Jared Diamond on The World Until Yesterday

What makes the analysis of traditional societies ( before about 9000 years BC) so important for us, living in a modern world.

  1. In many basic ways we are not all the same; traditional societies: different system of counting; different way of selecting wives and husbands; different way of treating children; different view on how to react on danger; different concept of friendship.
  2. Traditional life styles are what shaped us; now we are used to farm-grown and store-bought food rather than wild food hunted and gathered daily. Now the use of tools of metal rather than of stone and wood and bone. Now we are going to court rather than using traditional informal mechanisms. Traditional life styles show more diversity: in some cases elderly people are treated very cruel relative to other traditional societies where they are more cherished. Western industrial societies’ are studied by psychologists, but their experimental subjects are typical WEIRD-persons: western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic society.

The opposite of traditional societies are the modern states; state means not only “condition”, but also ‘large society with centralised bureaucratic government’. States need police, laws, and codes of morality to ensure that the inevitable constant encounters between strangers don’t routinely explode into fights. Societies larger than 10,000 people need a state: leaders, executives, bureaucrats. States try to create order, even though the distribution of resources is unequal to some extent.

Various types of traditional societies: band, tribe, chiefdom, state (see Elman’s Service). They differ in terms of population size and population density, subsistence, political centralisation and social stratification.

Band: a few dozen individuals, low population size and population density, low subsistence, low degree of political centralisation and social stratification.

Tribe: a local group of hundreds of individuals, mostly consisting of kinship groups (clans). Tribes usually are farmers or herders or both. Relative egalitarianism, weak economic specialisation and political leadership, lack of bureaucrats; face-to-face decision-making.

Chiefdom: thousands of individuals; high food-productivity and food surpluses are required (for the non-food producing people); there is a recognised chief, who makes the decisions. He develops a shared ideology and political and religious identities. Chiefdoms pioneered the social innovation of institutionalised inequality. They began to arise locally by 5500 BC.

States emerged from about 3400 BC onwards by conquest or amalgamation under pressure, resulting in larger populations, often ethnically diverse populations, specialised spheres, and layers of bureaucrats, standing armies, much greater economic specialisation, urbanisation, and other changes, to produce the types of societies that blanket the world (p.17).

Why so much regionally different outcomes?

  1. It reflects innate differences in human intelligence, biological modernity, and work ethic; more primitive and less ambitious.
  2. It depends on environmental differences. Increasing population densities, driven in turn by the rise and intensification of food production (agriculture, herding). But surprisingly few wild plant and animal species are suitable for domestication to become crops and livestock. They were concentrated in a about a dozen small areas in the world, enjoying a head start in developing food production, increase in population and technology, etc.

It would be folly to imagine that everything about a society can be predicted from material conditions. Cultural and political differences might play an important role too. Scholars take various approaches:

  1. The evolutionary approach; to recognise broad features differing between societies of different population sizes and population densities, but shared with other societies of similar sizes and densities. Related to the evolutionary approach is the adaptationist approach: some features of a society are adaptive, and they enable society to function more effectively under its particular material conditions, physical and social environment, and size and density. Examples: availability of leaders and the capacity to produce food surpluses required to support these leaders.
  2. Each society is unique because of its particular history, and considers cultural beliefs and practices as largely independent variables not dictated by environmental conditions. Extreme example: the Kaulong people in New Guinea developed the custom that widows should be strangled. No scholar has claimed that this custom was in any way beneficial Kaulong society or to the long-term genetic interests of the strangled woman or her relatives. So, this custom must be seen as an independent historical cultural trait that arose for some unknown reason in that particular area. Outside pressure and contact led to the elimination of the custom (p.21).
  3. Cultural approach (?): cultural beliefs and practices that have a wide regional distribution, and that spread historically over that region without being clearly related to local conditions. Examples: the near-ubiquity of monotheistic religions and non-tonal languages in Europe, contrasting with the frequency of non-monotheistic religions and non-tonal languages in China and adjacent parts of East-Asia. One way: people expanding and taking their culture with them. Another way: people adopt beliefs and practices of other cultures.


