Does Evolutionary Psychology Explain Mind? - Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond - Psychology and Sociology

Jared Diamond

Jared Mason Diamond is an American scientist and author best known for his popular science books The Third Chimpanzee (1991), Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005).

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Jared
Diamond

Geographer, UCLA

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Jared, in trying to understand the human mind, there are many approaches— biological, psychological—I'd like to explore with you the human mind within social structure and how that has, in an iterative way, affected the development of our mentality. So please describe the structures of human societies, from the simplest to the most complex, and then let's explore how that might affect the development of human mentality.

Jared Diamond:

When we think of human society we think of the human societies that we are accustomed to, and they are societies in which we regularly encounter strangers every day, we don't freak out about it; in which there's a government that has views about how we should treat our old people, and our children; in which there's inequality in which some people do different things and some people earn more than other people and some people have more power. We take that for granted. But that's all new in human history. Until 10,000 years ago, all human societies were what we would call today band level, or tribal levels societies, similar to the societies that I encounter in New Guinea and that are in the Amazon. Hunter-gathers, which were everybody before agriculture, they live in groups of a few dozen people, they're relatively egalitarian, everybody can do rather similar things and has the same rights. They're nomadic, you don't deal with strangers except to kill them or negotiate with them. Then as you get farther, you have societies, tribal societies with several hundred people and still you know everybody and you've got names for them, the people next door, they are people with whom you occasionally make peace and fight, but it's still egalitarian. Then, once you get a few thousands of people, more farming, more food, thousands of people, then you have to have leaders, decision makers, because a thousand people can't sit and have a discussion, you got to have a leader. But that means inequality because a leader's got to be fed by other people and the bureaucrats have got to be fed by other people. And then, finally, you have societies with state governments, which is what we've got today, with at least tens of thousands and nowadays up to a billion and half people with leaders and lots of inequality and strangers all over the place. But all of that diversity of human societies has arisen in the last 10,000 years.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, so that's the framework, and as we look at the development of an individual human mind, in each of those societies, how can we see differences in terms of the enrichment, the complexification of our mental facilities?

Jared Diamond:

An example that I'll give you from my experience in New Guinea is simply in the social interactions and in the amount of time that one spends talking. New Guineans, I was struck early on, that they are talking constantly, and friends of mine who have worked with the San people of Southern Africa and other traditional societies, they're impressed by how much of the time these people spend talking. Well, they spend all that time talking because they don't have the technological substitutes; they don't have television, they don't have books. When I come back to the United States from time in New Guinea, I have to learn to be silent. I have to learn not to be constantly with people. I have to learn not to be insulted if I'm not to get full attention. In New Guinea, if I'm talking with someone there's full attention, he's not pulling out his cell phone or text messaging, but my sons, my beloved sons who I love, when they come over for dinner they're text messaging and, yes, they'll talk and then they'll go back to their phone and see what messages have come in. So this split brain operation we have today, traditionally it didn't exist. That's a big change in human mentality.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And what are the implications of that? Is that an advancement in terms of the sophistication and the kinds of things that we can do, or conversely, are there some cultural defects that occur at the same time, in terms of personal relationships or emotional stability?

Jared Diamond:

We will know the answer to that question at the rate we're going in decade or two, because there's a lot of concern in the U.S. and other first-world societies today about the consequences of multi-tasking and the change in personal relationships. Personal relationships in traditional societies they're face to face; you see another person as another person. But increasingly, in the U.S today, our relationships are second hand, they're indirect, they're mediated by media; they're on the phone, or they're not even on the phone they're by email. I wonder whether the marked decrease in civility in the United States that we've seen in the last 10 or 15 years, that people discuss much in a political context. Is that because we've gotten so far from tribal societies that other people are no longer people that we're used to face to face but they're things that are showing up on a cell phone screen or they're a voice on your recorder, and so they're less and less human and we less and less identify with them, and so we can be more routinely mean to them.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Let's look at the development over longer periods of time, in the development of Homo sapiens, the human species, in terms of the, what we feel is the mental life that we have today. How much do you see that each individual social structure, going back to the tribal days or the agricultural movement, how much of those environments affected the richness of the mental life?

Jared Diamond:

I'll answer that and the vast majority of Americans don't like my answer. My experience in New Guinea is this constant social stimulation. When I went out to New Guinea I went out naïve. I knew that they had stone tools. I thought primitive technology, I thought they were primitive people and it took me about a day to realize that mentally they're at least as alert as Americans and gradually I realized that, on the average, New Guineans, they're more curious than Americans, they're more constantly interactive than Americans, they're more interested. Life there is just more vivid than life in the United States.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That's a very powerful statement.

Jared Diamond:

It is a powerful statement and there are lots of people who really get angry when they hear me say that, because they want to believe that these primitive people are primitive in other respects; that they're primitive in their intelligence, and it's bad enough to say that New Guineans are as intelligent as Americans, to suggest that they might be more curious, more probing. Oh boy. In my book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, about 450 pages, the one page that makes people angrier than any other page is a paragraph in which I say, it's my impression, and I can't prove it, it's my impression that the New Guineans are more curious and at least as intelligent as Americans.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, what that implications of that could even go further than what the parochial feelings of some Americans may be, because it could speak to the fundamental nature of the human brain and the human mind across the world being very, very similar. And so, what we envision to be the – the advanced state of our mentality because of our social structure may not be the case, if what you're saying is true, and therefore, there's great similarity in – in the basic structure of what all humans beings have is very, very similar.

Jared Diamond:

That's true. The basic structure of what humans have today, among the humans that exist today. is basically the same. Again, I went out to New Guinea naïve and I gradually discovered that I'm scared when they're scared, I'm crying when they're crying, and I'm happy when they're happy, and I'm excited when they're happy – when they're excited. So there's good rapport on all those levels. Another experience I had when I went out there, I didn't know what their language was going to be. I love learning languages. So then I got to New Guinea and I was among the Fore people, I began yearning – I got people to talk with me and I wrote it down and I thought that this would be some primitive language. Instead, I gradually discovered that so it's got first-, second-, and third-person pronouns; it's got singular, dual and plural. English doesn't have a dual, it's got post-positions rather than prepositions. Alright, but I had already learned Finnish and Finnish has post-positions. It has the close and the distant demonstratives, or not just here, there, but here, there a little distance, there farther. Okay, well, I already, I knew they had a couple of demonstratives. So Fore language was more complicated than English. And in general, New Guinea languages and traditional languages, it's not the case that languages of so-called primitive people are simpler. Every language that we know is a fully complex language.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And the implications for that is that there is great commonality among the human species today and that some who would argue for the – that the higher level of Western civilization are not just culturally biased, but they're physiology ignorant.

Jared Diamond:

It's rubbish, I would say. The reasons for the power of Western civilization has nothing to do with Westerners themselves, but it has to do with the sheep and the wheat and the peas and flax that certain hunter-gatherers domesticated in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago and that got passed on eventually to Europe. But New Guinea did not have wheat and barley and sheep, and that's the reason why you and I are here talking English rather than you and I being New Guineans talking Fore. It's not our brains; it's our sheep.