Scientist Jared Diamond

The provocative best-selling author unpacks his new text, the intensely debated The World Until Yesterday.

Jared Diamond researches why cultures prosper or decline and writes acclaimed books that the general public can understand. His efforts include the best seller, Guns, Germs, and Steel, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was the basis for a PBS series, and Collapse. A professor of geography at UCLA, he's also a conservationist who has participated in numerous field projects for the Indonesian government and World Wildlife Fund. In his newest book, The World Until Yesterday, Diamond draws from his decades of field work in considering what the differences between the past and the present mean for peoples' lives today.


Tavis: Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and scientist Jared Diamond has never shied away from tackling difficult subjects. His first breakthrough book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” about why Europeans were able to conquer so much of the world, is one of the best-selling nonfiction books of all time. He followed that, of course, with “Collapse,” about why civilizations falter.

He’s now tackling nothing less than the sweep of history in a new book, and the title says it all: “The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies.” Professor Diamond, always good to have you on this program.

Professor Jared Diamond: It’s a pleasure to be back with you.

Tavis: Glad to have you back. I want to start – I got this blue card here, I want to read this, get this right. I want to start at and on what might be an unorthodox commencing to this conversation, with what your critics sometimes have to say about you.

When you walked on the set, I said, “Here comes my friend, Mr. Provocation,” and you said, “Which one of us would that be?” (Laughter) I said, “Guilty,” both of us. Both of us have been called provocative from time to time.

But I want to start with what critics have to say of your work sometimes, and then we’ll move into the text more specifically – this notion that you have this broad-stroke approach, as someone once said, with wild, overreaching generalizations, using data that you’ve selected to support your theses. Care to pick that apart?

Diamond: Yes. It’s true that I take a broad approach. That’s to say I discuss societies around the world. As for picking my data, I pick 39 of the best-studied societies on all the continents, so that’s really a very wide selection.

My recent book, “The World Until Yesterday,” is based on detailed studies that anthropologists have carried out for years in the best-studied traditional societies, so I deny the charge. (Laughter)

Tavis: When you say “traditional societies,” let’s start with a definition of that term for this text.

Diamond: Sure – crucial question.

Tavis: Right.

Diamond: Traditional societies means societies like all human societies around the world until 10,000 years ago – that’s to say small societies of a couple of dozen up to a few hundred people.

Because it’s only with the population explosion that agriculture made possible, beginning 10,000 years ago, that you started to get societies of thousands or tens of thousands of people where people encountered strangers.

For example, in a traditional society, you and I encountering each other, both of us would be terrified, and by now one of us would have tried to kill each other because it would have been such a terrifying experience.

Traditional societies are not accustomed to strangers. You deal with the same people for all of your life.

Tavis: Because I’ve gone through the book, I know where this is going to lead us in terms of this conversation, but let me just start by asking how it is, then, that anything can be learned from traditional society that is applicable to the world that we live in today, given what you’ve just said now.

Diamond: That’s a key question. How can we learn anything from these traditional, small societies -?

Tavis: That apply, yeah.

Diamond: – that is relevant to our societies of 310 million people.

Well, traditional societies and modern, big societies face some of the same problems. We have children. We’ve got to raise the children. We grow old. We have to deal with growing old. We face dangers – not just dangers of being killed by an enemy, but dangers of slipping in the shower.

We have to be careful of what we eat. We have religion, we get married. So really, the same human problems have been with us for a long time. These traditional societies have come up with thousands of different ways of dealing with these problems. Maybe we can learn something from their solutions.

Tavis: Without regard to the geography – that is to say, without regard to what part of the globe these traditional societies are in – are the lessons – is there a through-line here with regard to these lessons?

Diamond: Yes.

Tavis: In other words, are the lessons consistent? Do they hold up from one country to another country, from one region to another region?

