485 of 521 people found the following review helpful
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. Despite some protests to the contrary, it is not hard to get the impression that Diamond really enjoys their company more than that of Americans and other westerners. At times he seems somewhat prejudiced toward their social structures, although he also appears to recognize this and tries to resist putting them on too high a pedestal. But we all have a view of the world that we can't completely escape, so it's not fair to criticize Diamond too harshly for being, well, human.
The first interesting observation of the book is that until recently, and still in some areas, people rarely if ever encountered strangers. They encountered friends and they encountered enemies. But nearly everyone they encountered came from their group or a neighboring group, be that group friendly or hostile. Travelers were rare, and couldn't count on a warm welcome. In populated areas today we pass strangers every day and think nothing of it. We walk into shops and think nothing of exchanging pleasantries with people we've never met before. We travel long distances, and expect to be welcomed upon arrival. None of this happened a few thousand years ago.
Before the dawn of agriculture there were no large scale societies, because no land could support a dense population. There were also no governments, no police forces, no courts, and no armies. People worked out their differences, or they killed each other. When a bad interaction happened, intentionally or accidentally, a customary gesture of restoration might defuse the situation. Or a cycle of tit-for-tat killings might begin, and might continue for generations.
In a modern states wars occur only intermittently and, horrible as they can be, have a limited death toll. Hunter gatherer societies were often trapped in a cycle of violence and warfare with neighboring groups vying for the same resources. They often employed true total warfare, all against all, with the losers exterminated and their land appropriated. (The women might be taken as wives. The men died in the fight and the children were killed.)
The details vary from region to region, and Diamond provides a variety of examples. But when small groups of people have to eke out subsistence from a reluctant environment, neighboring groups can be as much an enemy as carnivores and drought. He also notes the similarity to chimpanzee behavior--the seeds have not fallen so far from the tree. By one calculation chimpanzee death rates due to warfare are similar to those in hunter gatherer societies! (Another Diamond book is "The Third Chimpanzee", about our similarities with and our differences from our cousins the chimps and bonobos.)
He also notes that while modern societies suppress the thirst for revenge, it doesn't go away. Hunter gatherers kill their enemies as part of their life, and go on with the other parts. We train soldiers to kill, but mostly tell them not to, creating a tension not common in hunter gatherer societies.
Diamond has a lot to offer on the differences in child rearing between traditional and modern societies. He notes that most modern research is focused on WEIRD (western educated industrial rich democracies) societies. (The term and concept are not original to him.) In fact, there is a tendency to generalize what professors and students in universities believe to everyone. He thinks highly of the "allo-parenting" that occurs in hunter gatherer societies, where other adults and even older children help rear, protect, and teach younger children. He sees it as helping to develop social skills, and it probably does, but especially for the type of society those children live in. (More of this occurs in rural areas and small towns in the west than in more urban areas, such as Southern California, where both Diamond and I live.)
Yet, for all the advantages he sees in the hunter gatherer lifestyle, Diamond notes that given the choice they choose to adopt a western lifestyle. They do so because living like "us" is simply easier and less risky than being a hunter gatherer.
He discusses the theory of religion, which will offend some people and interest others. He frames the value of religion in terms of defusing anxiety and making people feel better about their situation, in particular giving meaning to what seems meaningless. Diamond notes that religion can be used to explain to believers how "thou shall not kill" can become "thou must kill" under certain circumstances as determined by authorities. A distinction can be made between killing co-believers and nonbelievers. He also discusses how the success of a religion doesn't depend on its being true, it depends on its ability to motivate adherents to conceive children and win converts. (Unsurprisingly, religions that discourage procreation end up as historical footnotes.) A big selling point of a religion is its ability to deliver a functioning society.
