on July 8, 2016
Guns, Germs and Steel was an outstanding book, offering deep and original insights into the dynamics that have shaped our modern world, and the way poor and rich human communities on our planet are inter-related. The World Until Yesterday is interesting, but far less compelling. Diamond's goal is to learn lessons for our modern ways of being and interacting from 'thousands of natural experiments in how to construct a human society'. These 'natural experiments' evolved in every corner of the globe before the rise of the first states about six thousand years ago. He calls these ancient ways of being human, now rapidly vanishing, 'traditional' societies.
Diamond's focus in this book is where his heart is - Papua New Guinea ' and the book includes many personal stories. PNG includes many of the most traditional societies on earth. And human development there has been compressed into a shorter timeframe than almost anywhere else on earth, any time in history. Five years after the invention of electric light, limited colonization began in 1884 in the northeast on the country. In the early 1930s airplane reconnaissance discovered nearly a million people living in highlands previously believed uninhabited, triggering a decade of 'first contact' encounters followed by trickles of missionaries, traders, teachers and government officials.
Diamond first visited PNG in the early 1960s, and has been returning ever since, giving him a front-row seat in an awe-inspiring and unimaginably complex historical and evolutionary process. We have all heard stories of 'culture shock' experience by friends returning from far away. Diamond's insights and descriptions of culture shock are worthy of an elder voice who has often bracketed ' in the same week -- camping in the timeless New Guinea bush and juggling tribal languages, with driving in Los Angeles traffic and juggling back-to-back deadlines.
Guns, Germs and Steel was animated by a single compelling question, heard from a Papuan on a beach ('Why do you people have so much, and we have so little?'). The vector animating The World Until Yesterday is much more diffuse, and this is a problem. The book brings the best modern evidence and science to the nine topics it addresses, but these topics represent a small sub-set of the possibilities, and his inquiry in each is driven by a different vector, leaving the reader struggling to get a fix on the overall direction.
For example, before PNG was colonized the people lived in reasonably settled communities of less than fifty or so families, and rarely moved more 10 or 20 km from their homes. To do was 'suicide', Diamond argues, because strangers were automatically feared and distrusted, unless some sort of blood or community relationship could be established. In the past few thousand years, humans have gradually overcome this fear of strangers through a drip-by-drip recognition of an 'expanding circle' of relationships (Peter Singer's phrase). This makes it possible for strangers in every tribe in PNG to freely and safely meet and mingle in Port Moresby, the nation's capital, just as they might in New York or Tokyo.
Having already asked 'why do we modern-world people have so much, and why do you have so little'? Diamond might have tackled the natural follow-up question in this book: 'how can you get what we have?' Unfortunately, he does not. His 4-stage framework for human development, which progresses from 'bands' to larger 'tribes', still-larger 'chiefdoms' and finally modern states, can't answer this question. Very few humans, including in PNG, now live in Diamond's 'traditional' societies ' instead they live in some sort of 'transitional' society on the path to modernization. They live ' at least officially ' in states. They may attend school for a few years. They live in monetizing economies, increasingly cook with store-bought oil and sugar, transfer money to their parents on mobile phones, and walk under power transmission wires to reach the inter-village market. But the chief and witch doctor hold as much ' or more - sway in their lives as the state and the health clinic. They save in pre-cash stores of value, like chickens or gold. They may be more multi-lingual than their traditional ancestors, speaking several local languages as well as one or two national and international ones. And their lives are still defined by a drumbeat of food security priorities that often make schooling look decidedly more like indulgent consumption than serious investment.
Like the traditional societies Diamond writes about, these transitional worlds are 'thousands of natural experiments in how to conduct a human society'. They represent a fusion ' often difficult and awkward ' between traditional and modern cultures and ways of being. They evolve and adapt out of the 'world until yesterday' that Diamond depicts. Many will move from traditional worlds to modern ones if they get a chance (few move the other way). But mostly they have little choice but to stay put, surviving on the land as their ancestors did, and wrestle with the challenges that modernity throws at them.
In the process they are creating new memes that address all the trade-offs that Diamond discusses: what's more important to me ' expressing my individuality or complying with traditional expectations about how I behave ' or can I have both together? Using my time productively or maintaining social relationships ' or can I have both together? Cultivating my spiritual traditions or abandoning them for modern religion ' or can I have both together? Defending traditional (communal) property rights or accepting modern (individual, scientific) revisions to tradition? Learning to read a modern language with a mushrooming smattering of expressions in text, or learning to speak more local languages with virtually no text at all (except a dictionary and a Bible)?
We should find all of this familiar. In America and Europe we endlessly debate the visibility of Christmas in the public square (a traditional way of being for us) and have struggled for centuries with trade-offs between traditional role expectations and human rights. And we are faced with similar challenges all the time in the modern world, embroiled in technological and social transformations. Modern culture is quite different. Relatively speaking, it values social relationships less than using time productively, and Christianity has become our spiritual 'tradition', which we are tempted to replace with modern (non-)religions like atheism. In our post-literate culture we struggle with the amount of time and investment we devote to the internet. Compared to people in traditional societies, we have far more resources at our disposal to leave traditions behind us, yet seem to cling to them with an innately human ferocity.
