Simanaitis Says

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WE ARE WEIRD

A PROVOCATIVE recent book offers the view that we have a lot to learn from primitive societies—from what we might call uncivilized sorts. What with savage rites and all, I’m not sure I buy into this completely. But the book and its review by James C. Scott in the London Review of Books, 21 November 2013, offer fascinating insights, even if elements of the thesis remain quarrelsome to some.

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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, by Jared Diamond, Penguin, 2013. Both www.abebooks.com and www.amazon.com list it.

Jared Diamond is an ornithologist, biologist and geographer with a New Guinea speciality. His other popular works include Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Like this new book, each is transdisciplinary and thought-provoking.

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Jared Mason Diamond, Professor of Geography, The University of California, Los Angeles. Image by Aude.

These other two books discuss, from different perspectives, how civilization evolved over the past 13,000 years. By contrast, The World Until Yesterday examines societies, primitive as well as evolved, and how they communicate, educate, treat their elderly and resolve conflicts.

This book and its review are filled with nuggets; here are a few of them:

WEIRD. We—or at least most of us—are WEIRD, members of societies that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. And, of course, since the Nineteenth Century, this has been thought the ideal.

Said The Right Honorable Cecil Rhodes, mining magnate and De Beers diamond chairman, “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”

Our blink in time. Jared Diamond notes that Homo sapiens have been around for perhaps 200,000 years. The first signs of civilization—domesticated crops—came about 11,000 years ago. Communities based on these crops (Diamond calls them “grain statelets”) arose perhaps 5000 years ago.

James C. Scott writes in his review, “More than 97 percent of human experience, in other words, lies outside the grain-based nation-states in which virtually all of us now live.” He takes this point even further: Before 1500, say, most populations were still foraging food. Thus, “On this account, our world of grains and states is a mere blink of the eye (0.25 percent) in the historical adventure of our species.”

The nine giants of communication. Diamond notes that there are around 7000 languages spoken around the world; amazingly enough, 1000 of which are spoken in his New Guinea field sites. I’m reminded of Japan’s Little World (see http://wp.me/p2ETap-o7), where its Language Hall has kiosks playing a greeting recorded in a multitude of tongues.

Yet, there is a steamroller of the nine predominate languages, each with more than 100 million speakers. These “nine giants,” more or less in order of their speakers, are Mandarin, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese.

The rest of the world’s languages have, on average, only a few thousand speakers, with a great many having far fewer.

Observes reviewer Scott, “Each heartland of a ‘giant’ language is the graveyard of the languages it has overwhelmed.”

Summary. Diamond’s summary, as distilled through Scott’s review, is multi-faceted. We should learn more languages. We should practice more intimate and permissive child-rearing. We should spend more time socializing face to face. We should make use of the wisdom of our elders. And we should assess the dangers of our environment more realistically.

Reviewer Scott writes, “Those who have trekked all this way… through the history of the species and the New Guinea Highlands must have expected something more substantial awaiting them at the end of the trail.”

For me, though, these and other nuggets along the way make the trek a fascinating one. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014

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