Watch the interview here.
RAMONA KOVAL: Jared Diamond, welcome to the Monthly Book.
JARED DIAMOND: Thank you, and it’s a pleasure to be back in Australia.
RK: Well, we’ve spoken before about several of your books, and this is the new one, The World Until Yesterday. And you start by speaking about times when we’ve been able to photograph that moment, the expressions on the faces of people when they have the first contact. There’s a wonderful picture in this book of Australian miner Dan Ley in New Guinea in 1933, who comes upon a group of New Guineans who look horrified, afraid, shocked at who is this man, this stranger. They might have found us frightening and shocking but we all are then fascinated by each other. What is that fascination?
JD: The fascination is, I think, a mixture, the tension of two things. On the one hand, when I’ve encountered New Guineans and when other people have encountered traditional people around the world, they are people like we are: they have children, they grow old, they get scared, they love, they cry, they get angry, just like me. And, on the other hand, they are quite different in some respects, in some obvious respects. Such as, that, traditionally, New Guineans wore little or no clothing, they didn’t write, they didn’t have a centralised government, they bought their wives, marking girls at birth for marriage – that’s quite different. And then there were more subtle differences that took me years to appreciate, about different concepts of friendships. So it’s the tension between “people just like us”, which was my first reaction and then with time, realising different people have different views.
RK: Yes, so the tendency is to say “people just like us” in a kind of democratic view of the world but there are very real differences. For example, you talk about a simple difference, about the meaning of friendship, which is really quite remarkable. You describe a situation where you are looking for strange, interesting, marvellous birds in an area; you’re working together, you’re camping together, you’re travelling together, and you see what you term “a friendship” building up between a couple of people. Can you talk a bit about the concept of friendship you learnt about then?
JD: That was one of the things that surprised me most and took me the longest time to notice. I was with a New Guinean whom I knew reasonably well, who I’d worked with for a number of years, working in a new area where we were visited by a Scot, a schoolteacher, and, in the course of a week, the schoolteacher and my New Guinea friend got along well, they told jokes, they seemed to have a good relationship. At the end of the week then, the Scot, the school teacher, was leaving back to the town that he taught and it also happened to be the town with the airport through which my New Guinea friend had to travel on the way back to his village. So the schoolteacher said what seem normal to us: “I enjoyed being with you, when you come through town, stop off and see me. Here’s my address.” Off went the schoolteacher.
I then asked my friend, “So, are you going to look him up when you go through his town?” And he said, “Look him up? What for? If he had a job to give me or if there were some business in it, yes.” And the Tok Pisin expression was “Pren nutting” – “just for friendship” – he couldn’t conceive of this. So that made clear to me that in small societies, where everybody around you is a friend, and you don’t encounter strangers, what we consider normal that’s encountering a person with whom you end up having a nice conversation, then following up on a conversation and perhaps a friendship grows out of it – that’s not part of everyday life. That came as a surprise to me. But then the flip side of it is that there are things we do that come as a shock to New Guineans, like how we treat our old people and how we bring up our children – which they find utterly loathsome.
RK: Well, we’ll get onto that in a little while. Can we justify thinking about these small-scale societies as representative of our pre-agricultural ancestors – the way they organise themselves? I mean, in a sense, we’ve all been evolving, haven’t we? And presumably they’ve been evolving, too. What is the relationship between the “noble savage” ideas of Rosseau and how we project ourselves onto this perfect world where we’re all hunters, gatherers and everything was kind of “natural”? What is the relationship between them now and us now?
JD: You’ve interlaced three important questions in there, so let’s try to dissect them, let’s analyse them. So one relationship is a naïve view, which is of course wrong, that traditional people who we see today, such as the New Guinea highlanders, are somehow frozen images of the past unchanged for the last 60,000 years, which is of course nonsense because in the past 60,000 agriculture has developed and in the last centuries Europeans have been prowling around the coast and Austronesians arrived a couple of thousand years ago. So of course there have been changes over the last 60,000 years; they’re not frozen images of the past.
