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

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

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by Jared Diamond

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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…  See more details below


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. A characteristically provocative, enlightening, and entertaining book, The World Until Yesterday will be essential and delightful reading.

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Editorial Reviews

The "yesterday" and "today" implicit in the title are the few hundred years since the Industrial Revolution. Most of us forget that for more than 100,000 years, humankind lived in resilient hunter-gatherer societies that we ignore or dismiss unthinkingly as "primitive." Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) has devoted decades of fieldwork to these traditional societies and he believes that understanding their practices can teach us much about lessons, both positive and negative, that remain pertinent today. A Barnes & Noble Bestseller worth keeping in mind.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“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 […] 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.”
Book Page

“Challenging and smart…By focusing his infectious intellect and incredible experience on nine broad areas -- peace and war, young and old, danger and response, religion, language and health -- and sifting through thousands of years of customs across 39 traditional societies, Diamond shows us many features of the past that we would be wise to adopt.”
--Minneapolis Star Tribune

The World Until Yesterday [is] a fascinating and valuable look at what the rest of us have to learn from – and perhaps offer to – our more traditional kin.”
--Christian Science Monitor

“Ambitious and erudite, drawing on Diamond's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of fields such as anthropology, sociology, linguistics, physiology, nutrition and evolutionary biology. Diamond is a Renaissance man, a serious scholar and an audacious generalist, with a gift for synthesizing data and theories.”
--The Chicago Tribune

“As always, Diamond manages to combine a daring breadth of scope, rigorous technical detail and personal anecdotes that are often quite moving.”
--The Cleveland Plain Dealer

  “Diamond’s investigation of a selection of traditional societies, and within them a selection of how they contend with various issues[…]is leisurely but not complacent, informed but not claiming omniscience[…]A symphonic yet unromantic portrait of traditional societies and the often stirring lessons they offer.”--Kirkus, Starred Review

“In this fascinating book, Diamond brings fresh perspective to historic and contemporary ways of life with an eye toward those that are likely to enhance our future.”—Booklist

“Lyrical and harrowing, this survey of traditional societies reveals the surprising truth that modern life is a mere snippet in the long narrative of human endeavor[…]This book provides a lifetime of distilled experience but offers no simple lessons.”—Publishers Weekly

“Jared Diamond has done it again. Surveying a great range of anthropological literature and integrating it with vivid accounts of a lifetime of visits—sometimes harrowing, more often exhilarating—to highland New Guinea, he holds up a needed mirror to our culture and civilization. The reflection is not always flattering, but it is always worth looking at with an honest, intelligent eye. Diamond does that and more.”
--Melvin Konner, author of The Tangled Wing:   and The Evolution of Childhood

“This is the most personal of Diamond's books, a natural follow-up to his brilliant Guns, Germs, and Steel.  Diamond has very extensive and long-term field experience with New Guineans, and stories of these admirable people enrich his overview of how all human beings acted until very recently.  Not only are his accounts fascinating, they will ring true to all who have experience with hunter-gatherer cultures.  And they carry many lessons for modern societies as well on everything from child-rearing to general health.  The World Until Yesterday is a triumph.”
--Paul R. Ehrlich, author of Human Natures

The World Until Yesterday is another eye-opening and completely enchanting book by one of our major intellectual forces, as a writer, a thinker, a scientist, a human being. It's a rare treasure, both as an illuminating personal memoir and an engrossing look into the heart of traditional societies and the timely lessons they can offer us. Its unique spell is irresistible.”
--Diane Ackerman, author of The Zookeeper's Wife

“An incredible insightful journey into the knowledge and experiences of peoples in traditional societies. Diamond’s literary adventure reflects on the problems of today in light of his exhaustive literature review and 40 plus years of living with rural New Guinean peoples.”
--Barry Hewlett, author of Intimate Fathers  (with Michael Lamb)

“In the 19th century Charles Darwin's trilogy—On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals changed forever our understanding of our nature and our history. A century from now scholars will make a similar assessment of Jared Diamond's trilogy: Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse, and now The World Until Yesterday, his magnificent concluding opus on not only our nature and our history, but our destiny as a species. Jared Diamond is the Charles Darwin of our generation, and The World Until Yesterday is an epoch-changing work that offers us hope through real-life solutions to our most pressing problems.”
--Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, author of The Believing Brain and Why Darwin Matters