Papuans have given up more traditional expectations, and created more new balancing points for themselves, in the past century than most modern societies have done in five centuries. Diamond has been criticised for investing too much admiration in the traditional, but this criticism is misplaced. He admires the stoic and cheerful Papuan adaptation to global norms. It will take a different book to systematically categorize the challenges and opportunities, for local and modern cultures as they encounter one another, that can ease and accelerate that adaptation.
on June 17, 2013
This reviewer found the book a laborious and stenuous 494-page read. The pulitzer prize-winning author Jared Diamond---a professor of geograpgy at UCLA---has written four previous books, and two read by this reviewer: "Guns,Germs, and Steel" ; and "Collapse". Both were much easier to read than "The World Until Yesterday".
The focus of the work is---as the books sub-title connotes---how the West can learn from traditional societies and our tribal neighbours. Diamond carefully and craftily contrasts Western culture with the modern lives of New Guineans with their ancestors. Diamond invites readers to learn from ancient traditional tribal societies and their approaches to food consumption, child rearing, the treatment of seniors, managing conflicts, and poverty and health care. In a menacing way, Diamond rails against the West, and more specifically the United States, for its self-destructive dietary behaviours. He further takes the romantic management approach to tribalism and suggests Westerners do all they can to enhance the lives of children by what Diamond calls "allo-perenting".
Diamond's prescription for resolving and managing differences and relationships is to expand and enhance government restorative justice programs and policies. Diamond argues that the West must find more innovative and creative ways of "managing" seniors, devise new living conditions for seniors, and support better lives and social relationships in general. Diamond also "highlights" useful lessons that the West can learn from more traditional societies so that life can be extended, made healthier, and focus on the iradication of poverty.
This book, punctuated with 32 pages of photographs, will be of prime interest to geographers, historians, anthropologists, social workers, and of lesser interest to politicians, public policy enthusiasts, and scholars from other related disciplines. For the average "every-day reader", the book will hold interest if prepared to drill down and grind it out.
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.
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 executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com; a podcast discussion of the book is also available.
Diamond's newest book proposes that we examine how humans lived in our evolutionary past to better understand how and why we live today and whether that fits with our evolved predispositions. That's not a new proposition. Evolutionary psychology has been gathering steam for a couple of decades now, with plenty of great books out there about how evolution has shaped our behaviors. Diamond's book is different in that it proposes to focus largely on cultural institutions or beliefs such as justice, trade, parenting, and religion.
The good parts of the book that I fully agree is that Diamond argues we are products of our evolutionary past and understanding that is vital to optimizing our current cultural and personal development. He offers many fascinating examples of how our current and past cultures are both similar and different. Much of his argument revolves around the simple fact that we lived in much tighter and less inter-bound groups than we do now. This means that strangers are a relatively new phenomenon, as are some aspects of our good behavior (e.g., we rarely fight with strangers). But we also have some aspects to learn from past cultures, such as having a village raise a child rather than isolated parents, or include mediation and victim compensation as larger part of our criminal and civil justice systems. Diamond's reviews of religion are more mixed, but they do point out its near-universality and common role of uniting many communities. Overall, Diamond believes it is crucial for us not to emulate all aspects of traditional societies, but to at least know of them, and understand how they can or can't apply to our modern societies. Diamond encourages us to not forget these fading lessons as traditional societies continue to fade away (including their languages).
The bad part is that he mixes together farming societies with hunter-gatherers in discussing our evolutionary past. From an evolutionary perspective, agriculturalist societies such as the Yanomamo or Dani are not likely to be typical of our evolutionary past. They are not much more ancient than other ancient cultures such as the Ancient Greeks or Egyptians (nor are the Greenland Norse he occasionally cites). Thus, from an evolutionary perspective, they are likely to play only a modest role in our evolution. So for example, because they have fixed patches of food resources that provide more calories than hunting, they posses resources that can both be fought over as well as allow for the extra calories and time required to devote time for hunting. Hunter-gatherers like the !Kung or Hadza don't show as much or as formal violence. Thus Diamond's examples might not really be of traditional societies, but rather quasi-traditional societies (with my caveat that most modern-hunter gatherer societies exist in marginal areas and those don't necessarily tell us about ancient h-g's that existed in prime real estate areas). There's a few other things I'd quibble over. For example, in emphasizing the lethality of ancient warfare (it was deadly because it was potentially constant) he states the lack of a clear war leader prevented it from being more lethal through things such as volley fire. I've read accounts of the Dani (Diamond's favorite group to talk about). They have formal battles with few casualties in large part because as one (or a few) man/men moves towards the enemy group, the enemy responds with individual arrow or spear fire that is easily dodged. Whereas a simultaneous barrage would be lethal. Diamond think's it's a lack of leadership castes that prevent this. I don't. It's almost beyond imagination to think that in a truly lethal contest volley fire would not be invented. It's obvious that three people shooting at once are harder to dodge than each shooting 10 seconds apart. Instead, I agree with the theory that these contests smack of honor-bound displays of courage meant to intimidate and promote personal prestige as much, or more, than they are meant to cause casualties to the enemy (update: apparently the Yanomamo do just that- shoot arrows in volleys when they conduct raids).
