I’m a big fan of the author Jared Diamond. His book Guns, Germs, and Steel had a huge impact on how I understand world history. I also enjoyed his latest, The World Until Yesterday, which I reviewed here. Professor Diamond was kind enough to respond to a few of my comments about the book.
BILL GATES: Reading The World Until Yesterday, I thought about how it fits in the context of some of your other books. Guns, Germs, and Steel is about why some societies advance faster than others. Collapse is about why some societies fail. This book is more personal, because you draw on a lot of your own experiences. But it also makes a larger argument about what we can learn from traditional societies.
This book originated with my idea of writing a somewhat autobiographical book about my experiences in New Guinea for the last 50 years. I found New Guineans fascinating, and I wanted to share with readers my fascination.
When I proposed that to my editor, my editor said, “Jared, people don’t want a little autobiographical book from you. They want a big book summarizing everything about the world for thousands of years.”
So my observations became the frosting on the cake. The cake itself is scholarly studies by people who’ve lived with about 39 traditional societies around the world, and their observations on various aspects of those societies.
I imagine a lot of readers come to this book with stereotypes about traditional societies: either that they are at one with nature and totally peaceful, or that they are ruthless and warlike. In fact before I read the book, I wondered whether you would romanticize the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But you present quite a nuanced view.
For much of the past several centuries, people from Europe and Americans have viewed traditional societies, including our Native American societies, as groups who should be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible or dragged into the modern age whether they like it or not.
The opposite view idealizes traditional people as tree-hugging, peaceful environmentalists who don’t have war and are not subject to all the evil things that began with our state governments.
Both of those extremes, of course, are unrealistic because people are people.
In some cases what goes on in traditional society is pretty terrible and our reaction is, “Thank God we’re through with that,” such as uninterrupted tribal warfare. In other cases what goes on in traditional societies most of us would admire, and many of us can adopt it ourselves individually, such as the way they bring up children.
You write about the violence in traditional societies. It made me think of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which shows how and why the world has become a less violent place over the centuries. One factor is the growth of centralized governments that have a monopoly on punishing people. You’ve seen examples where police come in to an area for the first time. As soon as they make it clear that the first guy to take revenge will go to prison, the levels of violence drop very quickly.
During my first trip to New Guinea in 1964, I was working at an Australian post in an area where there were 20,000 New Guineans. There was one Australian patrol officer, and there was one British schoolteacher, and there were four native police. The patrol officer and the four native police had guns. There were 20,000 New Guineans without guns but with bow and arrow.
The New Guineans had been fighting with each other until a few years before that. So the Australians would come in, they’d make examples of New Guineans who did fight by arresting them. The Australian patrol eventually marched away, leaving this one patrol officer and four policemen and their five guns.
It’s perfectly obvious that if those 20,000 New Guineans had wanted to resume fighting, it would have been the simplest thing in the world to kill or ambush the patrol officer and the four policemen. It’s not the mighty military power of those five guns that are keeping the 20,000 people from fighting.
The reason is that in traditional New Guinea there was not a higher authority that could order an end to warfare. And so New Guineans were caught up in these almost endless cycles of revenge and counter revenge. New Guineans knew better than I or any of my readers what they suffered from warfare.
I should add that it’s not the case that all traditional societies are universally violent. It appears that hunter-gatherers living in low population density are less violent than settled, sedentary farming societies because the farming societies can have borders that they can police. It’s also the case that societies that don’t have anything valuable worth defending are less likely to fight.
One of the key points I got from the book is the way our genes are shaped by our past in hunter-gatherer societies, whether it’s goal-seeking, procreation, or other behaviors. It seems clear that some of that is hard-wired. You can take humans and put them into virtually any situation and they will behave in certain ways.
The human evolutionary line has been a separate evolutionary line that diverged from the evolutionary line of chimpanzees 6 million years ago. It’s only about 10,500 years ago that agriculture emerged. Everybody was living in bands and tribes until the first chiefdom arose only about 7,500 years ago.
So we’ve evolved under traditional conditions for a very long time, and it’s only within the last 10,000 years that the stuff that we take for granted, like state governments, has arrived, and that hasn’t given much time for genetic change.
Now, I have to add there has been some genetic change. We’ve gotten genetic change in some populations that allows us to drink milk as adults, whereas there wasn’t any human on the face of the earth who drank milk as an adult before probably about 8,000 years ago.
You have a section in the book on what you call constructive paranoia. It’s interesting how a lot of people worry a lot about certain bad things happening to them that are very remote possibilities, and they don’t think much at all about everyday dangers that can add up to significant risk. You talk about how New Guineans are smarter about calculating risk and how you apply that approach in your own life.
I personally have gotten much more careful about taking showers. I realize people say, “Jared, that’s ridiculous. Your chances of falling in the shower are one in one thousand.” Yes, they may be one in one thousand, but then do the math. I’m 75. Statistically I’m expected to live to 90. If I take a shower every day, that’s 5,475 showers. If I reduce my risk to one in a thousand, that means I’m going to kill myself five and a half times before I reach my life expectancy at age 90.
And so I worry that taking a shower is the most dangerous thing I’ll do today. I also stood on a stepladder, the second most dangerous thing that I’ll do today.