We humans can often be totally blind to the obvious things around us, like human behaviour for instance. Jared Diamond is an absolute genius - in this book he helped me to `see' our own human society for the first time. It should be obvious, but I had never thought of it before - most humans who have ever lived, experienced the type of life Diamond describes here. By looking into humans in their `natural' condition, we learn so much about ourselves.
I especially loved the chapter on languages, which contained information beyond my wildest imaginings. There were many other moments of interest: how the young are treated, how the old are treated, the narrow territory ranges of many groups and the treatment of strangers.
On the other hand I found the chapters on religion and on justice to be slightly weaker, but still worthwhile (Edward Wilson is better on religion in his book `The Social Conquest of Earth').
Diamond is not overly sentimental about his subject, and he points out many features of tribal society that no one would want to copy. But there are still some aspects we could learn from, and in every respect the information here helps us understand ourselves better.
In summary, this is one of those rare books which I think will change my entire world outlook forever. Thoroughly recommended!
i found this to be a fascinating book in which the author looks at human society and its development by comparing and contrasting modern life with smaller traditional societies of hunter gatherers, tribes and so on. Many of the descriptions of these traditional societies focus on the peoples of Papua New Guinea, which has seen a period of very rapid and significant change. In 1931 much of the population were still wearing traditional dress, and lived without the components of society as we experience it: no phones, clocks, cars, no writing, metal, money or schools. Now traditional life in Papua New Guinea has almost disappeared - western dress is ubiquitous, and mobile phones and air travel are commonplace.
This rapid change provides much evidence for how traditional societies were - many people still remember in detail, and from personal experience, how they functioned - and this provides the basis for this book, along with much information about the !Kung of the Kalahari, the Ache and Sirinoco of South America, the Andaman Islanders of the Bay of Bengal, and many other traditional societies.
The author looks at land use and property, war, trade, crime and punishment, care of the elderly, raising of children, religion, diet and its consequences, language and much else, with frequent reference to modern history and modern state societies from across the world which helps to keep the narrative interesting for the general reader, as well as being very informative. The author concludes that there are aspects of traditional societies which would improve our lives today, as well as recognising the value of much of the progress which has been made in societal development around the world
I have found this book hard to put down - it is well written, at times amusing, and always interesting. I had never read Jared Diamond's work before but I shall certainly read his other books now.
on 18 October 2013
Diamond, who is in his mid seventies, points out that one of the skills that improves with age is the art of SYNTHESIS.
He has done just that with his latest book which sets out to apply the lessons of hunter-gatherer life to today's world. He leans heavily on his experience with the tribes of New Guinea but synthesizes it with a wide range of other sources - for example Daniel Everett's Pirahã of the Amazon Don't Sleep, There are Snakes, Richard Lee's San Bushmen Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers, Frank Marlowe's Hadza The Hadza and many others.
This is important, since the New Guinea tribes in many ways are not representative of our formative Pleistocene past. They don't live as foragers in a sparsely inhabited savanna but as gardeners/swine-herds in a crowded, wet, jungle environment.
Having said that, Diamond tackles diverse subjects such as Warfare; The Workplace; Justice, Disputes and Vendettas; Religion; Health; Multilingualism; Old People; Risk and many more.
Many of these are difficult topics for a UCLA professor to deal with honestly. He has to avoid academia from metaphorically burning him at the stake for political incorrectness. He has to avoid thought-crime!
So Diamond's prose is reminiscent of Darwin's in The Origin of Species where, almost apologetically, he says that the evidence seems to say such-and-such, but please prove me wrong!
In this regard, Steven Pinker, in his book: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is much more outspoken about lessons to be drawn from the evolutionary origins of human behavior.
Warfare, Diamond says apologetically, really does seem to be part of human nature. But he doesn't want to be accused of thought-crime, so he spends a couple of pages saying how much he sympathizes with scholars who are distressed by even thinking that warfare is not "due to evil Europeans arriving on the scene and messing things up." On the contrary, the arrival of European administrators swiftly put an end to the endless cycle of killings.
Diamond's review of violence in tribal societies nevertheless brings out many interesting points: tribal fights break off when the weather turns bad or the food runs out, only to resume when conditions return to normal; no prisoners are taken - they are all killed.
On the other hand (unlike scorched earth policies), gardens, women, and other resources are preserved as part of the spoils.
When anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon told a Yanomamo warrior about World War II, he said, "You probably raided the Germans because of woman-theft, didn't you."
In Richard Wrangham's reference work on the subject of warfare, Demonic Males, Wrangham wryly observes that, ultimately, all warfare is about access to fertile women - that is, getting genes into the next generation.
