The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond – Book Review

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
Published by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin

From the publisher:

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.

Soooo, yeah. How do I review Jared Diamond? To be completely candid I am not qualified to much about the content of what he says, other than that it seems to make sense to me. I understand the criticisms that a) not all of our ancestral societies were quite alike; and b) that pre-contact of the 20th century will have evolved from what they were like 4 thousand years ago. Okay, granted. However, I reject the idea that this means that Diamond’s book is irrelevant.

Maybe this is the crazy talk of a layman at work, but it seems fairly clear to me that pre-contact societies live lives that are significantly closer to those of our ancestors than those of us in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) nations. I find it likely that they have, in the past millennia, found better solutions to the problems that plague humans living in small bands and tribes, but the immediate pressures on them are quite different than the ones most of us face from day to day, as any quick search of #firstworldproblems on Twitter would show you.

And still, even if both Diamond and I are 100% wrong that recent pre-contact societies have any similarities at all to the lives our ancestors lived, the fact remains that looking at peoples still living more traditional lives gives us a greater range of solutions to the issues that all humans – first world or third – face, such as childcare, elder care, and justice. Not all of their solutions would work in WEIRD societies, and many of them we would never consent to enact, but there are many things that some traditional peoples do better than most WEIRD peoples. There are things we can learn from these societies; we cannot merely dismiss them as “primitive” (a problematic and condescending term, to be sure) and ignore them.

Whatever problems The World Until Yesterday might have, it is always valuable to learn about and from other cultures, and Diamond does a fabulous job presenting much of the breadth of how traditional societies have functioned. Recommended.

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3 comments to The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond – Book Review

  • I have this one on audio and really want to get a chunk of time to listen. My ESL class had a section in their reading book about first contact with native cultures, and it was absolutely fascinating. Really great review, and I don’t think your lack of knowledge means you can’t speak to the efficacy of Diamond’s writing or research. Thanks.

  • Good assessment of what Diamond is trying to get across. I listened to the audio version and enjoyed it much more than I expected. Even with my college background in biology I found the subject to be complex, but I think he did a good job of making it accessible to me as a layperson. And while I don’t agree with all of his conclusions I think he has a point that we need to expand our studies and include traditional societies instead of only looking at WEIRD societies.