Toward the end of the book Diamond become a bit polemical for my taste. His penultimate chapter (ignoring the epilogue) is a pitch for multilingualism. Now I have nothing against multilingualism, and wish languages came more easily to me. But I feel he stretches his arguments too far. After somewhat poo-pooing studies that suggest various intellectual activities slow brain decay and the onset of Alzheimer's disease, he uses similar studies on bi- or multilingualism to argue their benefit. He notes that most New Guineans speak several languages while most Americans speak only one. Europeans often speak several, but he describes that as a mostly post WWII development.
But there are differences between New Guinea and the industrialized world. If you live in a group of a few dozen people speaking an unwritten language it makes a lot of sense to expend effort in learning the languages of neighboring groups. If you live in a country where millions of people speak, read, and write a written language it makes sense to learn to read, write, and do business in that language. And such languages are likely to have much larger vocabularies. In a language spoken by a small number of people who interact frequently, when a word stops being used it leaves the vocabulary. In a language spoken by millions of people over a large territory words leave the language less frequently, are picked up more frequently, and old words live on in writing. I say this not intending to disparage the learning of hunter gatherers, but rather to note that both they and we expend our energy in learning what helps us prosper in our circumstances.
Diamond becomes very polemical in his defense of dying languages. There is a balance between the loss of cultural history when a language is lost and the advantage of more people being able to communicate directly. It is one thing to eradicate a living language. Yet much of what Diamond discusses is what he calls "moribund" languages, where a few elders speak a language, but no children are learning it. But if the elders don't see a reason to teach it to the children, is the loss so great (other than in an academic sense)? Maybe here the wisdom of the people exceeds the wisdom of the professor.
He then has a chapter which is a pretty conventional discussion of the problems with the modern diet, especially excessive salt and sugar intake. Our lifestyle has changed a lot faster than our physiology, with some detrimental effects.
The epilogue has a curious section in which he quotes kids coming to the US from other cultures and criticizing our culture. It's a bit odd and gratuitous, actually, given his earlier admission that, given the choice, hunter gatherers abandon their lifestyle for a western one. He backtracks a bit from there, but I can't escape the sense that he feels the need to polish the traditional experience after revealing many of its challenges.
A fascinating book with a lot of information. But the author's heart sometimes gets in the way of his head. Very worth reading, but worth reading critically.
I was provided a copy for review by the publisher, but have ordered a copy of the finished product for my library.
78 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2013
*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.
This then brings us to the problem of solving the difficulties that civilization has left us with. Now, when it comes to solving our problems, it is without a doubt the spirit of our age to look ever forward for solutions--by which I mean we tend to look for new technologies and hitherto untested arrangements to help us out of our current predicaments. However, when we consider that our traditional lifestyle served us well for millennia on end, and that it was under this lifestyle wherein we underwent much of the biological and psychological evolution that lives with us to this day, we can begin to see how it may be fruitful to look back at this traditional lifestyle for possible solutions to the problems we now face. (This idea is not new; indeed, the `state of nature' has traditionally been of great interest to philosophers--for it has been thought that understanding how we lived by nature may serve as a guide to help us design the most fitting political communities given our present circumstances).
Also of interest here--and deeply connected to the more practical goal mentioned above--is that investigating our traditional way of life promises to shed light on our underlying human nature in a way that is not possible when we look at ourselves through the obscuring artifice of civilization. It is these things that we stand to gain by learning about traditional societies, and it is this very project that geographer Jared Diamond takes up in his new book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
Diamond is certainly not one to deny that civilization has brought with it many important benefits over our traditional way of life (the most important of which, according to the author, being that state governments are much more effective at ending the cycles of violence that tend to plague traditional societies). However, Diamond does contend that there are many areas wherein traditional practices represent an improvement over how we do things in the modern world, and that these practices could (and should) be incorporated into our modern way of life (both at the personal and societal level). Specifically, we could afford to learn a thing or two from traditional societies when it comes to conflict resolution (how to re-establish and mend relationships); raising children (that it really does take a whole village to raise a child); treating the elderly (that they are deserving of respect, and are still capable of contributing to the community in many important ways); approaching risk (with extensive caution); communicating (in a face to face way, and with multiple languages); and in diet and exercise (favoring natural foods, reducing salt, and sugar intake, and adopting a more active lifestyle).
