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Lessons For The Modern World From The Societies Of 'Yesterday'

In his new book, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond tells the story of a young schoolboy named Billy who was killed in a traffic accident on his way home from school in Papua New Guinea.

The driver was alert but simply couldn't stop the car when Billy ran across the road. In an outcome that may surprise people in many parts of the world, the incident was peacefully resolved within days.

Five days after the accident, Diamond explains, the employer and friends of the killer sat down for a meal with the relatives of the dead boy.

"They ate together. They cried together. They said how sad it was to lose the dead boy," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "And they reached emotional reconciliation.

"That's unthinkable in California," says Diamond, a geography professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Diamond, who has spent nearly 50 years studying cultures in Papua New Guinea, presents this approach to conflict resolution as just one example of the lessons the modern world can learn from traditional societies.

"We shouldn't romanticize traditional societies," Diamond says. "We shouldn't condemn them as brutes and barbarians. But there are things that are wonderful, and there are things that are dreadful about them."

He argues that traditional societies have much to teach us about different ways to eat and stay fit, how to raise our children, and how to organize communities.

Interview Highlights

On conflict resolution in traditional societies

"Here in California, we are a litigious group, and certainly if someone kills my son, there is not going to be a peaceful resolution. You can bet at minimum that there is going to be a civil suit for damages, and there's going to be hatred for the rest of our life.

"In a traditional society, though, where everybody knows everybody else, and you are going to be living next to them for the rest of your lives, you have to be able to settle disputes in a way that deals with the feelings."

On the approach to raising children in New Guinea

"Here in the United States, overwhelmingly the most important influence on a child is the child's parents, occasionally baby sitters, et cetera. But in New Guinea and in other traditional societies, responsibility for kids is diffused over the other adults and the older siblings in the village.

Jared Diamond is also the author of <em>Guns, Germs, and Steel </em>and<em> Why Is Sex Fun?</em>
/ Reed Hutchinson
Reed Hutchinson
Jared Diamond is also the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Why Is Sex Fun?

"So, for example, the son of an American missionary who had grown up in New Guinea told me that in the afternoon in New Guinea, he would have dinner not necessarily in his parents' house. He had dinner in whatever house he happened to be, whatever hut he happened to be near in the village. And so he referred to all adults as aunt and uncle.

"And for him, one of the biggest shocks in coming back to the United States was the loss of all these adult social models associated with ... the shared ownership of kids. ... All these models means a lot more social stimulation and more models to choose among."

On the benefits of anonymity in Western society

"There are lots of good things about American society or about Western society in general. And one of them is, as my New Guinea friend said, the anonymity. As she put it, what she really loved in the United States is to be able to go to a cafe, sit at an outdoor table, enjoy her coffee, read the newspaper, and not be bothered by friends and relatives who want something from her.

"The downside of all those social contacts in New Guinea is that an individual who gets something, has a good job, is constantly pestered by friends and relatives to share with them. And so there are also advantages to the loneliness in the United States."

On the aspects of traditional culture to leave behind

"[There's] an island near Bougainville called New Britain, where among the Kaulong people it was customary that if a man died, his widow was strangled, and not against her will. She expected it.

"She would call out to her brothers to strangle her. If the brothers were not around, she would call out to her son to strangle her, because she had seen this happen to other women, and now she expected it for herself.

"To us it sounds horrible, and I have to say I don't see any benefit to it. It again underscores the point that there are wonderful things we can learn from traditional societies, and there are also things where we can say, thank God we're past that."

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