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Thursday, November 26, 2015

The World Until Yesterday: Notes #3

After discussing subjects of social structures --- children, elderly, conflicts and war, and tribal boundary and travel --- Jared Diamond made a thesis on risks of daily life. Here he made only a passing mention of an observation that struck a cord with me: People in pre-literate societies talked a lot. They talked all the time about everything and all the time with each other. Given the limits of their daily life and tribal size, they inevitably have to repeat things over and over in conversation. Diamond notes that most anthropologists are initially surprised by just how much chatter goes on in a traditional society. People drift in and out of sleep at night and talk with each other intermittently, unlike we in modern societies who sleep through the night in one block (which is well established as a phenomenon since only the industrial revolution). In one instance, he heard two New Guineans talking for an hour about a pile of sweet potatoes.

Why do people talk so much? Diamond gives several reasons: 1) They can't write things down and go back to the records, so talking and repeating verbally can help them remember stuff. 2) They have no modern diversions like books, movies, TV, the Internet. 3) Incessant gossip is critical for their safety. 

The last part is critical because information can mean life and death --- Someone spotted fruits for foraging some distance southwest of the camp; someone spotted lion tracks nearby; someone got killed by a fallen tree in the woods yesterday; someone has fallen ill with suspected witchcraft; etc. Now it's become apparent that we moderns are no different. The exchange of information is critical too for our survival. The difference is that we don't have to get most of the useful information from talking to others all the time and try to remember by constantly repeating it. We can learn from books, newspapers, TV, YouTube, and the all-mighty Google. We can write things down and look them up later. 

This is an astounding realization, for I just never realized how much humans survive on sharing information

I have been wondering for quite a while lately about why we seem to have the tendency to be "addicted" to the Internet and uncontrollably reach for our Smart Phones every idle moment, despite the sense of stress and anxiety and being overwhelmed. No doubt, we are naturally predisposed to collect and share information, and the predisposition --- be it genetic, epigenetic, or some yet unknown mechanism that is vaguely known as "instinct" --- is too simple to distinguish useful information (eg, how to make fire and track animals) and useless information (eg, what shit came out of Donald Trump's mouth today). We are the species that gossip. 

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This realization brings up the question of the Jungian concept of "collective unconscious." I used to dismiss it and things like "ancient memory" that passes down generations as pseudoscience, but now I'm not sure. These instincts --- whatever the biological mechanism --- are real, such as the instinct to gossip, the fear of snakes or spiders, and the irresistible charm of fireplace. Where did they come from and how did they transmit over time? I don't know, and I find a genetic basis to be very unlikely. 



Saturday, November 21, 2015

The World Until Yesterday: Notes #2

As a Chinese person growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I straddled the traditional extended family model and the modern nuclear family model. Because of increased social mobility, both my parents have lived far away from their own families, so that we had a family size of 4 throughout most of my life. Nevertheless I had brief intervals of living at my maternal grandparents' house. So I can easily understand and identify with the family structure in primitive tribes described in the book.

Of course, my experience with extended family did not include some elements in small-scale tribes. For example, in hunter-gatherer societies, parents and children live together in close proximity. Children see their parents have sex all the time and imitate it in sexual games among themselves. This was treated with no particular alarm by adults. 

However, other family characteristics are very familiar: Aunts and uncles share childcare frequently (I played with my cousins and ate at my aunt's house countless times); grandparents take over much of the work; the specific role and boundaries of biological parents are blurry. This stirs up a lot of memories. 

When I was in the nuclear family with my parents and brother, I was in fact home alone most of the time. Both parents went to work, and my brother went to school. I often ran off to my cousins house and played there until my parents came home from work. This was the norm until I started school at 6 and a half years. But my memory of being in my grandparent's house is much stronger and more vivid. In their Shanghai house with narrow, steep, creaky wooden stairs, people came and went all day long, most of whom I knew not. My grandfather's father had three wives, resulting in a huge number of relatives with tenuous and ambiguous relationships. They randomly dropped in for a social visit and exchanged gossips and gifts, and then stayed for a meal. It was said that grandmother could never turn anyone out before lunch. I loitered with my cousins and uncles of the same age in the background, playing games of our own. Children were well fed but otherwise ignored. I never got a fraction of the attention in Shanghai as I did at home as the youngest child. Most of the time it was chaotic and confusing and had nothing to do with me. Yet I often recall the sense of peace and safety in my grandparents' house, with constant chatter (in the Ningbo dialect) and the smell of food. 

Diamond writes that anthropologists have documented their surprise at how far advanced tribal children are in social maturity, compared with children in Western countries. He attributes this maturity with their contacts with adults of various ages and generations all the time, while Western children have limited contacts with adults other than their parents and are often segregated by age in daycare and school. 

I wonder if I would have become a more social person if I had grown up in my grandparents' household. 

The World Until Yesterday: Notes #1


I'm reading this book very slowly, which does not mean it's any less fascinating than A Song of Ice and Fire or Mahabharata. What rubs me the right way about Jared Diamond's style is perhaps exactly what I consider my own hopeless deficiency --- He presents more facts than opinions. There is a distinct lack of posturing for his own self-image and position. The confidence in his facts and the modesty in his claims immediately elevate him above the likes of Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell in my mind.

The first part of the book on violent conflicts (from small clashes to war) in primitive, small-scale societies immediately blew my mind and opened a new perspective on the shape of the world. Maybe I'll make some notes on this at a later time.

What compelled me to begin taking notes though is the second part about family structure and child-rearing tradition in primitive societies. There is an astounding range of child-bearing and rearing practices, from giving small children complete autonomy (eg, letting them play with knife and hurt themselves or by fire and get burned in hunter-gatherer tribes) to strict discipline and physical punishment (eg, in herding societies).

The variations are partially but not entirely determined by how they make a living. For example, hunter-gatherers are the most egalitarian type of society, because of the lack of personal possessions --- there is hardly anything to possess, and you can't carry much with you in endless trekking. They regard children as fully equivalent to adults, only weaker and smaller, and therefore deserve to make their own decisions (like playing with fire). In a hunter-gatherer band, a child who misbehaves is unlikely to hurt anyone but himself, and therefore is not a cause of too much anxiety. However, a careless or mischievous child can lose the family's precious animals in a herding clan, which therefore must be prevented harshly.

Another fascinating observation is that infants are surrounded by allo-parents (eg, aunts and uncles, grandparents, older siblings) nearly all the time in primitive societies. As soon as an infant cries, regardless of reason, he is usually touched or picked up within 10 seconds by his mother or an allo-parent or someone in the tribe. This compares with the practice in 20th century Germany (where Diamond lived in the 1960s) where mothers responded, on average, 1 to 10 minutes after their infants started crying, because of the cultural belief that children must be taught self-reliance and independence as early as possible. As a result, a primitive-society infant cries only half as much/long as an infant in a modern Western society.

I don't know how many books have been sold and how much money has been spent in Europe and North America on this very subject of whether babies should be picked up when they cry and how long parents should wait before doing it. Even a person with no children, like me, knows this is one of the most contentious subjects among parents and experts. Yet, shockingly, Diamond does not seem to feel compelled to take a side. He even admits that he and his wife were agonized by their children's crying when they tried to follow the advice of not picking them up too quickly. But he did not denounce the German approach as wrong, nor did he brandish research proving the long-term emotional damage this has caused in millions of disappointed children. He merely points out that immediate response to a crying child reduces, rather than increases his crying overall, according to some anthropologists' observational data.


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