In the course of his exploration of traditional societies, Diamond also delves into why and how our ancestors transitioned from traditional societies to civilizations (with a focus on such areas as social, economic and political stratification, and also religion).
Diamond has made a career out of studying the traditional societies of Papua New Guinea, and is therefore a very credible authority on the subject matter at hand. What's more, his wealth of experience has left him with a trove of interesting and illuminating anecdotes to draw from, and these are on full display here. Finally, I felt that the author always maintained a very sober and balanced view with regards to the benefits and drawbacks of both traditional and modern societies. I would have liked to have seen certain topics discussed more, and others less, but this is mere personal preference. Altogether a very good book. A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Jared Diamond's 'The World Unitl Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies'
94 of 108 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 2012
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. This gives the book an airy tone and has the effect of letting him glide over the subject matter rather than bludgeon a reader with reams of data.
While taking note of their attributes, the author takes care not to romanticize traditional societies. He singles out infanticide, for example, as a custom of traditional societies that we are gratefully rid of. At the same time, he gently admonishes those who would abolish the conventions of the modern nation state: "Alas, for all of you readers who are anarchists, you'll have to find some tiny band or tribe willing to accept you."
Even when the author explains differences in societies, a reader is likely to see similarities. Segments of New Guinea society, for example, require the payment of "sori money" or sorry money in cases of accidental death, and truth be told, this is a practice in Western civilization as well, although the term is different. We would call it "insurance". And while the barter system is no longer the basis for Western economies, it hasn't died out completely - on any given day, you can read a story in the papers about a dentist who fixed someone's teeth in exchange for having his car repaired. For every rule, an exception.
The World Until Yesterday is one of the few books I've read that describes eloquently and passionately the damage done to family relationships through Western family courts due to the toxicity of our family law system. It describes convincingly how, in the author's case, after an episode in court, a friend of his will never speak to certain of her relatives again. I can only underscore his comments, and note that because of the brutality and butchery of the family court system, I will never see or speak to my own sons again.
Throughout the book the author weaves stories of traditional languages, religions and attitudes toward food, and his arguments are at their most powerful when he discusses hypertension, salt intake, diabetes, heart failure and other non-communicable diseases that appear rooted in Western style diets. Because of its disarming and conversational simplicity, this book unleashes powerful arguments that teach without propagandizing.
108 of 138 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 2012
Jared Diamond is quite famous for his well-argued "geographical hypothesis" for helping to explain global (continental) inequality (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies). This can be contrasted with the "cultural hypothesis" which relies more heavily on the role culture plays in explaining the social evolution and dissemination of technology (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: and Other Writings (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)). These positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but can be complementary. Indeed Diamond has argued for long-term periods and concerning "continental" trends the "geographical hypothesis" is more important, while for short-term periods and sub-continental or regional trends the "cultural hypothesis" takes precedence.
Thus, according to Diamond if Historian's fail to explain the broadest patterns and exclusively focuses on cultural aspects, there is a large moral gap in our understanding of human society and social being. Likewise if there is an over focus on geography and technology, then there is a large moral gap in our anthropological understanding of day-to-day existence.
In "The World Until Yesterday" Diamond attempts a greater synthesis than he has in his previous two books.
This book will be a very interesting antidote toward Ian Morris's (The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations) to be released in January 2013. I have also read an advanced copy of Morris's book, very little new in his book from his (Why the West Rules--for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future). In Diamond's new book there is much new material, not necessarily in full agreement with his "geographical hypothesis."
In this new book "The World Until Yesterday" the focus is on so-called tribal societies. Clearly, much more than in his recent work his focus is honed in on cultural factors. Diamond believes traditional societies have much to offer civil societies of modernity. Cultures of tribal society are capable of enriching our culture and lives today.
