Synopsis: An expert discusses his study of traditional native societies, which shows how human genetics have not adapted to change.

Host: Nancy Benson. Guest: Jared Diamond, author, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

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Learning from Traditional Societies

Nancy Benson: Humans have been around for a long time—about six million years, give or take a few. For almost all of that time, we’ve lived in tribal societies, surrounded by the same family and friends our entire lives. We didn’t have many of today’s troubles. For example, health issues like obesity, heart disease and stroke were unheard of. But life was hard. No one would argue that we were better off back then. And yet, in today’s society, we’re all but strangers to one another. Chronic diseases are simply part of life, and if we make it to old age, we often die alone. How much have we gained with modern society, and how much have we lost? Pulitzer prize-winning author Jared Diamond takes a look in his book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?

Jared Diamond: The title “The World Until Yesterday” is because the book is about traditional small-scale tribal societies. Societies of a few dozen or a few hundred people rather than the United States with its 310 million people. All societies around the world were small tribal societies until very recently, like the first society with government and lots of people wasn’t until 5400 years ago. But humans have been around for six million years so 5400 years ago, which sounds like a long time initially, it’s nothing on the time scale of human evolution.

Nancy Benson: Diamond says the rise in human population is what propelled us beyond tribal living into our modern societies.

Jared Diamond: 11,000 years ago there were 1 million people in the whole world. Well, today there are hundreds of cities that have one million people in them. The increase in population numbers mean that you can no longer reach decisions just by sitting down and talking about them. That’s possible in a village of a few hundred people. It’s not possible in a country of 310 million people. We have to have centralized government, administrators, executives, bureaucrats, police basically, then the rise in population numbers is what got us beyond tribes into our modern societies.

Nancy Benson: From an evolutionary standpoint, the creation of modern society has come in the blink of an eye. Genetically, we’re still pretty much the same as we were thousands of years ago. That’s left us poorly equipped to handle some aspects of how the world has changed.

Jared Diamond: Particularly our modern diet where were eating three square meals a day from the supermarket and we’re eating less fruits and vegetables. We’re sprinkling salt on our food, which very few people did throughout human history. Were eating sugar. We’re just eating a lot, and the result is our old genes make us get overweight, obese and then die of heart disease, diabetes and stroke which not a single traditional person died of.

Nancy Benson: Off and on throughout his career starting back in the early 1960’s, Diamond has lived among the tribal societies of New Guinea. He says that 50 years ago, not a single case of heart disease, stroke or diabetes had been recorded among natives there. Unfortunately, that’s changed as salt, sugar and three squares a day have been introduced into the New Guinea diet. But diamond says it’s possible for entire societies to turn unhealthy trends around. Millions of Americans have already done so.

Jared Diamond: So I’m 75 years old, and I was a child in the 50’s and 40’s and lots of people smoked then. Well today most Americans do not smoke. Smoking is a big risk factor for diabetes and lung cancer and lots of other things. We’ve learned not to smoke. Many of us have learned not to sprinkle salt on our food. Salt is the main risk factor for hypertension. Well, you don’t have to sprinkle salt on your food, and you’re not going to end up with hypertension or stroke. Many of us have learned to exercise. Many of us have learned to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and not to eat lots of low fiber food. The result is that there are a lot of Americans who have already reduced their risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. It’s perfectly possible.

Nancy Benson: And yet Diamond says Americans focus on other risks and dangers that he considers unrealistic.

Jared Diamond: You ask an American to say what are the dangerous things in life that you’re really concerned about. And the American is likely to tell you: terrorists, number one, and airplane crashes and GM crops and DNA and chemicals and pollution.

Nancy Benson: Diamond says the reality is that those things kill very few people. We’re far more likely to slip and fall in the shower, die in a car crash or from heart disease caused by poor eating habits.

Jared Diamond: So that’s why I say we don’t think clearly about danger. We focus on the wrong things and we fail to focus on the right things.

Nancy Benson: Diamond says that the misplaced American preoccupation with risk and safety seeps into our child rearing practices as well. He believes that most American parents overprotect their children, while in New Guinea… Well, just look in his book, and you’ll see a picture of a toddler playing with a machete.

Jared Diamond: I have not seen a New Guinea child cut himself with a sharp knife, but friends of mine living in Native American societies then occasionally kids will cut themselves with sharp knives. But usually they’ll cut themselves not fatally and they learn their lesson. Whereas we micro manage our children we don’t let our children learn from experience, but we tell our children do this and don’t do that and don’t do that and do this. We want our children to be independent and yet we prevent them from being independent. Well my view is one has to draw the line somewhere. My wife and I drew the line. We did not let our children roll into the fire, we did not let our children play with sharp knives, but we let them do lots of things that many American parents would not let their children do.

Nancy Benson: For example, one of Diamond’s son’s fell in love with snakes at age three.

Jared Diamond: I think most American parents would not say “Alright, here’s a snake for you.” My wife and I did say “here’s a snake for you.” It was not a poisonous snake. It was not a 15 foot python that could kill my son. It was a one foot corn snake. But my son got a chance to indulge his interest. It happened to be then in snakes. He gradually built up to 147 pet snakes and frogs and lizards and salamanders and he eventually got through his snake phase, developed an interest in gourmet cooking, and he’s now a restaurant chef. But both my sons grew up making their own choices and not being micromanaged by us parents.

Nancy Benson: Diamond admits that in many respects, there’s no question we are better off today than our ancestors were. We’ve developed governments and legal systems and public health and safety. But he says we’ve given up things, too, like secure, meaningful relationships and lifelong close contact with family and friends. We’re no longer in control of our own lives. And it gives Diamond pause when he thinks about our future.

Jared Diamond: The real question is what’s gonna happen in the next 50 years because it’s up for grabs. If we get through the next 50 years then we’ll carry on for 5400 years, but it’s uncertain whether were gonna get through the next 50 years with the increase in consumption of world resources. At the rate were going now, we’re already running out of resources, and it’s a matter of time before people start fighting each other in dead earnest for the shrinking pie of resources. So either within the next 50 years, we’ve learned to limit our consumption rate and to get along peacefully with other countries in the world, or we fail to learn those things in which case our society collapses in either some slow unpleasant ways or some quick and very unpleasant ways. Come back in 50 years and you’ll see the answer. I don’t know what it’s gonna be.

Nancy Benson: you may think that wars and overconsumption aren’t things that individuals can do anything about, but Diamond says every one of us has a role. A friendly worldview and a moderate diet can be a start. But as anyone who’s quit smoking or successfully lost weight can attest, it’s not always easy to turn ourselves around. You can find more on Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday, through a link on our website, You can always find our stories on iTunes and Stitcher. Our writer this week is Polly Hansen our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Nancy Benson.

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