In confirmation, Diamond cites Chagnon: `Yanomamo killers have, on average, 2.5 times more wives and over 3 times more children'.
Bringing up Children
From his experiences with primal tribes in New Guinea, Jared Diamond believes we can learn much about child rearing practices when humans are in a state of nature.
These can be summarized briefly as: a woman gives birth alone, or with the assistance of other women - men are not involved; infanticide is practised in cases of necessity; babies are breast-fed for three years or more; pre-chewed pap is introduced at 6 months; nursing is on demand; babies sleep cuddled up to their mother or close relative.
During the day, small babies are carried in a sling on their mother's breast; older babies on their mother's backs; and toddlers usually on the shoulders. In all cases the child faces the same way as the mother.
Fathers play little role in child-rearing, but are vital for provisioning and protecting the family; children play in multi-age playgroups, not in same-age cohorts; and all members of the band are involved in caring for all the other children in the band - a practice known as `alloparenting.
Crying children are immediately comforted; children are rarely punished - either physically or psychologically; children have great autonomy and are permitted to do dangerous things.
There are no state government interests (e.g. compulsory schooling with its social agenda) to conflict with parents' upbringing interests.
Diamond concludes with an observation echoing Dan Everett's concerning the Pirahã:
"[We] are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity and autonomy of the children and adults of small-scale societies."
When assessing risks in the modern world, too frequently people get it wrong. Personally, I see it all the time. For example, many people believe sea-salt is `natural' and thus healthy, when it is, just like regular table salt, harmful sodium chloride.
But, in forager life, correct assessment of risk is a matter of life and death. Moreover, every day, a forager has to take BIG risks.
Diamond makes the case for foragers being very good at assessing and prioritizing the risks they face in their world.
For example, San hunters driving lions off their kill. It's eat or be eaten! But the San carefully assess the time when the lions are sufficiently sated to not put up a fight yet not so sated that there is no food left.
Diamond also introduces an interesting notion: `constructive paranoia'. This is when it makes sense to be ultra cautious about a possible danger since getting it wrong will mean death.
He cites the example of a broken twig found in the hunter's trail. Is it just chance? Or is it made by hostile strangers? The tribesmen take extraordinary precautions `just in case'.
Today, suggests Diamond, our hard-wired constructive paranoia is triggered in dysfunctional ways. For example over myths such as nuclear power being more dangerous than car driving (it isn't) or that pesticides kill more people than surgery (they don't).
Those foragers who ran life's full gauntlet and made it to an advanced age could still walk the 10 miles from one camp to the next. When they couldn't they were left for dead Deadly Harvest.
But Diamond explores more advanced tribes where Darwinian logic finds its expression in doing away with old people. That is, old people are history - and it is in the kids' interests for them to disappear.
Some unacculturated tribes still maintain their gruesome traditions where, for example, the old-timers see it as their duty to submit to - and even welcome - garrotting or being buried alive. Others, unsuspecting, are clubbed to death from behind. Many, like the Fijians, would (but don't now) cook and eat them.
For once Diamond, as a 75-year-old, takes comfort that Western ways are superior to such practices - we have no lessons to learn from them!
Foragers like the San and the Hadza have nothing like our modern religions. No belief in gods, the supernatural, or an after-life for example. However, they have a rich set of myths and stories about the sun, moon and stars plus a modest range of rituals and taboos.
Diamond devotes a chapter to exploring the evolutionary ideas about the function of religiosity. For example:
a) That it be a by-product of humans having a `brain finely honed' to seek `causes' for inexplicable effects;
b) That organized religions arose from a multitude of sects after the farming revolution in a `survival of the fittest' process to meet the challenge of maintaining social control in large groups.
There is much more for those interested in this topic but I move on.
A multitude of languages co-exist cheek-by-jowl in New Guinea. This is not typical of foragers since the New Guineans live in fixed, mutually antagonistic villages, so each village tends to have its own culture and dialect.
Nevertheless, Diamond rhapsodizes about how the villagers all master several languages and how this would be so beneficial to us today.
He suggests that people who are bilingual (or more), not only have more fulfilled lives through accessing other cultures, but also have a more finely honed cognitive ability. A Canadian study even suggests that bilinguals are less likely to get Alzheimer's disease.
This is all very positive, true. But I have difficulty accepting that multilingualism is part of the human condition. It is unlikely that forager bands in our ancestral past lived next to a band that spoke a different language. In fact, in the beginning, there must have been just one language for all.