Diamond maintains the watershed moment is the rise of state government and systems of law and courts.
In tribal society a dispute would have to be solved face-to-face between members. Diamond does not argue the face-to-face interaction is necessarily better than legal court systems for resolving disputes, but to point out the difference are important and certain advantages do exists for tribal organization.
Likewise Diamond is interested in how individuals in tribal society bring up their children, how elderly are cared-for, the role of religion, health, how we deal of danger and treats, etc. Again Diamond emphasizes there are strong differences between tribal and modern societies, some good some bad.
Diamond is famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies." In it he develops and defends a version of environmental determinism, attempting to explain why Europeans were able to conquer and colonize other nations around the world. His thesis argued Europe had an environmental advantage of plentiful plants and animals. The environmental advantage was the basis of disease immunity, greater health, etc, stimulating technological innovation and political organization and offering tremendous economic advantage.
The `negation' of "Guns, Germs and Steel" is taken up in his next book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition). The thesis in "Collapse" is how environmental misfortunes and catastrophes help to explain the extinction of cultures and civilizations.
"The World Until Yesterday" makes Diamond's three books a true trilogy. Here he is arguing that societies of the past don't only collapse, but offer us insights into how to organize our own civilization to avoid collapse and extinction ourselves. For example he argues multilingualism has benefits. That certain dietary practices (e.g. too much salt and sugar) are bad for the individual, but also for the survival of civilization.
As alluded above, Diamond is also interested in how treating our elderly and our infants and toddlers, young children more generally contribute to survival or collapse of civilization. Thus, bad parenting is not merely an individual event, but has consequences for civilization itself. Diamond also analyzes institutions of religion and their function in the successful reproduction of society.
As in his previous books, Diamond is impressive in his synthesis of anthropology, evolutionary biology, sociology, human nutrition and physiology, economics, and linguistics. This is arguably the best book of the three. Although Diamond is rather elusive with conclusions, normative pronouncements are abundant. He clearly finds great merit in "traditional" practices of previous and current societies. At the same time his environmental/technology determinism shine through to remind us "progress" happens for a reason. Thus, his normative pronouncement are rather circumvented to suggest traditional practices may be able to reduce warfare, take better care of children and youth, and provide better care and empathy for the elderly and downtrodden.
Diamond is always a fascinating and fun read. This book seems less of the environmental/technology determinism of his "geographical hypothesis" as argued strongly in his previous work.
It provides much more room for culture. This is important, it is a major contribution to post-formalist anthropology. Five stars for what Diamond writes and develops. Two stars for what he fails to develop. What we can see from studying anthropology is limited. Diamond is groping to bring in culture, but in a far too limiting way. It is remarkably disappointing to discovery that what we have to learn from traditional societies (the very subtitle of the book) is to take better care of our children and elderly, to practice better nutrition, and to be kinder to one another. David Graeber's anthropology (Debt) is far more relevant to contemporary society, specifically written to understand power-relations and hegemonic movement of one culture to another. From Graeber we learn how power, debt and money have been used to conquer and control. From Diamond we learn how people should eat more nutritiously and be kinder to one another. Graeber, for me, is far more important and relevant for understanding contemporary society.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2013
A look at "traditional societies" through the eyes of a disciplined academic equipped with a variety of professional tools. Diamond traces the development of states from clans, tribes and chiefdoms. Along the way he describes traits and characteristics of those various social organizations, and which of those traits and characteristics have prospective salutary prospects of those of us who live in centralized, bureaucratized states (within which are communities that in some such respects are more like clans or tribes).
I live in a town of about 2,500 permanent residents that behaves in some essential ways like a tribal society. It has a core of families with continuous descent spanning 7 or 8 generations and dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The post office doesn't deliver mail, we all have to go and get it. There are no traffic signals, no movie theatre, no fast food franchises, a K-12 school. It is an island accessible only by ferry or private boat.
