*The World Until Yesterday*

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.


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