Nevertheless, once you have a small society of a few hundred people, whether the small society is one of New Guineans today or of Amazonians 500 years ago, if you’ve got 200 people all of whom know each other, all small societies are going to end up similar in some respects. So, a slightly long-winded answer to your first question is that there are things that remain constant and things that change. Then, interlaced with another important question, the Rousseauian question, of whether to view traditional people as noble savages.
The issue there is that people in the developed world have fluctuated between two extremes. One extreme regarding traditional people as ignorant, primitive brutes, who should be driven off their land and exterminated or subjugated. There are plenty of people who still hold that view today. The opposite extreme is to view traditional people as noble savages in harmony with their environment; friendly, peaceful paragons of virtue compared to us, the loathsome brutes. And there are plenty of people who hold that view today. I describe myself as a realist; I have a lot of experience with traditional societies. There are things they do that are wonderful that I have tried to adopt for myself; there are things they do that are terrible, which make them miserable, and that I don’t recommend. So I neither romanticise nor do I regard them as primitive brutes, and that of course means that those at either of those extremes – the romanticisers and those who view them as primitive brutes – dislike me because I’m in the middle.
RK: Well, let’s look at what those different ideas of friendship imply. You talk about some of the people you’ve been with dividing space up between a friend, an enemy, a stranger. And moving in the territories of friends and enemies and strangers is a pretty complex thing. It’s not like walking down the street in a big Western city, and feeling you can just go here and there or you’ll meet someone in the street and you’ll nod to them or a stranger might kill you, might attack you. Tell us the differences between those small-scale groups of friends, enemies and strangers compared to what you’re used to.
JD: That’s a profound difference. In the societies we are used to ... we live in societies – Australia with its 25 million people; the United States, 310 million people – which means that every day as I walk across my university campus, I encounter hundreds of strangers. I’m in a society that has had to make it possible to encounter strangers without freaking out. I’m not scared; mostly I walk past them. And if I stop to talk with them, potentially they are interesting or I can learn something, or I can profit from them. But throughout human history people have lived until recently in small societies that have been relatively sedentary so you knew everybody around you, everybody in your village was a friend. The neighbouring groups: sometimes the were friends, sometimes the alliance broke down and they were enemies, and then anybody who was not a neighbour or was not in your own group was a stranger, and strangers were all potentially dangerous; they weren’t an opportunity to learn a new language or to get a job. If you saw a stranger in your territory, they were probably prowling to steal your pig, or steal your woman or scout out your land for a raid. So the world was divided between friends, enemies and strangers.
In my experience in New Guinea, where I’ve been working for 50 years, the occasions that have been the closest to my getting into trouble have been where I have misread the signs and I was on someone’s land, thinking I had permission to be there. I’d asked the permission of the people I took to be the land owners, then another group came along and said, “No, we are the land owners. You are trespassing on our land and that is very bad.”
RK: How much danger were you in?
JD: Oh, on one occasion, the people started throwing stones at us and grabbed our boat. It wasn’t clear what was going to happen but we managed to talk our way out of it. On another occasion, they put up a line of boats across the river and were prepared to stop us. Again, it was a tense situation until I spotted someone wearing a University of Michigan T-shirt, and I said, “A-ha! University of Michigan!” And then we chatted and the boat drifted along; we started the motor and then went off. This simply illustrates that if you’re on someone’s land without permission, that is a no-no. It’s not like Melbourne or Sydney where you walk down a street and nobody owns that street access. But not in traditional societies.
RK: Given the dangers of traditional societies, it’s interesting that you feel we can learn a lot from their attitudes to justice and traditional warfare. That they have much to teach us when the disputants are not strangers and are locked into having to live with each other. What can we learn from the way they organise their systems of justice?
