Jared Diamond on Lessons from Primitive Cultures and Why We Should All Be Bilingual
By Katie Tandy
With a career spanning five decades and a melange of disciplines -- including physiology, ornithology, ecology and geography -- Jared Diamond has seen a fair share of our little blue planet and taken a stance on what makes us humans tick. Or more importantly, evolve.
Diamond made the proverbial splash (with something called the Pulitzer Prize) among historians, biologists, and layman alike with his book Guns, Germs, and Steel 16 years ago, arguing those three elements allowed the Eurasian civilizations to rise as the dominant world power.
His new book, The World Until Yesterday, leverages Diamond's 40-odd years of fieldwork, research, and exploration of New Guinea (among other Pacific Islands), asking readers to reevaluate our modern culture through the lens of "traditional" societies.
Apparently we've got a lot to learn.
Diamond first visited New Guinea in 1964, "for adventure and for the birds," dividing his time between ornithology and biology. "It was still wild and adventurous then with un-contacted people who worked with stone tools and waged tribal wars until recently."
At first glance, it's difficult to imagine exactly what more indigenous people have to teach us -- don't they know we've mastered microwaves and drones to do the dirty work?
During his fieldwork however, Diamond discovered some resounding habits, lifestyles, beliefs, and behaviors that we'd be smart to emulate.
While some elements are rather easy to incorporate "about an hour from now," some will remain more elusive and out of reach -- at least immediately -- because it would require the overhaul of our entire society.
"It might sound banal, but be very careful every time you shower so you don't fall -- just read the obituary column; when you're carrying your babies, don't push them lying flat or hold them looking backwards and don't spank them; banish the salt shaker and sugar bowl from your kitchen."
Diamond has personally incorporated two particular lessons he's gleaned from the New Guinea people over years, having a "village" help raise your child(ren) and the pursuit of a multilingual mind.
"Other adult figures are alternative social models," says Diamond. "One's parents, however wonderful, are just two people. They don't represent the full panoply of full human behavior and knowledge."
During the course of his 75-year journey, Diamond has read or spoken 13 different languages, although some are "hopelessly rusty." His research reveals tangible benefits to bilingualism (other than communicating with other countries and cultures) which serves as an active barrier to the onset of Alzheimer's.
"All of us are afraid of Alzheimer's because there's nothing that can be done to stop the organic causes," he says. "All we can do is hope -- people play bridge and sudoku, but there's no evidence that it helps. But bilingual people get five years of protection."
Diamond still isn't sure if you get an extra five years of lucidity for every language you speak, or five is all you get.
"Americans believe [learning another language] might be harmful. But New Guineans think we're crazy."
As far as "big picture" elements like eliminating processed food from our diets altogether or minimizing the emotional and litigious fallout of couples getting divorced, Diamond recognizes their implementation is far more difficult, because social and economic paradigms would have to shift.
Diamond is aware of his age and its creeping deficiencies, but believes that in its wake are a new series of skills and wisdom he didn't possess in his youth.
"At 30 years old, I could derive good differential equations. It's not older people who solve the structure of DNA, but can synthesize big works of history. I look back on my own publications and I'm not capable of doing that, but on the converse I'm very capable with lots more knowledge. I would not have been a good geographer in my 20s. You have to know and travel a lot and I hadn't accumulated that experience."
Diamond joins up with Roy Eisenhardt, current interim president at the San Francisco Art Institute and long-time lawyer, Thursday, Jan. 24 as part of City Arts & Lectures' Arts and Politics Series.
San Francisco is just one of 17 cities he'll traverse in the 16 days of his book tour.