- Hardcover: 512 pages
- Publisher: Viking; 1 edition (December 31, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780670024810
- ISBN-13: 978-0670024810
- ASIN: 0670024813
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.8 x 10 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 374 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #343,981 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? 1st Edition
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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
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
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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.
New Guinean's remarks that they don't just go and visit someone without a purpose make me think of their harsh reality. We easily think we've acquired a relationship or friendship with someone we've just met and spent days with. This is most unlikely in the society where peace and safety is not fully assured. Blunting sensibility to danger may make us exposed in peril easily. Diamond alleges genes relate to the two big issues of adult diseases, hypertension and Type-2 diabetes, must have been advantageous to us under conditions of traditional lifestyles, but that have become lethal under conditions of the Westernized lifestyle.
Bodily punishment and bullying at school become the greatest problems in Japan. Most hunter-gatherer bands do minimal physical punishment of young children, Diamond says, while many farming societies do some punishment, and herders are especially likely to punish. It is said to be rare for hunter-gatherer games to keep score or identify a winner, whereas many Western games involve keeping score and are about winning and losing.
Bilingualism, common in the traditional societies, has advantages in solving problems in the constantly changing world with confusing information. He asserts bilingualism itself protects against Alzheimer's symptom. Modern industrial societies hasn't developed superior approaches to problems we face now. We could find some useful ideas from the huge range of traditional human experience.