What traditional culture teaches us

PARENTS, when your child cries in the night, should you pick him up and let him snuggle in your bed? Or, like a mother in a traditional society, would he be in your bed already?

Like the Aka pygmies, should you start weaning him gradually after three years? If he rolls towards a fire, should you pick him up, or let him get a bit singed, as some families in New Guinea do?

Not all of these options sound pretty, let alone practical.

But it’s Jared Diamond’s belief that some aspects of traditional cultures can be beneficial to modern ones. And even if they are unlikely to be useful, still, a closer study of the Nuer tribes of Sudan, the !Kung of the Kalahari, or the Dani of New Guinea can perhaps explain some aspects of our own behaviour. Is not, then at least it’s fascinating.

At times he suggests individuals could thrive on ancient precepts (such as, watch less television and eat less salt). At others, for example, a thoughtprovoking discussion of restorative justice, the advantage comes to the wider society.

But in the societies from which this wisdom comes, such steps are taken in the interests of a group of people, often for pragmatic reasons of survival.

The anthropology throughout the book is scholarly, accessible, balanced and careful. Maybe it’s because of that care that he sometimes withholds an assessment of cause and effect.

The chapter in which we read of New Guinea’s well-adjusted children follows one in which we learn that the wars on that island kill hugely greater percentages of the population than any of the 20th century’s mechanised conflicts.

The question remains: what sort of social system could offer one without the other?

His discussion of traditional religions is similarly fascinating, particularly since he approaches the subject as an evolutionary biologist.

But here, too, he praises tribal communities for not using religion to justify their wars. That may be so, but something causes them. And in other societies – Rwanda, say, or South Africa – the healing process is something that can owe a lot to a shared faith that transcends racial division.

This is a chapter that uses Diamond’s impressive knowledge of traditional cultures to give us a broad sweep through all humanity. I put this book down not completely convinced I could incorporate many of its teachings into my life, but it did leave me riveted, thinking hard and, dare I say, a bit less begrudging of bed space if someone wakes up crying with a cold tonight. © Daily Telegraph

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