science | April 11, 2013

Jared Diamond: What Can New Guinean Conflict Teach Us About Modern War?

When science speaker Jared Diamond first went to New Guinea to study birds, he never imagined his travels would soon take him in an entirely different direction. In his new book, The World Until Yesterday, Diamond chronicles the experiences he had living with the traditional New Guinean society, and why he ultimately choose to study people instead of birds. And, he explores the lessons we can learn from analyzing the way these people live. As he says in a new interview, one of the main differences between our two societies is the role that war plays in our lives.

Diamond recounts waking up one morning to see New Guinean children playing around him with bows and arrows. While the arrows were made of grass spears and would hurt—but not kill—their targets, it's still important to note these kids were indeed playing war. While he says some people romanticize traditional society as a peaceful place, the reality is quite different. War was an ongoing and constant aspect of New Guinean life. And, despite the fact that their overall population is much lower than many modern societies (making the body count of war much lower) more people die of violence proportionally in traditional societies. In fact, he argues that "you had a lower change of dying in Polland in WWII [which had some of the worst death tolls in the 20th century] than in almost any traditional society in a year." One of the highest one-day death tolls in New Guinean history was 125 people. Now, compare that to Hiroshima where around 100,000 people were killed in a single day. While the two may seem incomparable, Diamond explains that those 125 New Guineans made up 5 per cent of the population. The victims of the Hiroshima bombing, however, only made up 1/3000th of the total population.

Another thing to note, he says, is that deaths in New Guinean warfare are not limited to male soldiers—they also include women and young children. And, they opt to kill everyone they capture rather than take them hostage. What has this research taught Diamond about modern versus traditional war? It's important to remember that people are people, he says. "They do things [in traditional society] that seem horrible to us, and we do things that seem horrible to them." We can take comfort in knowing that many modern societies have advanced beyond the brutally violent nature of constant, ongoing war. On the other hand, the way these societies care for their elderly and manage risk are behaviors that we can learn from. In his award-winning book, and his fascinating keynotes, Diamond shows us a world much unlike our own—and explains how much we can learn from traditional societies.