Guest Host: Marc Fisher

Modern advances and improvements have changed our society for better and worse. But as time marches forward, there are still many lessons we can learn from traditional cultures about universal issues like parenting, care of the elderly and conflict resolution. We talk with Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Foundation Fellow Jared Diamond about what may be the ultimate culture war and what’s at stake.


  • Jared Diamond Author, "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?"; professor, UCLA


  • 13:06:39

    MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo.

  • 13:06:56

    MR. MARC FISHERWhen geography professor, Jared Diamond began working in New Guinea 50 years ago, he found traces of our distant past observing a traditional lifestyle that changed how he saw the world. People there were vulnerable to disease, suffered attacks from wild animals and were prone to violent warfare, but their parenting techniques, approach to justice and diet prevented many problems that afflict our own culture.

  • 13:07:21

    MR. MARC FISHERAs both the good and bad aspects of traditional life are all but vanishing in the face of Western influence, Diamond asks us to look back to that disappearing world and consider how customs of traditional societies might guide today's modern culture.

  • 13:07:34

    MR. MARC FISHERAnd Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA, joins us here in studio. And you originally traveled to New Guinea to study the island's birds. That was some time ago. What drew you to these larger observations and looking at the people there?

  • 13:07:53

    MR. JARED DIAMONDMy looking at the people came from the fact, first of all, that they're fascinating and very different from us in some obvious ways. And then in New Guinea, every scrap of land is owned by New Guineans. To go anywhere to watch birds, you need permission from New Guineans. And in addition, in the jungle, I'm helpless. I can't follow a trail. I can't light a fire. I need New Guineans. Plus, they're just enjoyable people to talk with.

  • 13:08:21

    FISHERAnd what does New Guinea look like now? You're writing about a traditional society. You know, some people would think that this is people living deep in the jungle and not wearing the same clothing that we wear in the West. And so give us a picture of what it looks like to be there.

  • 13:08:38

    DIAMONDThe first thing it looks like is that it's still mostly covered by jungle, tall lush forests up to more than 100 feet tall. It ranges from sea level up to 15,000 feet so there are glaciers in New Guinea on the equator.

  • 13:08:55

    DIAMONDAnd as for the people, when I arrived, many of them were still wearing bark blankets. Nowadays, most of the people that I encounter are wearing T-shirts and shorts and baseball caps, the standard international garb.

  • 13:09:11

    FISHERThe T-shirts that no one in the West wanted probably...

  • 13:09:12

    DIAMONDWell, I remember once in the Solomon Islands going all day into the remote interior of an island where I thought, wow, I'm going to come across some really remote groups. And it was Polynesian so I thought beautiful women. In the background, I heard a woman's voice, aha, here comes a beautiful woman and, lo and behold, she was wearing a University of Wisconsin sweatshirt.

  • 13:09:37

    FISHERRight, I've run into situations like that, not in New Guinea, but in, say, Eastern Europe where you run across someone wearing a New York Yankees cap. And ask them about the Yankees? No, I don't think so.

  • 13:09:49

    FISHERYou can join our conversation with Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Collapse" and "Guns, Germs and Steel" and his new book, "The World Until Yesterday." You can call us at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at

  • 13:10:07

    FISHERAnd in this new book, "The World Until Yesterday," you look at contrasts between the modern world and traditional societies. So you're in New Guinea. You've been there time and again. Was there a moment where you suddenly said, you know, we can learn from these people? We can learn from this society. Was there a moment when you saw the idea for this book?

  • 13:10:28

    DIAMONDGosh, it began right at the beginning. Literally, my first morning in the New Guinea highlands, having arrived at a village late one afternoon and waking up the next morning exhausted from my international flights, I heard the sounds of kids playing outside the hut.

  • 13:10:45

    DIAMONDAnd no, they're not playing hopscotch, not playing hide and seek. They're playing war and it is realistic war because the last war there had been about a decade previously. There are groups of boys lined up with bows and arrows and they're shooting the arrows at each other.

  • 13:11:02

    DIAMONDThey're not wooden arrows that can kill. They're grass arrows that hurt, but not kill. And this is play which is practice for and rehearsing adult life, rehearsing traditional war.

  • 13:11:15

    FISHERAnd one could argue that our kids in our country do the same thing with video games.

  • 13:11:21

    DIAMONDWell, the difference is that the New Guinea kids, their parents were all involved in war and the New Guinea kids had seen the dead bodies coming back. And they had seen their fathers marching off to the attack that day, whereas the American kids who play their bang, bang video games generally they've not learned it from the fathers and they've not seen the dead bodies.

  • 13:11:39

    FISHERAnd so there is -- would you then argue that there's kind of a greater connection to reality in the case of the New Guinea games and they therefore serve a different purpose, whereas here people are sort of divorced from reality and perhaps steered away from any sense of real damage that can be done?

  • 13:12:01

    DIAMONDThat's a good way of putting it. They're closer to reality as far as the war games are concerned. But life itself there is full of reality. The dangers are imminent. If you get hurt, you can't fix it by going to a doctor. You have to suffer the consequences and so life is always in your face.