Secondly, according to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker The Language Instinct there is a dedicated language center in the baby's brain and the mother tongue takes root there - to the exclusion of the next language. So when we learn a second language it has to make do with the general computing areas of the brain - which is why it is so much harder to do.
Over his 50 years of contact with New Guinea tribesmen Diamond has seen a remarkable change.
In the early years they were `lean, muscular, physically active, all of them resembling slim Western body-builders'.
The degenerative diseases that kill westerners today (e.g. cancers and CVD) were absent even in old people.
Fast-forward 50 years and today one sees obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. What has changed? The westernization of their diet of course.
Diamond fingers salt, sugary drinks, simple (`sugar-yielding') carbohydrates, bad fats, processed food, butter, cream and red meat. He admits that this advice is `banal' but pleads that if people heeded it, then that would still be beneficial.
My readers know that we can do much better than that. Diamond mentions a Palaeolithic diet - but then passes on - New Guinea tribesmen are not true hunter-gatherers and don't fit into his paradigm. Today we have better sources, presumably unknown to Diamond, notably my own book ]!
Diamond's Suggestions for us Today
Traditional peoples have been unconsciously executing thousands of experiments on how to operate a human society and we can learn lessons for the way WE do things.
But Diamond admits that it's hard to raise American children like New Guinea children when no one in the neighborhood is doing the same.
On the other hand, he favors on-demand breast-feeding which, with the right determination, is within the possibilities of most mothers.
Like foragers, grandparents can make themselves useful by "easing the lives of their working adult children and enrich lives of their grandchildren and of themselves by providing high-quality one-on-one child care to their grandchildren".
Just like many observers (e.g. Daniel Everett above) Diamond notes that foragers are WELL-ADJUSTED and at ease with themselves in ways that are rare in Western societies.
He sums it up like this: "Foragers are socially rich and economically poor; Westerners are the opposite."
This book is an easy read yet has eye-opening notions - especially for those unfamiliar with the wondrous insights gained from an understanding of where we come from, and the lessons for us today.
Diamond marshalled the material to launch a real questioning of modern industrial society - and in this I am reminded of Aldous Huxley's `Procrustean Bed' ]. Huxley warned us back in 1936 that "...the scientist will prepare the bed on which mankind must lie; and if mankind does not fit - well, that will be just too bad for mankind. There will have to be some stretching and amputations..."
But in my view Diamond pulled his punches - quite naturally for, as a UCLA professor, he had already pushed the politically correct envelope as far as he dare - so well done!
on 8 August 2014
Jared Diamond is a wonderful polymath - I think he originally trained as a zoologist and first went to New Guinea to study its birds. He is now professor of geography at UCLA and his writings cover anthropology, evolutionary biology, ethics, ecology and human history. By far his best book is 'Guns, Germs and Steel', is a history of the human race for the whole of our existence; it is arguably one of the most influential non-fiction books ever written - so start with that and if you like his work keep reading. He is now seventy-five and 'The World Until Yesterday' is a reflection and distillation of much of his professional life. The theme, as expressed in the subtitle, allows him to roam from diet and the rise of diabetes, to child-rearing and violence. It's all interesting stuff and while every individual reader will be interested in different stuff, I gurantee that there is something new and interesting for every reader. It's not his best book, but it's good. Personally I hope he keeps on thinking and writing for a long time to come.
on 22 April 2014
The stated premise for this book is a great one. For the great majority of the human story, people have lived as foragers living in smallish groups rather than farmers or people living in large-scale industrial societies. It therefore makes sense that we could learn a lot of interesting and useful things from people who still live a foraging lifestyle. The first half or so of the book deals with some of the features of such traditional lifestyles. Much of this part of the book is very interesting indeed, particularly topics such as the danger of violence and starvation. The sections on childcare and raising children is fascinating, particularly the amount of time that babies spend attached to their parents in slings. Mr Diamond has a tendency to drift into long anecdotes about his travels as a younger man, but there is enough interesting factual information in the first half to keep the reader's interest.
The latter part of the book is less good. In this part of the book, rather than telling the reader about traditional societies, Mr Diamond instead shares his opinions on a variety of topics. There is a tired discussion of religion where Mr Diamond provides a long and rambling discussion about why religion may have developed, and he makes the case that belief in religion is superstitious nonsense. Mr Diamond is of course entitled to his opinion, but what on earth has this to do with hunter-gatherer societies? Mr Diamond then shares his opinions on topics such a computer games, monoligualism, and the western diet. This part of the book tells us very little about traditional societies, and seems to have the goal of convincing the reader that Mr Diamond holds the politically acceptable opinions for a US liberal, rather than actually teaching us anything useful or interesting. Nobody likes to be preached to, and most particularly not by someone we have paid to inform and entertain us.
