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

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  • Posted January 7, 2013

    *A full executive summary of this book will be available at newb

    *A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Monday, January 14.

    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 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 hunter-gatherer 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 undiscovered 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.

    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 has made a career out of studying the traditional societies of 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. Altogether a very good book. A full executive summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Monday, January 14; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.

    22 out of 23 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 16, 2013

    Very good.

    Very good.

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2013

    Some years ago there was much speculation about the respective c

    Some years ago there was much speculation about the respective contributions of nature and nurture to humans' thoughts and behavior. I remember such questions as what would happen if we dressed baby girls in blue and boys in pink and gave the boys dolls to play with--would the boys grow up behaving like girls are supposed to and vice versa? That set me to toying with ideas for a book about what Diamond calls "the world until yesterday" to provide at least a partial answer. His book, even with its quite different emphasis, incidentally provides more insight into what is natural to our species than anything I might have written.
    There was a time when Europeans used to speak of hunter-gatherers or small-scale farmers such as Diamond describes as “naturals”. They were seen as living in the state of nature--their behavior being a direct expression of their natures, whereas that of civilized people was the result of deliberate design. Its very unnaturalness--rising above our animal natures--was considered a virtue.
    Of course, no human societies live in an actual state of nature--every society has adapted to its own conditions through its own culture and no one's behavior is simply instinctual. Nevertheless, there were extensive similarities in the conditions to which all hunter-gatherers had to adapt and in the resulting behaviors and the cultures built around them. And hunter-gatherer conditions persisted for many thousands of years--a period during which the biological (and psychological) adaptations that define our species occurred.
    What we're left with today are the kinds of peoples that Diamond describes--the few hunter-gatherers who have survived in the margins of today's world supplemented by the more numerous small-scale agriculturalists. The cultures of the latter are still broadly comparable.
    And so the kinds of behaviors described as representing "the world until yesterday" come as close as any we're going to find to those that are natural for our species--those for which we are adapted.
    All of the additional complexities that we know today are attributable to food surplus--to individuals being able to reliably produce more than enough food to feed themselves. This meant that there were no periods of starvation (at least for key segments of the population). It also meant that not everyone had to spend their time in food production--some were thus freed to pursue other activities.
    A very conspicuous difference between yesterday's world and our modern states is the concentration of power in the hands of an authority with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Such an authority with police powers capable of imposing peace within the society was, of course, impossible until there was a sufficient surplus to feed those who would impose the peace.
    The absence of peace as we know it was an aspect of yesterday's world that always struck me as particularly disturbing. At some level people must never have been free of an awareness of potential dangers that we no longer face. And of course this was the inevitable state of affairs until there was concentration of power in the hands of a government with police powers capable of imposing peace within the society.
    One could hardly say that the attitudes and behaviors that were natural yesterday have left no traces in today's world. First of all, on the international level there is no authority capable of maintaining peace between nations, and although negotiation can play a complicating role, in the end the relations between nations continue to follow very much the old pattern.
    Something else that has seemed to me to reflect the same aspect of our nature is the street gangs, especially in some areas in big American cities with limited police control. These gangs are engaged in a constant battle to gain and maintain respect for their ability to defend themselves and retaliate for any offense against them.
    Another institution of modern society that seems to have its antecedent in yesterday's state of constant (active or latent) war is sports. It's easy to see sports as reflecting a sense of groups in a continuing contest for survival.
    Maybe this seemed clearest to me in the conditions where I grew up. That was in an area with towns small enough that, typically, each town had a single high school, and there was a lot of town pride associated with their athletic teams. This was especially true of the football teams. Football being seen as the most "physical" (=manly) of the sports made those teams and their players particularly appropriate to be seen as the town's champions.
    I do have to admit that other sports seem to play this role less well. What about women's and the less physical men's sports? And what about even football teams above the high school level? Certainly, teams that don't rely on players from the communities they represent but recruit from anywhere in the world would seem to have a more tenuous claim to community pride.
    But in any case the avidity of the interest in sports seems to cry out for explanation: I would suggest that its antecedent is yesterday's warfare.
    It's not surprising if we moderns pride ourselves on our invention of law and the police powers that support it. It might be tempting to attribute this achievement to some moral superiority on our part, but of course this achievement is to be found only in societies with a food supply sufficient to feed individuals to constitute and run a government.
    Of course, a reliable food supply provides enormous advantages of many kinds. Moderns are likely to feel revulsion at Diamond's descriptions of infanticide and the abandonment of elders when resources were insufficient to maintain any who couldn't maintain themselves. And of course moderns may be particularly inclined to evaluate these practices in terms of morality, but it’s important to remember that the effective exercise of morality presupposes adequate resources.
    Further examples of the difference a reliable food supply can make appear in Diamond's descriptions of infanticide and the abandonment of elders when resources were insufficient to maintain any who couldn't maintain themselves. Of course moderns may be particularly inclined to evaluate these practices in terms of morality, but it’s important to remember that the effective exercise of morality presupposes adequate resources.
    His discussion of child-rearing practices is enlightening. One very general observation is that small children are permitted to experiment much more in ways that expose them to risks--such as handling sharp knives or approaching fires--than in our more protective approach.
    Some particularly interesting observations came from children of Western missionaries who lived for some years in New Guinea societies before being thrust into schools in Australia or the US. The most difficult adjustment, they report, was that from a previous emphasis on cooperation and sharing behavior, they were now expected to be competitive.
    Diamond takes on the challenge of religion. Religion is of particular interest partly because it, along with art and language, are institutions without apparent antecedents. They are universal in human societies but nothing in the other closely related species suggests their origin. Diamond doesn't look for antecedents for religion, but he does propose an explanation. He sees religion as having evolved along with human culture. During our cultural evolution he sees religion as having performed a total of seven different functions as it evolved with those that were most important at some stages being less so or even absent at others. I find this a quite plausible scenario.
    He also takes on language, though not its origins. He argues for the preservation of languages and the advantages (including psychological) of knowing more than one language. I would agree with what he says, but to my mind the

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2014

    You´ll learn a lot from it

    I am just about the middle of the book at this point: it is enthralling! The way Mr Diamond compares our societies with those of yesteryear is both eye opening and educative. How they "trade" by giving each other "gifts" while expecting other "gifts" in return, how they resolve conflicts (no lawyers, judges, police, files, etc., how they establish relationships among groups, how they protect territory . . . I stay until 2 o´clock in the morning reading: I cannot put it down!

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  • Posted May 10, 2013

    Very enlightening read

    Jared Diamond is very thorough in his analysis of groups, tribes, nstions etc.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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