Diamond: In a sense, yes. That’s to say all small societies share some things in common. All small societies, where people can make decisions face-to-face, they don’t have leaders, they don’t have kings, they can’t support kings. That’s true of small societies, whether they’re in Indiana California or whether they’re in aboriginal Australia.

But the flip side of it is the small societies are far more diverse than are our modern societies with state government. Once you get a state government then all societies with governments are similar because you’ve got to obey the government, whereas traditional societies, some of them do weird things.

In a couple of traditional societies in New Guinea, when a man dies, his widow calls upon her brothers to strangle her. Well, that’s not universal; that’s just in two societies, but that doesn’t happen in any state society.

Tavis: Since you mentioned smaller societies and modern societies, which obviously are much larger, as we’ve already established here, I wonder what the difference is as you see or have studied between these smaller societies that – this is my word, not yours – that have sort of leadership that is horizontal, versus modern societies, to your point about government, where leadership is vertical. Does that make sense, the question?

Diamond: It does make sense. It’s a big distinction.

Tavis: Right.

Diamond: The jargon that anthropologists and sociologists use for horizontal is “egalitarian.” That’s to say small –

Tavis: Right, sure, sure.

Diamond: – small societies are egalitarian, in that with 40 people you don’t need a leader, you can’t support a leader. Whereas once you get 310 million people, we Americans cannot sit down face-to-face and reach a decision. We’ve got to have leaders. Plus, because we’ve got –

Tavis: Of course, that doesn’t work in Washington either with leaders, but I digress on that point.

Diamond: Well, we’re not going to discuss the (laughter) quality of our leaders, but the fact is that all big societies have leaders, for better or worse.

Tavis: Right.

Diamond: Whereas all small societies don’t have leaders, for better or worse, and they don’t need them.

Tavis: Yeah. Are there lessons for us to learn in this modern society about the notion of a more egalitarian way of living and choosing and deciding?

Diamond: Yeah, there are so many lessons that I’m now trying to grope with where to begin. One everyday lesson is that traditional, small-scale societies, where there aren’t police and ambulances, you’ve got to be very careful about dangers, because if you slip, you don’t call 911. There isn’t any 911.

So traditional societies are very cautious. They think clearly about danger, much more than do we Americans. That’s an area that’s really influenced me in my life. Working in New Guinea and watching New Guineans confront danger, I’ve had to think what really are the dangerous things in American life.

We Americans tend to obsess about terrorists and plane crashes, but frankly, very few of us are going to get killed by terrorists and plane crashes. Instead, lots of us are going to get killed by car accidents, alcohol, and slipping in the shower or slipping on the sidewalk.

As a result of working in New Guinea, the most dangerous thing that I already did today a few hours ago is I took a shower, and I was really careful, because I’m 75 years old. The chances are I’ll live till 90, which means I’ve 5,700 showers ahead of me. (Laughter)

I’ve got to reduce my risk of slipping in the shower to less than one in 5,700; otherwise I’m going to die prematurely because of slipping in the shower. That’s an example of what I’ve learned from New Guinea.

Tavis: Yeah. I appreciate that. (Laughter) And it makes me more worried now about not slipping in my shower.

Diamond: You be careful.

Tavis: Prematurely, yeah. I want to spend the balance of my time, I think, the balance of our time trying to walk through some of the lessons that you lay out in this text.

As you can see, it’s a pretty dense text, so I can’t do justice to it in this one conversation. But I have pulled out some lessons that I think are worthy of our kind of dissecting, if we can.

In no particular order, and you referenced this a moment ago, and that is this notion of giving more respect and esteem to the elderly – something that we can learn from traditional societies, giving more respect and esteem to the elderly. Tell me more.

Diamond: Well, anybody with older parents or anybody who, like me, is 75 and upwards, knows that the situation of the elderly in American society is one of the disaster areas of American society.

Some older people have happy lives, but lots, maybe most, elderly people are lonely, they live apart from their children, they live apart from their lifelong friends, simply because we Americans move on the average of every five years.