Jared Diamond is a 75 year old American academic who confesses to having trouble with TV remote controls and enjoyed many years studying birds in New Guinea. He writes about evolutionary and historical changes from a multidisciplinary angle.I've found his previous books intriguing, although more recent works have been slightly drier to my taste. This book returns to a more chatty open style found in his earlier works, but to me lacks new content. This is mainly because it is a summary of anthropological literature and I've got this degree thing in Prehistory and Archaeology (bit dusty, but most of the groups mentioned: the Nuer, Yanomami, Inuit, !Kung are old friends).
For some reason, he's really upset some people. You'd think this was a soldier's autobiography entitled "my struggle". Reading this fairly mild mannered book, which considers the good and the bad points of "Westernised" society versus the good and bad points of (uh oh, how to categorise without incurring the ire of guily Whities) "traditional" societies (oops, said it, quick, duck!). Diamond mildly concludes there's contradictory advantages to both. The only point he's really vehement about is how we should all cut down on salt, fat and sugar content. Ta Jared for finally getting into my head what blood pressure measurments mean, but otherwise it was just an imiable read for me hence 4 stars.
So wassup? Technically Diamond's statement that us as anatomically modern humans have been gatherer-hunters for most of our existence is correct (Palaeolithic...old stone age will do as a term). After the end of the last glacial maximum, when European latitudes got warmer and the soggy Sahara got drier (and the same for the Southern hemisphere) our species started to adopt a more settled lifestyle in various geographical locations associated with domestication of animals and plants (Neolithic...new stone age). This wasn't an immediate or total adaptation, and rather depended on available species and their adaptation to climatic variations (Sweden is way later in the wheat-barley domestication than the original domestication in Southern Turkey/ Mesopotamia) There are other starch crop based adaptations worldwide. Gatherer-Hunting still existed but as a total lifestyle would have become increasingly marginalised. Farmers are stroppy territorial folk. However both pre and post farming cultures are seen as egalitarian. Relatively late on in human history (Bronze Age and following) it's envisaged that Some people get richer at the expense of the majority (they have metal rich spetacular burials in exclusive tombs) and this indicates early state formation, which eventually became the joyous economically wobbly city dwelling nations like the one I reside in.
Strangely Diamond is criticised for
1. Using Anthropology studies to extrapolate Archaeological behaviour ( umm, ok so that's the reason for my degree stuffed). "Archaeology is Anthropology or it is nothing" Wiley and Philllips 1958. Well, no you shouldn't lift a contemporary group wholemeal into the past, but as similar groups face the same survival challenges as our (and their) ancestors there will be similarites in behaviour. And it's pretty much all that poor little academics have to go on, especially as most major archeological sites were effectively trashed by past excavators on the hunt for stiffs and goodies. And then they failed to publish.
2. Using data from agricultural societies such as New Guinea.......well he states his pivotal moment is social stratification and state formation, not the adoption of farming.
3. Diamond is criticised for not labelling tribal peoples as "primitive savages" himself, but somehow inciting reviews in different popular newspapers to use the words "primitive" and "savage" (not together in the same article or even language, though). Honestly .....the main cited critic really says this.
What he does that has me going oops is the uncritical citing of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. Described to us students as a bit of a bruiser, Chagnon's study of the Yanomami, "the Fierce People", has attracted criticism from other anthropologists and the Yanomami themselves as overstressing the role of violence in their culture. This isn't exactly news, it was published in 1968.
"The Satanic verses" was a dull book, this isn't. I don't find it's message particularly earth shattering. I still like Diamond. My respect for Survival International has taken a big dive.
And yes this was the shortened version of humanity, so no point in getting stroppy with me...especially as I'm not hiding my ID. Diamond just wants you to have a healthy happy long life, poor soul.
on 11 September 2014
Review courtesy of www.subtleillumination.com
We too often mistake past cultures based on flawed information and unconscious assumptions. Jared Diamond has actually done the research, and has the breadth of knowledge to make interesting, provocative, and informative assertions on the nature of humanity and human society.
As a result, The World Until Yesterday is a great book. Jared Diamond is an absolute master of his field, as readers of his other books can attest, and his breadth of examples and insights is exhaustive. In past books though, he has tended to take a single thesis, and argue for it based on case studies. Here, Diamond examines 9 broad themes, discussing how we treat them in the modern world, and how they were treated then. In some ways, we are clearly better off: in other ways we are perhaps not. Those nine themes are dividing space, peace/dispute resolution, war, raising children, treatment of elderly, danger response, religion, language, and diet/lifestyle.
