It must say something about the deep human longing for big ideas that explain everything that books like Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (1997) or Thomas Friedman's "The World Is Flat" (2005) do so well. Nobody could possibly read them for literary pleasure: Books of this sort are invariably ponderous, plodding, even deathly dull, their authors attempting to leaven the proceedings with gimmicks (lists, cutesy acronyms) and hand-holding authorial intrusions ("let me explain . . .") as a substitute for good writing. They sell like hot cakes.
The World Until Yesterday
By Jared Diamond
Viking, 498 pages, $36
"Guns, Germs, and Steel" transformed Mr. Diamond from an obscure ornithologist and physiologist (his original specialty was the gall bladder) into a star among "public intellectuals." That book's basic premise—which earned Mr. Diamond the enmity of academics in both the humanities and social sciences and from both ends of the political spectrum—was that the global domination of Western societies was mostly geographic and environmental happenstance. Favorable climates and soils and the availability of animal and plant species suitable for domestication largely determined everything that has occurred in the 11,000 years since the rise of agriculture: Food surpluses due to more efficient cultivation led to higher population densities, political centralization and advanced technology.
Mr. Diamond's theory had the virtue of offering a neat explanation for cultural differences that did not rely upon any suggestion of inherent racial superiority of one group over another. It had the vice of embracing an environmentally deterministic idea of cultural evolution that most anthropologists view as naïve or ridiculous, and of ignoring altogether the role of human agency. Leftist social historians pointed out that Mr. Diamond completely swept out of the picture moral choices such as colonialism and enslavement that kept many parts of the world in subjugation for centuries. Conservatives complained that the author discounted the importance of Western moral and political philosophy, particularly the concepts of individual liberty, property rights and free markets, in making scientific and material progress possible.
In "Collapse" (2005), Mr. Diamond extended the idea of environment as a cultural driving force to explain the sudden demise of civilizations, such as the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Easter Islanders, and sweepingly argued that their fate will be ours unless we reduce human population and resource consumption. In "The World Until Yesterday," however, Mr. Diamond backs away some from the search for pat, all-encompassing answers. The book is a much more personal and anecdotal account that draws heavily on his own experiences among the primitive tribes of New Guinea with whom he has lived for extended periods since 1964 while carrying out field work on the ecology and evolution of birds.
Although his stated purpose, as the book's subtitle declares, is to find out "what can we learn from traditional societies?," Mr. Diamond is appropriately cautious about romanticizing the primitive world or suggesting that traditional customs always reflect innate environmental, medicinal or spiritual wisdom. One of the most admirable qualities of this book is, in fact, a refreshing skepticism toward simple explanations. Mr. Diamond notes early on that, while some traditional beliefs and practices may reflect effective adaptations to environmental conditions and social needs, others are more about maintaining internal power hierarchies, while still others have no sane reason for existing at all: They are just unique products of the infinite vagaries of human imagination and the quirks of history.
To take one particularly bizarre and grisly example, up until 1957 the Kaulong people—one of a dozen similar tribes living in identical environmental circumstances on the island of New Britain, just east of New Guinea—practiced the ritual strangulation of widows. None of the adjacent tribes did, and, as Mr. Diamond observes, there is no evidence that "Kaulong widow strangling was in any way beneficial to Kaulong society or to the long-term (posthumous) genetic interests of the strangled widow or her relatives." It was just one of those things, yet it was so firmly ingrained as a custom that the widows themselves perpetuated it, insisting that a male relative strangle them when their husbands died, even taunting or mocking his manhood if he quailed at the task.
Mr. Diamond offers some intriguing evidence to suggest that traditional societies may have a thing or two to teach us about raising children, however. He notes that in most hunter-gatherer cultures children are nursed on demand until age 3 or 4, sleep with their parents, are comforted instantly when they cry, and play together in multi-age play groups. They also are rarely punished and allowed far more freedom than we are generally comfortable with. Among the !Kung and Aka pygmies of Africa, children are never physically disciplined, on the grounds that they "have no wits and are not responsible for their actions," Mr. Diamond writes. "Instead, !Kung and Aka children are permitted to slap and insult their parents." In one tribe in the New Guinea Highlands, Mr. Diamond noticed that most of the adults had serious burn scars. It turned out these were mostly acquired in infancy: The adults made it a practice never to interfere with a baby, to the point of not preventing them playing around or touching a fire. (Other groups let small children play with sharp knives.)
Westerners who have lived with these small-scale societies are "struck by the precocious development of social skills in their children"; they are responsible, articulate and competent, and the "adolescent identity crises that plague American teenagers aren't an issue." But Mr. Diamond admits that all these impressions "are just impressions," hard to measure and prove, and his ultimate verdict is nuanced: "At a minimum . . . one can say that hunter-gatherer rearing practices that seem so foreign to us aren't disastrous, and they don't produce societies of obvious sociopaths."
