The Best Book I Have Read Recently

I make some notes about almost all the books I read. I am thinking my notes may be useful to others. Here is an instance; it’s about a good book I read recently:

Jared Diamond’s 2012 The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

A confession first: When I die, I want to come back as Jared Diamond. He had the exemplary academic career; he wasted no time; he took advantage of academia’s largess and low standards to change himself several times into a different kind of scholar. He addresses ordinary literate people with much success. He is a great teacher.

What Diamond means by “traditional societies”  (in the title) is an imaginary aggregate of what social scientists call “hunters-gatherers” and “horticulturalists.” The latter are largely hoe cultivators, people who don’t use the plow but who grow food. Horticulturalists live entirely in tropical and equatorial climates.

Diamond’s book makes very good reading and, in addition, he tries to make it practical, useful at every step. His guiding theme is that by observing traditional people more closely, we may be able to improve many of our civilized practices. He visits in turn how his traditional societies define strangers and how they deal with war, child rearing, the treatment of the aged, attitudes toward danger, religion, language and health.

Traditionals, in general (also called “primitives”) live in fairly small units because their technologies (plural) cannot support large concentrations of people. They have no cities; they are not “civilized.” Diamond makes the implicit assumption (implicit, I think) that small scale and the preservation of “traditional beliefs” go hand in hand. He makes the further assumption – a fairly common one – that today’s traditional societies are similar to the societies in our own past. Thus, the part of the title that says, “Until Yesterday.” According to this assumption, the observation of such societies has much to teach us about how we – civilized people – grew up, so to speak, and about what we lost while growing up.

I am skeptical about both assumptions, not rejecting, skeptical. First, I don’t really believe that tradition does not change. I think that traditional people live in environments that change to some extent, sometimes rapidly. They change, in particular, because the powerful civilized societies in which they are embedded tend to grow, thus threatening or reducing the traditionals’ physical space and their resources. The tragedy of the Plains Indians reduction to near nothing must have happened many times before. Thus the thing that defines traditional people, “tradition” itself must change to some extent to accommodate change in their environments. The mere fact that traditional societies are around to be observed at all tells us that they must have adjusted to some extent. Thus, when considering them we don’t know if we are looking at our own past, or at pathetic survivors next to extinction, or on the contrary, at extraordinarily skillful ones. That’ s a problem for the generalizing Diamond invites us to engage in. That’s my second main objection to Diamond’s overall approach.

In point of fact, the traditional societies to which Diamond alludes include none situated in the temperate zone. It’s not his fault, of course, Lapps in Northern Scandinavia and Finland may be the only ones left more or less intact. But this fact aggravates my skepticism about the exemplarity of the primitive groups Diamond describes. I cannot eliminate from my mind the fact that civilization arose only in temperate zones, in the Middle East, in Europe, and in China. And independently, in the temperate elevations of meso-America and of South America. Perhaps, possibly, probably this is not a coincidence. Diamond’s tropical, desert, and far north groups may be in no way similar to our ancestors.

Beyond these general remarks, I have two specific quarrels with Diamond. The first is about health and the second about language acquisition. Diamond contends that the maladies of old age that affect civilized people today, including arthritis, cardiac illness, and diabetes, are practically non-existent among primitive people. He also says that primitive people have low life expectancy, I think he means at all ages. So, I am wondering if the first statement is not simply the result of a major sampling error, of a major optical illusion: If people seldom live beyond age fifty-five there will be few of the illnesses associated with old age in their society. It would seem like a gross error for a man of Diamond’s intellectual distinction to make. He may have in fact taken care of this objection and I missed it. Or, he did not do it loudly enough and then, why?

My second specific objection concerns one of the many statement he makes on language acquisition. At one point, he declares himself in favor of “crib bilingualism.” That’s the practice of speaking to babies in more than one language from birth. Personally, I think it’s a dangerous gamble. I don’t have any systematic data. My judgment relies on anecdotal evidence spread over fifty years. So does his. I believe he has not done enough due diligence of tracking possible downsides of the practice. (I don’t need to track its upsides because they are obvious: Get two languages for the same price, same as heads of cabbage at the flea market.)

I may write Prof. Diamond soon at UCLA where he teaches to ask him to discuss these points. Don’t wait on me to act to read this wonderful book though. Do it, do it critically if you can.

Also, read my book : I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography

6 thoughts on “The Best Book I Have Read Recently

  1. It might be that I don’t have any experience in raising children, but I didn’t understand your point about crib bilingualism. I can think about some downsides (in terms of the opportunity cost of learning other stuff, for example), but at first sight the claim that it can be a “dangerous gamble” sounds too extreme. What kind of examples are you thinking about?

  2. Just a few things. Your point about change and tradition is an excellent one. Static societies only seem to exist where the polity attempts to exercise complete or near-complete control over the economic life of the people in it, like present-day Cuba. That kind of control is impossible in hunter-gatherer societies.