So we end up separated from our friends and children, whereas in traditional societies people stay in the same village all their lives, and so they retain their social ties.

As for what we can do about it, there are movements in the United States now that are trying to improve the situation of the elderly. There are things, movements called things like Senior Care, where older people get together and support each other.

There are also movements where older people are brought together with young people in order to provide their experience. So this area of the treatment of older people is an area where we can learn a lot from traditional societies.

Tavis: Just because I’m curious, as these societies were growing exponentially, what caused, what put us on this path toward having such a decreased level of respect and even reverence for elderly persons to begin with?

Because that is not the case in every major society, that the elderly are – I can tell you, there are countries that come to mind right now where I just know, because I’ve been there, as have you, where the elderly are treated with a different level of respect than they are, say, treated in this country.

Diamond: There are a couple of things going on. One is the cruel reality that with the rapid pace of technology, older people are less able to cope with the new technology. For example, my first television set in 1948 had three knobs, which I quickly mastered. There was the on-off switch and the channel and the volume knob.

Whereas today, to turn on the television set in my living room, there are 41 buttons on that wretched remote, and I have to call my sons to manipulate the TV set. So the reality is that older people are less familiar with technology, they’re more helpless, they are less useful. That’s a difference.

Another difference – that’s true in Europe and Japan and everywhere, but a specific difference in the United States is that we have this cult of youth. You just picture Budweiser ads or Coca-Cola ads and they all show young people, 25 years old, raising their beer cans, even though we older people – last night I drank beer, but there’s no – Budweiser would never feature me, at age 75, in a beer ad. (Laughter)

So we in the United States have this cult of youth which elevates the youth and means that we look down on older people.

Tavis: Teach children to be more confident and socially astute in their choices. So we go from the elderly to the babies.

Diamond: To the babies. In my work in New Guinea, I’m really impressed by the fact that New Guinea children are more self-confident and they’re socially skilled, and they are precocious compared to American children.

I remember once when I was in New Guinea, I needed to hire some porters, and there was this 10-year-old who volunteered to be a porter for me. Now, he didn’t ask his parents. He just went. He made the decision himself, he went off with me for a week, and then for a month.

Well in the United States, imagine a 10-year-old child making a decision to go off and take a job for a month? But in New Guinea, children are raised to make their own decisions and they make their mistakes and they learn from the mistakes. But the result is that they are precociously skilled socially.

This is something that we would love for our children, but we micromanage our children. We tell them what they should do at 3:30 and what they should do at 4:15, so of course they have difficulty making their own decisions.

Tavis: What is there for us to learn in these major societies, from these traditional societies, about how to better deal with these contemporary diseases? I’m talking about diabetes, I’m talking about heart disease, I’m talking about obesity. Are there lessons there to be learned?

Diamond: There certainly are lessons. In traditional societies, in New Guinea, when I began to work in New Guinea in 1964, literally not a single New Guinean got diabetes or heart disease or stroke or the diseases that will kill most of us here. That’s a matter of lifestyle and diet.

When New Guineans adopt the American lifestyle, they start getting diabetes and heart disease and stroke. The lessons include don’t consume salt. My wife and I, we don’t even have a salt shaker on our table. Don’t add sugar. Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Eat foods with lots of fiber. Don’t have, what do you call it, livestock that are raised on grass that have really fatty meat. Talk while you’re eating. Don’t sit there and shovel down your food, which means that you eat more than you need.

Talk while you’re eating and eat slowly. All of these things mean that we can have a healthier diet and we can avoid the diseases that kill most Americans, and we can then have a healthy lifestyle, like New Guineans.

Tavis: You were talking earlier in this conversation about how we assess dangerous situations. There’s a wonderful phrase that you use in your work, the phrase, “constructive paranoia,” that we have to have a constructive paranoia, and we can learn that from these traditional societies. How’s that work?

Diamond: Well, paranoia is a bad word. Paranoia means having exaggerated fears. If you are paranoid, then you should be seeing a psychotherapist.

But I use the term constructive paranoia for what I consider good, strong fears. I’m struck by the fact that New Guineans are constantly thinking of what could go wrong and how to protect ourselves about it, and what does that thing mean and what does that footprint mean and why is that tree on the ground.

Well, from New Guineans I learned to be ultra-careful, and it drives some of my friends crazy because I’m always thinking of what could go wrong. But because I’m always thinking of what could go wrong, including slipping in the shower, I’m still reasonably healthy and in good condition at age 75, and I hope to remain that way. That’s constructive paranoia.

Tavis: The flip side of that constructive paranoia would be that you’re not living or reveling in the moment because you’re always off into what might happen in the future.

Diamond: That is the flip side, that one might get paralyzed by one’s fears.

Tavis: Right.

Diamond: But I came back from Indonesian New Guinea six days ago, and Indonesian New Guinea is a somewhat dangerous place. So it’s not that I’m paralyzed by my fears. I still do these adventurous things, but I’m just very careful while I’m doing them.

Tomorrow, when I drive my car to UCLA, I will be very careful. I’m going to drive to UCLA, but I will be very careful when I drive in my car.

Tavis: You talk about the value of multilingualism. That’s something that everybody these days seems to preach. Certainly if you live in this country or live on this coast, people are suggesting that you have to learn Spanish. Or if you’re going to live in this world, you might want to consider learning Chinese or Mandarin.

So this is not something new, and people have been talking about this for a while, but increasingly, people are talking about the value of multilingualism. But you’re saying this is a lesson that we can learn, in fact, from traditional societies.

Diamond: That’s right. In traditional societies, where language groups are really small, so in the world there are a billion people who speak English, but there’s no New Guinea language spoken by more than 150,000 people.

Typical New Guinea languages are spoken by 2,000 people, so every New Guinean that I know speaks at least five languages. You’ve got to know different languages to speak with the people around you.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery that I made in the recent work in my book was a finding that was made by a psychologist and physician in Toronto, Canada, which is we’re really afraid nowadays about the disease called Alzheimer’s disease, this dementia of old age.

There doesn’t seem to be anything that can protect us against the symptoms. The only protection, and it’s a new discovery that we’ve got, against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s is that if you are multilingual, if you speak two more languages, then you postpone, on the average by five years, the age at which you’ll get Alzheimer’s symptoms, if you’re going to get them at all.

The reason is that being multilingual is the best possible exercise for your brain, but Alzheimer’s is a disease of the brain, so just like working out in the morning and doing my pushups, that builds up my shoulders, similarly, being multilingual is the best possible exercise for the brain.

Tavis: As I mentioned earlier, this text, it’s a good text, but it’s a dense text, and I want to just pull some of these lessons out that you and I could talk about tonight, but I saved this for last because this one was the most intriguing for me personally.

It is this notion of focusing on what you define as restoring relationships, focusing on restoring relationships as opposed to seeking justice or compensation.

Diamond: Yeah.

Tavis: Now, I’ve always thought of justice as something that is honorable, something that is noble, something that is right and fair, and I still think that about it, but you made me re-examine my assumptions and expand my own inventory of ideas about this notion of what it means to seek justice, rather than to focus on restoring relationships.

I’m not suggesting the two are mutually exclusive, but talk to me about this notion of restoring relationships, first and foremost, as opposed to trying to get justice or compensation.

Diamond: The way justice works in New Guinea, because these are small societies of a couple of hundred people, if you have an argument with someone, he stole your pig, or she didn’t pay me for marrying her brother, you’re going to live next to that person for the rest of your life and you’ve got to get along with them.

So what counts is not how much that pig is worth, what really counts is having a good relationship with this person that you have to deal with for the rest of your life. It’s not right or wrong, but it’s maintaining relationships.

