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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.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 363236P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 09:35 AM

Thanks for this. I wanted to attend but am put off by the cost of these lectures, cost of the lecture plus the cost of parking, etc.

It sounds from the writeup more of a descriptive presentation than a prescriptive one. UCSB students and others there might consider that another value in caring for the old is that it may establish a continuum: do unto others so that others will do unto you. They, too, if they're lucky, will age.

Amusing pterodactyl-adorned tie: was that part of his presentation about the elderly: honor and respect the ancient?


 COMMENT 363287P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 10:51 AM

I also appreciate the writeup, as I could not attend due to the high price of tickets (and parking.) Was Campbell Hall full?


 COMMENT 363302P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 11:08 AM

Many Arts & Lectures events are expensive, but Jared Diamond was $15 and $10 for students. Parking is $4. It was sold out.


 COMMENT 363592P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-15 08:26 AM

From my perspective, he was comparing apples to oranges and unfortunately repeated out-of-date stereotypes about older people being useless and undervalued - an odd approach in a community where so many older people donate time and energy in so many ways. As for his example about children chewing food to give to their toothless parents in some native communities as a measure of caring, I'd bet any of those toothless elders would rather have the option of dental education and even modest care that preserved their teeth. He also mentioned the "native" tendency to pick up a crying baby immediately to let it know it's loved and safe and compared it to the alleged U.S. preference to let a baby cry for up to 30 minutes so it will learn to "cope." He sure hasn't been around any young parents lately......


 COMMENT 363639 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-15 09:38 AM

Thank you so much for sharing this lecture with us. I am a big fan of Jared Diamond and always enjoy hearing his point of view.


 COMMENT 363649 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-15 09:49 AM

Given the obsolescence of "old people" and over-population of all humans on the planet now I can't help but wonder when mother earth will unleash a virus that attacks the weak ones ? Time to thin the human herd ?


 COMMENT 363667 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-15 10:16 AM

Thank you for the kind words about my write-up. I wanted to include some more details like the food chewing of children for elders but did not want to push the limits of Edhat space!

Yes, I agree that most people in traditional societies would rather have the health, opportunities and freedoms that we have. The challenge is how to keep what is good from traditional societies.

Yes, I agree that the talk did not offer much that was new. I attended his 2005 talk on "Collapse" and the talk title was "How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed".

That talk was full of new insights; the title itself was an amazing insight: That some societies would rather fail than change.

It was clearly meant as a warning for our own US society which considers itself "the greatest country on Earth". Yet which seems unwilling or unable to make even modest changes to avoid the catastrophic climate change that we are causing.

-- Robert


 RHS agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-15 10:25 AM

His observations religion are more of interest to me: Consider http://www.salon.com/2013/01/13/jared_diamond_its_irrational_to_be_religious/?source=newsletter
And one does not have to pay the lecture fee or parking to read.


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