Be happy: live like it’s the Stone Age and let the kids get hurt

It’s not necessary to wear animal skins, but if you take a lesson from the Stone Age you could have a much better life — with improved health, happier relationships and (believe it or not) more confident and capable children.

Such is the controversial advice of the leading American academic and bestselling author Jared Diamond. He has based his observations on nearly half a century of visits to the huge equatorial island of New Guinea, where he lived among people who still used stone tools when he first arrived.

Sharing the lives of the people who live in the highlands of New Guinea reminded Diamond, who spent months at a time camping in forests and braving all kinds of dangers in the name of research, that it was only yesterday — in evolutionary time — that we stopped being hunter gatherers. Babies born today have the same instincts and needs as our Stone Age forebears, he argues, and as we grow up we remain in many ways better adapted to ancient than to modern conditions.

“We don’t realise how socially rewarding traditional societies are and what we ourselves have given up — and perhaps what we could make an effort to add back into our lives. We would end up happier as a result,” Diamond told a Canadian newspaper last week.

Diamond, who is professor of geography at the University of California, has published several books proposing grand theories about how societies advance — and then collapse.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel (named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential nonfiction books of all time) he argued that some societies develop more quickly than others not because of innate ability but through environmental advantages.

In his next book, the apocalyptic Collapse, he outlined five reasons why certain societies throughout history and around the world allowed themselves to collapse — and warned that we might do the same if we’re not careful.

He gave a much-watched talk for Ted (the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference forum) on the same subject. In it he argued that rather than worry about highly unlikely catastrophes that are out of our control, such as being hit by an asteroid, we should give our attention to certain dangers, many of them man- made, such as climate change.

Now Diamond is setting off on the interview trail to promote his new book, perhaps his most personal to date. In The World until Yesterday, published this week in America, he describes many human concerns that he believes “primitive” people handle better than us: raising children, diet, multilingualism, dispute resolution and care for the elderly.

To take the first of these: Diamond wants parents to consider letting children amuse themselves rather than stifling them with pre-packaged entertainment. Complaints about the stress and anxiety that western children endure have been growing in recent years.

“The independence, security and social maturity of children in traditional societies impress all visitors who have come to know them,” he says.

“Traditional people who come to the West say it astonishes them that our children have to be taught explicitly how to play, through formal institutions.”

The book is full of stories that drive this home. In one tale Diamond meets Enu, a young man. Enu describes to him how, in the village where he grew up, children were considered to be responsible for their own actions and were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased. If they played with fire, adults didn’t intervene and many got burnt, bearing the scars into adulthood.

Growing up this way, however, made them confident and extremely competent. In the West, by contrast, adult children stay living with their parents in many cases into their twenties. We could also learn from his book about how to treat the elderly. “[Some traditional] societies afford their elderly far more satisfying and productive lives than do most westernised societies,” says Diamond.

“The greatly increased lifespans and apparently decreased utilities of the elderly in modern societies have created for us a tragedy . . . One Fijian friend angrily said to me, ‘You Americans throw away your old people!’ — a subject that I find of increasing interest now that I’ve just passed my 75th birthday.”

On dispute resolution: “I’ve watched meetings in New Guinea villages where hundreds of people sit on the ground, manage to have their say and reach a conclusion. In modern societies dispute resolution tends to be slow and adversarial with a focus on determining right or wrong rather than on restoring a relationship.”

It’s easy to romanticise tribal living and when he was starting out Diamond admits that he was guilty of doing so. “When I arrived in New Guinea for the first time I was struck by the exoticness of New Guineans,” he writes in his book.

“But over subsequent decades, in the course of my making dozens of visits, that yielded to a sense of common ground as I came to know individual New Guineans: we hold long conversations, laugh at the same jokes, share interests in children and sex and food and sports and find ourselves angry, frightened, grief-stricken, relieved and exultant together.

“Those similarities misled me into thinking, ‘People are basically all the same everywhere.’ No, I eventually came to realise: in many basic ways we are not all the same. Many of my New Guinea friends select their wives or husbands differently, treat their parents and their children differently, view danger differently and have a different concept of friendship.”

Today he frankly acknowledges that some traditional societies use horrific practices: “We should say good riddance to the strangling of widows and other cruelties practised as cultural idiosyncrasies. But other features are likely to appeal.”

In the event of a disaster, tribal people would have better survival skills than the rest of us. But how long will they retain them? In New Guinea he met highlanders who had come under European influence only five years beforehand. Already they were speaking pidgin English and even writing.

Today their children and grandchildren are using computers, clocks, credit cards, escalators and aeroplanes. In less than a century they have raced through developments that took, in some cases, hundreds of years to unfold in much of the rest of the world.

That progress came at a price: as industrialisation spread, people quickly started to succumb to “western” diseases — rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis.

Was that avoidable? Could they choose more carefully which aspects of western life they adopted? And why couldn’t the benefits be two-way, with people in developed countries being prepared to learn lessons from traditional societies too?

Diamond has noted what he calls “constructive paranoia” in New Guinea, where adults take precautions to avoid even moderate risks. That means taking care not to shelter under old trees, for example, because of the danger of falling branches.

In the West, at the individual level, “most of us should be constructively paranoid about cars, alcohol and (especially as we get older) stepladders and slipping in showers,” he writes.

One of his most surprising recommendations is that we should learn more languages. “Ninety-five per cent of the world’s languages will be extinct or moribund within a century if current trends continue,” he argues.

“Many people would welcome a world reduced to just a few widespread languages, but the bombshell which has come out in the last five years is that the best protection we now know of against Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias of old age is to be multilingual” — something that is common in New Guinea, which accounts for nearly 850 of the world’s 7,000 languages.

By studying traditional societies we may not just find better ways to live, argues Diamond: “They may also help us appreciate some advantages of our own society that we tend to take for granted.”

1323 words. First published 30 December 2012. © Times Newspapers Ltd.