Whereas in our anonymous American society, what counts is right or wrong. If you have a car accident, the likelihood is you’re never going to see that person again, and so our court systems are concerned with right or wrong, and never mind whether you hate that other person.

But at the same time, we have disputes with people that we are going to remain involved with. Tragically, half of us get divorced and we end up in the courts. Anybody who’s been through a divorce knows that the divorcing couple usually ends up not with a restored relationship but hating each other.

Anybody who’s been in an inheritance dispute with their brother and sister knows that the court doesn’t care whether the brother and sister loathe each other for the rest of their lives.

So a big thing that we can learn from traditional societies is if there’s a dispute to focus not on the right and wrong and how much that pig was worth, but instead on restoring the relationship so that you can deal with that person, with your brother or sister or your ex-husband or your ex-wife.

Tavis: See, I’m fascinated by this, as I said, and I saved it till last because I think about these things often and I wonder how it is that in this country we could ever take seriously, ever embrace the notion of dispute resolution as opposed to right and wrong, and you owe me this, and you’re going to pay this, and I want justice for this.

I’ve thought about this for years, going back specifically in my life to what happened in South Africa after apartheid was ended. As you well know, rather than those Black South Africans seek justice or revenge or retribution, they established the Truth in Reconciliation Commission, the TRC.

So what you had to do was to come before the TRC, come before this commission and confess what you had done, to confess to your crimes. That whole notion was mind-boggling for a lot of us around the world, because you don’t have people maim you and kill you and steal from you – when you think about the atrocities that were committed in the age of apartheid and what these Black South Africans did when they took over was to establish a TRC, come and confess, come and apologize, come and tell us what you did and we’re going to focus on restoring relationships in this country, and ultimately it’s in large measure what saved South Africa.

Because that country would still be in civil war right now if the Black folk had then turned around and did to the white folk what the white folk had done to them. So this notion of restoring relationships is important to me, but I’m just trying to imagine how something, as my grandmother would say, is too much like right, how something like that could ever take hold in our country.

Diamond: There actually is a movement towards that end in the United States. It’s called “restorative justice.”

Tavis: Sure.

Diamond: What you say about South Africa fits. In restorative justice, victims are brought together with criminals in order to get emotional clearance. There was a case written up in the “L.A. Times” where a woman whose husband had been killed by a crazy driver met the driver, the murderer, in prison, and the two of them told each other their life stories for a couple of hours.

It was agonizing for both, but afterwards, the woman said, “Forgiving is hard, but not forgiving is more difficult.” This emotional clearance was cathartic, it was liberating, both for the widow of the victim and for the criminal.

So this restorative justice system is something that’s been being tried in the United States, and especially in Canada and New Zealand.

Tavis: So let me pick up on your word “liberating” that you just used a moment ago. When you’re doing this kind of research and you come across these kinds of challenges with regard to what we are facing in the real world and these major societies, is this kind of research ultimately for you liberating or imprisoning? In other words, does it make you hopeful or are you more fearful?

Diamond: It makes me hopeful and it’s liberating. What I learned about how traditional people bring up their children influenced my wife and me and how we bring up our own children.

For example, when our three-year-old son announced what he wanted in life, he wanted a pet snake, well, my wife and I are not snake-lovers, but this is a young child whose wishes in New Guinea are not to be thwarted.

So we gave him a pet snake and eventually he had 147 pet snakes and frogs, but that was what he wanted. He went through a snake phase, he learned to make his own decisions, and now he’s a chef in a very good restaurant.

This was a boy who grew up like a New Guinean, learning to make his own decisions.

Tavis: The new book from Jared Diamond, perennial “New York Times” best-selling author, is called “The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies.”

I’ve said it a few times tonight – the book is not one that you can do justice to in a 30-minute conversation, but I hope you got a sense, at least, of what’s inside the text. You can pick it up and read it for yourself. Professor Diamond, good to have you back.

Diamond: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Tavis: Congratulations on the text.

Diamond: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: May 28, 2013 at 10:38 pm