Summary and book reviews of The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

The World Until Yesterday

What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

By Jared Diamond

The World Until Yesterday
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  • Hardcover: Dec 2012,
    512 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2013,
    512 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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Book Summary

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 its six million years of existence, human society had none of these things. While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgeably wide, we can glimpse much of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies still or recently in existence. Societies like those of the New Guinea Highlanders remind us that it was only yesterday - in evolutionary time - when everything changed and that we moderns still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional than to modern conditions.

The World Until Yesterday provides a mesmerizing firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years - a past that has mostly vanished - and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today.

This is Jared Diamond's most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn't romanticize traditional societies - after all, we are shocked by some of their practices - but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us. A characteristically provocative, enlightening, and entertaining book, The World Until Yesterday will be essential and delightful reading.

Why study traditional societies?

Why do we find "traditional" societies so fascinating?1 Partly, it's because of their human interest: the fascination of getting to know people who are so similar to us and understandable in some ways, and so unlike us and hard to understand in other ways. When I arrived in New Guinea for the first time, in 1964 at the age of 26, I was struck by the exoticness of New Guineans: they look different from Americans, speak different languages, dress differently, and behave differently. But over the subsequent decades, in the course of my making dozens of visits of one to five months each to many parts of New Guinea and neighboring islands, that predominant sense of exoticness yielded to a sense of common ground as I came to know individual New Guineans: we hold long conversations, laugh at the same jokes, share interests in children and sex and food and sports, and find ourselves angry, frightened, grief- stricken, relieved, and exultant together. ...

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[Jared] Diamond paints with a very broad brush, which means that while the scope of his work is exciting, the complexity of the details can be lost. The gaps left by the broad-brush approach grow frustrating. Diamond doesn't engage in the history of his question ('What can we learn from traditional societies?'), for one thing. He isn't interested in meta-debate, but the lack of a recent historical perspective reads like a glaring omission.   (Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder).

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Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

Lyrical and harrowing, this survey of traditional societies reveals the surprising truth that modern life is a mere snippet in the long narrative of human endeavor.

Library Journal

This detailed, insightful, and accessible cultural study is bound to be popular with readers of Diamond's previous books as well as with general readers interested in anthropology, sociology, and other related fields.

Booklist

In this fascinating book, Diamond brings fresh perspective to historic and contemporary ways of life with an eye toward those that are likely to enhance our future.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A symphonic yet unromantic portrait of traditional societies and the often stirring lessons they offer.

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Contemporary Movements Based in the Past

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 ...

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