There is a difference between approximate and ultimate explanation. Example: a man wants a divorce, since his wife hit him in the face with a bottle of glass (approximate explanation). Why did she hit her husband?  Because he is regularly with other women. Why? Because he had increasingly discovered that his wife is cold and selfish. What is the ultimate explanation: he does not love his wife anymore (p.22). Actually there are chains of causes, some more approximate and others more ultimately. Another example: person A of tribe I has stolen a pig from person B from tribe II. It leads to a tribal war. The ultimate cause, however, appears to be the drought and resource scarcity and population pressure, resulting in not enough pigs to feed the people of either tribe.

Comment PKK: the difference between approximate and ultimate seems a matter of importance: one is just a means to an end: approximate means:  it happens because of more important ‘reasons’. Ultimate refers to the more important ‘reasons’ behind… Economics is based on the idea that economic motivation is the sole motivation that drives humans to act. Diamond does not talk about motivation. Apparently the influence of empiricism and of the material variant of evolutionism.

Part I Dividing Space

Part II Dispute Resolution

Part III Childhood and Old Age

Part IV Dangers

Part V Religion, Language Diversity and Health

PKK: why this division in categories? Why is ethnicity and other important elements in the grouping? See chapter 1: Friends, enemies, Strangers and Traders.


Chapter 1

New Guinea – mountain bands versus river bands; a trail over the ridge of a mountain is the boundary; some trade now and then; sometimes in the context of feasts through gift-giving; densely populated areas and a quite stable group membership; mutually exclusive territories; scarcely populated areas: less exclusive, less precise borders; permission and consultation to avoid killings; patrol along borders. Permission: core group of older people. Sometimes inter band or tribe marriages, making relationships less tense. Money was scarce. Most barter. Economic relationships were embedded in social and political relationships.

Chapter 2

Compensation for the death of a child. In a car accident the driver kills a boy. The boy made a mistake; the car-driver did not! But that is not decisive; the question of who is guilty is relatively irrelevant. Compensation so as to restore long-term relationship between families and tribes are the most important matter. If this relationship is not restored a long period of violence between different groups might be the consequence. In the case of the car-incident the driver and his family and tribe had to compensate for the loss (the death of the child). The driver did not stop but ran into a police office for protection (accepted reaction). But the employer of the driver was approached by people of the family of the boy. An older and wiser person was asked to play the role of mediator. Even if there are chiefs, they are just mediators, without the power and authority to force parties to a particular deal.

When a state is installed the right to use violence is monopolised by this state ( about 5400 years ago this process of state formation began). Citizens have the right to defend themselves and their property. The overriding goal of state justice is to maintain society’s stability by providing a mandatory alternative to do-it-yourself.

We distinguish between state civil justice and state criminal justice. The first is about contract breaching and tort cases; the second I about breaching state laws. Also in state societies mediation takes place, and only in case of failure parties go to court. Disadvantages: the procedure takes a long time and is costly for both parties. So wealthy people have more chance! Penal law: establishing who is guilty and what will the penalty be? Less attention to the re-establishing of harmonious relationships between the contestants and their family and friends. There is some restorative justice. Penalties are assumed to deter other citizens from breaking the state’s laws. Western systems are based on individual responsibility rather than on collective responsibility.

Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law versus bargaining in the shadow of war. The first type of bargaining suggest that state societies are better able to protect the weaker party. In practice this difference is smaller than we hope for (PKK).

Chapter 3

A Tiny War. The Dani war was a typical primitive war. It was between two alliances of various bands within one tribe. There were regularly changes in the alliances, and quite often there were theft and killings. Theft: especially pigs and women. The mechanism that made these mutual attacks structural was the revenge for earlier attacks and damages. Now and then alliances arranged  a kind of total war at a particular place and time. The number of pigs and wives were a status symbol. And in case lower ranked bands had stolen many wives, they had to expect severe counterattacks. The spirits of the ancestors wanted revenge, which they themselves had not delivered.

Chapter 4

Motives for traditional warfare. Why do traditional societies go to war?

