The world as it was until yesterday
Most of us take for granted the many features of our modern society, from air travel and telecommunications to literacy and obesity, which were invented only recently. Computer was invented about 60 years ago. Telephones emerged about 130 years ago. The electric bulb was demonstrated by Thomas Edison, about 150 years ago. Fossil fuel consumption, including trains emerged about 180 years ago. Steam engine is about 250 years old. The printing press was invented about 540 years ago. Going back, it is estimated that the wheel and writing were discovered about 5,500 years ago. The first cities emerged about 8,800 years ago. These inventions can be better situated if we remember that humans have existed for nearly six million years.
Human society had none of the technological marvels like computers, communication technology that we take for granted today. The past 400 years, more precisely the past 40 years, have irrevocably created a gulf between modern human beings and the ancients. While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem very wide, we can glimpse much of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies still or recently, in existence. Tribal societies in India and elsewhere remind us that it was only yesterday that we became modern. So we still possess bodies and social practices “often better adapted to traditional than to modern conditions”. The World Until Yesterday by the American scientist Jared Mason provides “a mesmerising firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years — a past that has mostly vanished — and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today”.
Jared Mason Diamond is a physiologist, evolutionary biologist, biogeographer and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. Based on his extensive field work lasting many years in the Pacific Islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians and Kalahari San people, he gives us a vivid account of the life of tribal or traditional societies. Diamond doesn’t romanticise traditional societies — after all, we are shocked by some of their practices. But he finds that their “solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us,” in spite of our technological progress.
This provocative, enlightening and entertaining book’s subtitle, “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” indicates that we need to draw life’s lessons from the perennial wisdom of these societies for our own survival. In spite of the mind-boggling technological revolution, our biological, moral, cultural and religious lives have not kept pace. Our bodies, which took millions of years of biological evolution, are adept at coping with many of these changes, but not always. Our moral values and convictions have not evolved much in the past 5,000 years of known human history, creating in us emptiness and confusion. Our present culture is definitely evolving rapidly, but we still retain that tribal instinct in us. Our religious and spiritual world as well have not grown to deal properly with dilemma and opportunities that our technological world offers.
So even without the experience of the technological revolution in the past 40 years, Albert Einstein could assert: “Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.” We cannot afford to foster a “one-dimensional growth.” So we need to draw creatively from our six million years of rich biological, cultural and spiritual resources.
(The writer is a professor of science and religion)