Jared Diamond’s classic Guns, Germs and Steel, about why some societies and not others gained wealth and power, is a book that many thinking Americans display but fewer have actually read. That often leads to erroneous-allusion syndrome—the justification of half-baked theories with the phrase “...as Diamond pointed out in Guns, Germs and Steel.” Just ask Mitt Romney, who bungled a Diamond talking point about natural resources back in July and earned a rebuke from the author. To save you similar embarrassment, Bruce Barcott synopsizes key lessons from Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, which identifies old-time practices that can still benefit us.
WE SHOULD: Exercise, eat slowly, talk with friends—these features of tribal life kept people healthy and happy.
WE SHOULDN’T: Romanticize tribal culture, which wasn’t always groovy. Ritual widow strangling, once practiced by the Kaulong of New Guinea, did not, thankfully, survive the tribe’s transition to modernity.
WE SHOULD: Raise multilingual children. This “brings long-term benefits to their thinking, as well as enriching their lives.”
WE SHOULDN’T: Enforce mandatory retirement. In oral cultures, older people are “society’s encyclopedias and libraries.” They remember things like where to find food when times get tough. Or why we passed the Glass-Steagall Act in the first place.