Hans G.'s Reviews > The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
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Jan 01, 13

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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.
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message 1: by Alan (new)

Alan Sheinwald I think that it doesn't seem right to wholly discard the notion of progress.

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