*The World Until Yesterday*

by on January 2, 2013 at 6:11 am in Books, History | Permalink

The author is Jared Diamond and the subtitle is What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies?

This is a difficult book to review.  It is well written and intelligent, yet I struggle to find the novel propositions or the traction.  Much of the book is description of the author’s earlier work in Papua New Guinea.  These sections I enjoyed, though I did not find them revelatory or even mildly gripping.  They also did not much incorporate more recent research on these communities.  Other parts of the book repeat probably correct but tired points about privacy, obesity, the role of the elderly, and the like, comparing the modern world to earlier times.  The discussions of the Pygmies — the hunter-gatherer community I know most about — seemed fine but not insightful.  Beneath the surface is the question of how much different “hunter-gatherer” societies are alike or can be subject to generalization.  Diamond never makes objectionable claims in this regard but ultimately the very premise of the book seems to require some objectionable claims, even if they are never put on paper.

If I had to place this book into the “good book” pile or “bad book” pile, I wouldn’t hesitate before putting it into the former.  But I could not describe it as essential reading either.  Perhaps I would have liked it more if I had expected less.  In any case, I would have preferred a “more wrong” book that made me think more.

Here is a Chicago Tribune review of the book.

Josh Lipson January 2, 2013 at 7:01 am

Such as Watson’s ‘The Great Divide’?

8 January 2, 2013 at 7:24 am

This sort of review sounds like my response to cutting edge social research, such as the finding that divorce is worse on children than the death of a parent. There are books thousands of years old with the same information, and there are even fossils walking around who say much the same thing. Yet there are people for whom this a revelation. It’s as if most of the world took a stupid pill in 1950, and now it gets to learn everything again like a small child.

mike January 2, 2013 at 9:46 am

“It’s as if most of the world took a stupid pill in 1950, and now it gets to learn everything again like a small child.”

This is a brilliant phrasing of a thought I’ve had many times.

mike January 2, 2013 at 9:50 am

It’s also perfect for the subject of the book. The answer to “What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies?” is “Everything we were forced to forget during the Cultural Revolution.” Although when looking at “traditional societies”, we probably have a lot more valuable things to learn from, say, 1950s America than we do from any pack of butt-naked aboriginal savages.

The Anti-Gnostic January 2, 2013 at 12:20 pm

That was my reaction as well. Why does he think remote hunter-gatherer tribes are more pertinent to his bigthink of What We Can Learn From Traditional Societies than, say, just driving around Pennsylvania and New York and interviewing the Amish and Haredim? Or, for that matter, reading historical accounts of village life from the thousands of years since the world outside of Papua New Guinea decided to pastoralize? Diamond has a pretty strict standard for ‘traditional.’

Paul January 2, 2013 at 3:21 pm

There are some seven or eight hundred distinct tribes at the same technological level who have lived in stable societies for thousands of years in New Guinea. You cannot get a better source of information than that from which to generalize about human social organization and behavior. Firsthand study by a modern scientist is also better than “reading historical accounts”.

Jan January 2, 2013 at 11:07 pm

I heard Diamond discussing the book on NPR today and he basically said that–you can find most elements of traditional society in rural America.

Jacob Lyles January 2, 2013 at 7:07 pm

On a related note, this chart came to my attention recently:

In many ways “progress” is not.

t January 2, 2013 at 7:31 am

The problem with obvious explanations is that some of them are wrong. The book “Everything is obvious” gives some examples of people who are told some such explanations which were dismissed as trivially true, except that they were false. So, one of the difficulties of social science is which obvious explanation is true. So the work to be done is not in the actual thesis, but the proof.

Ray Lopez January 2, 2013 at 11:25 am

From the Chicago Tribune review: “Yet the new book is satisfying only in spurts. It combines potentially helpful praise for “constructive paranoia” and the cognitive benefits of multilingualism with familiar plaints about our unhealthy salt and sugar-laden diet, increasing social isolation and poor treatment of the elderly” – now here’s some ironies: sugarcane, bananas and chickens were actually imported from Asia into Africa; salt was worth ‘its weight in gold’ in central Africa, which was also protein starved and where the Gold Coast traded gold for salt and trinkets used ironically for money, as did South Africa (Greater Zimbabwe got rich in the 1400s from the gold trade, i.e. from international trade with Europeans and Arabs); many Papua New Guinea tribes cannot speak to each other (lowlands and highlands hardly ever mix–and PNG is a huge country); elders in many traditional societies are not venerated (virile youth is exalted, e.g. some tribes in Africa), and as Diamond points out in his Guns, Germs book, the first impulse of most ‘primitive’ societies when meeting a foreigner is to kill them, unless some kinship is established. I think the human race is nothing but walking naked apes. But it’s also true that aside from misfortune and certain diseases, ‘primitive’ man was healthier than sedate, obese, ice-cream loving modern man (or most stationary farmers). Cave man diet anyone?

Thorstein Veblen January 4, 2013 at 8:24 pm

I’m a huge Diamond fan, but this one is not high on my list… I’m an ageist, and Diamond is now a fossil — born in 1937. Nobody knows this but Third Chimpanzee (1992) is actually a cut above “Guns, Germs & Steel…” (1997), which was several cuts above Collapse (2005). The academic papers he was writing in his 30s were probably brilliant, and this book is probably excellent for a 75 year old. But some 75 year olds have enough trouble remembering where they parked…

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