BookBrowse Reviews The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The World Until Yesterday

What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

by Jared Diamond

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond X
The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Dec 2012, 512 pages
    Oct 2013, 512 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

Buy This Book

About this Book



Jared Diamond argues that contemporary Western society has a lot to learn from more traditional models.

Jared Diamond is a big-picture thinker with the sweeping imagination of an old-fashioned polymath. His previous bestsellers, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, 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 the planet for around 100,000 years. Before the rise of "state governments," as Diamond calls them, there were "traditional societies," small bands and tribes like those that still exist in remote regions such as the mountains of Papua New Guinea and the Amazonian rainforest.

The book's subtitle asks, "What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?", and Diamond seeks answers as he sifts through the available data on traditional modes of justice, warfare, child-rearing, nutrition and other cultural practices. He argues that most of what we know about humanity, scientifically speaking, is based on work with WEIRD subjects – Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic. Traditional societies, as they existed at the time of "first contact" with the West, or as we know them from ethnographic work or the historical record, are like human experiments in progress, rich with alternative perspectives.

Some of the most riveting parts of the book read like a travel memoir, as Diamond recalls his experiences doing research in the remote forests of Papua New Guinea. Some parts of the country were unknown to the West until the 1930s, when military expeditions and research forays "discovered" villagers living the way they had lived, Diamond posits, for millennia. Personal observations ground and center the book's argument throughout, and Diamond's complicated affection for the jungles of Papua New Guinea is palpable. In spite of the danger of being murdered by a hostile stranger, or of falling ill out of reach of emergency medical care, he asserts that "being in New Guinea is like seeing the world briefly in vivid colors, when by comparison the world elsewhere is gray."

This is no traditional ethnography, however. Diamond supports his own fieldwork with data from studies of traditional peoples around the world, organizing his general areas of interest into large surveys. He sets about this task with a style that reads as earnest and forthright, rather than fleet or clever, and can plod at times as he sorts through a miscellany of material. In the early chapters on warfare, reading becomes a hard slog as the names of esoteric village factions and battles pile up. But in time the peripatetic nature of the book's wanderings from culture to culture and topic to topic come to seem like an edifying ramble, the meandering commentary of a far-reaching mind working through things it finds curious.

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. And some topics are too lightly touched on, perhaps out of necessity (He has struggled to keep the book to a reasonable size as it is – the notes are only available online.). The chapter on childrearing seemed oddly slight, for instance. Almost any parent who has been to a La Leche League meeting or picked up a parenting magazine will know more about traditional breastfeeding and co-sleeping than Diamond covers. And is it news that the standard Western diet is causing an epidemic of diabetes? "It's worth repeating the truth," Diamond says as he lays out the facts about how to fight this trend. "We already know enough to warrant our being hopeful, not depressed." The World Until Yesterday gathers a wealth of material for asking the big questions, but the specifics of the answers are left up in the air.

For a TED talk by Jared Diamond about why societies collapse, click on the video below:

Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder

This review was originally published in January 2013, and has been updated for the October 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: La Belle Sauvage
    La Belle Sauvage
    by Philip Pullman
    Voted 2017 Best Young Adult Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    I wasn't quite sure what to expect ...
  • Book Jacket: Leonardo da Vinci
    Leonardo da Vinci
    by Walter Isaacson
    The name Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most recognized in all of Western history, and his ...
  • Book Jacket: The Immortalists
    The Immortalists
    by Chloe Benjamin
    On a summer day in 1969 in New York City, the Gold children agree to seek out a mysterious ...
  • Book Jacket: The Kites
    The Kites
    by Romain Gary, Miranda Richmond Mouillot
    Published by New Directions for the first time in English, Romain Gary's The Kites tells a story of ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Dry by Jane Harper

Winner of the 2017 BookBrowse Debut Novel Award

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Chalk Man
    by C. J. Tudor

    Relentlessly compelling psychological suspense. The must-read thriller debut of 2018.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Mothers of Sparta

Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir

A dazzling literary memoir with shades of Mary Karr, Anne Lamott and Jenny Lawson.


Word Play

Sorry, we do not currently have an active wordplay!

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.