  • 13:12:25

    FISHERAnd when parts of your book look toward -- look back at ourselves in the light of what you've learned in New Guinea and then from traditional societies. How far can you really take that concept of learning or adopting practices of a place that is so different? And, you know, to many, modern kind of means progress or flat-out better than anything traditional or, you know, even primitive, to use a more derogatory term, is backward. So how do you push back against that notion?

  • 13:12:59

    DIAMONDWell, there are a host of interesting, great questions in there. As far as backwards is concerned, yes, in certain respects, traditional societies, not just in New Guinea but Africa and elsewhere, backwards as defined by until recently they were using stone tools, not steel tools.

  • 13:13:17

    DIAMONDThey didn't have writing. They didn't have centralized government, kings, bureaucrats. In other respects, they're totally modern. They raise their children. They have to deal with their old people. They face dangers. They have religion. They're multi-lingual. So fascinating things about them are that, in some respects, they're so different from us and in other respects, so similar to us as far as what we can learn from them.

  • 13:13:42

    DIAMONDSome things, it's difficult to acquire if everybody around you is doing it differently. If you are the only parents on the block who don't want your kids to watch television and every other house has television, your kids are going to be wandering to the other houses to watch TV whether you like it or not.

  • 13:14:04

    DIAMONDBut if your neighbors are spanking their kids and you conclude I'm not going to spank my kids, they don't do it in traditional societies. You don't have to spank your kids just because other people are or you don't have to push your kids, your infants, in a baby carriage horizontally. You can hold them New Guinea fashion, vertically, upright, facing forwards, regardless of what the other people are doing.

  • 13:14:25

    DIAMONDSo that illustrates some things we can easily acquire for ourselves and some things require all of society to do it, but then you can push society to adopt healthy eating habits to get salt out of food, other things like that.

  • 13:14:39

    FISHERAnd how much intentionality is there in some of these practices that you admire in New Guinea culture, whether it is the diet that has less or hardly any salt or some of the child-rearing practices? Are these just things that developed accidently and you think are in the end healthy or do they recognize, are they conscious of the idea that these are good things that they're doing?

  • 13:15:04

    DIAMONDIt's a mixture. The fact that New Guinea highlanders consume very little salt was because in the interior of New Guinea there isn't salt except for the occasional salt lick and they had to go to a great deal of effort to get any salt out of burning leaves.

  • 13:15:22

    DIAMONDOther things are utterly natural to them and what we do is horrifying. I remember encountering a Fijian friend. He had spent time in the United States so he's telling me what he liked and didn't like about the United States. There were things that he liked. And then he burst out, in the U.S. you throw away your old people. He was horrified that old people in the U.S. often end up lonely because they are far away from their children and their relatives and their friends. In New Guinea, it's not something planned. It's natural that when you're old you're living in the same place and in proximity to your life-long friends and relatives and so you're not lonely the way many or most old Americans are lonely.

  • 13:16:07

    FISHERAnd that attitude toward elders, I mean, obviously in most cultures, I would imagine there was once a more -- elders were more integrated into the family unit, into the life of the community. And this notion that elders are shunted off to assisted-living facilities, for example, is a relatively modern and new concept, isn't it?

  • 13:16:28

    DIAMONDYou're right. The first facility for elders that we know of was in Austria, introduced by Maria Theresa around 1750. Before that, throughout the entirety of human history, throughout six million years of human history, there was never a living facility for elders. Elders always lived with the rest of the group.

  • 13:16:56

    FISHERWell, if you have thoughts on whether modern is necessarily better or what aspects of modern society have developed for better or worse, tell us about your visits to traditional societies, your observations or questions for Jared Diamond, the author of "The World Until Yesterday." Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 or email at

  • 13:17:19

    FISHERAnd in this new book, you explain a number of these kinds of social phenomena through, as you have in your previous books, talking about natural factors, the geography, the crops and these sort of large-scale social decisions and trends, but not so much talking about individuals or leaders of societies and cultures. Is that a fair conclusion to make about the forces that you see at work and do you therefore conclude that political leaders and government leaders really don't make that much difference in the long term?

  • 13:18:04

    DIAMONDWow, again, that's a big question. The question -- perhaps I could answer that question by saying in the short term, political leaders obviously make a huge difference over the course of 10,000 years and over the course of entire continents, they probably make no difference.

  • 13:18:21

    DIAMONDWhere along the line is there a change? The fact that the bomb pushed on to Hitler's desk on July 20, 1944 wounded but didn't kill Hitler has effects persisting today on the map of Eastern Europe. Five hundred years from now, it probably won't have any effect on remaining -- as to whether Hitler was or was not killed on that particular day. So I would say it's a question of scale and time. Over the course of 10,000 years. what Alexander the Great did or didn't do, I would say, is irrelevant.

  • 13:18:50

    FISHERSo in New Guinea, you have noticed over the years of -- decades of your visits there that this is -- they are different from us in one important way, which is we are kind of an anxious people. We worry a lot and you found in New Guinea a type of concern that you call constructive paranoia. Tell us about what that is and how it differs from the kind of anxiety that we medicate in our country.

  • 13:19:18

    DIAMONDLet me give you an example. Today, a few hours ago, I did the most dangerous thing that I'm going to do all day today and I realize that it's dangerous from New Guinea, that is, I took a shower.

  • 13:19:28

    DIAMONDNow, you may say, how ridiculous. What's dangerous about taking a shower? Well, you can fall down and break a leg in the shower. You might then say, Jared, you're being paranoid. Your fears are exaggerated. Just read the obituary page any day of any newspaper and you'll see that for older people, a common cause of ultimate death or crippling is that they fall down in the shower or on the sidewalk.

  • 13:19:51

    DIAMONDNow I might say, well, I'm careful in the shower and the chances that I'll fall are only 1 in a 1,000, but let's do the numbers. I'm 75. I hope to live at least till 90. That means that ahead of me in life are at least 5,000 showers. If I reduce the risk of slipping in the shower to 1 in 1,000, that's not good enough because I'm going to kill myself five time before I'm 90 years old. I have to get the risk of slipping in the shower down way below 1 in 1,000. That illustrates constructive paranoia, namely being ultra careful, but appropriately being ultra careful.

  • 13:20:26

    DIAMONDAnd most Americans, the cool reality is don't think, think clearly about danger.

  • 13:20:31

    FISHERAnd we have, at least in recent years in this country, developed this culture of holding safety up as a way paramount virtue whereas in New Guinea, you talk about kids playing with knives and kids playing with fire. And you talk about this as kind of a good thing.

  • 13:20:51

    DIAMONDYeah, we can -- I can give you opposite sides to that. It is true that among traditional people New Guinea, South American Indians, Africa, children are given lots more independence than they are in our society. We micromanage our kids. In New Guinea and Africa, kids are given the freedom to play with sharp knives and to play near fires. Parents reason the kid is going to be responsible for himself or herself. They've got to learn and they might as well start learning now to be careful. And eventually, they'll learn that parents sometimes are worth listening to.

  • 13:21:35

    FISHERAnd so do you think that our coddling of kids or that our emphasis on safety is undermining -- there's this whole notion in the parent advice world of grit and the idea that we have cut grit out of the child rearing in our country. And therefore we have kind of a soft generation of kids.

  • 13:21:56

    DIAMONDWhat is the case is that I and friends who've spent a lot of time in Africa and South America and then the children of American missionaries and business people who grew up in New Guinea, we are struck by the fact that New Guineans and other traditional people, as children, they're more independent. They're more self confident. They're precociously skilled socially. A five-year-old New Guinea kid will go to an adult and have a conversation and negotiate with the adult.

  • 13:22:26

    DIAMONDOn the one hand, we say that we want our kids to be independent and to pick their own way. But we micromanage them and microcontrol them so much that they're infantilized.

  • 13:22:37

    FISHERWhen we come back after a short break, we'll get to your calls and you can join us at 1-800-433-8850 for Jared Diamond the author of "The World Until Yesterday." I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post. We'll be back after a short break.

  • 13:24:39

    FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." And we are talking with Jared Diamond. He's the author of "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies." He's the author previously of "Collapse" and "Guns, Germs and Steel." And as a professor of geography at UCLA, Jared Diamond, you have written around the world about things like child rearing, which you mentioned earlier, and the differences, the way people in New Guinea raise their children. You, I understand, adopted some of those techniques with your own kids.

  • 13:25:17

    DIAMONDA couple of the techniques that we adopted with our own kids was that like New Guineans and most small scale societies, we never -- absolutely never spanked or smacked our kids. There are better ways, less destructive ways to get kids to do what they have to do. Another different is that we left our kids as much freedom as was prudent to make their own choices with some surprising results. At age three my son Max saw his first snake. It was love at first sight. He demanded non-negotiably a snake as pet. We eventually got him a snake and then another snake. And he continued building up until he had 147 in our house, pet snakes, frogs, amphibians, salamanders.

  • 13:26:05

    DIAMONDHe went through his phase and eventually got bored with snakes and then he got interested in gourmet cooking. So today, Max is a restaurant chef in Los Angeles. He made his own choices.

  • 13:26:14

    FISHERHe doesn't serve any snake, I presume.

  • 13:26:16

    DIAMONDNot that I know of.

  • 13:26:19

    FISHERAnd so looking back at that experience did you -- was it all for the good? Were there any difficulties that came up of adopting these techniques in a society that moves in a different direction?

  • 13:26:32

    DIAMONDNo, we did not have difficulties. We lay things out before we gave them opportunities. I introduced them to butterflies. They weren't interested. I bird watched. They weren't interested. I got them a geology pick. They weren't interested. I brought one of my sons to civil war battlefields. He was fascinated. He became a history major. So we laid out a smorgasbord in front of them and I cannot recall any difficulty that we had.