  1. We can simply observe what sorts of benefits victorious societies gain from war.
  2. We can ask people for their motives (“proximate causes for war.
  3. We can figure out their real underlying motives (‘ultimate causes of war”).The answers to questions of the second type might not coincide with the answers to questions of the first type. The commonest answer is “revenge” for killings of fellow tribespeople or band members. What motives initiate a war? Women and pigs. Pigs are the main currency to wealth and prestige. They are convertible into women as essential components of bride-price. In other societies horses and cows fulfil the pig function.Ad (3) about ultimate causes. You can’t ask the people themselves; their own answers just reflect their own awareness. Most often proposed by experts: acquisition of land or other scarce resources. Human groups grow in size and can only increase further at the expense of other groups. A second ultimate cause are social factors. People may go to war to keep troublesome people at a distance. A third factor considers a bellicose individual to be feared and to gain prestige for his war exploits. It leads to more wives and more children.State societies have taken over the fights out of revenge. But this system fails to give personal satisfaction to the victims, while within bands and tribes much attention is paid to restore long-term peaceful relationships. Chapter 9 What Electric Eels Tell Us About Evolution of ReligionPage 327 contains a list of 16 definitions of religion. There appear 5 components, which are characteristic for a phenomenon to be called religion.
  4. Religion is almost omnipresent. It suggests that it fulfils some universal human need. Religious believers are sacrificing a lot; there is a lot of opportunity costs. Page 325-326 shows that the author is not a believer; he does not reward the contacts of humans with their God as something priceless. Christianity: reading the bible, singing psalms, and feeling noticed by God; these are the highest rewards ever. If we take a more general concept, such as philosophy of life, the same happens. Many cases are rewarding for the believer, while they are not rewarding for non-believers. Cost-benefit analysis makes sense only within the framework of interpretation and analysis of the person.
  5. Whom do people fight? The same people with whom they trade and have inter-marriages.
  6. Other reasons for initiating a war: sorcery (a). Anything bad is blamed on an enemy sorcerer, who must be identified and killed. The neighbours are considered as intrinsically bad, hostile, subhuman and treacherous and thus deserve to be attacked whether or not they have committed some specific evil recently (b). Land conflicts (c).
  1. There is a supernatural agent for whose existence our senses can’t give us evidence, but which is invoked to explain things of which our senses do give us evidence.
  2. There are social movements of people who identify themselves as sharing deeply held beliefs.
  3. The adherents make costly or painful sacrifices that convincingly display to others the adherents’ commitment to the group.
  4. Religious beliefs have practical consequences for how people should behave.
  5. Many religions teach that supernatural agents not only reward virtuous rule-obeying people and punish evil-doers and rule-breakers, but also can be induced by prayers, donations and sacrifices to intervene on behalf of mortal petitioners.


The functional approach (1); the evolutionary psychology (2); evolutionary biology (3). Ad 1: religion must have functions and bring benefits to offset heavy costs. Ad 2: religion was not consciously invented for any specific purpose or to solve any specific problem. Ad 3: mutations and re-combinations of genes generate variation between individuals. Because of natural selection and sexual selection there are differences among the resulting variant individuals in how they survive, reproduce and pass on their genes to the next generation. Some turn out to perform functions and to solve life’ problems better than others.

Adjustment to environment, including adjustment of function (example of the function of electrical eels, p.334-335)

Search for causal explanation (p.336-338)

Religion might have arisen as a by-product of our brain’s increasingly sophisticated ability to deduce cause, agency, and intent, to anticipate dangers, and thereby to formulate causal explanations of predictive value that helped us survive. Animals have far less reasonability than humans.. But we are inclined to attribute intent and agency to animals and to ourselves. Attribution of agency to plants and non-living things is a matter of overgeneralisation. Asking spirits for help in case of illness is also an example of overgeneralisation; an over-pursuit of causal explanations. Asking a shaman for help is like a placebo.

Job was a good man, but nevertheless he was in big trouble: severe diseases and the death of several of his family. Living beings are dying at a particular moment. Where is the spirit now? These are searches for meaning, not for explanation. Science is about explanation, and religion is about meaning. PKK: It is not as simple as that. Humans are meaning-searchers. They need and have frameworks of interpretation, which offers them a view on their position in the context of the whole of reality. They act upon their framework of interpretation. If we want to understand their actions, we need to know their framework, that is the way they attach meaning to all sorts of situations. This is another form of causal explanation: agent, situation, interpretation. If we want to frame a religious believer’s behaviour, we must take into account that he enjoys religious activities, such as a pilgrimage; so, these are not only costs, but benefits at the same time!

