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

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  8,852 ratings  ·  965 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 Kew Hm, the section on dealing with threats to life (i.e. risk management) would perhaps be pretty interesting for your course. Diamond found himself shoc…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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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
Seth Kolloen
Jan 20, 2013 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
Jun 21, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: anthropology
Reading this book I remembered why I liked Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies so much: the clear line of argument, the logical structure, the transparency about sources and methodology, etc., all these criteria of a sound scientific work, they came back in this book, or at least partly.

This book has been applauded, but also highly criticized, especially because Diamond relied mainly on his own experiences (in Papua New Guinea) and on some other studies of traditional societies
Milton Soong
Jan 10, 2013 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
Mar 04, 2013 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 07, 2013 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
I agree with David Brooks who reviewed this book in January 2013 that much of its essential idea— that the West can learn from traditional and small-scale societies—doesn’t really leap off the page. Brooks’s point is that the reader doesn’t really get to meet individuals of traditional and primitive societies, and that undermines Diamond’s arguments that the West try alternatives to its present justice system. One idea that I Iiked was emotional mediation in some cases of murder. Here the killer ...more

BBC Blurbs: Drawing upon several decades of experience living and working in Papua New Guinea, Professor Diamond shows how traditional societies can offer an extraordinary window into how our ancestors lived for millions of years - until virtually yesterday, in evolutionary terms - and provide unique, often overlooked insights into human nature. Exploring how tribal peoples approach essential human problems, from child rearing to old age to conflict r
Jan 04, 2013 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
Dec 09, 2012 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
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 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
Nov 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
"Guns, Germs and Steel" is Dr. Diamond's masterpiece and this book augments what we learned from it. (I haven't read Chimpanzee yet or some of the others.) I love this man for teaching us so well, even though he talks about a part of the world in which I have had no interest. His insights open cracks in my brain that have been sealed with the creosote of intellectual arrogance-- false assumptions. Many of our Goodreads friends have reviewed this book better than I can, and I encourage all to rea ...more
Keith Swenson
Nov 11, 2013 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
Sense Of  History
I am always angered by scientists and pseudo-scientists who take it for granted that the study of 'primitive' societies of today, or of several decades ago, provides a good insight into the life of the hunter-gatherers of 100,000 years ago, when the human species only consisted of that kind of people. It is a mistake that is very often made to see these 'primitive' societies as a kind of living fossiles, reflecting almost perfectly the life of so many years ago. This view ignores the fact that t ...more
Feb 22, 2013 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.
From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week:
The first of five extracts from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond's powerful new book, that asks what can traditional societies teach us about how we in the west live now?

2/5. Second extract from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond's powerful new book that draws upon his several decades of experience living and working in Papua New Guinea. Professor Diamond argues that traditional societies offer a window onto how our ancestors lived for mill
Todd Martin
Dec 08, 2012 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
Laurie Bryce
Feb 22, 2013 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
Hans G.
Jan 01, 2013 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
Subpar for Jared Diamond, the feeling was more of unedited ramblings and an old man's memories, than anything consistent. Not that I necessarily disagree with his reasoning on many things but as a book, meh, no.
Mar 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book comparing the world of hunter-gatherers with our own. In many ways the hunter-gatherers seem to have a better life! And many wise observations as a result.
Was also struck that many of the customs and qualities which Diamond describes as being those of hunter-gatherers actually continue in Japan.
Apr 09, 2013 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
Jan 18, 2013 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'
Jill Furedy
Apr 30, 2013 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
Jul 10, 2013 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
Apr 24, 2018 rated it liked it
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Diamond's previous book Guns, Germs and Steel, I expected to like this one, and I did. However, the findings in this book pale in comparison to the previous one. There is little originality in his overriding conclusion that western civilization has traded community for convenience. His attempt to explain the origins of religious experience seems naive at best. He obviously has never experienced what he is trying to explain away. What I did like were the smaller ...more
Jan 04, 2013 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?
Tai Tai
Jul 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Thoughtful detailed rich in analogy and scientific evidence. We have much to be grateful for and much to learn from our not so distant foragers
Kent Winward
May 28, 2019 rated it liked it
Diamond ranges far and wide in looking at primitive societies and it is hard to not feel like he is picking and choosing so he can spend fifty pages ranting on talking about issues of his choice. Bilingualism? Check. Raising kids? Check. Religion? Check. Salt and sugar in our diets? Check.

That isn't to say his rants aren't occasionally enjoyable and often enlightening, nor did I get the sense that he is purposefully pushing an agenda. The end result was a book that just as it started to get too
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Bill Gates Invitation to Read 1 44 Jul 11, 2013 07:42AM  

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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.

Articles featuring this book

His Favorite Books About Traditional Societies: The scholar offers wisdom gleaned from ancient lifestyles in this nonfiction list and in his new...
27 likes · 10 comments
“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.” 4 likes
“proposed as appropriate compensation. This reminds me” 2 likes
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