JD: Let’s just contrast their systems of justice and how they settle disputes with the cruel realities of how we settle disputes in the United States. Suppose there’s a couple getting divorced, or a brother and sister locked in an inheritance dispute. What happens is the state has its mechanisms for adjudicating; it has civil courts, it has criminal courts, and what the state cares about is what is right or wrong, according to a set of rules. The person who’s guilty may be sent to prison. The last thing the state cares about is restoring a relationship and achieving an emotional reconciliation. Because the people in the dispute – say I have a traffic accident; the person in the other car I’ve probably never seen before and will likely never see again. So the state doesn’t care if I end up loathing that person because he ran over and killed my child. But the result, again any Australian or American who has been involved in a divorce or inheritance dispute knows, often people going through our justice systems end up churned up for the rest of their lives because there’s no emotional reconciliation.
In contrast, in traditional societies, where everybody knows everybody else, a dispute is always with someone you know or potentially know. What counts is that you can then live near that person for the next 50 years without being afraid of getting attacked or being chewed up with feelings. So the goal is not to determine right or wrong, the goal is emotional reconciliation.
But here is an example of how we in the West can learn from traditional societies. There’s now a movement called “restorative justice”, which I believe is active in Australia – certainly it’s in New Zealand, Canada, the US – whose role is to provide the emotional reconciliation that otherwise our justice system doesn’t provide. Experiments are still going on but there’s an extraordinary case in California, which I describe in my book, where a woman whose husband had been killed by a man, by a drive, was met in prison by the murderer of her husband. There were people there to make sure nobody jumped up and attacked each other, but she looked in the face of the man who had killed her husband, told him how she had got the news, what it meant to her, how every day he thought of her husband, how she would listen to a song on the radio that would remind her of her husband, what it had done to her daughter, letting out her feelings.
Then the murderer began to talk about his life. He was not just this paper-card personification of evil, but he had this life of his own. He had been sexually abused for years, he had broken his back, he was on painkillers. The night before the killing, he had run out of painkillers, his girlfriend had deserted him. He went out that day driving, with a lifetime of fury locked up inside of him. Then he confessed to the widow something he had not even talked about at the trial. He said, “I want you to know that I killed your husband on purpose because I was so upset I wanted to take it out on another person.” So it was an emotionally laden episode for them both. The woman ended up by saying, “Forgiving is difficult. Not forgiving is even worse.” So there’s how New Guinea–style restorative justice can work even in the worst situation in our justice system, namely a killing.
RK: At the same time you say that in a state system, only the state is permitted to employ violence in retaliatory action against its citizens. So that’s the flip side, isn’t it?
JD: That’s right.
RK: As long as the state isn’t targeting you in a war, somehow the state manages to get the war somewhere else and works out who should be fighting who, which army should be fighting which. But in a small-scale society, that’s the danger: that there’s no state and wars can last generations.
JD: That’s true, and again this illustrates the larger theme: that traditional societies shouldn’t be idealised. There are wonderful things about them that we can acquire for ourselves: processes of restorative justice, how we raise children, how we look after old people. There are unfortunate things about how they get locked, which we certainly should not acquire, such as amputating the joints of children when an older parent dies. Or war. Because there’s not a state government to sign a peace treaty, wars seem to be chronic in traditional societies, and despite the fact in our modern societies that with a big bomb we can kill many people all at once – more than any New Guinea battle can kill at once – we have more people around to kill and we have better killing devices. But in the West – even the worst of the West, Germany and Russia, which suffered the highest death tolls of the 20th century, were at war between 1914 and 1918 and 1939 and 1945, but Germany was at peace the rest of the time, and so the percentage of Germans who died violent deaths during that whole century, incredibly, was less, about ten times less than the average percentage of people who died violent deaths in traditional societies. And that’s something it’s very hard for many people to get their heads around. There are reasons for it: it doesn’t mean traditional societies are vile, inclined towards violence, despicable; it’s that they have a different form of society that does not provide for declarations of war but then impositions of peace.
RK: There’s been reports, even in the last couple of weeks, of retaliation against individuals in New Guinea, of a burning of witches, for example. We forget that that’s a reality in some places.
JD: That’s right, and it illustrates a point, going back to almost your first question, that whether traditional people today are models of 60,000 years ago. A New Guinea friend of mine said, “Jared, you should really talk not about traditional societies but of transitional societies because all traditional societies have been influenced by the modern world.” An example is what you just mentioned. So when Papua New Guinea state government arrived, brought in by the Germans and the Australians, Papua New Guinea is now an independent, dependent state with a state apparatus, but as Donald Rumsfeld said, “Stuff still happens.” Namely, that some of the tribal mechanisms are there, including some wonderful tribal mechanisms but also some terrible ones, such as the killing of this unfortunate woman accused of sorcery.
RK: Yes, it always occurs to me that in our Westminster system we have a view of what we would call “bribes” and “obligations” but if you’re imposing that system on another that has a whole tradition of connection and gift giving and obligations, but they don’t kind of mix, do they? How could they mix?
JD: Gifts mean different things. Every year I give my wife a gift for our wedding anniversary and for her birthday and for our meeting day and for Christmas and for Valentine’s Day, and my wife usually gives me a gift in return. But when I give my wife a Valentine’s Day gift, it’s not with the unconscious message that “You have now incurred an obligation to give me a better gift in the future.” Whereas, in traditional societies, gifts are not something spontaneous, done out of your heart. Gifts are part of building up a social framework. I have given you an arrow; you could perfectly well make that arrow yourself but in giving it you an arrow, you incur the obligation to give me an arrow sometime in the future, and it’s a better arrow, and the result is that we have a relationship and we’re less likely to go and kill each other because we expect arrows back and forth.
RK: Let’s talk about infant care and child rearing. In our societies – you call them WEIRD societies, Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic – in WEIRD societies we seem to be constantly talking about child rearing. I mean every generation has a new Dr Spock-ian kind of book that will tell us all about how to do this. And in fact probably because we don’t live in big groups any more, each generation has no idea about how to bring up a baby: they haven’t seen their aunts, their uncles and their cousins at close range. So there are big differences in how we do it and the small-scale societies you’re talking about. For example, in one society you describe, the woman is supposed to give birth alone.
JD: Among the Kung Sang population of South Africa, the expectation is that a woman will give birth alone. She’ll go out a few hundred yards away from the group and she’ll give birth alone. It’s her responsibility to inspect the newborn, and if the newborn has a physical problem or is deformed, it’s her obligation to smother the baby. Only when she checks the baby is OK does she bring the baby back to the group, and it gets a name and is accepted as part of the group. We may say to that, ”How horrible”, the thought of killing an unfortunate baby who’s born with some problems. But reflect, they don’t have prenatal medicine and the fact is that in our society if the baby is born with some problems, usually the problems can be fixed. It’s perfectly appropriate for us to say, “How horrible to kill an impaired baby” when we could save the baby. But they don’t have the mechanism, and again that illustrates the risk of judging them by our standards. But it also illustrates what happens when they judge us by their standards because New Guineans are horrified by what we Americans do with our old people and how we bring up our children.
RK: You say that “modern human mothers have acquired the suckling habits of rabbits while retaining the lactation physiology of chimps and monkeys.” I should say here that you have had a very interesting career from biological studies right through to environmental geography. So you can go right down to the physiological level and then right back to a global level of interest. So what do you mean by the suckling habits of rabbits and monkeys?
JD: Look, by that I mean the following: if you look at mother chimpanzees, who are our closest relatives, but if you also look at mothers in traditional societies, such as in New Guinea, nursing is going on, the opportunity for nursing is constant. Mother carries the baby; at night the baby sleeps next to the mother; the mother is “on demand”. When the baby wants to nurse, it nurses because the mother is right there. If the mother is sleeping, the baby can still nurse. So in traditional societies babies nurse several times an hour; they take a little at each time, but they’re nursing throughout the whole day.