Diamond is a biologist, who considers the genes as the true micro-foundation of human behaviour; not, as is the case with economics, the human (economic) motivation. But he should offer a basic categorisation of gene-types and link it to different types of motivation. Only then we can endogenise the human body into our analysis. If not, the body is a substitute for the mind and biology for psychology. This is an unacceptable reduction, of course.

Functions of religion

  1. Explanation: in traditional societies people did not make a distinction between those explanations that scientists today consider natural and scientific, and those others that scientists now consider supernatural and religious. Creationists see God as the First Cause, who created the universe and its laws and thus accounts for their existence, and who also created every plant, animal and human. P.346: deism now! In modern Western society the role of religion has increasingly usurped by science. Modern language diversity is no longer explained by original myth such as the Tower of Babel. Now it is adequately explained by observed historical processes of language change. The origin of each plant and animal species, including human species is left to evolutionary biologists to interpret (p.346). Tillich – Heidegger, pkk – something rather than nothing. Diamond: God is just a label. Pkk: so with the Big Bang. The concept God offers more possibilities to discover fundamental principles.
  2. Defusing anxiety. We crave for relief from feeling helpless. In case of danger people recite psalms and make themselves calmer and more able to react adequately. They really benefit! This function would have decreased as societies increased their control over life’s courses.
  3. Providing comfort. Providing comfort, hope and meaning when life is hard. Animals, except humans, understand that one day, it too will die. As soon as we have required self-consciousness and better reasoning power and begin to generalise from watching our fellow band members die. One way of explaining a suffering is by declaring it not to be a meaningless random event. It possesses a deeper meaning; it was to test you for your worthiness in the afterlife, or it was to punish you for your sins, or it was an evil done to you by a bad person whom you should hire a sorcerer to kill him. As soon as we become smart enough to realise that we’d die ————- we develop ideas about the afterlife and the meaning of life. Religion is linked to our persistent need for meaning. Even now we have scientific knowledge “we still have our same old brains that crave meaning. Even if it’s true, I don’t like it and I’m not going to believe it: if science won’t give me meaning, I’ll look for religion for it”.
  4. Organisation and obedience. Standardised organisation, preaching political obedience, regulating behaviour towards strangers by means of formal moral codes and justifying wars are the remaining features of religion. Societies should be rich enough to pay shamans, soldiers, etc. a sufficient salary. Organised religion resulted from proclaiming it with the following tenets: the chief or king is related to the gods, or even is a god; he can intercede with the gods on behalf of the peasants e.g., to send rain or to ensure a good harvest. Without a strong chief or state strangers should be killed – individuals might run away when meeting a stranger. Wars are justified by religion. For instance, the Ten Commandments apply only to one’s behaviour towards the fellow citizens within the chiefdom or state. Most religions claim that they have the monopoly on the truth. Dark side: (implicitly) steal from other people, etc. Religious groups require badges of commitment. Sacrifices should proof that the commitments are believable.

Why did one form of religion survive, namely Christianity?

Actively proselytising, promoting more babies, social institutions, leading to lower death rates, doctrine of forgiveness rather than retaliation.

Methodology of Diamond.

Evolution means that brains are growing in complexity, and the power to be reasonable is also growing. It means that humans become increasingly able to make complex knowledge structures. A leads to B becomes increasingly complex: A1 leads to B1 , and not to B2.

PKK: As soon as humans become aware of their selves and the way they look at themselves, and compare these pictures with the way other people look at you, perception is going to play a role in the development of knowledge! It makes human behaviour more complex; simple empirical structures go not suffice anymore. Economic aspects must be distinguished from social and psychic aspects.

Chapter 10 Speaking in Many Tongues

Languages evolve differences because different groups of people develop different words and different pronunciations over the course of time. Why still so many languages, although so many people of different language meet each other? As soon as you start to speak to someone else, your language serves as an instantly recognisable badge of your identity. It is – even today – an instant distinction between friends and strangers. If you speak a mish-mash in bordering regions, neither group might consider you “one of our own”. People who speak your language are your people!!

————————————— end

Dr. Piet Keizer

Associate Professor Economic Methodology

Utrecht University School of Economics


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