  • 13:27:00

    FISHERHere's a phone call from Daniel in Herndon. Daniel, you're on the air.

  • 13:27:05

    DANIELHi. Thanks for taking my call. I love your show.

  • 13:27:08


  • 13:27:09

    DANIELProfessor Diamond, I'm a huge fan of "Gun, Germs and Steel" and I'm an Asian American in Herndon and I'm a first generation immigrant. And your work really affected how I view race relations and growing up with some Caucasian Americans who really believe in racial superiority and legitimacy of racism. I've tried to convince them through your theories that, you know, it's just all circumstantial and depending on geography.

  • 13:27:39

    DANIELBut because it's just a big idea with some of the details so I was wondering if you might be able to suggest a different way I could look at it and maybe explain to other people in a short quick way that might be able to change their minds a little bit. Thank you.

  • 13:27:54

    DIAMONDThat's a good question, Daniel. And in fact, Daniel, I'm from time to time asked by journalists essentially your question. Mr. Diamond, you've written this long 500-page book but I'm busy and my listeners are busy so, Mr. Diamond, would you please summarize your book in one sentence? And yes, Daniel, I'll give you the one-sentence to say. The one sentence is the reason why human societies develop differently on different continents of the last 10,000 years has nothing to do with differences in human intelligence. But instead it's due overwhelmingly to differences between continental environments, especially to differences in the wild plant and animal species available for domestication.

  • 13:28:39

    DIAMONDAnd Daniel, that's one sentence. It's a long sentence, but, Daniel, it's one sentence.

  • 13:28:43

    FISHERMemorize that, Daniel.

  • 13:28:45

    DANIELI will. Thank you.

  • 13:28:46

    DIAMONDYou're welcome, Daniel.

  • 13:28:48

    FISHERI mean, there is always this desire for practical applications of the lessons that you learn in a lengthy study like yours. Does all of the learning from a place like New Guinean, from study of traditional societies, does it lend itself to practical things that we can do in a very different society with very different values?

  • 13:29:14

    DIAMONDLots of it lends itself to practical things that we can do. For example, New Guineans and traditional people never, absolutely never die of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and most cancers. We would like that for ourselves. Reasons are the differences between their lifestyle and our lifestyle. They exercise. They don't take in much salt or sugar. They don't smoke. They eat moderate amounts. They are lean body masses. It's easy for us to adopt New Guinea-like diets. In fact, many Americans do and thereby reduce their risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. That's a banal example.

  • 13:29:56

    DIAMONDOther examples are how we raise our children, as we've been talking. How we settle disputes, settling disputes so that you can remain talking with the other person, or at least not hate them for the rest of your lives. The American legal system tends to polarize so that divorce in couples and brothers and sisters in inheritance dispute end up angry for the rest of their lives. Traditional dispute mechanism systems aim at promoting emotional reconciliation so that at least you're not going to hate your ex-spouse or sister and fight with him or her for the rest of your life.

  • 13:30:29

    FISHERYou talk about in the book this notion that obviously we, in our society, think of justice as something that happens in a courthouse. And in a society such as New Guinea you talk about something called restorative justice. Can you explain how that works?

  • 13:30:45

    DIAMONDSure. Our justice, as you say, happens in a courthouse with lawyers. And it's administered by the government, the state government. But the government has its own interests, which are separate from the interests of the contending parties. The government views disputes as a means to set a precedent for the rest of the population. The government doesn't care whether the divorcing husband and wife can agree with each other about how to raise their children.

  • 13:31:15

    DIAMONDIn contrast, in traditional societies there's not a state government and so there's no party that is interested in the exemplary value. The focus is just on the dispute itself. The disputes are handled by mediators and the goal of the mediation is not to figure out what's right or wrong. The goal of the mediation is instead to restore the relationship or non-relationship so that you can get on with the rest of your life with that person next door or in your group and not be afraid or churned up with anger for the rest of your life.

  • 13:31:47

    FISHERAnd that involves having the parties in the dispute really do a lot of the work in working this out, I would imagine.

  • 13:31:54

    DIAMONDThe parties in the dispute do all the work, including the emotional work. And, for example, an example which I began chapter two of my book about dispute resolution, is what one thinks would be an impossible dispute to resolve. A friend of mine was involved in a case where a kid was killed by a driver. And the kid had darted out across the street and...

  • 13:32:16

    FISHERThis was here in the states or...

  • 13:32:17

    DIAMONDNo, I'm sorry, this was in New Guinea. So a New Guinea kid was killed by a New Guinea driver. In the United States the result would be a lawsuit and misery for the rest of one's life and guilt on the part of the driver. In New Guinea, five days after the event there was a meal of reconciliation where the driver's colleagues and employer sat down with the mother and father and relatives of the dead kid. They ate together. The employer turned over some money and some food to the family of the dead kid.

