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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Hardcover – December 31, 2012

3.9 out of 5 stars 318 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In the broader scope of evolution, it was only “yesterday” 11,000 years ago when we progressed from hunter-gatherer groups to modern states. Along the way, we’ve changed the ways we resolve disputes, raise children, care for the old, practice faith, nourish ourselves, communicate, and a host of other mundane and monumental human activities. Diamond, author of the highly acclaimed Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999) and Collapse (2005), offers a penetrating look at the ways we have evolved by comparing practices of traditional societies and modern and industrialized societies. Diamond draws on his fieldwork in New Guinea, the Amazon, Kalahari, and other areas to compare the best and most questionable customs and practices of societies past and present. Diamond does not idealize traditional societies, with smaller populations and more interest in maintaining group harmony than modern societies organized by governments seeking to maintain order, but he does emphasize troubling trends in declining health and fitness as industrialization has spread to newly developing nations. In this fascinating book, Diamond brings fresh perspective to historic and contemporary ways of life with an eye toward those that are likely to enhance our future. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Publicity and television and media appearances will be full-throttle for Diamond, an acclaimed scholar and best-selling writer and opinion-shaper. --Vanessa Bush

From Bookforum

Unlike his earlier books, The World Until Yesterday is not concerned with constructing grand theories of historical change. Yet when his conceptual assumptions do surface, Diamond reveals his continuing debt to contemporary conventional wisdom. He remains in thrall to neoliberal politics and pop-evolutionary biological determinism. He seems characteristically unaware of the huge historical and anthropological literature complicating the categories of the traditional and the modern. His understanding of modern societies is thin, superficial, and overgeneralized: He ignores differences created by culture and political economy, making no distinctions among neoliberal capitalism, social democracy, and the authoritarian hybrids emerging in such places as China and Singapore. The ideas are muddled and unclear, but the strategy is a familiar one in Big Picture arguments: Evolutionary theory—or some crude facsimile of it—is trundled onstage to provide legitimacy for an author’s claims, regardless of whether the theory has any actual power to illuminate the subject in question. —Jackson Lears

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1 edition (December 31, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780670024810
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670024810
  • ASIN: 0670024813
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.6 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (318 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #108,510 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Among Dr. Diamond's many awards are the National Medal of Science, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Japan's Cosmos Prize, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and the Lewis Thomas Prize honoring the Scientist as Poet, presented by Rockefeller University. He has published more than six hundred articles and several books including the New York Times bestseller "Guns, Germs, and Steel," which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Additional information about Dr. Diamond may be found at his personal website, www.jareddiamond.org.

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#43 in Books > History
#43 in Books > History

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In two previous books Jared Diamond has explored how a fortunate confluence of advantages allowed Europeans to be the ones who largely conquered the world ("Guns, Germs, and Steel"), and how societies can be driven to collapse either by over exploiting their environment or by climate change that is more rapid than they can adjust to ("Collapse"). Now he tackles how people lived (and in some pockets still live) before "civilization" as we know it today arose. Once again Diamond demonstrates broad knowledge and a capacity to draw features of multiple societies together into a better understanding of humans as a species.

While I admire Diamond, some of his beliefs and conclusions are open to debate, and should not be taken uncritically. Anthropology is not an exact science, and reasonable, knowledgeable people can draw different conclusions from the same facts, with no way to test and prove one or another interpretation as correct. As I will explain, there are many arguments in this book I find compelling, but others where I think Diamond reaches too far. But anyone reading this book with an open mind will learn much about our species, and be challenged to consider a new way of looking at how people lived "until yesterday".

As will be expected by readers with Diamond experience, a lot of the book happens in New Guinea, where Diamond has made many trips to study the birds (he is, among other things, an ornithologist) and has many friends. Those of us who have read his prior books recognize his affinity for the people of New Guinea.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Jared Diamond's 'The World Unitl Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies'

The main argument: The onset of agriculture and farming some 11,000 years ago (termed the Neolithic Revolution), is arguably the most significant turning point in the history of our species. Agriculture induced a major population explosion, which then led to urbanization; labor specialization; social stratification; and formalized governance--thus ultimately bringing us to civilization as we know it today. Prior to the Neolithic Revolution--and extending back time out of mind--human beings lived in a far different way. Specifically, our ancestors lived in small, largely egalitarian tribes of no more than 50 to 100 individuals, and hunted and foraged for their food.

The transition from our traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle, to early farming (and herding), to civilization as we know it now (which, on an evolutionary time-scale, occurred but yesterday) has certainly brought with it some very impressive benefits. Indeed, many of us today enjoy comforts and opportunities the likes of which our more traditional ancestors would never have dreamed of. However, it cannot be said that the transition from traditional to modern has left us without any difficulties. Indeed, some would go so far as to say that the problems that civilization has introduced outweigh the benefits that it has brought; and even the most unromantic among us are likely to agree that our experiment in civilization has not been an unmitigated success.
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Format: Hardcover
Like "Edward Hopper in Vermont" reviewed earlier, Jared Diamond's new book, The World Until Yesterday, is also endowed with a series of gorgeous photographs that depict the author's themes and preoccupations. At least one of them - a photograph explaining why contemporary Westerners gravitate toward obesity while traditional societies have mostly slender inhabitants - is likely to give readers a belly aching laugh. There is a deeper lesson from this one picture, it's clear the author's aim is to create a readable document, not one that is so clogged with statistics that it becomes impenetrable.

Professor Diamond's main argument is that traditional societies and "advanced" Western ones learn from each other, absorb and assimilate the customs and cultures of each other in a way that will better serve their interests. That's why, he notes, urban American gangs don't resolve all their disputes in courts, but instead rely on traditional methods of crisis resolution with negotiation, intimidation, and war. It's also the reason members of traditional societies like the ones he observed in New Guinea now have learned to travel broadly, use computers, and wear variations of Western clothing.

The tone of the book is understated rather than preachy, and delivered in a relaxed conversational style. The author likes to let one thing stand for the whole, as when he writes that Harvard University lost a great deal of it's endowment funds during the recent financial debacle. It is well documented that many of Harvard's peer group did as well. Stanford, Notre Dame, Cornell, Princeton and many other elite institutions lost from 25 to 30 percent of their endowment funds, but rather than pound us with the details, the author elegantly lets one example stand for the whole.
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