The World Until Yesterday
I decided to read ‘The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?’ because I frequently come across references to other works by Jared Diamond (especially his book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’), but I had never read any of his books. The World Until Yesterday is Diamond’s latest publication, and was only released on Kindle on the 10th of January this year. I figured I could jump on this book and maybe reference it a few times myself before it becomes passé. While I find the book to be very informative, it is an incredibly tough read, and often gets bogged down in minute details to the detriment of the overall goal.
The World Until Yesterday is an ambitious project to look at “all aspects of human culture, of all people’s around the world, for the last 11,000 years”. Beginning with the prologue of Diamond checking in at an airport in Port moresby, Papua New Guinea, Diamond sets out to describe the clash between the new world and the ‘old’. Following on and broken into chapters, Diamond examines traditional societies for the relationships within and between traditional societies, the particulars of war and peace, the way children and elderly people are treated, how fear and danger are harnessed and affect behaviour and quality of life, and the characteristics of languages and religions (this is far too short a summary, it is big and very detailed book). Diamond then rounds out the book with an epilogue of his returning from a field trip to Papua New Guinea, where he once again contrasts traditional life with his own life back in Los Angeles. But most importantly, as fits the subheading ‘What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?’, throughout Diamond juxtaposes the aspects of traditional societies with aspects of modern societies.
The idea behind this book is one I find brilliant. We should never stop learning from the experiences of others, and this book offers hundreds of examples of how traditional societies have tackled different problems in different ways. As Diamond repeatedly points out; either due to scale or ethical concerns (etc.), and whether it is how children should be raised or how criminals should be treated (etc.), modern societies are often unable or unwilling to carry out important experiments that could lead to best practice. However, chances are over thousands of years there are traditional societies who have faced similar problems to ones we face and have tried different solutions; e.g. as children develop should parents and societies micromanage them in order to ensure their safety, or should they be allowed to run free and suffer the consequences of their actions? There are traditional societies that operate at both extremes of this spectrum, and thousands that operate in between, why don’t we observe them and see which is best practice? Or to provide another example; should we attempt to eradicate religion (as many atheists hope to do) or does it provide some tangible benefits that some cannot see? Again, there are thousands of traditional societies out there believing and practicing thousands of different things, maybe we should look at them and see what benefits they are receiving from their practices, compared to each other and compared to more secular societies. The examples and possibilities of such an approach to research and public policy are endless, and whether discussing political structures, legal, structures, war tactics, domestic politics, religion, language, and culture (among many, many other things), Diamond draws from examples from around the world to highlight what we can learn.
But with all this detail also comes a rather large downside. This isn’t a book that you can just pick up and read. It took me more than two weeks to read as I often had to get into a zone similar to studying. All of these examples can sometimes be laborious to get through or comprehend, and the names and regions can become quite confusing. And while some examples are gripping (such as Diamond’s own first hand accounts), some of them can be downright tiresome. Although this is a well written book, it has not been written for general consumption. Rather it is designed for those very interested in sociology, or those looking for a book for research and to quote from (a job it will do quite handily).
All in all, this is an astonishing book if you want to see how truly distinct modern life is; whether it is how we view strangers (not as a threat but as a banal backdrop to our lives), how we trade (not to seal relationships but to acquire goods and services we cannot produce ourselves), the role of leaders and the state (not as mediators or spiritual guides, but as the institution with sole legitimate use of force within a society), or the legal system (not as an institute designed to re-establish relationships, but set out to ‘equalize accounts’, establish guilt and extract compensation). It is also an incredible book if you want to look at the experience and the thousands of experiments conducted every day by traditional societies, and see if our societies can benefit from this wealth of knowledge. I would not recommend this book for those who are not keenly interested, it is not a book to be taken lightly. But for those with the time, energy and interest, this is very much recommended.