Jared Diamond: a Doomsayer Finds Hope
Credit: Courtesy Jared Diamond

In his new book, 'The World Until Yesterday,' Jared Diamond concedes that modern life has a lot going for it. We've doubled our life spans and shaken many of the grim realities of our old hunter-gatherer selves – when we travel to a nearby town, we don't expect to be immediately attacked and killed by its citizens; we don't encourage our elders to commit suicide to free up valuable resources. But for all those steps forward, we've also set ourselves back: We're being stalked by our own hypertensive hearts, and our social independence comes with a certain amount of loneliness. But those aren't inevitable trade-offs, Diamond argues. Traditional, tribal societies offer thousands of "natural experiments" in how best to raise children, assess risk, grow old, and settle arguments. "The book was initially going to be about my experiences in New Guinea," says Diamond, "but it evolved into a much bigger book about the perceptions of traditional, tribal people all over the world and what we can learn from them." As he did in his earlier works, 'Guns, Germs & Steel' and 'Collapse,' Diamond draws on his four decades of research in New Guinea – home to 1,000 of the world's 7,000 languages and some of the last "uncontacted" peoples on Earth.

Don't be a pig
Most of us living in modern states will die from diabetes, stroke, heart attack, or cancer – conditions virtually unknown among traditional people. "We get sick of hearing: Exercise, don't overeat, don't take in too much sugar or salt – so what can I add to it?" asks Diamond, who just turned 75. "If you really follow that advice, you live like a modern New Guinean. In New Guinea, literally nobody gets heart disease; nobody dies of stroke. Both men and women end up looking like lean bodybuilders – the payoff of a healthy lifestyle is that heart disease and diabetes and stroke can be eliminated almost completely." In the Highlands of New Guinea, that traditionally meant getting 90 percent of calories from root vegetables like sweet potato and taro, lugging heavy loads up steep slopes, and, when not burdened, commuting along mountain trails at a jog. In contrast, a lone Big Mac can contain more sodium than Brazil's Yanomami Indians consume in a month.

Sweat the small stuff
When we talk about danger, we tend to worry about terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear accidents. But traditional people, says Diamond, are cautious, conservative realists who know that life's true hazards are hidden in daily routine – for us, crossing streets, climbing step ladders, driving. "I learned in New Guinea to be superattentive to how humble dangers catch up with you," says Diamond, whose attempt, years ago, to persuade some New Guineans to camp with him under "a gorgeous old tree" woke him up to the wisdom of their "constructive paranoia." "They freaked out, wouldn't sleep under the tree. But after I spent a lot of time in the jungle, I realized that every night, I could hear a tree falling. And if you're going to spend a lot of time in the jungle, sleeping under dead trees, within a year or two, you're going to be killed by a dead tree."

Hug it out
Modern, Western litigiousness makes it all but impossible to sit down face-to-face and resolve differences. But in traditional societies, says Diamond, the focus is on restoring relationships, since feuding parties have to keep living and working together. In 'The World Until Yesterday,' Diamond makes a strong case for settling some of our own disputes – from divorce to manslaughter – through mediated conversation outside of the courts. He tells the story of a New Guinean boy struck by a passing car; after a few tense days, a reconciliation was brokered, making it possible for "the dead child's family and the child's accidental killers, previously strangers, to sit down and cry together and share a meal." The families made peace, even as the civil case crawled through New Guinea's modern court system over the next two and a half years – ultimately without resolution.

For Diamond, the oldest remedies offer new hope. "I'm a cautious optimist," he says. "I'm not saying we're on the way to solving all our problems, but I would say our problems are ones that we can solve if we choose to."