Campus & Community

Stevens Hosts World-Famous Scientist and Author Jared Diamond for Deans’ Seminar Series

The latest installment of the Stevens Deans’ Seminar Series looked backwards to see forward, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author and geographer Jared Diamond engaged an audience of hundreds in an enthralling discussion of traditional, tribal cultures and what lessons first-world, 21st century societies might learn from them.

On Jan. 18, 2013, Diamond offered a lecture at Stevens on the topic of his latest book, “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” (Viking Adult, 2012).

“The theme underlying Diamond’s books is that we can and do learn from our mistakes,” said John Horgan, director of the Center for Science Writings (CSW) at Stevens, as he introduced Diamond. “We live in really gloomy times and many of us are pessimistic about our ability to solve problems. But Diamond rejects fatalism. His optimism is based on a profound knowledge of human history and prehistory.”

Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a National Medal of Science and MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winner as well as the author of numerous bestsellers, including the notable “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (W.W. Norton, 1997), a popular science book which was also developed into a PBS documentary.

In “The World Until Yesterday,” Diamond closely scrutinizes the lifestyles of dozens of traditional societies, from the Aborigines of Australia to the Inuit of Alaska to the Andean tribes of South America. These small but enduring cultures – which are sometimes called “primitive” – have not grown into modern, industrialized nation-states. In many ways, their customs and practices are as far removed from those of the developed world as they were thousands of years ago.

Diamond sets out to understand what the modern world can learn from the more contemporary ways of life that have been preserved throughout history in remote pockets of indigenous societies. What if, for example, we settled minor scores without police, lawsuits, courts and prisons, but rather through face-to-face conflict resolution with the ultimate goal to achieve emotional closure? What if grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even siblings shared an equal responsibility for parenting young children as mom and dad? What if our often impersonal, individualistic, eyes-glued-to-the-screen habits were replaced with constant conversation, sharing and community?

While remaining realistic about the hardships of traditional life – such as a lack of modern medicine and rampant, deadly tribal violence – Diamond encourages us to think about whether some “primitive” practices regarding issues such as dealing with danger and maintaining a healthy diet might actually trump our modern systems.

“Traditional societies which have survived for thousands of years are controlled human experiments that we can learn from,” Diamond said. “They could be neither scorned as primitive and miserable nor idolized as happy and peaceful.”

Diamond’s speech at Stevens focused primarily on one chapter of the book about the differences in the treatment of the elderly in modern versus traditional societies.

In modern Western societies, the elderly typically live separately from their children, other relatives, and lifelong friends. Often, they live in specialized retirement and nursing homes solely for people their age.

While there are some traditional nomadic societies in which tribes neglect, abandon or even kill their elderly when they can no longer keep up with the group’s movements, in many tribal societies the elderly are some of the best cared for and most valuable members. They live with relatives until the day die and receive the very best care possible even as their health disintegrates.

“In one tribe in Fiji, the adult children pre-chew food into a cup and give it to the toothless old person to eat,” Diamond said.

Diamond, who is 75-years-old, said the reason for variation in the treatment of the elderly from one society to the next correlates to their level of usefulness. In traditional societies, the elderly are oftentimes the most skilled and experienced at finding edible, wild roots, following animal tracks, knowing the habits of prey, and making tools, baskets and textiles. They can provide childcare and babysitting services, freeing young parents to hunt and farm.

In traditional societies which never developed the written word, the elderly are also excellent repositories of information. Diamond shared the story of a Pacific Islander who at more than 80-years-old remembered a cyclone striking her community when she was just a young girl. Since all of the tribe’s crops and other food sources were destroyed, they survived by eating a wild fruit which they wouldn’t have normally eaten – information she passed down from generation to generation in case there was a second cyclone.

“It is the elderly who are essential when rare events happen that no one else remembers,” Diamond said.

Conversely, modern societies, which value the Protestant work ethic and emphasize self-reliance and independence, have little use for the elderly. With retirement from the workforce, the elderly experience a loss of self-esteem and the breaking of social ties and relationships. Studies show they are at a disadvantage in getting jobs and healthcare. Diamond even feels the elderly are sometimes not individually valued or are even considered a burden on the younger population.

“The elderly in modern societies are seen as less useful,” Diamond said. “They are not repositories of knowledge because children are taught in a formalized system and information is available online and in books. The rapid pace of technological change also means older knowledge simply isn’t as useful anymore.”

Diamond challenges us to think about how the treatment of the elderly in traditional societies might inform our cultural practices to improve the lives of the elderly and make better use of their value. We should, for example, turn to the elderly for childcare especially as the number of dual-working households increases. The elderly may also be superior at essential skills such as governing, supervising and leading people, given their vast experiences and deep understanding of interpersonal relationships. And their knowledge is essential as negative experiences from the past threaten to recur – economic depression, food and gas rationing, and world war.

“A challenge for society is to make use of those things older people are better at doing,” Diamond said. “We can surely do better by learning from the lives of people in traditional societies.”

The Stevens Deans’ Seminar Series is a biannual lecture event. Previously hosted by Deans Michael Bruno and Dinesh Verma of the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science (SES) and the School of Systems and Enterprises (SSE), Diamond’s lecture marked the first event organized by deans of all four schools and college.

Dean Lisa Dolling of the College of Arts & Letters gave opening remarks which described the significance of bringing Diamond to the Stevens campus.

“The prominent thread running through all that we do at Stevens is knowledge – the pursuit of knowledge, the acquisition of knowledge, the creation of knowledge, and the definition of knowledge,” Dolling said. “There could be no more fitting way to acknowledge our goal than by welcoming today’s speaker.”

Diamond’s lecture was also co-sponsored by the Stevens Center for Science Writings.