Gospel & Culture blog
In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond presented the argument from cultural ecology that on a macro-scale, the differences between cultures is largely because of geography: The peoples who had access to grains and domesticated animals were able to develop civilizations (and eventually guns, germs and steel) which would enable them to conquer the world. Diamond was heavily criticized (as any best-selling scholar will be) for his argument. Since he is a biologist, and not an anthropologist, he largely neglected the role that culture plays in the trajectories of people groups. Diamond's next book, The World Until Yesterday, addresses that oversight.
Surprisingly, Diamond resists the pressure to perpetuate the politically correct notion of the noble savage and he refrains from Western self-loathing. He neither idealizes tribal cultures nor vilifies modern civilizations. He recognizes that tribal cultures in fact have much greater variation, so it is harder to characterize them at all.
Diamond's main argument is that the world until yesterday was a dangerous place- as societies moved from hunter-gatherer to agrarian, they began defedning the land that they had worked to make so productive. The defense of these limited resources caused them to be suspicious of their neighbors. There were three kinds of people: known friends, known enemies, and unknown enemies. This suspicion made it impossible to explore, which hindered trade and the diffusion of ideas. So societies became more insular, and afraid to take risks. It also mean that any justice or retribution had to be taken into your own hands.
In contrast, with the invention of the modern nation-state, we no longer have to worry about walking down the street and meeting strangers. We can enter into business partnerships that may be risky, because the government can exact justice on those who fail to meet their end of the contract. And we can explore the next mountain ridge or river shore without fear, since the state has brought peace.
But there are advantages to the world-yesterday. Some tribal societies care for their elderly better than moderns do (of course, some create social pressures that force the elderly to commit suicide actively or passively by wandering into the bush or onto an ice floe). Diamond also considers other advantages of "primitive" society such as multi-lingualism and the freedom that young children are given to wander.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor