- Paperback: 512 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (October 29, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0143124404
- ISBN-13: 978-0143124405
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.4 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 376 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #80,167 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Reprint Edition
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“As he did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond continues to make us think with his mesmerizing and absorbing new book. In The World Until Yesterday, he pushes us to reconsider the contours of human society and the forces that have shaped human culture […] Powerful and captivating, Diamond’s lucid insights challenge our ideas about human nature and culture, and will likely provoke heated conversations about the future of our society.”
“Challenging and smart…By focusing his infectious intellect and incredible experience on nine broad areas -- peace and war, young and old, danger and response, religion, language and health -- and sifting through thousands of years of customs across 39 traditional societies, Diamond shows us many features of the past that we would be wise to adopt.”
--Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The World Until Yesterday [is] a fascinating and valuable look at what the rest of us have to learn from – and perhaps offer to – our more traditional kin.”
--Christian Science Monitor
“Ambitious and erudite, drawing on Diamond's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of fields such as anthropology, sociology, linguistics, physiology, nutrition and evolutionary biology. Diamond is a Renaissance man, a serious scholar and an audacious generalist, with a gift for synthesizing data and theories.”
--The Chicago Tribune
“As always, Diamond manages to combine a daring breadth of scope, rigorous technical detail and personal anecdotes that are often quite moving.”
--The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Diamond’s investigation of a selection of traditional societies, and within them a selection of how they contend with various issues[…]is leisurely but not complacent, informed but not claiming omniscience[…]A symphonic yet unromantic portrait of traditional societies and the often stirring lessons they offer.”--Kirkus, Starred Review
“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.”—Booklist
“Lyrical and harrowing, this survey of traditional societies reveals the surprising truth that modern life is a mere snippet in the long narrative of human endeavor[…]This book provides a lifetime of distilled experience but offers no simple lessons.”—Publishers Weekly
“Jared Diamond has done it again. Surveying a great range of anthropological literature and integrating it with vivid accounts of a lifetime of visits—sometimes harrowing, more often exhilarating—to highland New Guinea, he holds up a needed mirror to our culture and civilization. The reflection is not always flattering, but it is always worth looking at with an honest, intelligent eye. Diamond does that and more.”
--Melvin Konner, author of The Tangled Wing: and The Evolution of Childhood
“This is the most personal of Diamond's books, a natural follow-up to his brilliant Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond has very extensive and long-term field experience with New Guineans, and stories of these admirable people enrich his overview of how all human beings acted until very recently. Not only are his accounts fascinating, they will ring true to all who have experience with hunter-gatherer cultures. And they carry many lessons for modern societies as well on everything from child-rearing to general health. The World Until Yesterday is a triumph.”
--Paul R. Ehrlich, author of Human Natures
“The World Until Yesterday is another eye-opening and completely enchanting book by one of our major intellectual forces, as a writer, a thinker, a scientist, a human being. It's a rare treasure, both as an illuminating personal memoir and an engrossing look into the heart of traditional societies and the timely lessons they can offer us. Its unique spell is irresistible.”
--Diane Ackerman, author of The Zookeeper's Wife
“An incredible insightful journey into the knowledge and experiences of peoples in traditional societies. Diamond’s literary adventure reflects on the problems of today in light of his exhaustive literature review and 40 plus years of living with rural New Guinean peoples.”
--Barry Hewlett, author of Intimate Fathers (with Michael Lamb)
“In the 19th century Charles Darwin's trilogy—On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals changed forever our understanding of our nature and our history. A century from now scholars will make a similar assessment of Jared Diamond's trilogy: Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse, and now The World Until Yesterday, his magnificent concluding opus on not only our nature and our history, but our destiny as a species. Jared Diamond is the Charles Darwin of our generation, and The World Until Yesterday is an epoch-changing work that offers us hope through real-life solutions to our most pressing problems.”
--Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, author of The Believing Brain and Why Darwin Matters
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. Among his 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 The Rockefeller University. His previous books include Why Is Sex Fun?, The Third Chimpanzee, Collapse, The World Until Yesterday, and Guns, Germs, and Steel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
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The World Before Yesterday may pass as a backup read to go with a better undergraduate text in a real anthropology class or as a discussion starter for non-anthropologists but otherwise I am not sure who is the best audience for this book. Diamond makes a few good points, especially towards the end when he discusses how we in the modern or as he phases it the WIERD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) world might improve our diet to avoid modern world non-contagious diseases like hypertension and diabetes. Otherwise this is a collection of more or less well documented observations about how he thinks human society used to work before the centralized state.
