The World Until Yesterday is Diamond’s most personal book to date, where he examines tribal societies’ approaches to universal human issues such as peace and war, child-rearing, treatment of the elderly, language, religion, and health.
Chronicling his 1964 visit to PNG when it was still under Australian administration, Diamond weighs in on the advantages of modern society (clocks, phones, credit cards, computers) and the disadvantages of tribal society (infanticide, periodic risk of starvation, infectious diseases, fear of attack).
He, however, also highlights the strengths of tribal society: should there be a global catastrophe someday it is the hunters and gatherers who will prevail.
In an excerpt of an interview published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Diamond speaks with his colleague and friend of more than 20 years, Claire Panosian Dunavan MD, a tropical medicine and global health expert.
DUNAVAN: Was this your most personal book?
DIAMOND: Not just my most personal… but most practical book which people can use to modify their lives [in terms of] danger, bringing up children, getting older.
DUNAVAN: I want to hear about your first contact with a traditional society. What was it like?
DIAMOND: Before John (Diamond’s classmate at Harvard) and I went out there [in 1964], I was really naive. I knew New Guineans were primitive people, meaning that they had primitive technology.
I thought there would be something distinctive about their personality and cognition and so on – I fantasized for example, that New Guineans could read minds and that, in a few weeks, I could learn how to read minds. That just shows you how naive I was.
My first night in New Guinea… a [local] physician in the kuru area was eager to get me and John out of his hands as quickly as possible. Instead of easing us in our first night by letting us stay in his house, he told us a bit and drove us to a native village and left us there!
So my first night was spent sleeping in a hut in a village with New Guineans who did not speak English. I did not speak Fore, I did not yet speak Pidgin English (neo-Melanesian). I was tired from the long plane flights from the U.S., so I slept late the next morning.
When I woke up there was the scene that I describe in the book about the little boys playing war. War had ended in this area in 1959. So they were not playing hopscotch, it was serious, it was very realistic.
They were using small bows and arrows, they were darting back and forth, they were doing what the adults do in war. It was clear that this was training. This was my first morning in the New Guinea highlands.
The second night I went down to the village stream to brush my teeth and a New Guinean was there. I had already on that first day started asking the names for things in Fore and I saw a frog and I pointed and the person said dakwo. So I got the word dakwo for frog.
On the second night I heard a frog croaking, [saw the man at the stream], and thought: ‘Aha! Human bond! I’ve learned a word of his language!’
‘Dakwo!’ I cried. The man shook his head [vigorously] in response. ‘Ibisaraya!’ It was not a dakwo; it was a different frog, an ibisaraya. This was my first exposure to New Guinean knowledge of natural history.
DUNAVAN: Were you ever scared?
DIAMOND: No. I was with my friend John. People in this area had been pacified, hadn’t attacked Europeans in quite a while. But, in retrospect, it was more dangerous than I realized.
DUNAVAN: As a doctor’s son, you must have been aware of the heavy burden of disease.
DIAMOND: Whatever I learned from Dad… was wiped out by the fact I was 26, full of bravado, and ignorant. In fact, my hygiene standards were not as paranoid as now. Consequently, I collapsed with dysentery and fever two weeks after arrival. I got malaria on my third trip after sleeping under a bed net with a hole in it.
Today I would not sleep under that tent without patching it. Claire, I did not really learn until a near-fatal boat accident. By that time, I had been visiting New Guinea for more than 15 years. I was a slow learner.
DUNAVAN: Do you feel a desire to help or any moral imperative when you meet traditional people and see vast disparities in their quality of life [as compared to ours]?
DIAMOND: No, because I would consider such a moral imperative on anyone’s part a bad idea. Because well-intentioned policies so often backfire, I would consider it a mistake not just on my part but on anyone’s part to try to change a society.
I don’t know what changes are going to work out well. I’ve just seen so many changes in New Guinea that have backfired. Here’s an example. What could be more obvious than providing education? The Australian colonial administration put a lot of effort into education.
It’s not that one shouldn’t educate New Guineans; of course you should educate New Guineans. But the approach of the Australians consisted of requiring all young New Guineans to have a few years of primary school—a noble, worthy ideal, but it backfired.
The tragedy… was a double tragedy. The first tragedy was that a few years of primary school do you little good: they don’t let you get a job. But a few years of primary school do take you out of the gardens when traditional New Guineans are learning to become farmers – and learning to become a farmer really is difficult.
New Guinea friends of mine who went to school told me that when they came back to their villages, they didn’t know what sweet potato to plant on what slope. The tragedy was that a few years of universal education were not enough to provide jobs but it was enough to undermine their ability to operate in New Guinea society.
DUNAVAN: Let’s look 50 years hence. Obviously languages are disappearing; the world will no longer exist in such a way that people can remain isolated. What will it be like for traditional societies?
DIAMOND: There’s a huge spectrum of possible outcomes. One possible outcome: if we in the first world mess up our own society, mess up the whole world… and you ask yourself who is going to be left after 50 years, well all of us here who don’t know how to make stone tools, don’t know what to gather, all of us here are going to starve to death.
The places in the world where people will survive are the places where – within living memory – people have been living in the forest and making their own gardens.
‘The World Until Yesterday’ is scheduled for release in the United States tomorrow