The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? By Jared Diamond

    Jared Diamond · 6 Free read

    This book is a fascinating, comprehensive view of life in several traditional cultures. The best part of the book is the personal insights that Jared Diamond delivers. Diamond spent a lot of time with the peoples of Papua New Guinea, and he enthusiastically describes all facets of their lives. He contrasts their society with other traditional societies living in the Arctic, in Africa, and with modern, Western societies.

    There are hundreds of tribes living in New Guinea. Many of these tribes have long-standing enmities with their neighbors. It is very dangerous for people to move from one area to another, because of vendettas that span across generations. Many people have never traveled more than a few miles from the place where they were born. Some people who live within 50 or 100 miles of the coast are not even aware of the ocean. As a result, their languages and customs remain distinct from one another.

    This is a wonderful book, because Diamond describes the societies from first-hand knowledge, living among people in New Guinea. He has many interesting stories to tell, including a number from his first-hand experiences there. I especially like the story about his bird-watching expedition into an isolated region by helicopter, over 20 miles from the nearest inhabitants. All went swimmingly, until he came to a small clearing, where a guide pointed out a small stick with a few leaves stuck in the ground. Such an innocuous object was alarming to the guide, as it implied that the territory had recently been visited--and perhaps claimed--by others.

    The book does tend to repeat unnecessarily, and occasionally to ramble. Towards the end of the book, Diamond makes a point of showing how the diets of traditional societies may be healthier than Western diets. People in traditional societies rarely are overweight, get diabetes, heart disease, and so on. This is an excellent point, although Diamond turns the chapter into a sort of self-help manual. I enjoyed his emphasis, but it was sort of distracting.

    Social Sciences, Anthropology BOTW

    BBC Blurbs: Drawing upon several decades of experience living and working in Papua New Guinea, Professor Diamond shows how traditional societies can offer an extraordinary window into how our ancestors lived for millions of years - until virtually yesterday, in evolutionary terms - and provide unique, often overlooked insights into human nature. Exploring how tribal peoples approach essential human problems, from child rearing to old age to conflict resolution to health, Diamond reminds us that the West achieved global dominance due to specific environmental and technological advantages, but Westerners do not necessarily have superior ideas about how to live well.

    5* Guns, Germs and Steel
    5* Collapse
    4* The Third Chimpanzee
    1* Why is Sex Fun
    3* The World Until Yesterday Social Sciences, Anthropology It's always exciting when Jared Diamond publishes a new book and the advance copies were hugely sought after when they arrived at the office in October. This is the most personal of Diamond's books, with many anecdotes from his work in New Guinea. It reads like the book he's always wanted to write. The title is a comment that, in the context of history, we all, until recently, lived in traditional societies and Diamond describes key elements of that lifestyle. I found the beginning, where Diamond compares and contrasts traditional and modern societies, especially with reference to the execution of justice, forced. But the explicit drawing of lessons from traditional societies soon ends, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions, and from here the book is an excellent and flowing read. Diamond effortlessly discusses, among other things, childhood, safety, religion, and language, describing how every society's structures are responses to particular contexts. He ends with observations about the fate of traditional societies today which points to where we ourselves may be heading. The World Until Yesterday is the natural extension of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse as a masterly commentary on humanity and society.

    I'm on Twitter: @Dr_A_Taubman Social Sciences, Anthropology *A full executive summary of this book is available here:

    The main argument: The onset of agriculture and farming some 11,000 years ago (termed the Neolithic Revolution), is arguably the most significant turning point in the history of our species. Agriculture induced a major population explosion, which then led to urbanization; labor specialization; social stratification; and formalized governance—thus ultimately bringing us to civilization as we know it today. Prior to the Neolithic Revolution—and extending back time out of mind—human beings lived in a far different way. Specifically, our ancestors lived in small, largely egalitarian tribes of no more than 50 to 100 individuals, and hunted and foraged for their food.

    The transition from our traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle, to early farming (and herding), to civilization as we know it now (which, on an evolutionary time-scale, occurred but yesterday) has certainly brought with it some very impressive benefits. Indeed, many of us today enjoy comforts and opportunities the likes of which our more traditional ancestors would never have dreamed of. However, it cannot be said that the transition from traditional to modern has left us without any difficulties. Indeed, some would go so far as to say that the problems that civilization has introduced outweigh the benefits that it has brought; and even the most unromantic among us are likely to agree that our experiment in civilization has not been an unmitigated success.

