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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

3.66  ·  Rating Details  ·  5,766 Ratings  ·  745 Reviews
The bestselling author of Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel surveys the history of human societies to answer the question: What can we learn from traditional societies that can make the world a better place for all of us?

Most of us take for granted the features of our modern society, from air travel and telecommunications to literacy and obesity. Yet for nearly all of it

Hardcover, 512 pages
Published December 31st 2012 by Viking (first published October 19th 2012)
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Trevor Hm, the section on dealing with threats to life (i.e. risk management) would perhaps be pretty interesting for your course. Diamond found himself…moreHm, the section on dealing with threats to life (i.e. risk management) would perhaps be pretty interesting for your course. Diamond found himself shocked at how careful and cautious hunter-gatherers were about such seemingly mundane things as pitching camp next to old trees. The whole experience provoked him to re-examine the idea of perceived risk vs. actual risk in different societies, and to adjust his behaviour in his own life. (less)
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Community Reviews

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Jared Diamond is most famous for introducing a sort of ecological-determinism to public thought with Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, in which he introduces material context as a defining factor for the economic and social development of civilizations.

Here, Diamond focuses more on a social/cultural context, comparing pre-agricultural societies, such as those from his beloved New Guinea, to our WEIRD societies. WEIRD is not solely a sly dig at our lifestyles, but instead shor
Milton Soong
Jan 28, 2013 Milton Soong rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Four stars for content, 3 stars for style.

This is from the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel. I liked that book for the content and insight it presented, but thought that it's too verbose (i.e. lots of repetition of the same idea to get the point across). This book suffers the same issue. Ideally the information can be presented via a series of long form magazine article instead of a tome, but I guess books makes more money..

One difference about this book to his previous is that this work is a co
Seth Kolloen
Feb 20, 2013 Seth Kolloen rated it it was ok
Extremely disappointing. There are a few interesting chapters, but I probably skimmed about 60% of the book. There is a lot of long-winded explanation of things that any high school student probably knows (languages are disappearing - people are fat - religious people sometimes go to war!) The last third especially just seems like Diamond spouting off about nutrition and education with very little tied back to the supposed theme of the book. Really felt like about a 60 page book that was just ex ...more
Mar 30, 2013 David rated it it was ok
You need to know right up front that I am going to really rag on this book. I read every single word of it and feel qualified to tell you it was poor in many respects. It would be so much nicer to praise and compliment Diamond's efforts here but I'd be lying if I told you anything other than "this was a painful experience". If you stick with my review, however, I will tell you toward the end what it takes this author 466 pages to say. (Please don't expect anything revelatory. His conclusions are ...more
Aaron Thibeault
Jan 23, 2013 Aaron Thibeault rated it it was amazing
*A full executive summary of this book is available here:

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
Dec 09, 2012 Andrew rated it really liked it
It's always exciting when Jared Diamond publishes a new book and the advance copies were hugely sought after when they arrived at the office in October. This is the most personal of Diamond's books, with many anecdotes from his work in New Guinea. It reads like the book he's always wanted to write. The title is a comment that, in the context of history, we all, until recently, lived in traditional societies and Diamond describes key elements of that lifestyle. I found the beginning, where Diamon ...more
Sep 24, 2013 David rated it really liked it
This book is a fascinating, comprehensive view of life in several traditional cultures. The best part of the book is the personal insights that Jared Diamond delivers. Diamond spent a lot of time with the peoples of Papua New Guinea, and he enthusiastically describes all facets of their lives. He contrasts their society with other traditional societies living in the Arctic, in Africa, and with modern, Western societies.

There are hundreds of "tribes" living in New Guinea. Many of these tribes ha
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I read this because it looks at several groups from Papua New Guinea while exploring the differences between "modern" and "primitive" societies. Since the author spends 7% of his life in Papua New Guinea, at least half the examples of primitive societies come from that area, and he fills in the concepts with research (his own and others', current and historic) from other traditional societies around the world.

There is a lot here - warfare, language, diet, disease, family units. I was most intrig
Aaron Arnold
Jan 21, 2013 Aaron Arnold rated it liked it
Shelves: science, read-in-2013
This is a frustrating book to review. It touches on a lot of interesting subjects, but avoids discussing many of the most thought-provoking implications. It has sections of research picked almost randomly in support of alternately prudent and ridiculous opinions. It's heavy on analysis, yet it doesn't have many clear prescriptions at all. Its subject is vast, yet his focus is often very narrow. I liked many parts of it, but overall it's unquestionably a step down from his past 2, even though it ...more
Petra X
Book of the year, 2013, for me. 7 pure gold, very twinkly, high-in-the-sky stars. If you like anthropology and history you'll like this. If you don't think you like those subjects, you might still like this because it is wonderfully well-written and very enlightening.