  • 13:32:48

    DIAMONDMy friend, the employer, had to make a speech and he said it was the hardest speech in his life because he was crying. The parents were also crying. He was crying because he said, I'm thinking my own children being killed. Your grief must be unimaginable. The money that I'm giving you is nothing compared to the death of the kid. And the result was an emotional clearance on both sides and they would not go through the rest of their lives paralyzed by fear or by guilt.

  • 13:33:14

    FISHERSo it's almost more a form of therapy than a sort of business transaction.

  • 13:33:21

    DIAMONDThat's a really interesting way to put it. In the United States the result that New Guineans achieve by themselves we would seek to achieve through a paid therapist if we think ourselves to do it. But it happens automatically in New Guinea through the parties, if it succeeds. But let's face it, sometimes it doesn't succeed and the result than is war. Whereas in the United States the result is a court case and not war.

  • 13:33:47

    FISHERWell, but -- so that raises the question of whether there isn't some perhaps advantage to the modern Western way of resolving disputes. And isn't it a key achievement of Western culture or civilization to remove disputes from that kind of confrontation. And instead impose whether it's a juror or a judge or the state as the conscience of the community to create some emotional distance from the dispute?

  • 13:34:17

    DIAMONDYou are right, but I would say you are partly right. And the essence of it is that the American -- the justice system of governments carries big advantages. In fact, no government could operate without a justice system because with 10,000 people you can't leave justice to do it yourself. But the government justice system comes at a price. What we can learn from traditional societies is ways of mitigating that price through restorative justice that you mentioned. And through other ways of acquiring some things from traditional societies such as mediation in divorce cases that we can incorporate into our state system of justice.

  • 13:34:59

    FISHERHere's Kevin in Reston. Kevin, you're on the air.

  • 13:35:01

    KEVINYeah, hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'd like Mr. Diamond to address the topic of international development programs and policies in terms that it seems that frequently, especially with the new push towards northern private sector involvement, that we push in finance programs that essentially create a world for third world countries modeled on our own methodology, such as political institutions and agriculture.

  • 13:35:25

    KEVINAnd the question more specific than that, Mr. Diamond, have you encountered any instances personally in which you've seen traditional knowledge and best practices swept aside in favor of more Western practices or, for that matter, inclusion of traditional knowledge in the development practices? And obviously the rest of the world has a wealth of traditional know how in meeting challenges they face. You know, they've existed for hundreds of thousands of years. So how are they included or excluded? And what's the end result in terms of program effectiveness or subsequent culture development?

  • 13:35:55

    DIAMONDKevin, you've asked us, of course, a central question, maybe the central question in international development. To what extent do outsiders come in and say, we know what's good for you and here's what you're going to do. And to what extent do outsiders come in and say, you tell us your needs. What is it that you would like from us?

  • 13:36:14

    DIAMONDIn New Guinea I've seen the development programs that a large international company -- in this case, Chevron Oil Company -- tried to develop in the oil fields that Chevron was developing in Papua, New Guinea. Chevron worked hard to provide medical care, listened to what did they want. They want control of malaria. So there were anti-malarial clinics. Chevron also paid out the oil revenues. And the (word?) was really difficult because the traditional system did not have a precedent of a chief receiving money and then distributing it to everybody in the village.

  • 13:36:52

    DIAMONDWith good intentions the oil revenues were paid out and often the oil revenues end up being diverted for the purpose of the leader who receives the revenues, because there's not this tradition of representative government. So, Kevin, it's difficult.

  • 13:37:09

    KEVINThank you.

  • 13:37:09

    FISHERThanks for the call, Kevin. We have an email from Lynn saying, "Your powers of observation and analysis amaze me. Is it possible for you to examine and explain your thought and research process?" I mean, do you just go there and hang out with folks or is there kind of a system to how you examine?

  • 13:37:27

    DIAMONDLynn, I go out there and I watch birds, birds, birds, birds but I'm with New Guineans all the time. And so we're chattering all the time and they want to know how many children I have. And they want to know when I bought my wife and how many pigs I paid for my wife. And did I pick my wife? Of course not, so what relatives picked your wife for you? So we're chattering all the time. We're going through frightening experiences. We're going through funny experiences together. I'm learning from them by living with them. And I've been doing it for the last 50 years, Lynn.

  • 13:38:00

    FISHERAnd this book, in contrast to the last couple, and particularly to "Collapse," where you have spent decades now chronicling the ways in which societies decline and fall, this book seems to try to take a more optimistic view, or at least to say, look here're some things we can learn that can make life better in some ways. Is that -- I mean, given where you are in your stage of life, you've spent a lot of time explaining and narrating decline. Did you feel some compulsion to sort of look on the brighter side maybe?

  • 13:38:38

    DIAMONDInteresting question. It's not that I felt some compulsion. With due respect to my book "Collapse," the subtitle was "How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail." So "Collapse" was not just about the sad outcomes. "Collapse" was also about the great outcomes, for example, in Iceland and (word?) and New Guinea.