Whereas in our modern society, say a professional woman, it doesn’t work out for her – say, Julia Gillard? Your prime minister? – to carry the baby throughout the session of parliament. Instead nursing is scheduled at the mother’s convenience.
RK: If she had a child, she probably couldn’t even go to a coffee shop in many places because people don’t even like observing women nursing babies.
JD: That’s right. And to go back to your rabbit–chimpanzee model ...
RK: Your rabbit–chimpanzee model.
JD: My rabbit–chimpanzee model. Your citation of my rabbit–chimpanzee model. Humans nursed like chimpanzees, that is to say, constantly including through the night. But now in the modern, professional world, humans nurse as do rabbits – that is, Mother runs off and forages; she hides the baby and comes back a few times a day. In a short time, she pumps up the baby full of milk and then goes off again. That’s what modern, professional mothers do, but our physiology is still the physiology of chimpanzees, and the consequence is that so many educated women friends of mine have heard that nursing acts as a contraceptive and ... lactation. And that’s true, if you nurse like chimpanzees throughout the day, but if you nurse like a rabbit, a few times a day, the hormones that suppress lactation are not released. And within the last few months, again and again, I’ve heard these gut-wrenching stories of women who have become pregnant two months after their last delivery, and they’ve said, “I thought that I couldn’t become pregnant because I was nursing.” But they were nursing like rabbits.
RK: And they were breeding like rabbits consequently.
JD: Right, and if they’d been nursing like chimpanzees – that’s what acts as a contraceptive.
RK: You also talk about the different attitudes to young children, the autonomy of young children and young children doing dangerous things. And they response of adults around them isn’t necessarily to run in and say “Get away from the fire!” You know, as we might do. What’s your analysis of that?
JD: In traditional societies, children are regarded as autonomous beings with their own wills and desires. And, yes, they’re smaller and less experienced but you should not thwart the will of a child. New Guineans and traditional people in general typically carry that much further than my wife and I did. They let one- or two-year-old babies play with sharp knives. So there’s this picture in my book of this baby on the ground holding this 18-inch knife or playing with the fire.
Well, my wife and I did not let our one-year-olds play with big knives or with fires, but when our children expressed their desires, our attitude was, “Well, they should explore their desires unless it means them getting killed.” So when our three-year-old son one day saw his first snake and fell in love with a snake and he demanded a snake, neither my wife nor I were snake lovers, but here is a child that had expressed his will. So, no, we did not get him an anaconda or a poisonous taipan, but we got him a perfectly safe two-foot constrictor snake, which he loved. Then he wanted another snake and another snake and gradually, in our house, he built up to 147 pet snakes, frogs, reptiles and amphibians.
This child then developed his interests and after ten or 15 years, he decided his interests were no longer with snakes and at age 22 to become a chef. He phoned us up and said, “Mum and Dad, tomorrow I’m going to enter culinary school and will you write the cheque?” This was a boy who we had raised to figure out what he wanted in life and he decided he wanted to be a chef. So he’s now a chef at one of the best restaurants in Los Angeles. We did not micro-manage him and we let him and his brother figure out what they wanted, and the result was that neither of them had adolescent crises because they did not go through a time when they were micro-managed by us and then suddenly at age 14 they’ve got bodies of adults but not the experiences of adults.
RK: Are you saying that in small-scale societies they don’t have teenage-hood and they don’t have adolescent crises?
JD: That’s right. My observations, and what I hear from friends, is that there are not these adolescent crises that our kids face as a result of their arriving at adolescence without having the independence to make their own decisions.
RK: At the other end of the scale, with the treatment of sick and old people, you describe the uses of grandparents. On the one hand, the uses of grandparents to look after grandchildren, forage for grandchildren, older people knowing about medicine, entertainment, religion, relationships and politics. And that literacy and technology really changed that, about how we live in our WEIRD societies. But on the other hand, once a person is no longer useful, in a small-scale society, for example with hunter-gatherers who actually have to carry everything on their backs, carry their children who can’t walk on their backs, what are the options for them when they have someone who’s sick, when they have someone who’s too old to keep up? It’s pretty brutal, isn’t it?
