Jared Diamond is a big-picture thinker with the sweeping imagination of an old-fashioned polymath. His previous bestsellers, Guns, Germs, and Steel
, have earned him the status of a visionary for their skill at going for the jugular of our biggest cultural insecurities about the environment, about the post-imperialist world, about modernity. The World Until Yesterday
is the latest installment in the conversation, bringing insights from anthropology, evolutionary biology, linguistics, and political science to explore ways in which the human race can find help for the future in the past.
The book is framed with an interesting conceit. Diamond explains that humans have been organizing themselves into nation states for a relatively short period of time, a mere blip on the radar when you consider that Homo sapiens
have been roaming...
Beyond the Book
Jared Diamond's question, "What can we learn from traditional societies?" is one Westerners have been asking in a Utopian spirit for generations, looking for ways to revivify our cultural practices and trying revisionist experiments to reverse the damage civilization does to our health and psyches. It's a tricky exercise, since there are plenty of traditional practices like the Kaulong people's practice of widow strangulation, that humanity is well rid of. A glimpse of what life was like in traditional societies (in the words of Thomas Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short"), especially for women, is enough to make one exceedingly thankful for modernity despite its imperfections. Still, we have an apt fascination with the natural and traditional, and as Diamond avers, conservation...