  • 13:38:58

    DIAMONDAnd similarly with regard to the new book, the new book is not just about how we can make life better by imitating what traditional societies do. It's also about how we can enjoy the things that we already do well, for example by not making constant war against each other. And by not abandoning old people or killing them as some traditional societies are obliged to do. And so yes, we can make life better but we can also appreciate the things that we already do better.

  • 13:39:28

    FISHERWhen we come back after a short break, we will talk about war and strangers and the different concepts in New Guinea and in the West about war and strangers. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We'll be back with Jared Diamond after a short break.

  • 13:41:27

    FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi, and we're talking with Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, and the author of several books including his most recent, "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies." And we will take your calls at 1-800-433-8850, or you can email us at

  • 13:41:51

    FISHERAnd Patty in DC emails saying, "Given your studies of world cultures of their clashes, do you see genocide as an inevitable problem? Will New Guinea, for example, turn on competitors if they perceive that resources are limited, and do more developed cultures ever reach a level of civility and affluence at which they do not want to go after some subset of their culture or tribe?" A lot of questions there.

  • 13:42:19

    DIAMONDThe big question, Patty, is genocide inevitable? No. Of course it's not inevitable. Genocide is exceptional, it's not the rule. Most conflicts between peoples, nations today, are settled amicably and even if they result in war there's not genocide on the one hand. On the other hand, the possibility of genocide is always there under the surface. One of the things that we can learn by reading about history or by reading about learning about what goes on in traditional societies, is to be aware of the risk of genocide, the risk that we ourselves may become genocidal, the risk that we may become victims of genocide.

  • 13:43:03

    DIAMONDFor example, because I was born in 1937 I remember very well in 1945 the horrible photos of the concentration camps being opened and the bulldozers pushing the dead bodies into the trenches. And many people around the world swore never again is there going to be a genocide like that. But in fact, since World War II, there have been dozens of cases of genocide, cases that have produced millions of dead bodies as in Cambodia and East Pakistan.

  • 13:43:31

    DIAMONDSo Patty, I think we need to remain aware that the potential is under the surface, but we also can understand that we don't have to give way to those impulses.

  • 13:43:42

    FISHERAnd we think of modern western societies as being plagued by violence. Is there a significant difference in violence levels in traditional cultures such as those in New Guinea?

  • 13:43:56

    DIAMONDLet me give you a practical example, Marc. You and I didn't meet each other until 40 minutes ago. And in these 40 minutes I can tell you I've not made a single move to kill you, I've not detected you making a move to kill me.

  • 13:44:09

    FISHERNot yet.

  • 13:44:10

    DIAMONDNot yet. You have another 10 minutes to do it. I've not run out of here screaming in terror, and you and I have not sat down to discuss all our possible cross cousins so we wouldn't have grounds for killing each other. That illustrates that in our large societies where we regularly encounter strangers, we're accustomed to the fact that strangers may bring pleasure and profit, and they're not dangerous. But in traditional small scale societies, you don't just travel around, and so a stranger really is dangerous.

  • 13:44:39

    DIAMONDWhen you encounter a stranger, either you immediately run or you try to kill him or he tries to kill you, or if there's no way out, you sit down together and you have a two-hour discussion about all your relatives in the hope that you and I can find that we've got some cross cousin three steps removed in which case we have a relationship and there's no reason for me to kill you, Marc.

  • 13:44:58

    FISHERHum. So how did that inherent fear of the stranger, or wariness about the stranger, how did that go away in what we consider modern societies?

  • 13:45:08

    DIAMONDInteresting question. It's gone away as societies got bigger and bigger. As long as you had societies with a few hundred people, everybody knew everybody else and there was no issue of strangers. But as population increased with the development of agriculture, when you got societies of a few thousand people and you now had to have a central chief with authority, it was inevitable that you would encounter strangers, and the chief has to make sure that the society doesn't fall apart by your attacking strangers who belong within your own society.

  • 13:45:40

    DIAMONDAnd so every society, once it gets to be more than a thousand people or so, has to deal with this issue of strangers and develops rules, moral codes, that say thou shalt not kill, which would permit you to live together with unfamiliar people like me and you now.

  • 13:45:58

    FISHERAnd so is the attitude toward violence, or the propensity toward violence, does that develop independently of the technology of violence? In other words, do nuclear weapons and guns change the equation, or are they simply irrelevant tools that, you know, don't have to do with the basic decisions about how violent we're going to be?

  • 13:46:22

    DIAMONDThat's an interesting basic issue, Marc. Of course, nuclear weapons and guns can kill more people at once rather than spearing people one by one. But the big difference is that with nuclear weapons and guns you can kill people without looking them in their face, and so you don't have to deal with the inhibitions about killing someone face to face, whereas in traditional societies, killing is always face to face. But on the other hand, in traditional societies, one is brought up to be accustomed to violence, to be accustomed to your own relatives being killed, and from the times you're little kids onwards, as with those New Guineans that I saw my first morning in the village.