But, overall, this is a fascinating read about traditional societies and what they offer to teach us about ourselves and our modern societies. The book is less likely to be revealing for experienced readers or researches in the field of evolutionary psychology or anthropology, but it still has enough stories and anecdotes to be entertaining. For people unfamiliar with these fields, it's an excellent introduction into why studying our ancient past is a vital endeavour. It's an old saying that those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it, but Diamond further offers that those who study history have the chance to not just avoid mistakes, but to better our future. Combined witha call for preserving that living history as much as we can, it's not an entirely new sentiment in itself, but it is one that's always worth repeating and exploring. A solid four stars.
on February 8, 2014
When I first read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel I was delighted to discover his original, yet accessible, take on the historical processes which formed much of our present-day world. The World Until Yesterday uses the same easy to follow, conversational tone that allows Diamond to educate and entertain those of us who are perhaps not history buffs nor anthropologists. His book compares our modern, Western societies with those of so-called traditional societies, such as the Dani and Fayu tribes in New Guinea, Piraha Indians in South America, !Kung tribes in Africa, and so on.
These groups are literally the last original people on Earth. Their lack of contact with outsiders for millennia allowed them to maintain the same ways of life they’ve led virtually since the Stone Age. Diamond’s time spent in the mountains and jungles of New Guinea, as well as the research of many other scientists, allows the reader a firsthand glimpse at traditions and beliefs that we might have thought were long gone from our world.
Beyond unveiling these groups that we might consider quant and backwards compared to our advanced civilization, Diamond attempts to draw lessons from their methods of child-rearing, dispute resolution, political organization and so on, in order to see what can be applied to our own world. Some aspects of traditional ways of life would be so foreign to most people in Western countries, especially those of us who live in large urban centers, that any lessons to be learned are theoretical at best. Some, such as those concerning our eating habits, reveal changes that individuals could easily apply in the “modern” world, and in fact may make some readers wonder how it is we’ve gotten so used to putting poison into our bodies and think it’s food.
Diamond, to his credit, doesn’t romanticize the tribesmen he has spent so much time studying. He admits that their lives can be short and violent, subject to flood or famine, and with little access to basic medical care that we’ve come to take for granted. On the other hand, the book attempts to answer the question: “how did we get here from there?” in a volume that is not weighed down by statistics or scientific jargon. The end result will allow the interested reader to feel a little bit more informed about our world, without feeling like he’s ploughing through somebody’s doctoral thesis. This can only be a good thing.
on October 17, 2015
While not addressing fundamental issues about how we became who we are as (Guns, germs and steel), this book expands our knowledge and understanding of modern societies by having us gaze in a mirror that looks back in time.
I love the concept of constructive paranoia... I've been employing it all my life, as a way of minimizing risks ( best way to stay out of trouble). I'm surprised to see how hard it is to teach it to my teenage son - who grew up in a WEIRD society.
It's always good to see Jared's intellect applying itself to a new problem. The last part of the book, which deals with affluence diseases, offers new arguments for a healthy lifestyle, and its conclusions were quite close to those of some of the best books in the field (see "The China Study").
on November 16, 2013
What I drew from this book was the need for assessment and balance in how we live. Sure we have progressed materially, in safety and in comfort but we have forgotten how to eat, how to socialize, how to raise our children and several other of life's important aspects.
This book is more accessible to the average reader than Diamond's earlier works (though perhaps not as thorough or erudite). Several of the chapters are page turners and there are lots of aha moments. On a sad note, we seem to have lost our common sense. On a personal note, more evidence with which to make fun of the idiots who are vegans.
Not Diamond's best book but perhaps his most generally interesting and readable.
on March 25, 2014
Jared Diamond who spent his long life exploring the New Guinea people living in an isolated immense island put on the paper all the questions we never dared to dig and analyse. What is society and what is the challenge of a society trapped in primitive living conditions. In amazing parallel he draws comparisons, analyses and conclusions that are mind boggling. We are not so far after all of each other. One cannot rush reading that book I read only a few paragraphs a daily savouring their density and ramifications and slowly led to the conclusion that no man is primitive only its imposed geographical living conditions are.
on March 15, 2013
Jared Diamond not only writes well but has a lot of insight in the world of human geography. He does a good job of keeping the reader engaged and interested in a subject that could be tedious.
on February 7, 2014
Haven't finished reading the book yet, but it is an excellent read and totally to the point of my studies into the fundamental commonalities in human beings underpinning our cultural and personality differences - towards a deeper understanding of conflict resolution.