Jared Diamond, The world until yesterday, 2013


P2 The first Australians to enter and discover NG highlands in 1931, teeming with a million New Guinean villager using stone tools.

In 1931 no new Guinean born in Goroka had ever visited Wapenamanda a mere 107 miles to the west; the idea of traveling such distance without being killed was unthinkable.

All those similarities misled me into thinking “people are basically all the same everwhere”. No I eventually came to realize, in many basic way we are not all the same; many of my New Guinean friends count differently (by visual mapping rather than abstract numbers), select their wives or husbands differently, treat their parents and their children differently, and have different concept of friendship.

People spent their entire life in or near the village…disputes within the village had to be settled in a way that restored relationships or made them tolerable.

WEIRD society: Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic society. Study samples are from the usual WEIRD subjects – mainly American psychology undergraduate, this needs to be changed if we want to understand traditional society.  (WEIRD values are not universal in short)

Traditional society have come up with thousands of solutions to human problems, solutions different from those adopted by WEIRD societies.

Elman Service’s division of human society: band, tribe, chiefdom and state.

Chiefdom have thousands of people: it is impossible for everyone to know everyone else. Stranger in a chiefdom must be able to recognize each other as fellow but individually unfamiliar members of the same chiefdom. Hence chiefdoms developed shared ideologies and political and religious identities (often derived from the supposedly divined status of the chief). Chiefdoms have a chief that makes decisions and has a monopoly on the right to use force against his society’s members.

P19 the explanation for the differences in type of societies coexisting in the modern world depends on environmental differences. Increases in political centralization were driven by increases in human population densities, driven in turn by the rises and intensification of food production. Surprisingly few plant and animal species are suitable for domestication. Those few species were concentrated in a dozen of small areas in the world, whose human societies consequently enjoyed a decisive head start in developing food production, surpluses, expanding populations, advanced technology and state government. European developed, Kung in south Africa or Aborigines did not…

P58 A new Guinean interviewed in 1980’s: We believed that when a person died, his skin changed to white and he went to over the boundary to the place of the dead. So when the strangers came we said ‘these men do not belong to the earth.Let’s not kill them ) they are our own relatives. Those who hav died before and have turned white and come back’. New Guinean highlanders sought to fit these strange looking creatures – the first Europeans – into know categories of their own world view.

P62 Gold lipped pearl shell in New Britain’s Kaulong people or large stone disks from Yap island, cowrie shells of new Guinean highlanders were money but differed from money in that they were used only to pay for certain things (not wasted on potatoes!) and were attractive luxury items to be shown off.

We shall see that the basic fact of market economies often does not apply to traditional small scale society where the party are no professional buyers or sellers…they may consider the exchanged items to be of negligible significance compared to the personal relationship that the exchange serves to strengthen.

P74 what is the point of these conventional monopolies and of arrow for arrow trading, seemingly senseless to us accustomed to trading for objects that we can’t readily provide for ourselves? Traditional trade has social and political as well as economic functions: not to obtain items for their own sake but also to create trade for advancing social and political goal (strengthen an alliance on which one can call if the need arises…(exemple of the Dani buying Jalemo arrow or bag that they could perfectly well duplicate…the Dani can continue to sell salt to Jalemo because they also buy them arrows and bags…) “Trade real function is to maintain alliances”.

P89 reestablishing relationships counts for everything in traditional new guinea, and establishing guilt or negligence or punishment according to western concepts is not the main issue.

Among nomadic hunter gatherers disputes within a group can be settled just by the group dividing so that disputants move apart. That option is difficult for settled villagers/farmers with big investment in their gardens…

Eventually , the chief urges one side to accept the other side’s offer, and the former side does so with a show of reluctance, insisting that it is doing so only to honor the chief. That is, the chief provides a face-saving way to accept a compromise necessary for the good of the community.

The greater the distance between the two lineages involved, the more difficult it becomes to settle the feud (because there is less desire to restore normal relation).

The state’s focus on reducing private violence, forster obedience to state’s laws, protect the public as a whole….tends to diminish the state’s attention to goals of individual citizens involved in dispute resolution in small scale societies: the restoration of relationships and reaching emotional closure (because people can expect to continue to encounter each other for the rest of their lives i.e. they are motivate to find a solution…)


P222 nuclear family, with married couple and dependant children: while this seems normal to us, it is exceptional by geographic and historical standards: only 5% of traditional societies have this. The commonest arrangement is patrilocal household, meaning that a newly married couple comes to live with the groom’s
parents or family.

Also part of this American value cluster is our emphasis on individual privacy, an unusual concept by the standards of world cultures, most of which provide little individual privacy and don’t consider it a desirable ideal.