A lifetime in most of the world until yesterday did have its nasty and brutish aspects, and it was generally short. But child-rearing, decision-making, routine health care and providing for food, and protection against inclement weather or seasonal variations were mediated almost exclusively within the community. Diamond's look at such things, and his ideas on whether and/or how they can or should be considered in a state society, is a welcome and worthwhile read.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2013
I'm a fan of Jared Diamond although I disagree often with his conclusions, which I find over simplistic, especially explaining the prosperity of modern nations based on prehistorical explanations. Nonetheless his books are highly entertaining and the documentaries he stars in are riveting. This book is certainly not his best.
This book is too personal, and Mr Diamond makes sweeping conclusions based on a very small sample of primitive societies which he once studied. His observations are anecdotal and shouldn't be construed as arguments leading to actions and policies. He is also too myopic in his judgements of modern society and fails to look beyond the USA. In France and Spain for example, grandparents are still making a meaningful contribution to the well being of their grandchildren by babysitting them while the parents work. Old people might enjoy the independence retirement plans give them over living with their sons for their welfare, especially if the sons disappear in needless warfare as is the case in some of the tribes Mr Diamond describes. The heavy costs to society and individuals of privileging the traditional ways are not discussed in depth, if at all. There must be good reasons for modern societies to ditch most of the traditions and social mores Jared Diamond describes, and it would be more useful to look into this instead of longing for bygone eras.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2013
Jared Diamond's past books have all been somewhat controversial but varying in popularity. Guns, Germs, and Steel was the most famous but his themes are also present in lesser known books like the Third Chimpanzee.
This is much in the same style. He has a unconventional thesis and gathers other people's research plus anecdotes to justify that thesis. The idea being explored is how modernity is inferior in some ways to more primitive societies and Jared Diamond's own theories on how to create a synthesis of the best of class.
That's the blatant agenda which mars the book, which has a great many interesting historical/anecdotal evidence which highlight how topics like justice, child-rearing, war, etc... are dealt with among different societies. Some of the lessons are applicable and practical. For example, the medical establishment is coming around to the idea that doctors should apologize directly to the patient/family when there's a bad outcome. There are fewer lawsuits and smaller settlements than if the patients feel like the doctor doesn't take responsibility. That's a good point made by Diamond in comparing modern systems to villages - the importance of acknowledging anger/loss to mitigate impact.
Sadly, the book goes off the rails when Diamond starts making his deliberate blind spots obvious. For example, children are not forbidden to climb trees by modern society - their parents don't allow it. That's from the same "constructive paranoia" that he praised when it came to his New Guinea friends. If a child climbs trees or jumps into rivers, there's a chance of death/injury. It's necessary for adults who need to hunt/forage to be able to climb trees and cross rivers. But it's a foolish thing for a child to learn to climb trees when that's not a necessary adult skill. Thus it's entirely logical for parents to prefer children not climb trees.
That's one of many examples of logical gaps when it comes to Jared Diamond's praise of native society - he fails to analyze the behavior of people in western societies the same way he applies analysis to his topic of study.
Jared Diamond himself exemplified the hypocrisy of his thesis. He witnessed native society's way of raising children, but he did not choose to raise his family that way. He does not live in an extended community with his own family members. He only spends short amounts of time in New Guinea and only as part of well-funded expeditions in a lifestyle which has little resemblance to how natives live.
In short, he has unrealistic views about the lives of the people of New Guinea the way a tourist to has unrealistic views of how great it'd be to live in Hawaii.
I would recommend people to purchase Guns, Germs, and Steel because it's worth re-reading multiple times.
I recommend people check this book out from the library and just read it once.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2013
My anticipation of another diamond was high, so was my disappointment. His description of the organization of the book goes on forever, is unenlightening and remains an intrusive theme throughout the rest of the text- with continual references to topics in other chapters and what has been previously stated. Also, too much attention is paid to the work of others (much of which is now old hat, especially the non-communicable disease sections) but not enough to his own original experiences and insights- the main thesis of the book is thereby diminished. The repetitive and dogmatic writing style borders on being insulting to the intelligence of the reader. But, maybe his intention was to produce a secondary school textbook and I am just missing the boat. I really don't know how anyone could have actually enjoyed reading this book.