JD: Yes, and this comes back to the theme you and I have talked about a couple of times: that is, neither regarding them as brutes nor romanticising them. The cruel reality is that when you have nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, you have societies that shift camps every day, it’s physically impossible for them to carry their babies and their weapons and possessions, and also to carry a sick old person. It’s not that they are cruel and heartless; they have no alternative except to abandon or kill the older person. But in sedentary traditional societies, which are most of them today, older people end their lives surrounded by their children and their relatives and their friends. And the reality is that older people have a much more satisfying life. This is why a Fijian friend of mine who came to the United States, the thing that he most loathed about American society is that he said we throw away our old people. And what he meant by that was that we put our parents into retirement homes and maybe visit them once a week, or we call them every day but visit them once a month or once a year. Whereas in Fiji or New Guinea old people remain integrated in society so the phenomenon of old-age loneliness – which is one of the disasters of American and probably Australian society – is just unknown in traditional society.
RK: Then if you go back to this idea of an older person saying, “I’m no use to you any more; my teeth have fallen out; I can’t hunt; I’m a burden. I’m going to take myself off.” Like a traditional Japanese into the mountain or an Inuit into the snow. I mean, there is an argument there for our own societies: that is I think I’ve exhausted myself, I should be allowed to take myself off, or the equivalent, which is perhaps euthanasia – voluntary euthanasia. I mean, it’s a big conversation in our society.
JD: It’s a big conversation in certain sections of the United States, too. The circumstances under which we debate euthanasia in the US are not circumstances where we debate whether an old person has any value. But instead there are circumstances wherein a person has a painful fatal disease– they’re dying of cancer, there’s no cure for the cancer, they’re in agony ...
RK: Well, they may have no value for themselves any more. Their life has no value to themselves.
JD: It’s even more than that. It’s that whether or not their life has value, they are in extreme pain and they’re going to be in pain until they die. And so, there are old people – and I think there are some American states; I think Oregon is one, that have now passed a law saying that a person has a right to terminate his or her own life, though it has to be set up with appropriate precautions. But the flip side to that is it’s relatively uncommon. Most old people are in reasonable condition. In the United States and Australia, particularly in the United States, to devalue old people – say, for example, because I don’t know how to use my 48-button TV remote and I need the help of my children to turn on my TV set – but, frankly, there are more important things in life then being able to turn on the TV set. I’ve had 75 years of experience and I am a better teacher, a better supervisor, a better adviser, a better synthesiser, then these 25- or 30-year-olds. And to jump to this as an example, I’ve often talked to hedge-fund groups: in hedge funds there are these kids, 25 or 30 years old, and they make a few billion dollars by the time they’re 28, but the cruel reality is that half of all hedge funds go bankrupt within the first five years because whiz kids have not had long experience. They haven’t seen the dotcom bust of 2000; they haven’t seen the interest rate rise of 1987. It’s the older people in the financial world who have seen those things and who can keep the hedge funds going at a time when the whiz kids with a short span of experience can’t keep the hedge funds going beyond five years.
RK: Just before we started talking today, there was some orange juice in that bottle, and you said you’d like to drink it from that bottle because you’d gotten into a habit of not decanting drinks during your travels as that was a way of letting a micro-organism get in there to make you sick. And you’re right about constructive paranoia, which you’ve learnt from small-scale societies, and a lack of macho attitudes, which I was really intrigued by. You’ve got people fighting and warring and defending their territories and all of that, but they’re not going to take crazy risks.