If I ever get round to reviewing again, ie. if I ever get over being pissed off at Goodreads for turning into an authors' marketplace, for deleting and censoring reviews and shelves, for sharing my reviews, all of them, with Google
Mar 14, 2013 Natalie rated it really liked it
While THE WORLD UNTIL YESTERDAY isn't exactly captivating reading, it's a book most will have been glad they read. I found the chapters on child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and nutrition most informative and while not idealizing traditional societies, the author makes the case that there is, indeed, much we can learn from them.
Keith Swenson
Dec 05, 2013 Keith Swenson rated it liked it
Consider me a big Jared Diamond fan. I read Guns, Germs, and Steel twice, Collapse once, and have watched all the video documentaries. There is no question that Diamond is a consummate researcher and will always have a special place in helping me understand how human societies have come about.

This book, however, was a vague disappointment. Not because the book was bad, but because I had such high expectations of it. It seemed to me that he had a bunch of notes and journal entries left over that
Todd Martin
Mar 14, 2013 Todd Martin rated it liked it
Within a relatively short timeframe humans have gone from living as hunter/gatherers in small tribes of a few hundred individuals, to agrarian communities comprised of thousands, to city-states of many millions with a broad division of labor and a representative form of government. This change in the structure of society has resulted in a dramatic alterations in lifestyle. While many of these changes have been positive (we live longer, are subject to less violence and have access to many goods a ...more
Hans G.
Jan 01, 2013 Hans G. rated it liked it
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 necess ...more
Jill Furedy
Apr 30, 2013 Jill Furedy rated it really liked it
This was the book I wanted "Beyond Civilization" to be. But I knew I wasn't getting that from Daniel Quinn. I'd not read Jared Diamond before, so wasn't sure what to expect. As interesting as nonfiction can be, I have such a hard time getting through it...they are seldom page turners. So while I liked this one, it did take me a long time to finish. The war and peace topics were alright...the question of how to interact with strangers in various societies and the strategies of state government v ...more
Dec 02, 2015 Sarah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a long book. At times a bit boring, at others very interesting. Long winded but thorough. But the interesting parts are worth the short wade through the boring bits. The author discusses the major differences between modern living and tribal societies. He takes a very frank look at both and analyzes the pros and cons of each.

Among these was the best discussion of social justice I have ever heard. And some very good points about how diet contributes to diabetes, with research among tribe
Laurie Bryce
Feb 22, 2013 Laurie Bryce rated it liked it
I was underwhelmed by this book. Diamond keeps asking, "What ideas and practices can we learn and adopt from traditional societies?" and by the end of this very long book, I was thinking, "Not much."

There's an interesting chapter on diet -- heart disease and diabetes and similar Western world causes of death are unheard of in hunter-gatherer societies -- and that really brings home how we are literally killing ourselves with our food choices. I can see what the "Paleolithic diet" boosters are g
Apr 09, 2013 Steve rated it it was ok
Shelves: fun-nonfiction
First, to be honest: I didn't finish the book. After three weeks on loan from the library, I finally accepted that I just wasn't engaged enough to finish the book. The rest of this review covers why.

I've always greatly enjoyed Jared Diamond's books and grabbed a copy of each one that I've run across. He does an excellent job of conveying a lot of information in an easy-to-read format and is normally fabulous at bringing together lots of information to make his case.

But The World Until Yesterday
Brent Ranalli
Jared Diamond's first blockbuster, Guns, Germs & Steel, was a tour de force marred by one serious flaw: In an excessive fit of political correctness, Diamond argued that the evidence he had marshaled about the influence of geography on the grand course of civilization not only made it unnecessary to hypothesize cultural superiority as the cause of the global dominance of Eurasian civilization, but also proved that all cultures are somehow "equal" (adaptively, morally). That conclusion doesn' ...more
B. Rule
Jan 28, 2013 B. Rule rated it liked it
This book occasionally made interesting points in comparing "traditional" societies to modern Western ones. However, it often felt pedantic, rambling, and born of the stodgy conservatism old liberals gradually acquire while reassuring themselves that they're just dispensing plainspoken wisdom. In short, it was a lot like reading a book of pop anthropology written by Andy Rooney. I found it to be quite a disappointment coming from an author I otherwise like. It wasn't all bad, though. There were ...more
Jan McClintock
Jun 16, 2016 Jan McClintock rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond

I was initially excited to read this book as the subject interests me. The premise is to understand how humans lived before modern civilization and to compare that to our lives now. Should we try to be more like "traditional" people in order to solve some of our problems?

However, the more I read, the more irritated I became with the author's liberal attitude and sweeping claims. Many of the so-called 'facts'
Dec 22, 2014 Ryan rated it liked it
The World Until Yesterday
Jared Diamond
Read it in Hardback at 512 pages.