47 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2013
Perhaps the positive reviews this book has received reflect Diamond's reputation as a prize-winning author and widely known lecturer, for this book does not, in my opinion, justify them. He focuses on thirty-nine "traditional societies," which he defines as bands and tribes of small-scale farmers or hunter-gatherers. They are primarily in New Guinea (where he has traveled extensively, first as bird watcher studying migrations), Australia, Africa, and a few isolated locations in South America and Alaska. He is vague about chronology and jumps from one geographic area to another.
My problem is that he offers little new information while including a very broad range of topics from cultural values to religion, raising children to treatment of the elderly, determining justice to conducting warfare, health practices and causes of disease, etc. His suggestions about what modern societies can learn from traditional societies are overtly obvious, like utilizing grandparents as caretakers of young children. Duh!!! Because his previous books include a best-seller and Pulitzer-Prize winner, perhaps critics assume this is great scholarship.
He cites dramatic examples from the writings of various anthropologists such as the Brazilian woman who dies alone on the beach in a breach birth because her tribe believed individuals should face hardships on their own, and the elderly Bolivian woman left to die alone when her tribe moved on. Were these representative of their tribe's culture as he claims or were they stories that shocked the anthropologists who wrote about them? How would an American tourist respond to a friendly group of locals at the next table at a sidewalk cafe who express the feeling they would be afraid to travel to America because it has armed guards in schools, malls, and movie theaters? They've seen it on TV and Diamond has read the accounts he describes in books, but are they representative of the culture? Readers are given no way to judge.
Perhaps the most valuable part of this book are the few primary research studies cited by geographic region in the "Suggestions for Further Reading." But be forewarned that generalized statements the author makes throughout -- like "warfare is chronic" have no footnote citations to indicate whether these are opinions or facts established by reputable research studies. Readers who would like specific references are referred to the author's website.
Judge for yourself.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Jared Diamond specializes in taking our comfortable, pre-conceived notions and upending them. In his The Third Chimpanzee, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Collapse he examined the reasons why some societies succeed in becoming "modern" while others don't, and why even the most successful of societies run the risk of failure or sudden collapse. Now in The World Until Yesterday Diamond knocks the props out from under our assumptions once again by comparing "civilized" societies with their more traditional counterparts. Diamond has been thinking about these ideas for a long time. When I was teaching AP World History I enjoyed using an article he wrote for Discover Magazine back in the 1980s which argued that the development of agriculture had been a mistake, a thesis that inevitably gobsmacked my bright and talented tenth grade students into some really effective critical analyses. The World Until Yesterday reminds me of that article in its contentious and highly thoughtful arguments.
Diamond begins with one of his famous vignettes, a description of an airport in New Guinea, symbolizing the rapid changes that have overtaken that land. This is a fine entry point for Parts 1 through 4, all of which deal with multiple comparisons between traditional and modern societies, including examinations of how they maintain law and order, wage war and make peace, treat their children and the elderly, and respond to threats. I found each of these parts fascinating to read, filled with illuminating anecdotes and sober comparisons between societies that ought to have all of us questioning our most firmly held assumptions. Part 5 was the most interesting part to me, dealing with the evolution of religion, language, and dietary issues like diabetes and hypertension. And coming full circle, the Epilogue begins with Diamond's arrival at Los Angeles International Airport, a spring board for more comparisons and his final comments.
When you see Diamond's name on a book cover you know you are in for a fascinating read that will startle and at times irritate you, but you'll come away from it with a deeper appreciation for the complexities of our world and its variegated human societies. Now that we are well into the second decade of the twenty-first century such an appreciation, with an accompanying discarding of ill-conceived notions based on flawed assumptions, is essential.