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.