What Traditional Societies Can Teach You About Life

A new book from best-selling author Jared Diamond tells us how we can learn a lot from people who live like most of us did 11,000 years ago

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Well, here’s a banal thing to adopt in our lives, but it’s very important: to think very clearly about dangers and hazards. If you ask Americans what they’re worried about, you’d probably hear people talk about terrorists and radiation and cancer-causing chemicals. Well, forget it, that’s not what’s going to kill most of us. A real hazard is cars, driving ourselves, or those other crazy drivers out there. Another example, especially when one gets older, is slipping in the shower. Each day I think, “Wow, now that I’ve taken a shower, I’ve done the most dangerous thing that I’m going to do today.”

You have described people in traditional societies as having a “constructive paranoia” about danger. I was surprised that they were less willing to take risks than we sometimes are.

There’s a reason for that. If I take a risk—for example, if I slip and break something—then I go to the hospital, and I’ll get fixed (unless I’m 85 years old, in which case my chances are not so good). Whereas if a New Guinean falls, there’s not a doctor who’s going to come bail you out. Instead, your foot may get mis-set in a way that’s going to leave you crippled for the rest of your life.

Is it possible for us to take away the wrong lessons from traditional societies?

Absolutely. Lots of people have the attitude that those who still live in traditional societies are barbarians and they should come into the modern world as fast as possible. The opposite view is that lots of people romanticize traditional societies and say, “Ah, they have the wisdom of the ages. They’re nice. They’re peaceful. We can learn from them.” There’s lots of wonderful stuff in them that we can learn from. But in fact, traditional societies do lots of horrible things, and thank God they’re over, such as strangling widows or putting their old people out on an iceberg. So we should neither romanticize traditional societies—there’s a lot that I think really is awful in them—nor should we despise them.

You show how there are lessons we can learn from the awful things, as well. I’m thinking especially about what tribal warfare teaches us.

This is something close to my own experience—secondhand, because my wife is a clinical psychologist, and one of her specialties is soldiers who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. In our society, until a young man is 18, he is taught, “Thou shalt not kill.” Then, at age 18, you give him a gun and say, “Now you shall kill under certain circumstances.” The dilemma is that we raise our kids one way for years and then we tell them to behave in an opposite way, and that is very confusing.

Warfare is widespread among traditional societies. They never get taught at age two, “Thou shalt not kill.” Instead, they get taught, “For heaven sakes, do kill, do kill those evil people next door, and here’s the dead body of your uncle who just got killed. When you’re a little older, you’re going to take revenge.” There is a way you can apply the lesson, and that is to understand that we’ve acquired inhibitions about killing, but on the other hand, if somebody kills your buddy, boy, you certainly want revenge. We’re brought up to believe revenge is bad, it’s primitive, you should get beyond that. We need to realize that it’s perfectly natural to have feelings of revenge. We should not act on them, but we should not deny them, and we should work them out and express them in a safe form.

You’ve been traveling to New Guinea for many years. Does it sadden you to see people giving up traditional ways?

The bad outcomes are sad. When people move into the cities and can’t get a job because they had enough schooling not to want to be a farmer, but not to be able to get a good job, and as a result they turn to crime, yes, that’s sad. But it’s not sad for them to want to send their children to school and want to have enough to eat so they don’t starve to death. It’s not sad to see New Guineans not trapped in cycles of revenge warfare. When New Guineans see the Western world, there’s a lot that they want, and for good reason.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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