It is good to know that in the WEIRD world we are less likely to kill each other, no matter how industrialized and deadly modern warfare has become. Then again he was writing without considering the new cycles of killing in modern killing growing from the asymmetric warfare based on revenge killing motivated by religious hatreds. A failing in this regard is a failing to redo some of his observations by cross tabbing analysis between societies given to ancient cycles of warfare and ancient attitudes towards strangers and traders.
A personal measure of my reaction to Yesterday is the fact that I had originally read it when it was first published about 5 years ago. I hat entirely forgotten reading it and was well into re reading it when I remembered anything from the first read. That is it is mostly a forgettable book.
His advice about adopting the Paleolithic diet or the Mediterranean diet or at least the Italian habit of eating slowly may still have the support of qualified medical opinion, but as a taint of food fad about it. Certainly it is no long out of the box thinking that in the modern diet we eat too much sugar and too much processed food. Though in the case of processed food, we may just need a better set of definitions. In the case of so called organic food, a term Diamond wisely avoids, one cannot be certain what it means other than expensive.
Against the criticism from the world of anthropology that Diamond gives too much weight to differences in climate. Diamond’s argument reads like the same economics argued by the folks behind Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Look at the win loss analysis for a given type of cultural response and that is how that culture will develop, Diamond argues the math behind the cultivation of widely separate plots of land against eh obvious efficiency of working one large plot. The inefficient scattered plots pay off better in the case of crop failure and so that strategy wins.
I do not dislike The World Before Yesterday, much of Diamonds thoughts are well argued. Mostly it lacks the clarity of purpose in the two earlier works. For all of its deliberate organization and systematic class room lecture style, it rambles and seems to be at cross purposes. Pre-state subsistence societies do have something to teach modern societies. Humans can learn from predator animals and flowering plants and the stars in the sky and from almost anything. I am not sure I can recommend all of those implied books or get too excited about this one.
To be sure, there are some matters about which Diamond thinks traditional societies have little to teach us, such as warfare. In general, societies with very weak centralized authority have extreme difficulty extricating themselves from a state of perpetual warfare with their neighbors, especially if resources are scarce. They become locked in cycles of bloody revenge, and no one seems able to stop it, because no one has the power to compel the rest of the tribe to lay down arms. The death toll in proportion to the size of the population can be much higher even than the modern countries suffering the worst losses in the 20th century, such as Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union. Tribal societies such as those of New Guinea became much more peaceful when the Dutch and Australians arrived to impose a measure of law and order.
In other cultural areas, there is much more to learn. Take dispute resolution. Diamond tells the story of a young boy who was accidentally killed by a man driving a commercial vehicle. No one disputed that it was an accident and that the driver was not at fault, tragic though the accident was. Still, it was taken as a matter of course that representatives of the driver and of the boy's family would quickly meet, within days, and seek resolution. The driver (and his company) agreed to pay "sorry money" to try to compensate the boy's family, and also participated in the funeral to mend some of the emotional wounds. By contrast, when the formal justice system got involved in the case as well, the authorities took the license away from the driver, causing him to lose his job. Correcting this injustice then took something over two years, at tremendous financial cost, and with no resulting benefit to anyone, least of all to the blameless driver or the family of the dead boy. Traditional justice in cases like this may have much to teach more modern societies about the role of mediation, of emotional reconciliation, of compensation -- and about the value of swift justice.
One of the longer chapters deals with child-raising. The contrast here between the traditional approach and the Western one is dramatic. Infants are nursed for at least the first two years of life, are cared by many hands in addition to the parents (aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors...), are picked up whenever they cry, sleep with their parents, and generally receive huge amounts of physical and social contact. Very young children, once weaned, are then given much more freedom that most Western parents would dream of allowing. The children roam widely (often in the company of older children), are allowed to learn from painful experience (even to the point of getting burned by campfires), and practice forms of play that typically involve imitating their elders (fighting, cooking...). At a young age, well before adolescence, they generally become socially competent, adept at many adult skills, comfortable in their physical environment, and very self-confident. No child is lonely, none spends his childhood in a darkened room hunched over a video game console, none is helpless to navigate his own environment, and none arrives at the threshold of adulthood with little idea of how to survive without his parents.
Much of this approach to child-raising would not be possible in a Western urban environment, filled with the dangers of speeding cars, the risks of anonymous neighborhoods, and the time pressures of two-income couples, but there is much to be learned here.
Diamond's book doesn't contain any of the major conceptual breakthroughs of Guns, Germs and Steel, but it is a fascinating book just the same. The insights are smaller, the theme is less ambitious, but I found it a satisfying read.