Meryl Cubley: A small book about a big subject…

This piece first appeared in Humanitie magazine, Autumn 2013 edition 

All human societies have undergone changes that, on an evolutionary timescale, are both rapid and recent. But do we really need to cherry pick from the past to improve our future?

In the everyday modern life it’s easy to forget that, in evolutionary terms at least, it was only ‘Yesterday’ that we lived in tribes. Our ‘ancestors’ were not able to read or write; they had no metal, no machines or aeroplanes. There was no police, or government. The tribes of the past were not able to travel freely without fear of strangers – not always easy as hunter-gatherers.

The world was a very different place. We know this.

Back to 2013 and there is a different type of fear to deal with: a tidal-wave trend of anxiety that started with the internet, and a nannv state that poses many questions: have our brains caught up since primitive man? Arc we evolving too quickly? What is technology really doing to us? Can our bodies and minds cope? How is your diet? How do you raise your kids? Arc you smart enough for today’s world? What does your relationship say about you?

Exhausting isn’t it. No wonder that’s how many of us feel about modern life.

So, are we living a life we were never meant to experience? How high are our stress levels in today’s world? What does it all mean? Cue a raft of growing articles and TV talk shows concerned with the evils of modernity and technology.

The two go hand-in-hand, coexist, are co-dependent; you can’t have one without the other. We are told how to limit the twitter habit, turn off your mobile, ignore the need to ‘compete’ on Facebook. Use your brain and don’t ‘Google it,’ get back to nature, turn the lights off, turn the lightboxes on…

Slump.

It’s enough to cause a major meltdown.

Whilst reading Jared Diamond’s, The World Until Yesterday, I couldn’t help feeling that Diamond’s book has got caught up in some of that same dumbed-down hysteria about modern life; and he certainly has his critics.

The Guardian said of his book: “… the lessons he draws from his sweeping examination of culture are… uninspired and self-evident… One could he forgiven for concluding that traditional societies have little more to teach us save that we should embrace healthier diets, include grandparents in child rearing, learn a second language, seek reconciliation not retribution in divorce proceedings, and eat less salt.”

I don’t know about you, but I for one am rather fed up with being told to look to the past to improve the future, but I was willing to be convinced. However after a promising start The World Until Yesterday falls into a disappointing nine chapters for the humanist looking to find answers on (the possibility) of finding new/old ways to live better.

The opening scene at Port Moresby airport in Papua New Guinea, 2006 is good however.

It offers a picture of the expected modernity minutiae: New Guincans inputting data into computers, screening baggage, flying planes – yet the grandparents of these same New Guineans (the real ancestors) were using stone tools only 51 years before.

Thus struck me as something that most of us can relate to a little more than how things were some 11,000 years ago.

Two chapters which concern themselves with the dangers of life are followed by a chapter on religion, for, “our traditional constant search for the causes of danger may have contributed 10 religion’s origins.” This in itself is an unsatisfactory statement, much like the chapter on religion itself. Diamond makes no point of organised religion being formulated as a means of power and control.

Science and reason is discussed, briefly, as is the decrease of religious followers in the west, who may look to a more philosophical view of life, but Diamond’s theories on the future of belief (both non- religious and religious) left me feeling no more enlightened than when I had begun.

The messages are confused from Diamond. I failed to see why he included his section on ‘widow strangling,’ how else could it come across except as misogynistic?

What are we meant to learn from the ritual strangling of widows so that they are not a drain on their sons and brothers? Aside the fact that is no longer happening here (so hoorah for westernised feminism?) I fail to see his point. I think that Diamond includes this as some bizarre tool to explain that as a matter of’culture, and the widow being “complicit” in the act – indeed begging her sons or brothers to murder her when her husband died – that this was “tradition;’ and that we (as westerners) should see it only as culture. One can suppose that it is his attempt to illustrate the power of culture, whether one agrees with a particular set of values or not. However, personally I just don’t see that anyone, of any culture can accept widow strangling as something that simply is.

Diamond is at his best when describing his life and times in New Guinea, home to one thousand of the world’s 7,000 languages and one of the most culturally diverse places on earth. Yet by focusing mainly on these tribes (albeit alongside some investigation into Australian aborigines and the Piraha tribe in Brazil) it is difficult for the reader not to be left with the feeling that an unsatisfactory and limited inquiry has been made into what (should be a comprehensive cross section) of tribal societies and what they can possibly teach us.

Modern afflictions such as beer and burger bellies are of course absent in tribal societies – and yet present some 50 years later, following westernisation. This is interesting, to a point. Surely we already know this? Similarly, the cognitive benefits of multilingualism which can be found in New Guinea’s tribal history is again interesting, but are we to believe that these basic facts can really help heal western civilization?

Diamond should slick to what he is good at: His achievements as a naturalist and scholar are truly remarkable. He is a good writer, witty and humorous, but I remain unconvinced on his ideas about culture which appear to be based purely on the environmental rather than the empirical.

And whilst I’m happy to apply eating in moderation with occasional feasts, and applaud the benefits of multilingualism on the brain, theories and ideas on child rearing; and the inclusion and respect of the older members of our society; as well as being constructively aware of everyday risk and keeping myself and my family as safe as possible… being spiritually, ecologically and socially aware – these are all things that I am already passionate about.

But I just don’t believe that I need to cherry pick from tribal customs from 11,000 years ago in order to make my life better today and improve my spiritual health.

We cannot naively abandon modern life and somehow attempt to mimic tribal life pre-modernity, We cannot throw away our right to technology. Yet we can be inspired enough to realise that our path is not the only one.

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