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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.
- ISBN-13: 9780670024810
- ISBN-10: 0670024813
- Publisher: Viking Books
- Publish Date: December 2012
- Page Count: 512
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-09-17
- Reviewer: Staff
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. “The hunter-gatherer lifestyle,” the author reminds us, “worked at least tolerably well for the nearly 100,000-year history of behaviorally modern humans.” Renowned for crafting startling theories across vast swaths of time and territory, Pulitzer Prize–winner Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) eschews the grand canvas to offer an empathetic portrait of human survival and adaptability. Drawing examples from Africa, Japan, and the Americas, Diamond details the astonishing diversity of human ideas about religion, warfare, child-rearing, eldercare, and dispute resolution. Most of the data comes from New Guinea, which is home to some of the last primeval peoples on Earth. The author has been conducting fieldwork on the Pacific island for half a century and writes about its cultures and ecology with palpable affection. This book presents a lifetime of distilled experience but offers no simple lessons. Neither the first world nor tribal cultures possesses a monopoly on virtue. The cruelty of such traditional practices as infanticide and revenge killings is offset by the ennui and atomization of modern life. A world without Internet, television, and books, without lawyers, heart attacks, or cancer—for better and worse this was the world until “yesterday.” 16 pages of 4-color insert. Agent: John Brockman. (Jan.)
An enlightening look at modern communities
As he did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond continues to make us think with his mesmerizing and absorbing new book. In The World Until Yesterday, he pushes us to reconsider the contours of human society and the forces that have shaped human culture.
Drawing on both his personal experiences of traditional societies, especially among New Guinea Highlanders, and in-depth research into cultures as diverse as Amazonian Indians and the !Kung of southern Africa, Diamond convincingly argues that while many modern states enjoy a wide range of technological, political and military advantages, they often fail to offer an improved approach to such issues as raising children or treating the elderly.
Hardly naïve, Diamond acknowledges that the modern world would never embrace many practices, such as infanticide and widow-strangling, embedded in traditional cultures but horrifying to modern ones. Yet traditional societies also value societal well-being over individual well-being, so that care for the elderly is an integral part of their social fabric—an arrangement that “goes against all those interwoven American values of independence, individualism, self-reliance, and privacy.”
Ranging over topics that include child-rearing, conflict resolution, the nature of risk, religion and physical fitness, Diamond eloquently concludes with a litany of the advantages of the traditional world. “Loneliness,” he observes, “is not a problem in traditional societies,” for people usually live close to where they were born and remain “surrounded by relatives and childhood companions.” In modern societies, by contrast, individuals often move far away from their places of birth to find themselves surrounded by strangers. We can also take lessons from traditional cultures about our health. By choosing healthier foods, eating slowly and talking with friends and family during a meal—all characteristics Diamond attributes to traditional societies—we can reform our diets and perhaps curb the incidence of diseases such as stroke and diabetes.
Powerful and captivating, Diamond’s lucid insights challenge our ideas about human nature and culture, and will likely provoke heated conversations about the future of our society.