P235 About 20% of the American population changes residence each year, so that old parents and friends will have moved repeatedly since childhood…. New problem created by retirement: severing one’s life long work relationship, and thereby falling deeper into the social isolation arising from mobility…

P 273 Talkativeness of traditional people: they keep up a running commentary on what is happening now, what happened this morning or yesterday etc. We may be inclined to dismiss such talking as mere gossip. However it has functions: talking is the main form of entertainment, it develops social relationships, it helps new Guinean cope with life in a dangerous world (more information, better preparedness for dangers).

P295 crowd disease could not have existed before 11,000 years ago. Only with the explosive population growth made by agriculture du human population reach the high numbers required to sustain our crowd disease. Unsanitary permanent villages and trade provided ideal conditions for rapid transmission of microbes. Most of the microbes responsible for many and certainly most of the crowd diseases now confined to humans arose from diseases of our domestic animals (pigs, cattle).

Western pharmaceutical companies have extracted drugs from these plants. Ethno-botanist have studied this traditional pharmacological knowledge. Nevertheless the overall effectiveness of traditional medical knowledge tends to be limited.

P299 compared to accidents, violence and disease, starvation receives much less attention. People in small scale society share food, so that either no one starves or else many people do simultaneously.

P305 That’s why field scattering make sense. If you have got just one big field, no matter how good it is on average, you will starve (to death) when the inevitable occasional year arrives in which your one field has a low yield. But if you have many different fields, varying independently of each other, then in any given year some of your fields will produce well even when your other fields are producing poorly. (no point having field that can produce twice more above starvation level if it is in a single location: on a bad year, you will starve.

P342 on people paying dowsers to find water on a field and spend money digging a well unlikely to yield water. The psychology behind such beliefs is that we remember the hits and forget the misses…

P344 diffusing anxiety by prayers, rituals, ceremonies, donations to the gods…all those measures are scientifically ineffective but they preserve the fiction that your aren’t helpless, you haven’t given up, you feel in charge and less anxious.

Small scale society place much less emphasis on salavation and the afterlife than more developed societies. 1.Small society are less inequitable, with less social stratification. Everybody is suffering and there is no visible of good life to aspire to. 2.A second reason: life of the first farmer was harder than for hunter gatherers. More daily working hours to deal with farming, nutrition deteriorated, infection increased and lifespan reduced. 3. Small society have less formalize moral codes: why do law breakers get away with being cruel with you (if you are yourself behaving virtuously).

In New Guinee, religion is never invoked to justify killing.

P371 The world has 7000 languages. The top 70 languages (1%) represent 80% of population. all Europe west of Russia has less than 100 languages. Africa and India more than a 1000 each. Vanuatu has 110. New guinee has 1000. Cut off between language and dialect is when people understand 70% of each other speech. In PNG ecological factor an dissected mountainous terrain explains language diversity. Population experience limited climate change, land is fertile and productive. Population do not move much as they feed themselves. They don’t even have to trade (except for salt). They also never had the language steamroller experience elsewhere (british, roman, quechua then Spanish etc.). PNG never developed state government (this promotes one language, the one of the leader(s)). Basicalle languages developed and were not eliminated by other factor (similar to Caucasus).

P435 Nauru annexed by Germany in 1888, occupied by Australia in 1914, independent in 1968. Epidemic of genetic disease due to environment risk factors (it wanes when the number of potential victims fall).

Traditional way was based on agriculture and fisheries – with occasional episodes of starvation. Nauruans admired fat people and put girls on diet to fatten. In 1906, phosphate was discovered and royalities of production reached the island in 1920’s. sugar consumption skyrocketed – 1 pound/per day/per Nauruan.  Japan invasion, put people on diet, imposed force labor, deport population to Truk where people starve. Survivors returned after the war to make money, shop in supermarket and eat twice more calories than needed. Today they are the most obsese pacific island population. Diabetes increased until 2000 – the main cause of non-accidental death. Then % began to fall – it is probably because all that are genetically most susceptible have died.

P442 genes predisposing to diabetes have been favored and preserved independently dozens of times by natural selection :  they allow for the storing of fat and limit the breakdown of accumulated fat. Allow people to accumulate fat rapidly at times of food abundance and help go through famines. In modern world, with no more famine, no physical exercise, it is only about getting fat…

Interisland canoe voyages : only the fattest survived, leaving the population enriched with diabetes susceptibility genes. (double effect in Nauru with the starvation of Nuaruan by the Japanese, only the fattest survived…

The same genes in European population must have disappeared gradually as food reliability improved gradually (in Nauru, food appeared within 10 year and signs of natural selection happened within 40 years – as the most diabetes prone start to die now. The process was gradual over several centuries in Europe.