    This then brings us to the problem of solving the difficulties that civilization has left us with. Now, when it comes to solving our problems, it is without a doubt the spirit of our age to look ever forward for solutions—by which I mean we tend to look for new technologies and hitherto untested arrangements to help us out of our current predicaments. However, when we consider that our traditional lifestyle served us well for millennia on end, and that it was under this lifestyle wherein we underwent much of the biological and psychological evolution that lives with us to this day, we can begin to see how it may be fruitful to look back at this traditional lifestyle for possible solutions to the problems we now face. (This idea is not new; indeed, the ‘state of nature’ has traditionally been of great interest to philosophers—for it has been thought that understanding how we lived by nature may serve as a guide to help us design the most fitting political communities given our present circumstances).

    Also of interest here—and deeply connected to the more practical goal mentioned above—is that investigating our traditional way of life promises to shed light on our underlying human nature in a way that is not possible when we look at ourselves through the obscuring artifice of civilization. It is these things that we stand to gain by learning about traditional societies, and it is this very project that geographer Jared Diamond takes up in his new book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

    Diamond is certainly not one to deny that civilization has brought with it many important benefits over our traditional way of life (the most important of which, according to the author, being that state governments are much more effective at ending the cycles of violence that tend to plague traditional societies). However, Diamond does contend that there are many areas wherein traditional practices represent an improvement over how we do things in the modern world, and that these practices could (and should) be incorporated into our modern way of life (both at the personal and societal level). Specifically, we could afford to learn a thing or two from traditional societies when it comes to conflict resolution (how to re-establish and mend relationships); raising children (that it really does take a whole village to raise a child); treating the elderly (that they are deserving of respect, and are still capable of contributing to the community in many important ways); approaching risk (with extensive caution); communicating (in a face to face way, and with multiple languages); and in diet and exercise (favoring natural foods, reducing salt, and sugar intake, and adopting a more active lifestyle).

    In the course of his exploration of traditional societies, Diamond also delves into why and how our ancestors transitioned from traditional societies to civilizations (with a focus on such areas as social, economic and political stratification, and also religion).

    Diamond has made a career out of studying the traditional societies of Papua New Guinea, and is therefore a very credible authority on the subject matter at hand. What's more, his wealth of experience has left him with a trove of interesting and illuminating anecdotes to draw from, and these are on full display here. Finally, I felt that the author always maintained a very sober and balanced view with regards to the benefits and drawbacks of both traditional and modern societies. I would have liked to have seen certain topics discussed more, and others less, but this is mere personal preference. Altogether a very good book. A full executive summary of this book is available here: A podcast discussion of the book is also available. Social Sciences, Anthropology I agree with David Brooks who reviewed this book in January 2013 that much of its essential idea— that the West can learn from traditional and small-scale societies—doesn’t really leap off the page. Brooks’s point is that the reader doesn’t really get to meet individuals of traditional and primitive societies, and that undermines Diamond’s arguments that the West try alternatives to its present justice system. One idea that I Iiked was emotional mediation in some cases of murder. Here the killer and his victims are brought together to face each other over a table and talk about how the loss of a loved has affected them or, in the case of the killer, a show of remorse. This may seem preposterous on its face, but for those so inclined such an approach can provide closure for the parties that most present Western systems of justice cannot, since parties in Western disputes tend to talk at each other through adversarial intermediaries called attorneys. I can also see why Diamond sticks to discussing traditional and small-scale societies from the perspective of populations, since a divagation to an individual’s story might skew his arguments unduly. Having said that I also see how the populations approach appears inherently anti-individualistic and even Marxist. Marxist intrusions into the social and behavioral sciences in the second half of the 20th century were horrendously counterproductive, but I do not believe that is the author’s intent here. Nevertheless, the lack of human stories makes for rough sledding. There are some, but very few. So a bit of a narrative Catch-22. Social Sciences, Anthropology


    Four stars for content, 3 stars for style.

    This is from the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel. I liked that book for the content and insight it presented, but thought that it's too verbose (i.e. lots of repetition of the same idea to get the point across). This book suffers the same issue. Ideally the information can be presented via a series of long form magazine article instead of a tome, but I guess books makes more money..

    One difference about this book to his previous is that this work is a combination of history and advocacy. He presents how traditional societies (mostly represented by tribesmen of New Guinea which he is very familiar with, with sprinking of examples from other native tribes of America and Africa thrown in) differs from ours. The advocacy part then kicks in on what the author think we can learn from these societies. Some folks doesn't like to get preached to when they read history so YMMV.