JD: That’s right. I just drank this bottle of orange juice and, as you pointed out, you offered to pour my orange juice into a glass, and I said no. I’ve worked in a lot of places in Indonesia, where every time you pour something into a glass, the glass may not have been washed well, there might be bacteria, I may end up with an intestinal ailment that will be with me for the next two years, as happened when I went to New Guinea. So, I practise what I call “constructive paranoia”. Many people may consider me silly but I have it as my practice not to pour my orange juice into a glass but to drink it straight from the bottle. Now you may say, “Jared, how silly. One in 1000 times you’re going to get intestinal diarrhoea from pouring your orange juice into a glass.” To which my response is: I intend to drink orange juice frequently for the rest of my life, perhaps once a day, and I have 15 years of life ahead of me. So that’s 5475 bottles of orange juice. And if the chance of getting an intestinal bacteria from pouring into a glass is one in 1000, then I’m going to kill myself five and a half times between now and my lifespan of 90. Therefore I am always going to my drink orange juice out of the bottle. That’s constructive paranoia, and it makes good sense.
RK: And you learnt this about camping under trees in New Guinea.
JD: I learnt this from New Guineans while camping under a tree. I picked a campsite under a glorious tree, and my New Guinea friends were freaked out and said, “Look, we can’t camp here, that tree is dead, it may fall over.” And I said, “That’s ridiculous; that’s almost paranoid: it’s a big, strong tree. It’s going to stand there for 40 years.” But New Guinea friends wouldn’t camp out under it, then gradually I realised that every night I sleep in a New Guinea forest, I hear a tree falling over somewhere. The chances of it falling on me as I slept that night were one in 1000. But if you’re a New Guinean sleeping out in the forest every night at the end of three years you’ve got 1095 nights: you’d be dead within three years instead of living a lifespan of 40 or 50 years.
That’s how I’ve learnt to be careful about orange juice and it’s also how I’ve learnt to be careful about not slipping in the shower, which is the most dangerous thing I did today and which is a common cause of death or crippling in older people – to slip in the shower, or on the sidewalk or on the stairs. I am more careful about showers than I am about terrorists and airplanes because showers realistically kill or cripple more Americans than either.
RK: The book has chapters devoted to nutrition, the way eat, the way we manage our physical selves in WEIRD societies. How dangerous we make it for ourselves because we eat the wrong things and we don’t exercise. There is an ebb and flow between the societies you talk about: traditional lifestyle lessons for Western health, the advantages of modern world practices for traditional people, making older people more valued, restorative justice, mediation, bilingualism and child rearing: the importance of learning many languages. Perhaps we could end on this note: why it is important for us to get practising different ways of ... whole systems of languages in our head? Why is that useful?
JD: We could make the usual cultural enrichment arguments, and we could make the usual social cohesion arguments: that groups that retain their language are less likely to disintegrate. But let’s make an argument that will grab all our listeners. The feared condition of Alzheimer’s disease in old age, which gets I think 20% of people over the age of 80 or 85. There is no organic cure; there’s has been no effective treatment of the symptoms. Some people say play bridge or do Sudoku to exercise your mind, but really how many hours a day can you play bridge? It turns out within the last few years that the only effective treatment of symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is to be bilingual or multilingual, which is constant exercise for the brain from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep; you’re always thinking, or listening or talking. And the numbers show that bilingual or multilingual people gain five years of protection against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. We know that’s true for bilingual people; we don’t know if multilingual people get the protection for every language.
So, for example, I, with my 13 languages. If each language gives you five years of protection, then I am protected for 65 years against Alzheimer’s. But if you only get five years of protection for being bilingual, and nothing extra for the next ten languages, then I’ve only got five years of protection.
RK: What are the languages?
JD: Oh, languages I can give a speech in are: English, German, Italian, Tok Pisin. I used to be fluent in French, Spanish, Russian. I can hold a conversation more or less in Indonesian. I used to be good at reading, but not speaking Greek and Latin. I in the past could speak haltingly in Flores, the New Guinea language and in Finnish. And I can read with a dictionary – but I can’t talk – Dutch. And I think that’s my 13 languages.
RK: (Laughs) That’s quite impressive. Jared Diamond, thank you so much for speaking with us at the Monthly Book; it’s been a pleasure.
JD: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure to be with you and to be back in Australia.