One advantage of Mr. Diamond's anecdotal approach in "The World Until Yesterday" is that the details can be interesting even when they do not offer any larger lessons. This is especially the case when it comes to the many bizarre and varied superstitious traditions he describes, such as elaborate food taboos (eating kangaroo tail, according to one Aborigine tribe, causes premature baldness), and to some of the more hair-raising practices that apparently were the norm in the primitive world. Infanticide, he notes, is a not uncommon practice in traditional societies, a way of disposing of deformed, sickly or simply excess children that would be an unsupportable burden on their parents and the group. In hunter-gatherer societies, the overriding fact of life is a limited food supply, and a woman who is still nursing an older child may abandon or deliberately neglect a newborn so that the older will live; likewise she may abandon one of two twins. Other primitive tribes similarly do away with the old and sick; this is sometimes done by leaving them behind when shifting camp, sometimes by more active means—like encouraging them to jump off cliffs.
The problem with combining a sort-of-anecdotal memoir with a sort-of-big-idea book, however, is that Mr. Diamond insists on trying to milk significance out of everything that happens to him, with considerably varying degrees of success. Although the book has been nominally organized around a series of topics (war, religion, children, danger and accidents, health, language), it really is at heart a ramble. That could be fine, too, except that Mr. Diamond suffers from an all-too-familiar syndrome, albeit one that normally afflicts academic scientists only after they have won a Nobel Prize; he is convinced that everything he has done and every thought that has occurred to him not only is interesting but contains a valuable insight worth sharing with the world. (This includes Mr. Diamond's experience of having recurrent diarrhea in the jungle, from which he draws a considerably less-than-profound conclusion regarding the importance of personal hygiene.)
It also results in much unevenness of coverage. He expends dozens of pages belaboring the utterly obvious—the Western diet has too many calories and leads to high rates of diabetes—while inexplicably devoting little more than a sentence to the entire subject of sex, courtship, love and marriage, offering the single observation that, in most traditional societies, "willing sex partners are almost constantly available." I am sure I am not the only reader who might have been interested in hearing a little more about that.
People who write in order to write a good book, as opposed to those who write to impart their great wisdom, know that the first rule is that most of one's thoughts are not even worth writing down, and a good many that do get written down deserve to be ditched before anyone else sees them. Mr. Diamond's prose, which shows little evidence of ever having been subjected to such discipline, is at times almost comically inept. He frequently sounds like a caricature of a particularly tedious professor, pausing every few paragraphs to interject, "Now, let's consider," "Let's begin by," "Before answering this question," "In the preceding section we discussed," "Having thus addressed the question . . . ." In other places he sounds like a tedious professor lecturing to morons: "There are differences among people of the same age."
The sense of having stumbled into a middle-school textbook is reinforced by the gratuitous inclusion of numerous clunky color photos depicting the obvious, such as a fat American eating a box of fried chicken to illustrate our unhealthy modern diet. He spends pages on didactic definitions of terms: "war," "religion," "tribe." He describes, in mind-numbingly unnecessary detail, the physical appearance and technological amenities of a modern airport in New Guinea (ATM, baggage conveyor belt, X-ray scanners) to make the point that a modern airport in New Guinea now looks the same as a modern airport in the rest of the world. I think we get it.
Some of the "lessons" Mr. Diamond draws, moreover, border on the fatuous, or at least strained. Raise our children bilingually; respect the elderly; have stimulating dinnertime conversation instead of watching TV or playing videogames. "Diet and eating habits are an area in which there is a lot that we can do as individuals to help ourselves," he informs us. No, really? Do we need to read 500 pages about primitive societies to reach such cookie-cutter self-help prescriptions?
But when Mr. Diamond gets done trying to distill everything into a few talking points suitable for a publicity release, he ends with more interesting and subtle observations. I was particularly struck by what the New Guineans themselves had to say about the benefits of having entered the modern world in the decades since their first contact with Westerners in 1931. While they valued much of the technological convenience of the Western lifestyle—matches, clothes, soft beds and especially not having to worry constantly about having enough to eat—it was the non-material benefits that loomed even larger, above all the end of tribal warfare.
"Life was better since the government had come," one Western anthropologist was told by members of the Auyuna tribe, since a man "could leave his house in the morning to urinate without fear of being shot" by an arrow from a hostile neighboring tribesman. In 1931, Mr. Diamond notes, a New Guinea highlander living a few dozen miles from the coast would never have seen the ocean in his lifetime: The idea of traveling even 10 miles from his village "without being killed by an unknown stranger . . . would have been unthinkable."
And one New Guinean woman told Mr. Diamond that what she valued most of all about life in the U.S. was its "anonymity," the freedom to be alone, to have privacy, "and not to have one's every action scrutinized and discussed." As Mr. Diamond insightfully notes, this is simultaneously one of the greatest disadvantages of the modern world, the loneliness, alienation and tension of constantly being among strangers. One wishes that the author's willingness to confront complexity and avoid simple answers had informed more of this disappointingly uneven book.—Mr. Budiansky's latest book is "Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-boats and
Brought Science to the Art of Warfare," forthcoming from Knopf.
A version of this article appeared January 5, 2013, on page C5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Let Your Kids Play With Matches.