    Some highlights:

    - One should not romanticize traditional society, life is harsh. Childhood mortality rate is as high as 2/3. Few lives beyond 40 years old.
    - Binary world view: People you meet are either people you know (kin and family of the same tribe), or they are enemy. A stranger is by definition an enemy (because he is a threat and competitor to your food source).
    - Agriculture is the dividing line: Traditional society = hunter gatherer. Once agriculture is discovered that society will head toward what we call modern civilization.
    - One is constantly in a state of war. Violence can erupt anytime. Death rate percentage wise is much higher than modern warfare like WW1/WW2.
    - One is immersed with ones tribesmen. People are constantly talking and communicating. Privacy is unknown (adults will be having sex in the same room as their children).
    - Children discover sex much earlier than modern folks. Childhood games often have sexual overtone.
    - There are no law. Cultural custom rules the land (the author has a interesting story about a modern driver who had a hit and run incident and killed a child. Rule number one is after a hit and run you should immediately flee the scene and visit the local police, else the victims family and tribe is likely to lynch you on the spot).
    - All disputes are resolved via arbitration (remember, no law). So a hit and run wrongful death incident will involve you sending out emissary to reps of the victim to work out a deal.
    - Concept of Justice in this case is very different. The result of dispute resolution is not to establish right and wrong, but to come up with a deal so that relationship can be restored to a status quo ante. This is important because any disputes are likely with people close to you (i.e. neighboring tribes) that you will have to deal with later in life. The concept in our world of disputes/crime with strangers doesn't really exist for them.
    This is one part of the custom that the author is advocating for disputes among people you know (i.e. divorce, or inheritance fights) because one want to preserve relationship afterwards. An adversarial court preceding is a bad way to resolve these issues.
    - Even if such a deal is reach among the principals, it doesn't mean it's settled. A victim's uncle might decide that the deal was not satisfactory, so you then have a blood feud on your hand. You might get an arrow 2 years from now because of this.
    - Dangers abound, so folks are paranoid by our standard.
    - They are much healthier in terms of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, etc.
    - They are much less healthy in terms of infection, epidemics, etc.
    - They are physically active by our standard.
    - Paleo diet works if you want to lose weight.
    - (late addition) Being a crib bilingual means the person will grow up and handle change better. There are some fascinating experiments outlined in the book to prove this with babies...
    Social Sciences, Anthropology Reading this book I remembered why I liked Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies so much: the clear line of argument, the logical structure, the transparency about sources and methodology, etc., all these criteria of a sound scientific work, they came back in this book, or at least partly.

    This book has been applauded, but also highly criticized, especially because Diamond relied mainly on his own experiences (in Papua New Guinea) and on some other studies of traditional societies elsewhere, and apparently had made completely wrong estimates of the available data, for example in comparing the level of violence in traditional and modern societies. I can understand both critiques: a number of chapters indeed mainly are based on personal experiences, and, of course, Diamond not has been able to read all anthropological literature. But he is always very honest about that, and he constantly warns against generalizations or indicates that his source material is rather limited.

    The second point of criticism is bit more difficult to evaluate. I have the impression that in most cases the comparisons Diamond makes between the levels of violence in traditional and modern societies are sound. But it is right that he remains blind to the ravages that the advent of modernity has wrought among native populations. He does point out that these societies were themselves pacified, because the modern states had taken over the monopoly on violence, but then does not mention the violence and discrimination of those modern states themselves against their native population (in Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, etc.), and that's certainly an obvious mistake.

    Contrary to what some reviewers write, Diamond does not go along with the classic praise to the “noble savage”. He clearly highlights the disadvantages of life in traditional societies. That said, he also points out some positive aspects that we, modern Westerners, might well learn from. Rightly so. But if you see the list of his conclusions, you may be disappointed: they are very predictable. We should live healthier, exercise more, and eat more nutritiously, take better care of our elderly, better educate our children about the past, and in our legal system we should be more mindful of mediation and compensation. It are all things that our newspapers already are full of.

    Yet there are two aspects that Diamond introduces that were new and interesting to me: the principle of constructive paranoia, and the contribution of emotional aspects to conflicts. Constructive paranoia refers to the attitude of traditional societies to continuously assess dangers and risks and take them into account in their behavior; a strong contrast is that with consciously looking up (and kicking on) risks in our western societies. And in conflict resolution traditional societies especially focus on the restoration of relations between the conflicting parties, and the manifest emotional input therein.

    Personally I enjoyed the concrete stories that Diamond tells about his experiences during his many stays in New Guinea. Of course, they give a distorted picture, and you should certainly not generalize them, but they make the picture of life in a traditional society much more tangible. It is a pity that he mainly discusses these experiences in the first part (about conflicts) and the second part (about dealing with young and old), and much less in the others.

    My biggest criticism of this book is that it has no clear focus. For example, in the last chapter we are presented with dozens of pages about what salt and sugar do to our health and how dangerous high blood pressure and obesity are, including guidelines for a healthier diet. Certainly as the book progresses, the emphasis is much less on how things are (or were) in traditional societies than on how in the modern West we do things wrongly. In that respect, the quality of this book is clearly less than its more well-known Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Social Sciences, Anthropology I am always angered by scientists and pseudo-scientists who take it for granted that the study of 'primitive' societies of today, or of several decades ago, provides a good insight into the life of the hunter-gatherers of 100,000 years ago, when the human species only consisted of that kind of people. It is a mistake that is very often made to see these 'primitive' societies as a kind of living fossiles, reflecting almost perfectly the life of so many years ago. This view ignores the fact that these societies kept on evolving on their own, and immediately adapted their way of life, even after the faintest contact with western people.

