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

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
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's review
Dec 05, 2012

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bookshelves: nonfiction, society-culture-anthropology-etc
Read in January, 2013

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 shorthand for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and 'Developed' - a handy, but incomplete description of his audience. (The missing segment being East Asia). By contrast, Diamond compares this image of the world to tribal societies, ranging from the Inupiat in Alaska to the !Kung in the Kalahari to the Aborigines of Australia and New Zealand. The topics of his comparison are extremely broad, occasionally overlapping, and range from trite to tremendous.

For example - in the section on law, crime, and punishment, he makes a comparison to personal arbitration to the vast 'impersonality' of the justice system. This, however, is the result of the larger size of non-tribal societies, and of the 'social contract'.

His section on war is a retread of some of Pinker's discussions in the early parts of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined - tribal wars are intimate, long-standing, generational conflicts of extermination. You know the other person or enemy you are killing, and you want them dead. Modern wars, at least for the technologically advanced nations, are push-button, impersonal affairs. He notes how some societies suffer comparatively large attrition due to warfare, and how even the German-Soviet Front of the Second World War had a smaller proportion of casualties over a similar period. Then again, it is easier to kill 10% of 200 people than it is to kill 10% of 200 million.

The section on childcare is one where Pinker's criticisms are most relevant. He notes the practice of 'allo-parenting', with childcare being split among parents and relatives, the benefits of playing outside, and the benefits of using creative toys and education. Diamond does note the extremes of alternate societies (Don't let children play with fire, for example), but here his criticisms and sketches are of most interest.

Likewise, his discussion of isolation and the role of social networks is particularly revealing. In a group of 150 people at most, you are intimately connected with every other person you know, for better or worse. Our world does not necessarily have this, again due to the sheer scale of our cities and organizational units. It is interesting to note that a New Guinea tribesman who moves to our world is most satisfied with their new 'anonymity', where they don't always have to conform to ritual.

The section on food and diet is painfully obvious. Don't eat too much sugar and salt. Don't be sedentary. Exercise. Non-congenital diseases are the big killers of the industrialized world, and many are contingent upon our personal lifestyles.

Diamond's examination of the role of languages and multilingualism alternates between reasonable and puzzling. He is a fierce advocate of multilingualism - but is anyone not? Who would willingly confine themselves to knowing one language? This section ends with the preservation of languages, which seems vaguely reasonable enough.

His section on religion had a lot of potential, but again fell short. He describes some 15 or 16 alternate theories for religion, but again only analyzes two. He could have discussed early theories about how religion served as the foundation of non-tribal civilization with recent discussion of archaeological sites. But instead we get some very woolly thinking about how religion means different things in different times and places to different people.

As for his discussion on the origins of paranoia, he views it as a largely beneficial construct, as there are indeed many things out there which could kill you. This leads into more familiar talk on how people fear terrorism more than car crashes, plane crashes more than heart disease, and so forth.

Diamond notes that some societies have such abbreviated average lifespans that the role of elderly care is not always immediate. When he visited some tribes in New Guinea at age 46, many members were astonished and thought he was 'half-dead'. However, it does not take tribal research to find criticism with the models of 'retirement homes' and 'forced retirement', with one of the better alternatives being allowing them to work in preferred fields, but in an advisory/mentor role, or staying at home to help with childcare/familial tasks.

One of the most curious omissions is that of the role of women in society. I would have fascinated to see if there was a matriarchal or matrilineal society, or at least a more elaborate discussion of what tribes did, and our contrasts to them.

He does not advocate dropping everything and returning to hunter-gatherer societies. The book is muddled at times, but this is not from any deficiency of the author's so much as it is a result of the sheer enormity of the ambitions of his subject. Could only 400 pages be enough to make a complete comparison of the pre-industrial pre-agricultural world and ours? A world which, after all, is only a footfall away from ours in a biological-evolutionary perspective, but nearly eternal in the fragile spans of our own memories? For all of its numerous flaws, post-industrial society has brought us some freedom from disease, want, ignorance, and distance, if we were lucky enough to be born into that. As flawed as the book is, it has the sense to ask the right questions, and may yet lead to a distant answer.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Good review. A number of reviews I've read have focussed on the negatives (they also picked out the themes you mention) so it's especially nice to read yours which also picks up on the positives. I'd like to see more stuff from him (or anyone else for that matter) on childcare in tribal societies (the recent grandmother hypothesis is very interesting for example) and on the role of custom and ritual in enforcing conformity in small tribal communities. On the former, Daniel Everett has some interesting observations on childcare among the Pirahã in his book, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.

message 2: by Traveller (new)

Traveller I find Diamond himself a bit WEIRD, heh heh.

message 3: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten Excellent, balanced review Hadrian.

message 4: by Traveller (last edited Jan 03, 2013 08:10AM) (new)

Traveller Nice review, sorry that i omitted to say that--so many of my friends consistently write good reviews, that i eventually run out of adjectives, and start fearing that my response might sound.... insincere?

Anyway, Hadrian is one of my faves, i'm glad i found him!

Hadrian Dohohohoho. Thanks.

Cass Great review, you picked up on many of the issues that I had with the book.

message 7: by Riku (new) - added it

Riku Sayuj Have you read Collapse as well, Hadrian? How much new material is really there this time around (except for the thesis change)? Have been postponing this one for a while now.

message 8: by Rand (new)

Rand nice review, Hadrian. for everyone else: there is currently a giveaway for this title.

Hadrian Riku - Yes, a while ago. There was a more substantive change in areas covered, but Diamond sticks very closely to the idea of environmental collapse instead of tribalism there.

Rand, Cass: Thanks!

message 10: by Jane (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jane I've read a few chapters out of this book so far and was curious about the discussions the book would generate, so found your review really interesting.

Willingly confining yourself to one language was common when I was growing up. Many of my schoolfriends were ashamed to speak a language other than English.

There are matrilineal societies; Minangkabau in Indonesia are one.

message 11: by Laura (new)

Laura Willingly confining yourself to one language is anything but dead in the good ol' US of A. Perhaps Hadrian lives in an educated enclave. I also beg to differ with the idea of the Social Contract being a viable substitute for a reparations process in which feelings and needs are addressed. It's not...it just isn't.

message 12: by Dasha (new) - added it

Dasha Nice review, Hadrian. Since you didn't see much in the book on matriarchal and matrilineal societies, here are some recommendations: http://www.mapsofworld.com/around-the...
You can find more on the wikipedia page on that matter and some books here on goodreads, like https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...

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