamond’s position as one of supporting colonial ideas about ‘pacifying savages’ and says it is factually and morally wrong.

I ought to like this book: after all, I have spent decades saying we can learn from tribal peoples, and that is, or so we are told, Jared Diamond’s principal message in his new “popular science” work, The World Until Yesterday. But is it really?

‘The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?’

by Jared Diamond.

512 p. Viking Adult. $20.89

Diamond has been commuting for 50 years between the U.S. and New Guinea to study birds, and he must know the island and some of its peoples well. He has spent time in both halves, Papua New Guinea and Indonesian-occupied West Papua. He is in no doubt that New Guineans are just as intelligent as anyone, and he has clearly thought a lot about the differences between them and societies like his, which he terms Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (“WEIRD”). He calls the latter “modern.”

Had he left it at that, he would have at least upset only some experts in New Guinea, who think his characterizations miss the point. But he goes further, overreaching considerably by adding a number of other, what he terms “traditional” societies, and then generalizing wildly. His information here is largely gleaned from social scientists, particularly (for those in South America) from the studies of American anthropologists, Napoleon Chagnon, and Kim Hill, who crop up several times.

It is true that Diamond does briefly mention, in passing, that all such societies have “been partly modified by contact,” but he has still decided they are best thought about as if they lived more or less as all humankind did until the “earliest origins of agriculture around 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent,” as he puts it. That is his unequivocal message, and the meaning of “yesterday” in his title. This is a common mistake, and Diamond wastes little of his very long book trying to support it. The dust jacket, which he must agree with even if he did not actually write it, makes the astonishingly overweening claim that “tribal societies offer an extraordinary window into how our ancestors lived for millions of years” (my emphasis).

This is nonsense. Many scientists debunk the idea that contemporary tribes reveal anything significantly more about our ancestors, of even a few thousand years ago, than we all do. Obviously, self-­sufficiency is and was an important component of the ways of life of both; equally obviously, neither approach or approached the heaving and burgeoning populations visible in today’s cities. In these senses, any numerically small and largely self-­sufficient society might provide something of a model of ancient life, at least in some respects. Nevertheless, tribal peoples are simply not replicas of our ancestors.

Britain’s foremost expert on prehistoric man, Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum, for example, routinely cautions against seeing modern hunter-­gatherers as “living fossils,” and repeatedly emphasizes that, like everyone else, their “genes, cultures and behaviors” have continued to evolve to the present. They must have changed, of course, or they simply would not have survived.

The real problem with Diamond’s book, and it is a very big one, is that he thinks “traditional” societies do nasty things that cry out for the intervention of state governments to stop.

It is important to note that, although Diamond’s thesis is that we were all once “hunter-­gatherers” and that this is the main key to them being seen as our window into the past, in fact most New Guineans do little hunting. They live principally from cultivations, as they probably have for millennia. Diamond barely slips in the fact that their main foodstuff, sweet potato, was probably imported from the Americas, perhaps a few hundred or a thousand years ago. No one agrees on how this came about, but it is just one demonstration that “globalization” and change have impacted on Diamond’s “traditional” peoples for just as long as on everyone else. Disturbingly, Diamond knows these things, but he does not allow them to spoil his conclusions.

But he has come up with a list of practices he thinks we should learn from “traditional” societies, and all this is well and good, though little of it appears particularly radical or novel. He believes we (Americans, at least) should make more effort to put criminals on a better track, and try to rehabilitate rather than merely punish. He feels we should carry our babies more, and ensure they’re facing forward when we cart them around (which is slightly odd because most strollers and many baby carriers face forward anyway). He pleads with us to value old people more … and proffers much similar advice. These “self-­help manual” sections of the book are pretty unobjectionable, even occasionally thought-­provoking, though it is difficult to see what impact they might really have on rich Westerners or governments.

Having spent time in New Guinea and having closely monitored Indonesia's brutal repression of the peoples of West Papua for more than 17 years, it's Diamond's assertion that, 'New Guineans appreciated the benefits of the state-guaranteed peace that they had been unable to achieve for themselves without state government' that I find most astonishing and offensive.

I've recently been reading some of the reactions of Papua New Guineans after their first contacts with outsiders. There's not much to be grateful for there either. There are some very grim descriptions of colonial violence that are strikingly similar to reports still coming out of West Papua about the way that indonesian soldiers kill and torture Papuans there.  

The following describes what happened when, in the 1930s,  a colonial patrol set off with enough supplies for a month on a journey that ended up taking them more than 5 months. The people who they encountered were  previously uncontacted and thought they were spirits. They were terrified of them and wouldn't accept any of the gifts they were offering in exchange for food:

The report says,

The further on the patrol went the more often it had to resort to violence to secure food. In one encounter with the Wola, the patrol found itself in a narrow defile and fighting broke out after further miscommunication and cultural incomprehension. The devastating rifle fire and close quarter shooting with service revolvers killed and wounded over fourteen Wola. Recalls Leda: 'They shot my cross-cousin Huruwumb, and I went to see him. You could see his liver exposed. They kept sending me to fetch water for him to drink because he was thirsty. Back and forth, I kept going to fetch water for him. He lived in agony for three days. On the fourth day he died.' One of the Wola women, Tensgay, remembers other gruesome wounds:

"Kal Aenknais had his thighs and lower torso smashed. Completely pulverised here and here. He kept groaning 'Oh! Ah!'. I saw him. He died later. Wounded in the guts he was. His intestines were punctured. When he was given water to drink, to cool him off, it came spurting out of the holes in his body. Then there was Obil. His eyes were blown clean out of his head. When they landed on the path they wriggled around and around for ages. He died too. And then there was that poor blighter - aah - whose entrails were shot out. His intestines and stomach were blasted right out of his body..."

After the massacre, the white officers sent the coastal police men to get food from the village. Coming on the village hut they found the women and children cowering inside. Tengsay recalls the scene:

"We were terrified... They tore open the door of our house and demanded everything. Puliym's mother released the pigs one at a time and drove them out of the door to them waiting outside...They tore off the front of the house, attacked it with axes and bushknives... They took the pigs one at a time and shot them outside. After they killed them they singed off the bristles over a fire made from the wood torn from our house. Then they butchered them ready to carry off... After they had killed and prepared the pigs they turned on us. We didn't see well what was going on. We were cowering inside. They returned and stood there [about three metres away] anÏd fired their guns into the house. They shot Hiyt Ibiziym, Bat Maemuw, my sister, Ndin, Maeniy and me. That's six of us... We were so frightened that we were all dizzy and faint... We slumped in a sort of stupefied state. Who was there to bandage our wounds with moss and leaves?... we just slumped indoors. We didn't think anything. All we felt was terror and dizziness. I was sort of senseless... Well, they didn't rape any women. That was done by later patrols, when they not only stole our pigs but our women too, and broke into our houses and smashed up our possessions, like our bows and things. They even excreted in our fireplaces".

These hardly suggests a people trapped in a cycle of violence grateful to have their uncontrollable violence ended by the imposition of colonial rule.