    I am not claiming that Diamond is committing the same mistake, at least not systematically, but several passages in this book implicitly take the faulty point of view for granted. Take the main title of this book, the world until yesterday: even though 'yesterday' is not to be taken literally, this is absolutely wrong. In that respect, the subtitle: What we can learn from traditional societies covers the content much better. Because Diamond rightly points out that the classical social sciences give a completely distorted view of human reality: they only focus on people in the 'Weird' societies (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic), and often only the US. He’s absolutely right that traditional societies must be seen as much more diverse experiments in human society and thus provide a broader and more accurate picture of what mankind really is. Seen from that angle, and despite its shortcomings, this is a valuable book that develops a number of creditable hypotheses. And fortunately, Diamond uses the term ‘traditional communities’ and not the odious ‘primitive’. Social Sciences, Anthropology You need to know right up front that I am going to really rag on this book. I read every single word of it and feel qualified to tell you it was poor in many respects. It would be so much nicer to praise and compliment Diamond's efforts here but I'd be lying if I told you anything other than this was a painful experience. If you stick with my review, however, I will tell you toward the end what it takes this author 466 pages to say. (Please don't expect anything revelatory. His conclusions are the very definition of mundane.)

    In summary there are some interesting ideas presented in a style that is excessively wordy. Actually he vomits onto the page incessantly. And it's incredibly frustrating because syntax and grammar are generally not his problems. (He does use regime when he means regimen and wrongly differentiates between Parasitic and Infectious Diseases, but these are minor quibbles.) He simply can't help himself from droning on and on with the result that he is pedantic.

    And the repetition is stultifying. Here is just one example:

    In each such case, as I detailed two paragraphs above for Alaska's Inuit, the coastal partner has preferential or sole access to marine or coastal resources such as marine mammals and fish and shells, while the inland partner has preferential or sole access to territorial resources such as game, gardens and forests.

    He recognizes that he just said this. So he has to tell us that he just said this. And then he has to say it all over again in his formulaic, textbook fashion. How did this man ever win a Pulitzer Prize?

    Many of his ideas are already well-established or so obvious as to be rather anticlimactic. And yet Diamond seems not to understand that. Even the most basic principles are identified and explained (and illustrated) for his reader. Check out this beaut on page 61:

    The first surprise for the Highlanders would have been to discover that our overwhelmingly prevalent method of acquiring an item is not by barter but by paying for it with money (Plate 33). Turn to plate 33 which is a photograph of a white guy using cash to buy a gallon of paint at the counter of a hardware store. Good Lord...

    Other problems include a shifting perspective in favor of third-world views which undermines objectivity. The section titled Advantages of the Modern World lists the many reasons members of traditional societies (Aboriginal Pygmies, New Guinea Highlanders, Amazonian Hunters) give for wanting to adopt First World lifestyles; the section titled Advantages of the Traditional World lists the many terrible things these same individuals find upon moving to the U.S. Really? These are quite clearly Disadvantages of the Modern World. Why not just say so?

    Drum roll, please. Here is what we can all learn from traditional societies:

    Do not smoke.
    Exercise regularly.
    Limit your intake of total calories, alcohol, salt, sugar, saturated fats and processed foods.
    Increase your intake of fiber, fruits, vegetables and calcium.
    Eat more slowly.
    Decrease sedentary activities, especially screen time, unless it comes to meals which should be social/communal and relaxed.

    Following this summation, Diamond writes: This advice is so banally familiar that it's embarassing to repeat it. Yes, it most certainly is.

    Do yourself a favor and don't cause further embarrassment by reading every word of this book like I did. We must all learn from one another's mistakes.

    Social Sciences, Anthropology Book of the year, 2013, for me. 7 pure gold, very twinkly, high-in-the-sky stars. If you like anthropology and history you'll like this. If you don't think you like those subjects, you might still like this because it is wonderfully well-written and very enlightening.

    If I ever get round to reviewing again, ie. if I ever get over being pissed off at Goodreads for turning into an authors' marketplace, for deleting and censoring reviews and shelves, for sharing my reviews, all of them, with Google when I denied permission, then this will be one of the first books I will review. Social Sciences, Anthropology

    The bestselling author of Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel surveys the history of human societies to answer the question: What can we learn from traditional societies that can make the world a better place for all of us?

    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. Provocative, enlightening, and entertaining, The World Until Yesterday is an essential and fascinating read.

    The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?