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November 5, 2013

Host: Richard Ruelas

Author Jared Diamond

  • Pulitzer-prize winning author Jared Diamond, author of “Guns, Germs and Steel,” is out with a new book: “The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies.” Diamond will discuss his new book.
  • Jared Diamond - Author
Category: The Arts   |   Keywords: author,

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Richard Ruelas: Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond, author of "Guns, Germs and Steel," is out with a new book. "The World Until Yesterday What We Can Learn From Traditional Societies." I spoke with him about his new book earlier this evening. Thank you for joining us tonight.

Jared Diamond: A pleasure.

Richard Ruelas: Let's get right into the heart of the book. It seems like you concentrated- there’s so much to the cultures you looked at and spent so much time on, it looks like you keyed in on some very key factors that we can pick up some cues from in our lives, starting with children, how the people of New Guinea treat children or raise children.

Jared Diamond: The book is about traditional societies, smaller ones, including those of New Guinea, which have to solve universal problems like raising children. Watching my New Guinea friends raise their children influenced what my wife and I did with our own children. For example, Americans tend to micromanage their kids, We left our kidsas much freedom as possible and they learned early on to make their choices. One of my sons declared that he was interested in snakes at age three. Within a short time he had 147 pet snakes and frogs and lizards in our house.

Richard Ruelas: When you started this research, you had not had children yet? Or had you just begun having children?

Jared Diamond: I went to New Guinea for the first time in 1964, long before I had children.

Richard Ruelas: Did you find yourself as you saw them, raising their children in that hands-off way, almost instinctively rushing towards kids? Did you fight the western instinct or the weird instinct of wanting to step in and save them from themselves or what you would think would be themselves?

Jared Diamond: I didn't fight the instinct because in 1964 I was unmarried and I had no intention of having children.

Richard Ruelas: It seems like nutrition, we've heard this thought of how diet has changed in our lives in western society. What did you see in New Guinea and other tribal regions?

Jared Diamond: That's a big thing from which I learned. When I went out to New Guinea in 1964, every New Guineaian I saw was like a muscle man, nobody was overweight. No diabetes, no heart disease, no stroke, no hypertension.

Richard Ruelas: And in 1964 in America those things were not as prevalent as they are now.

Jared Diamond: That’s right, it’s gotten worse. But they were already there in 1964. Now the reality is you and I and most of our listeners are going to die of these noncommunicable diseases, but it's within our control. If one adopts a New Guinean lifestyle where you eat less, don't get fat, exercise regularly, if you throw the saltshaker out of kitchen, if you have lots of fruit and vegetables, you, too, can avoid heart disease and stroke and diabetes.

Richard Ruelas: Well that’s adopting the lifestyle but normally in some aspects, your book does not flinch at mentioning some of the, I guess, more violent, or things that we would not want to adopt in these lifestyles.

Jared Diamond: You're right. Another piece of the lifestyle of one tribe in New Guinea, is that when a man dies his widow is strangled, but at her own request. Namely, the widow calls out for her brothers to come strangle her while she sits in a chair. I can assure you, if I predecease my wife, I hope my wife does not call upon her brothers to strangle her. This illustrates an important point, there are wonderful and terrible things out of traditional societies.

Richard Ruelas: That's not done out of adhering to a certain religion, it's done out of need. There is so much available resources, and this is the decision we've decided collectively to make?

Jared Diamond: That's a very interesting point. Some of the things they do out of need, such as for example infanticide of weak babies, the reality of it is that they have no choice. But in this case strangling widows, of the thousand tribes in New Guinea, there are only two that strangle widows. There is no reason that we can see in the environment. This is just a custom, like the French eat frogs and snails and the Germans don't. It’s not because it’s good to eat frogs and snails in France, this is simply a custom.

Richard Ruelas: So did the idea of empathy, for lack of a better word, that we're going help the weak child, that is based on what our culture has as far as a surplus or an abundance of goods and assistance available? Or is it an evolution, evolving in our thought process?

Jared Diamond: It's that we have the capability of keeping weak children alive. We have medical care, and we have food to keep them alive. Whereas in New Guinea, without obstetricians, without doctors, if a weak baby is born, it's just not going to be possible for the parents to raise it. It's not that they are impervious to it. One of my New Guinea friends lost one of his twin sons, and that really hit me because I had twins, 14 years later when he talked about it, he was still upset. He said that it still gets me that one of my twins died after two weeks. It's not that they are impervious, they have no other choice.

Richard Ruelas: The book is largely autobiographical in a way that you're talking about how the study affected you, not academically- well, there's a lot of academia on how it affects our lives. But there's a lot of how it affected you as a person. Are you a better man for it?

Jared Diamond: My enemy would say that I've become a worse man. But it is true that being in New Guinea has affected me. And one of my two reasons for writing the book, one reason is that traditional people are just so fascinating. The other thing is that many of the things they do are useful in our lives. The readers of my book also can learn about ways to raise their children and ways to treat old people and the value of learning multiple languages and thinking clearly about danger.

Richard Ruelas: And I guess you mentioned your enemies, and there have been critics who talked about the book, painting too broad a brush. If you're condensing thousands of years of civilization into a digestible book, there are going to be some broad brush strokes. Again, it does seem like there are some aspects of how it truly affected your life, raising children, diet, but this is deeply personal. Was it difficult to go from an academic standpoint to opening yourself up a bit?

Jared Diamond: No, it wasn't because this is my sixth book for the public. When I set out, my intention was to write an autobiographical account of my experiences in New Guinea. My editor said, Jared, your readers expect big books about the world, not a little autobiography. So the book morphed into traditional societies around the world. It's illustrated by my observations in New Guinea.

Richard Ruelas: Some of these aspects, you talk about our society and let's talk about WEIRD society. So what is the acronym for WEIRD?

Jared Diamond: Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic, all the societies that we are used to, societies with state government. Israel, Argentina, they are WEIRD meaning western, educated, industrial, rich democratic, and WEIRD by world standards. They are very unusual by the standards of human history and by the standards of the small societies that filled the whole world until recently.

Richard Ruelas: Until yesterday, essentially. Are the feelings that exist in the tribal societies still within us? Or have we stomped them down with smartphones and televisions and all of our distractions?

Jared Diamond: Interesting question. The feelings, the feelings are still with us. So my first revelation, self-revelation in New Guinea was realizing these seemingly exotic people using stone tools, until shortly after I came out there, they are people who laugh and cry and get angry and they are scared under the same circumstances that I am. So emotionally they are similar to us. But they do different things. In some cases there are reasons in their surroundings, and in other cases it's a matter of culture. But basically there are thousands of different experiments on how to run a human society, and we can learn from them.

Richard Ruelas: And I guess with our society, the experiment we're still undergoing now, how would we decide to readopt some of our old habits, to put down our smartphones? Do we need to experience another culture? Is it within us or do we just need to hear that maybe life would be better if we put down the saltshaker and the cell phone.

Jared Diamond: The short answer is we can learn by reading my book. But briefly, we can learn by adopting some of these things ourselves, and other things require changes in all society. For example, there's a lot of salt in supermarket food. I can't do anything about that. My wife and I threw the saltshaker out of our kitchen. To change the amount of salt in supermarket food, that requires work from the government food manufactures like it happened in Finland and in other countries. It illustrates to learn from traditional society, partly we can do it ourselves, partly it's a change needed in the whole system.

Richard Ruelas: Appreciate you joining us. Thank you Jared

Jared Diamond: My pleasure.