Tuesday, June 04, 2013

New or old, some ways are good and some are not

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, social anthropology, syntheses

In his new book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, we learn that Jared Diamond has spent 3-4 weeks every year, for some 50 years, in New Guinea. He wasn't there to study the people, but the birds. But he had to learn a number of the languages—or at least know the names of common birds in the more common languages used there—, interact with the people, and live among them. You could say that cultural anthropology came along for the ride. He is a synthesist (AKA a systems analyst), as amply shown by his books Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel. In this book he seeks to answer the question embedded in its title, by finding what is different, and what is the same, between large-scale, modern, "state government" societies, and smaller-scale traditional societies.

As he does, let us first classify societies according to scale:
  • A Band consists of "a few dozen" individuals, typically one or a few extended families.
  • A Tribe can contain hundreds, with the characteristic that everyone knows every one. Dunbar's Limit, canonically 150, but in the range 100-230, is the number of relationships a person can sustain.
  • A Chiefdom, which can only arise where agriculture is practiced, consists of a few thousand or several thousand persons.
  • A State ranges in size up to a population of a billion or so.
Scale alone explains some of the differences. Politically, a band or tribe will have a loose dominance hierarchy, of the type we call a pecking order. Chiefdoms require hierarchy, a separation between decision makers and everyone else, while states require much more governmental organization and specialized trades, otherwise the result is not actually anarchy, but instead a quick return to many chiefdoms and bands. As we can see in most modern nations, governing a million to a billion persons requires several levels of organization. France, for example, has 27 R├ęgions, 101 D├ępartements, 342 Arrondissements, 4,032 Cantons and 36,781 Communes, at last count. That is a total of six governmental levels. In the U.S. we have four levels of government, but below the national and state levels, the names vary: counties and parishes are at the same level, just in different states; and for that matter, Pennsylvania is formally a Commonwealth.

There is a bigger, day-to-day consequence of having centralized government. One of the first things a state government will do is assume a monopoly on violence. Vengeance for wrongs done is disallowed by government. Among bands or tribes we find frequent conflict. The book's third chapter is about a "tiny war" that occurred in 1961 in New Guinea among rival tribes of the Dani, an upland people in New Guinea. Two tribal alliances totaling 10,000 people fought a series of skirmishes and pitched battles between February and September. One massacre killed 125, while all other dead numbered 11. 136 dead in 8 months seems tiny to us, but it amounts to about 1.4% of the populace. The number who died in the American Civil War a century earlier was about 625,000 out of a total population of about 34 million. The death toll was thus 1.8%, on the same relative scale as the war among the Dani. Yet it took 4 years, not just 8 months.

The "war between the states" was America's bloodiest war. It was one of only three very bloody wars in 230+ years. But the Dani in New Guinea were at constant war, and some still are. The 1961 war was just one of many. It is exceptional only in that it was well observed and recorded by Western observers. The war I remember growing up was the Vietnam War, during which 58,000 Americans died over a 20-year span. As horrendous as it seemed to us in the 1960s and 1970s, that was the actual "tiny war" (Of course, the number of Vietnamese dead was much greater, from a much smaller population. It isn't tiny to them by any measure!). American dead in all the wars since has yet to rise above 10,000.

To my point: every level of government has its own appointed killers (AKA peace-keepers): police, sheriffs, national guard and the five national armies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard). They and they alone are permitted to use legal violence. It may seem unfair. However, the risk of dying in armed conflict in a modern state is between 1/10 and 1/100th the risk experienced in a traditional society.

As Diamond sees it, agriculture brought new risks and actually led to a lower standard of living for most, that is for everybody except a small number of state-supported elites. Raising that standard of living by government-led distribution of food and goods, by division of labor, and then by public health measures, has been a 9,000-year learning experience. Yet this is only "yesterday", which is the author's thesis. Humans had about 100,000 years to learn to live in bands and tribes. We are just beginning to learn to live properly in larger societies.

The learning experience is ongoing. So far, "The West" has achieved many benefits: doubling of life span, very low infant and maternal mortality, near-elimination of starvation among them. Yet the universal distribution of abundant food, for example, has risks of its own. People in traditional societies (several hundred exist today) typically die before the age of 50 of an infection or by violence. People in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) societies typically die in their 70s or later of heart disease, diabetes or cancer.

This particular difference shows that natural selection is ongoing. The rate of morbid "late onset" diabetes (AKA Type 2) among Europeans and Euro-Americans is about 6% (ranging from 2% to 10%), while it is in the 30% to 50% range among people recently Westernized. Living in a feast-and-famine environment selects for "thrifty" food storage. But that thriftiness leads to obesity once food is always abundant. Life in a WEIRD society gradually results in premature death for the most thrifty, and selects for those able to maintain healthier weight and healthier blood pressure. Basically, in about half a millennium, the Euro-world has made a head start in doing so. Natural selection in action! It is fascinating.

So, doctors can say all they want to us about eating better and getting more exercise. A few will, but most won't. We are lazy by nature. I suspect there is a genetic influence on how well we listen to our doctors, or at least on how well we actually take care of ourselves. In another 500-1,000 years, if humanity survives, I suspect people will be better adjusted to a world of abundance…unless that has collapsed. Who knows, the world may return to a much smaller human population living in bands and tribes again. Natural selection would then switch course again.

Jared Diamond has a great ability to put together a big picture. I have just skated the surface of a few issues that caught my interest as I read. This book joins a small collection of those to which I periodically return. I don't spend all my time reading only new books.

No comments: