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Saturday, November 21, 2015

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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