  • 13:47:02

    DIAMONDViolence is accepted as a part of everyday life, so we have inhibitions about looking someone in the face and killing them because thou shalt not kill for dealing with strangers, and we have the technology that permits it, whereas in traditional societies you look someone in the face, you may know them by name, and then you kill them.

  • 13:47:21

    FISHERWow. Here is Dennis in MacLean. Dennis, you're on the air.

  • 13:47:26

    DENNISYeah. I was listening to your guest and your show and one thing you folks have to understand is that our culture is based in profit with conflict, and profit for suffering. The whole prison system and judicial system is currently based on making money. And if we're not -- it's part of the GDP. It's part of the sector and the GDP where, you know, like the military industrial complex, you break things, you fix things. You make money both ways.

  • 13:47:59

    DENNISThat's the same thing in the prison system these days where the conflict is settled by a lawyer who makes a ton of money who has lobbyists with the Trial Lawyers Association to pass laws -- a lot of laws so that they continue to make money. And it's all about profit for suffering. So this would affect the GDP of the United States of America if we settle things with more compassion and understanding.

  • 13:48:25

    FISHEROkay. Is there a -- thanks, Dennis. Is there any corollary in traditional societies to this sort of commercialization of these functions of justice and the other things Dennis was talking about?

  • 13:48:41

    DIAMONDIt's a good question, Dennis. There is no correlation of prisons for profit because there are no prisons. Prisons require a centralized government to run the prisons and to put people in prison, whereas in traditional societies there are no prisons. The extreme penalty that you can inflict in traditional society is to ostracize someone if they're really bad, like they're a pathological killer. You don't put them in prison, you instead ban them from your own society, but it's very difficult for one person to survive in the jungle by themselves.

  • 13:49:15

    DIAMONDAnd so ostracism frequently results in death. But in short, we don't have prisons for -- sorry. They don't have prisons for profit because they don't have prisons.

  • 13:49:25


  • 13:49:25

    DENNISThat's why it would be very difficult to introduce something like that here in the United States because...

  • 13:49:29

    FISHERIt would.

  • 13:49:30

    DENNIS... (unintelligible) is linked to a lot of the profit for suffering that we have here in the United States and in western culture. And, you know, when you're talking about decreasing the GDP, that is the ultimate, you know, production and GDP is why we do everything in this country. And if we're talking about, you know, laying off lawyers, which the Trial Lawyers Association would go crazy, that's a big issue. And if you -- right now we're talking about...

  • 13:49:57


  • 13:49:57

    DENNIS...decreasing budgets in the Pentagon and in the, you know, for military, and everybody is freaking out.

  • 13:50:03

    FISHEROkay. Thanks Dennis. There is obviously this ostracism you're talking about, if it can lead to death it's not a very benign form of punishment. I mean, it's -- it sounds like it could be a long, slow, process.

  • 13:50:17

    DIAMONDThe ostracized person at least has a chance of trying to make it by themselves, but as with so many things in traditional societies, think what else could they do? The alternative is if you got some really nasty person you can kill them outright, and sometimes that happens, but a more benign alternative is to ostracize them. If you ostracize them, he or she at least has the option of going over to some neighboring group and seeing if they can get adopted by that neighboring group.

  • 13:50:44

    FISHERHere's Mike in Alexandria. Mike, you're on the air.

  • 13:50:47

    MIKEOh, thank you so much. Professor Diamond, I've been a long admirer of your work, and I briefly wanted to share my "why do you white men have so much cargo" moment. My wife and I used to import traditional handicraft from out that way, and we were well up country in Borneo where we had thrown ourselves on the hospitality of a longhouse. And when the discovery that my wife was pregnant became known, the hospitality increased dramatically.

  • 13:51:21

    MIKEAnd later in the evening, a young man approached me, a boy really, and he was very nervous to ask the question, is it true, Mr. Mike, that in America you keep your babies in cages? And I was dumbfounded, and offended, and I didn't know how to answer until the light bulb in my head went off, that this young man had seen a picture of a baby in a crib which looked all the world like the pig pen behind the longhouse.

  • 13:51:52

    MIKEIt changed my life forever, and your work has been a great joy to me to find a kindred spirit wandering in the up country.

  • 13:52:02

    FISHEROkay. Thanks, Mike.

  • 13:52:04

    MIKEThank you.

  • 13:52:05

    DIAMONDMike, it's even worse than that. Your Borneo friends may have said, or in more time they would have said, it's not just that we in the United States keep our babies in cages, namely cribs, it's that we don't take them to bed with us, whereas every baby in human history until probably 6,000 years ago, slept together with the parents and eventually after a few years got bored with sleeping with the parents.

  • 13:52:31

    DIAMONDBut we don't bring our babies into bed with us, we put them in cribs, we don't even have them sleep in the same room with us, and that results in the experience that my wife and I and all other American parents have of the uncontrollable sobbing of babies as you leave them to go to sleep at night instead of giving them the security of co-sleeping at least in the same bedroom with their parents.

