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Jared Diamond Lecture
updated: Jan 14, 2013, 8:44 AM

By Robert Bernstein

On Saturday January 12th, Jared Diamond gave a talk at UCSB Campbell Hall on his modestly titled book "The World Until Yesterday".

Here are my photos!

He started with an amusing audience survey. He asked for a show of hands of people who were over 65, who hoped to live to be 65 or who have a parent or grandparent over 65. He said if you raised your hand, the talk and his book were for you.

Most of the talk compared modern Western cultures with traditional and/or tribal cultures. And he used the treatment of the elderly as a reference point for cultural comparison.

He was quick to warn against overly romanticizing tribal cultures or belittling them.

He talked of a friend from Fiji who visited him in the US who became quite agitated and emotional with regard to how Americans treat the elderly. "You throw them away."

It is common in traditional societies to revere the elderly and for them to live with their children in old age.

But in other traditional societies the elderly do not fare so well. They may be neglected until they die. The tribe or family group may move and leave the elderly behind. The elderly may be hounded until they commit suicide. And in Papua New Guinea where he had done extensive research, the elderly are directly killed, with their consent. In some other places, they are killed without their consent.

The differences in treatment of the elderly are based on both practical and value considerations.

In many traditional societies, the elderly make practical contributions. Baby sitting, making tools and textiles, doing medicine and generally keeping the knowledge of the past.

Sometimes this knowledge is a matter of survival. He gave an example of an old woman in Polynesia who knew what fruits were safe to eat after a terrible storm that happened in her youth. Such events are rare, but her knowledge could again become vital.

Some of these practicalities remain in modern culture. But much of our technical knowledge is more likely to be held by a 15 year old than by a 75 year old like Dr Diamond himself. Formal education and Google make the knowledge of elders less precious. And skills that were valued in Diamond's youth like multiplying two digit numbers in his head are of little value today.

With an aging population in the US and Europe and proportionately fewer young to support them, the elderly are a burden in many ways. On the other hand, people in modern societies not only live longer, but also maintain their health and activities into advanced age. And specialized retirement facilities allow activity and social engagement in advanced age.

Even today grandparents are happily put to use as baby sitters and their memory of the Great Depression and World War II has its value today. Older people still have valuable experience for supervising and strategizing and they are beyond ego attachment.

Traditional societies are materially poorer, but socially richer, Diamond said. The children are more independent and social. Dispute resolution generally tries to provide emotional reconciliation to all parties, something totally lacking in our modern legal system.

They are naturally more physically active and don't get a lot of the non-communicable diseases we get like diabetes and heart disease.

They also tend to know more languages since they have to interact with other tribes. The people he knew in New Guinea typically knew five languages. This turns out to be the best protection against the dementia of Alzheimer's.

He did acknowledge that our modern society is less violent than traditional cultures, even though we don't always appreciate this.

 

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