Monday, April 1, 2013

What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

I recently finished reading The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond.  Before writing this review I looked for reviews of his books and was surprised at all the controversy he has generated.  Most reviewers of this book have given undue attention to Diamond's previous work and don't cover much of the content in his most recent work.

I can understand why Diamond generates so much controversy, he makes bold claims and doesn't give them adequate support.  He does reference many works in his book, but the book is dominated by stories of his own personal experience and things his friends have told him.  Of course, Diamond doesn't claim to be a scientist, his books are non-fiction but that's not to say that everything in them is 100% accurate.

If The World Until Yesterday were a fictional book, it would be entertaining and spark the imagination of whoever read it.  But it's not, so we have to question Diamond's conclusions with a healthy degree of skepticism.  Clearly the New Guinean people are culturally different from most people who speak English (and most people who speak the thousands of language not spoken in New Guinea), and language is just one of the barriers of communication between different cultures.  Diamond claims to have an understanding of New Guinean culture, but it's not clear that he does.

Diamond's claims are difficult to disprove.  It's pretty clear that they have a negative effect on the New Guinean tourism industry.  His claims about cannibalism in New Guinea aren't that different from the claims that the Natives of the Carribean were cannibals.  There is no concrete evidence of either.  So while Diamond does inform people of cultural differences, this information isn't 100% accurate and the reader of The World Until Yesterday can't tell what parts are inaccurate without doing some research on their own.

One could interpret Diamond's motives in writing very cynically.  You could say he's profiting from telling lies about cultures that have been oppressed.  That he's an agent of Christian, Western, and Corporate Imperialism.  He is critical of some Western cultural practices but he makes it clear that he prefers living in Los Angeles to New Guinea.  He may be informing people who are extremely ignorant about culture, but he's not enabling Westerners to appreciate New Guinean culture the same way that Westerners appreciate Chinese and other Eastern cultures.  He's just giving people a model of culture that is less wrong than models created by imperialists.

It's worth noting that Diamond is a victim of the same phenomena he is creating with his books.  He's descended from Eastern European jews who had the foresight to come to the USA before the Holocaust.  When Diamond was growing up, people were misinformed about jews and judaism, even in the USA.  Diamond has escaped many of the stereotypes jews have suffered from over the course of his life, but he's created a new set of stereotypes for another group of people.