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The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
popscipopulizer More than 1 year ago
*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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book is an anthropological romp comparing paleolithic type societies with Western societies. Diamond presents evidence from various studies and from his own experience with New Guinea tribal groups. The underlying point of the book is tha Diamond is trying to present scientific evidence for the reader to use in building a better world. Topics vary. Wars. Are small tribal killings worse than modern wars? Is our treatment of the elderly better than in primitive societies? Religion, multilingualism, diets and constructive paranoia is discussed in this mix. One drawback is the book spends too much time on New Guinea tribal groups. Many of those sections could be condensed to main points. The book is a good buy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Socrates said "know thyself". One of the best ways to 'see' your own culture is to immerse yourself in someone else's. Diamond opens that window for us, just without the plane ticket and lost baggage. Very readable, informative and enlightening. You don't need to be an anthropology student to enjoy this book.
B-2 More than 1 year ago
Well written book on an unusual human-interest subject! This book explores the everyday lifestyle of diverse remaining traditional tribal societies (it’ll show you why the term “primitive society” is wrong) vs the modern ones. Author based it on his own experiences in New Guinea and many other countries as well as work of others in Africa, Asia and Americas. It is not an encyclopedia on the subject but rather a broad, well thought-through and insightful review of common features of such people, from child-rearing to eating habits to resolving conflicts. The book is perhaps a little more patchy and less global than “Guns, Germs and Steel” or “Collapse”, since it is focused on small scattered and diverse societies . It reports a myriad of facts you will find interesting regardless of whatever you agree with the conclusions and suggestions the author draws from them. As all Diamond’s books, very readable, un-boring, and frequently funny . I grade books as Buy and Keep ( BK), Read a Library Copy (RLC) and Once-I-Put-It-Down-I-Couldn’t-Pick-It-Up (OIPD-ICPU). This one is RLC at very least.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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 there is a more important reason for individual multilingualism and for preserving as many languages as possible. I'm convinced that there are subtle differences in reality as different languages represent it to us. However, we have never found a satisfactory way of talking about these differences. In fact, it seems to me that people are very chary of even broaching the subject. And I think much of the blame for that can be attributed to the myth of a "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis". This myth was invented in the early 1950s or thereabouts by the linguistic establishment of the time who were concerned that the surge of interest in the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf was likely to divert funding away from what was then the dominant line of research. They effectively attacked the threat by representing it as a quite extravagant hypothesis that was much too vague to be tested and thus left nothing further that could be done. The implication was that there were either profound ontological differences between languages or none at all. This ploy continues to this day to be a harmful constraint on linguistic discourse. Anyway, I feel that there are subtle differences in the emphases and interconnectedness that different languages give to reality, and that the sum of all of these adds up to an accumulated understanding, an accumulated wisdom, a sort of intellectual patrimony of our species. But this matter still awaits its Darwin or Newton. Of course, many more subjects are covered in this quite impressive book. Diamond is uniquely equipped to write such a book, his extensive experience with a great variety of New Guinea societies is a rare asset. This is well up to the high standard he has set in previous works.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
as with Diamond's other books, this one has wide scope and brings together information from disparate sources. But I have to say it is just not as gripping as collapse or guns germs and steel. His main theme is what we can learn from precivilized societies. If these lessons are modest ones, it is good to be reminded that by far the greatest portion of human history has not been lived in civilization -- well under 10%. So there is no reason to think our current way of life is in all ways superior.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
commandereagle2 More than 1 year ago
I was quite disappointed with this book upon reading it. Unlike Diamond's other two most famous books (Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse) this book seemed to be devoid of any kind of clear narrative or point to make. Rather, it very much read like a conglomeration of some of Diamond's notes and thoughts about hunter gatherer societies. I expected him to be making some central grandiose point the way he did in the others. Missing on that point, I put down the book rather frustrated. However, with time to reflect, I can praise this book for so wonderfully catalogs human development with contrasts between the past and present. Essentially, it is an excellent lay-person's introduction to anthropology and serves as a basis for excellent questions in sociology and moral development. Excellent work. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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DickK More than 1 year ago
Jared Diamond is very thorough in his analysis of groups, tribes, nstions etc.
AnnieWAW More than 1 year ago
Very good.