  • 13:52:55

    FISHERAnd speaking of babies and childbirth, Karla in Silver Spring has a question. You're on the air.

  • 13:53:01

    KARLAHello Professor Diamond. I remember something in your guns book about birth control in primitive societies. Do you remember what I'm referring to?

  • 13:53:12

    DIAMONDWell, I can certainly remember what I've said about birth control, Karla, in my current book, "The World Until Yesterday."

  • 13:53:18


  • 13:53:19

    DIAMONDThe reality is that after the birth of a baby in traditional societies, it's generally a couple years before the woman becomes pregnant again, even though the couple may resume having sex, and that's because of a couple of things that result automatically in birth control.

  • 13:53:33


  • 13:53:33

    DIAMONDOne is the birth control associated with nursing a baby, not just two or three times a day but constantly throughout the day.

  • 13:53:40


  • 13:53:40

    DIAMONDAnd the other is the metabolic drain on a woman of producing milk which means that she doesn't have enough body fat to ovulate and become pregnant again, so that's natural birth control.

  • 13:53:51

    KARLAMm-hmm. Thank you.

  • 13:53:53

    FISHERThank you, Karla, for the call. And here is Joanie in Washington. Joanie, you're on the air.

  • 13:53:59


  • 13:53:59

    FISHERYes. Go ahead.

  • 13:54:00

    JOANIEYes. I live in a neighborhood in Washington DC, and I think many of us came from other places to find jobs and have. But we've also settled into these neighborhoods and made our own communities. So now we would like to age in place. Well, that can made easier by groups forming called Seniors Meeting Seniors, and it was based on one that started in Boston, Mass., and we've begun one on Capitol Hill five years ago, and this means that we are aware of each other. We are aware of needs of people, and we share our joy and our talents.

  • 13:54:38

    JOANIEFor instance, I got so much help with some heavy stuff that I needed for my home and everything, and I was like, well, what can I do because I'm handicapped and I can't drive. And I was like, oh, I could lead a class in qigong, which is something I've done for 14 years. It's an energy exercise, and it really improves your balance.

  • 13:54:56


  • 13:54:56

    JOANIEI hold a class three times -- or two times a week of seniors to help them with their balance. So we're sharing resources, and I think that's what we all need to do.

  • 13:55:06

    FISHEROkay. Thank you, Joanie.

  • 13:55:08

    JOANIEYou're welcome.

  • 13:55:09

    DIAMONDJoanie, that illustrates some of the things that -- to go back to Marc's question, what can we do, there are things that we can do in our society to gain some of the benefits that operate in traditional societies. Traditional societies provide seniors with much more satisfying life emotionally because of the contacts with lifelong friends and relatives. But we can also do that, and Joanie, you mentioned a program. There are other programs such as Senior Care Program is the name of others.

  • 13:55:41

    DIAMONDBut there are programs whereby seniors have social contacts whereby seniors are useful, share their experience with society just as you teach classes, so that's an example of how we can integrate the strong points of traditional societies into our own society.

  • 13:56:10

    FISHERWhen you see seniors coming together in these kinds of communities, when you see some of these trends, do it yourself or slow-food movements that hearken back to traditional practices, do you worry at all that these are driven by nostalgia or a yearning to escape from the sort of faster pace of modern life, or are these purely good efforts to sort of reap the benefits of the traditional lifestyle?

  • 13:56:27

    DIAMONDMarc, I do not worry whether they're driven by nostalgia.

  • 13:56:29

    FISHERI didn't think you would.

  • 13:56:30

    DIAMONDI don't care what they're driven by. What I do care about is the good outcome, whatever one's mode of attaining the good outcome.

  • 13:56:38

    FISHERAnd so when you go to New Guinea, are you a different person? Do you feel that you're operating at a different pace and benefiting from that?

  • 13:56:47

    DIAMONDOh, you bet. When I go to New Guinea, it's as if I come awake after a year and a half of being asleep. New Guinea is just such a vivid -- anybody who's been there, anybody who's been with New Guineans, it is so vivid. The conversations are face to face, we're not interrupted by cell phones, we're not texting each other. I'm looking someone in the face and talking with them and next to them all day. After New Guinea the rest of the world is boring.

  • 13:57:12

    FISHERAre there examples in history of societies that have moved forward in this fast-paced way and accepted the notions of progress and then rolled it back?

  • 13:57:23

    DIAMONDThere are cases of what one could call reverse progress in the past, regression in -- regression economically and in terms of the structure of society, and there have been reasons for it. For example, Sweden adopted farming about 3,000 years ago, and then there was a change in climate and the Swedes could no longer be farmers. The reverted to being hunter/gatherers for a while, so that is a case of a society simplifying, but for environmental reasons.

  • 13:57:51

    FISHERJared Diamond is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies." He is a professor of geography at UCLA, and thanks so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:02

    DIAMONDYou are welcome, Marc.

  • 13:58:03

    FISHERI'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein, with help from Stephannie Stokes. Thanks so much for joining us. Bye-bye.

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