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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Learning from tribal societies

NY Times columnist David Brooks reviews a new book by Jared Diamond:
Modern societies average war-related death rates that are about one-tenth as high as tribal societies.

This is one way in which modern life is unequivocally better than traditional life. But in the arenas of child-rearing, the treatment of the elderly and dispute resolution, Diamond argues that traditional societies have much to teach us. ...

Modern mothers tend to breast-feed children on a schedule. But mothers in traditional societies nurse on demand and spend almost all their time having skin-to-skin contact with their babies, often carrying them in a sling, with the child placed vertically and facing forward, which Diamond suggests might be why babies from certain tribal societies develop neuromotor skills faster than American infants.

“Loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies,” Diamond observes. “People spend their lives in or near the place where they were born, and they remain surrounded by relatives and childhood companions.” Identity isn’t a problem either. Neither is moral confusion. Or boredom. Diamond says life is more vivid in tribal societies. “Being in New Guinea is like seeing the world briefly in vivid colors, when by comparison the world elsewhere is gray.”
Diamond's main praise for tribal parenting is alloparenting, where kids are largely reared by non-parents, instead of nuclear families.

Diamond is the most famous and prize-winning anthropologist alive today. He is widely respected and admired, as he just won a Wolf Prize in Agriculture, Israel's version of the Nobel Prize. But his success is largely due to the liberal political correctness of his opinions, and not for the sloppy science underlying his work.

There are allegations that he grossly misrepresented his tribal stories. He is famous for giving an explanation for the Fall of Easter Island, but others dispute most of what he says.

He complained last year:
Mitt Romney’s latest controversial remark ... oversimplified the issue.

It is not true that my book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” as Mr. Romney described it in a speech in Jerusalem, “basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth.” ...

Even scholars who emphasize social rather than geographic explanations ... would find Mr. Romney’s statement that “culture makes all the difference” dangerously out of date.
Actually Romney was quoting a Harvard professor about culture.

Human behavior is a complex mix of nature and nurture, and successful civilization depends also on geography, culture, and other factors. Diamond's view is at one extreme.

Diamond suggests that we can learn parenting and child-rearing lessons from primitive societies. It seems unlikely. Brooks writes:
The people Diamond describes seem immersed in the collective. We generally don’t see them exercising much individual agency. We generally don’t see them trying to improve their own lives, alter their destinies or become a more admirable people. It’s possible they do not conceive of life in this individualistic way. It’s possible they don’t see life as a journey, as we tend to, but as a cycle. It’s possible they don’t conceive of history as having direction, as we tend to, but just as an endless return.
Diamond has a philosophical belief that our modern traditions are misguided accidents of being locked into choices made long ago. He applies his beliefs to computers in this April 1997 essay:
The only real obstacle to our adoption of the Dvorak keyboard is that familiar fear of abandoning a long-held commitment. But if we were to overcome that fear, millions of our children would be able to learn to type with increased speed, greatly lowered finger fatigue, greater accuracy, and a reduced sense of frustration. That seems reason enough to end our commitment to QWERTY, a bad marriage that has long outlived its original justification.
But most of what he says is wrong, as the QWERTY keyboard is as good as Dvorak. If he cannot get the history of computer keyboards right, I don't know why anyone expects him to get the history of Easter Island or New Guinea correct. And I don't know why anyone would get parenting lessons from a place that is more famous for headhunters and cannibals.

Here is one of his stories:
The Kaulong people of New Britain used to have an extreme way of dealing with families in mourning. Until the 1950s, newly widowed women on the island off New Guinea were strangled by their husband's brothers or, in their absence, by one of their own sons. Custom dictated no other course of action. Failure to comply meant dishonour, and widows would make a point of demanding strangulation as soon as their husbands had expired.

The impact on families was emotionally shattering, as Jared Diamond makes clear in his latest book, The World Until Yesterday. "In one case, a widow – whose brothers-in-law were absent – ordered her own son to strangle her," he says. "But he could not bring himself to do it. It was too horrible. So, in order to shame him into killing her, the widow marched through her village shouting that her son did not want to strangle her because he wanted to have sex with her instead." Humiliated, the son eventually killed his mother.

Widow-strangling occurred because the Kaulong believed male spirits needed the company of females to survive the after-life.
So what is the parenting lesson? Here is one:
Some tribal customs, such as widow-strangling, will not be missed, of course. "We should not romanticise traditional societies," he says. "There are horrible things that we want to avoid, but there wonderful things that we should emulate."

Take the example of child rearing. Far from being harsh towards children, many tribes and groups adopt highly permissive attitudes. "I mean permissive in that it is an absolute no-no to punish a child. If a mother or father among African pygmies hits a child, that would be grounds for divorce. There is no physical punishment allowed at all in these societies. If a child plays with a sharp knife and waves it around, so be it. They will cut themselves on some occasions, but society figures it is better for the child to learn the hard way early in life. They are allowed to make their own choices and follow their own interests."

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