    What are the implications of generalizing for the public, though? One negative implication is that people will continue to think that hunter-gatherers are good examples of what our own human past is like, as you point out (see also Edwin Wilmsen’s Land Filled with Flies…). Nothing could be further from the truth. Hunter-gatherers are active, intelligent, willing participants in the modern world economy, and I would go so far as to argue that many of them remain hunter-gatherers because of government malfeasance or incompetence, rather than because – as some in Santa Cruz and on the Left like to assert – they are not as greedy as the rest of us.

    Is the Indus Valley temperate? What about southeast Asia? The kingdoms on the eastern coast of Africa were “civilized,” but was this the case before Arabic (the language) spread and Arab traders integrated the coastline more fully with the Indian Ocean trade routes? I think a better dichotomy to use, rather than civilization versus barbarism, is sedentary versus nomadic.

    Up until the late nineteenth century sedentary societies didn’t always win, and nomadic certainly have not been eradicated in the Old World or the New. Even the Soviets could not completely eradicate the lifestyles of its conquered victims in the Caucasus and in the Stans. Diamond’s account is groundbreaking – as far the standard for left-liberal/social democrats goes – because it has the gall to discuss taboos like why some societies are poorer than others without blaming capitalism, but his assumptions about societal evolution (which I commend him for making given his ideological background) are, as you suspect, wrong. The fact that he is even making this kind of an argument, though, is good news in the long run.

  3. Brandon: The Indus Valley is not temperate and civilization arose there. I stand corrected. And, obviously Mesopotamia, broadly defined, where civilization first arose, might not be considered temperate. It’s hot as hell there in the summer. East Africa, I don’t think so. I think it’s a nationalist claim made by those left behind by modern civilization. It’s based mostly on a pile of stones in Zimbabwe. The point I should have made and did not is that until the Industrial Revolution, it was much easier for technical innovations to move east to west and vice-versa than in a north-south and vice-versa direction. That was because nearly all innovations that supported civilization were agricultural. Thus, they were bounded by climate. The Indus Valley civilization collapsed completely and is ill-known to this day. This might have been the reason (might).

    Adrian: Crib bilingualism means that babies are exposed to two language from birth. You can get an idea of the absurdity of the proposition simply by asking, “Why not ten?” The danger is utter confusion which I have witnessed with my own eyes. One horrible case if that of the children of a Franco-American couple both college professors (one, a language teacher) who were reared that way. Two out of three could not write in any language by age eighteen. One couldn’t really read. There was a third child who was OK. I don’t know why. I was close to the family; if the children had had other learning impediments, I think I would have known. In another case I know well, three Japanese children were taken to England at an early age. Two were under two years of age, one was five. They are now all in their twenties. Their father tells me that the oldest writes Japanese beautifully and the younger ones barely at all. The oldest is able to function in English, the younger ones at the level of a toddler. The two younger will have limited employment opportunities probably all their lives My explanation is that the oldest had acquired more than 80% of his spoken Japanese before he was exposed to English. The issue, again, is confusion.

    You asked me to illustrate so, I just did. Obviously, this is only scant and anecdotal evidence. On closer examination, it may turn out to be no evidence at all. Nevertheless, it’s more than Diamond offered. Another way to get to the same point – also insufficient – is for me to note that everyone I know who is even minimally bilingual learned his second language the hard way: on the hard benches of school. Tell me if you are different. Think about your friends. In the absence of real research, there is a point where absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence. I trust that if there were real research demonstrating both the efficacy and the innocuousness of crib bilingualism, it would have come to my attention. I may be wrong; I am open minded; I will read anything even half serious-looking on the subject. Any double blind refereed study will cause me to retreat from my position. Equally obviously, I agree with Diamond’s belief about the mental superiority of bilingual individuals! In the meantime, I have observed the following (informally, of course): the more innocent of knowing a foreign language is any person, anywhere, the more deeply convinced he is that learning a foreign language can be achieved with little effort.

    I have discussed at greater length issues of language acquisition on a posting on my blog, factsmatter, triggering passionate and mostly uninformed reactions. Perhaps our able editor Brandon will kindly provide the link here. Let me repeat that the prospect of getting something valuable apparently for nothing is hard to resist. That’s a problem: There is no free lunch in reality.

    • Oh, I see what you are saying now. You were initially describing the “cradle of civilizations” that we all learned about in grade school. I thought you meant “civilization” in general. Does Diamond make the distinction between the cradles of civilization and civilization in general?

      At any rate, I just want to cover my tracks by stating that I would not have brought up East Africa if I had known you were discussing the cradles of civilization.

      I’ll butt out of the discussion between you and Adrián. By the way, Adrián is our newest Notewriter. He’ll be blogging in Spanish. Check out his bio.

    • Thanks for your response. As I said in my comment, I know nothing about rearing children, so I was curious about the issue. And of course, I thought about confusion, but I got the impression it was a short-term problem. I mean, children have to learn so many things from scratch, and they usually do it pretty well; in principle, I would not expect language acquisition to be different.

      And yes, most of the people I know learned one language before the other, but that’s probably because their parents spoke the same mother tongue. Though now I have a couple of cousins and friends with children for which this is not the case. We will see how things go on.

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