Perhaps the most fundamental takeaway is that there are many possible ways of organizing a society, and that the narrow field of possibilities we experience for ourselves is just that: narrow. Some of these alternatives are probably undesirable from the modern standpoint: among the Kaulong people, when a man died, his brothers would strangle his widow, or in their absence, one of her sons. If they failed to do so fast enough, the widow would mock and humiliate them in order to pressure them to fulfill their obligation. Others, though, have a definite appeal, as with care for children and elderly, or our diets.
Exactly what we should learn from traditional societies is up for debate, and Diamond does not attempt to reach a consensus. His point is more profound: that we should at the very least think about other possible ways of organizing our societies, and that traditional cultures provide a way to see other possibilities in action. As they shrink and disappear, we lose a cultural laboratory of untold richness.
If you’re interested in how human society works (and if you ask me, you should be), then you should read this book, no questions asked.
on 8 February 2014
When I first read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel I was delighted to discover his original, yet accessible, take on the historical processes which formed much of our present-day world. The World Until Yesterday uses the same easy to follow, conversational tone that allows Diamond to educate and entertain those of us who are perhaps not history buffs nor anthropologists. His book compares our modern, Western societies with those of so-called traditional societies, such as the Dani and Fayu tribes in New Guinea, Piraha Indians in South America, !Kung tribes in Africa, and so on.
These groups are literally the last original people on Earth. Their lack of contact with outsiders for millennia allowed them to maintain the same ways of life they’ve led virtually since the Stone Age. Diamond’s time spent in the mountains and jungles of New Guinea, as well as the research of many other scientists, allows the reader a firsthand glimpse at traditions and beliefs that we might have thought were long gone from our world.
Beyond unveiling these groups that we might consider quant and backwards compared to our advanced civilization, Diamond attempts to draw lessons from their methods of child-rearing, dispute resolution, political organization and so on, in order to see what can be applied to our own world. Some aspects of traditional ways of life would be so foreign to most people in Western countries, especially those of us who live in large urban centers, that any lessons to be learned are theoretical at best. Some, such as those concerning our eating habits, reveal changes that individuals could easily apply in the “modern” world, and in fact may make some readers wonder how it is we’ve gotten so used to putting poison into our bodies and think it’s food.
Diamond, to his credit, doesn’t romanticize the tribesmen he has spent so much time studying. He admits that their lives can be short and violent, subject to flood or famine, and with little access to basic medical care that we’ve come to take for granted. On the other hand, the book attempts to answer the question: “how did we get here from there?” in a volume that is not weighed down by statistics or scientific jargon. The end result will allow the interested reader to feel a little bit more informed about our world, without feeling like he’s ploughing through somebody’s doctoral thesis. This can only be a good thing.
on 15 October 2013
This is a long book (perhaps longer than it should be). Despite its excessive length, and being no "Guns, Germs and Steel" it is a very worthwhile book. You do need to have some patience to read it. I suggest you allot yourself some time to read the book. I bought it when it was released, but I couldn't initially pass off the first chapter. So I leave it in my bookshelf for several months until I found myself the time to read it.
The book aims to explore the lives of hunter gatherers/native peoples. It concentrates on the people of the island of New Guinea, a place which Diamond has regularly visited for the last 50 years, discussing extensively many anecdotes he has there. He compares the lives of hunter gatherers with the lives of people living in the world's most developed countries. He believes that at least in some respects the lives of today's hunter gatherers is healthier than the lives of people living in the world's most technologically advanced societies. One example is diet. Like the followers of the paleodiet, Diamond believes that hunter gatherers diet is far superior to the western one, noticing that there is virtually no obese people among natives still living their traditional lifestyle. When native peoples drop their healthy diet and adapt western food habits (heavy on sugar, salt, oils, grains and dairy products), their weight shoots up, and with it associated diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
I also like the book's sophisticated discussion of religion and its frank discussion of violence among native people (some organizations advocating for native peoples didn't like the fact that Diamond writes very matter of factly about the inter and intra tribal violence that exists in native groups. Diamond is only talking the truth. And is unfair to point at Diamond, since the affection he feels for native peoples -especially those of New Guinea - is clear)
on 8 March 2014
This is an excellent description of pre-state societies, and why most people who've experienced both do prefer the security of a society in which the state prevents private feuds and tribal warfare. Not liked by many reviewers for just that reason: secure under the protection of a strong state, they notice just how it misbehaves. This book gives a sensible account of what the alternatives were.