Jared Diamond, you are a man of many talents and educational degrees who has travelled the world for a variety of reasons and are able to take many interesting conjectures from so many different points and spin them into a comprehensive and unique vantage point that dissect human history and aim to improve the human experience. This is why I read your books, despite the handy-cap of an unequal margin of intelligence. Last yea
R Arnaud
Nov 04, 2013 R Arnaud rated it liked it
Everyone one likes to say how much better it was in the good old days. And everyone knows it is just partially true. This book can be said to explore this myth with more details to determine where traditional living has an advantage and where modern aspects of our lives we would not do without. Diamond makes a slightly stronger point; by comparing traditional societies and modern ones we can uncover important features of human psychology.

The problem remains that observations of traditional socie
Aug 26, 2016 Ray rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I think that the late great Ian Dury got it right - "there ain't half been some clever b**stards"

Jared Diamond is certainly very clever, and he has a knack of presenting diverse subjects to form a whole argument that is entertaining and compelling. In this book he uses his knowledge of "primitive" contemporary societies to demonstrate what life was like before the advent of civilisation as we know it.

Some good insights but it dragged a little for me and I would recommend his books collapse and g
Henry Kim
Feb 03, 2014 Henry Kim rated it it was amazing
This book was a page turner and as such I really recommend this book to anybody fascinated by traditional societies. I could not stop reading this book since he compares the everyday lifestyle of modern humans to that of more traditional tribal societies. I was satisfied at the ending since this book is not an encyclopedia but rather a well thought out review of common features of eating habits to resolving conflicts. I didn't really relate to the characters as they were too different, but I cou ...more
Jan 18, 2013 Susan rated it really liked it
This is a fun read and the author an engaging, creative personality, up until he gets to the chapter on religion, when he gets somewhat disdainful. Is it really possible to dismiss God in a chapter?
Laura Trombley
May 02, 2016 Laura Trombley rated it liked it
This book reads more like a textbook than Guns, Germs, and Steel and is a little less captivating. It is still a good read. The book studies hunter-gatherer people that still exist in the world or at least who did during the lifetimes of people living today. Based on his experiences with the people of Papua New Guineau and Africa and some South American peoples he compares the hunter- gatherer lifestyle to our own. The author does not want to romanticize the life that was all of ours until very ...more
Natasha Hurley-Walker
Nov 08, 2015 Natasha Hurley-Walker rated it really liked it
Fascinating! I always knew we were a little WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) but it was very cool to see just how aberrant our society is compared to the vast majority of humans who have ever lived. It was also very interesting to get some idea of how this came to be, as hunter gathering tribes gave rise to chiefdoms, which gave rise to the first small farming states, and eventually to our enormous nation states. The book is well-structured, focussing on an aspect of s ...more
Ayman Fadel
Jan 31, 2015 Ayman Fadel rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
By comparing how modern and traditional societies handle war, raising of children, care of the elderly, health risks, religion, language and diet, The World Until Yesterday stretches our conception of the ranges of choices available to us in a matter similar to the best science fiction.

By learning how other human societies have chosen particular paths and pondering the reasons why they chose them, perhaps we can come to see our own "givens" as choices which made sense (i.e. were "functional.") O
Aug 12, 2014 Shauni rated it really liked it
I rarely buy books brand new, but I bought this one at a book signing after hearing Jared Diamond talk about it. A few weeks later, my son spilled water on it. Just my luck!

The book is divided into chapters by topic--territories and trade, peace and war, treatment of young and old, danger and response, religion, language, and health. Rather than romanticizing traditional societies, in each category Diamond points to things that he's glad have gone the way of history, and other things that we mig
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Bill Gates Invitation to Read 1 40 Jul 11, 2013 07:42AM  
  • Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes - the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists
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  • The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
  • The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People
  • Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth
  • Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
  • The Collapse of Complex Societies
  • On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks
  • Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics
  • Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change
  • Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth?
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  • The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention
  • Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Cultures
  • Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe
Jared Diamond is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. He is Professor of Geography at UCLA and has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He has dedicated this book to his sons and future generations.
More about Jared Diamond...

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“The U.S. has so many rules and regulations, because of fear of being sued, that kids give up on the opportunity for personal exploration. A pool has to be fenced so that it’s not an ‘attractive nuisance.’ Most New Guineans don’t have pools, but even the rivers that we frequented didn’t have signs saying ‘Jump at your own risk,’ because it’s obvious. Why would I jump unless I’m prepared for the consequences? Responsibility in the U.S. has been taken from the person acting and has been placed on the owner of the land or the builder of the house. Most Americans want to blame someone other than themselves as much as possible. In New Guinea I was able to grow up, play creatively, and explore the outdoors and nature freely, with the obligatory element of risk, however well managed, that is absent from the average risk-averse American childhood. I had the richest upbringing possible, an upbringing inconceivable for Americans.” 2 likes
“That need for police and laws and moral commandments to be nice to strangers doesn’t arise in tiny societies, in which everyone knows everyone else.” 1 likes
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