book review

‘The World Until Yesterday’ by Jared Diamond

Photos from Getty Images; Clockwise from upper left: ROMEO GACAD; Ulet Ifansasti; YASUYOSHI CHIBA; AFP stringer; STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN; SANKA VIDANAGAMA; GABRIEL BOUYS

THERE MIGHT BE an inclination among some who pick up Jared Diamond’s new book to believe it’s one of the seemingly countless self-help books that are the residue of the heartbreakingly narcissistic society of the here-and-now, with the edges of that society beginning — already — to collapse.

The title certainly seems to lean in that direction: “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” Instead, however, I think it’s a hybrid book, both subtly and indirectly chiding while also deep and scholarly and wonkish. Any page might discuss passionately and intelligently the bison-hunting communities of the indigenous people in the Southwestern United States in one paragraph before moving on to the habits of another culture on the other side of the world. Or perhaps what I’m calling scholarliness is really just the manifestation of a curious mind, always inquiring, always hunting and gathering, and then sharing what has been found.

One of the things that keeps this book from being an academic text is the steady current of personal narrative, the author’s experiences in the field with the native cultures he describes: hiking with guides in New Guinea along the sometimes poorly defined territories between warring clans and tribes, or a shipwreck off the coast of Indonesia in which he nearly drowned. Even from these incidents, and others, lessons unspool; Diamond discusses the concept of “constructive paranoia” — the evolutionary importance of being aware of an environment’s dangers.


These passages are not necessarily literature, but amid all the scientific and social data — so much of it strange and wonderful — Diamond’s personal and interpersonal contributions leaven what would otherwise be 3a book of perhaps overwhelming density.

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Additionally, there is a faint element of social discourse, though it’s done so honestly and gently that it’s inoffensive. Instead of overly nudging or criticizing, for instance, our television culture, Diamond spends more time praising the young people he’s encountered in native cultures, particularly in hunter-gatherer societies. “[O]ther Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children. We see that people in small-scale societies spend far more time talking to each other than we do, and they spend no time at all on passive entertainment supplied by outsiders. ”

Diamond covers a lot of ground, organizing his book into a series of smaller chapters grouped into large thematic sections, bearing titles like “Peace and War’’ and “Young and Old.’’ There’s almost nothing, Diamond tells us, that these older civilizations and cultures haven’t evolved to live with. Elder care and the utility of old people, dispute resolution, physical and mental health: Today’s challenges are nothing our predecessors did not have to address as well.

Particularly fascinating to me is Diamond’s chapter on trade, especially as it relates to “tiny nations.” The shop-local ethos being rediscovered by small economies around this country and the decentralization of food and energy markets, is not a discovery at all, but a kind of reinhabiting. Diamond tells the story of the !Kung in Africa, hunters who on any given day may have arrows in their quivers crafted by a half-dozen different artisans, and of how the hunters are familiar with each arrow and maker. Their trading habits are not just about acquiring but also about building and sustaining relationships.

Another chapter discusses food production by various native cultures around the world, where agricultural communities spread their gardens out across a wide landscape to avoid putting all their eggs in one basket. This practice results in lower average per-year crop yields but also dramatically reduces the chances of ever falling, due to one giant failure, below “starvation yield.”


Religion, war, language, diet: Profiles and case histories of nearly all of the elements of humanity are housed in this thick book. One of the recurring observations Diamond makes is that the solutions and practices of these earlier societies have the currency of deep survival. “The hunter-gatherer lifestyle worked at least tolerably well for the nearly 100,000-year history of behaviorally modern humans. Everybody in the world was a hunter-gatherer until the local origins of agriculture around 11,000 years ago, and nobody in the world lived under a state government until 5,400 years ago.”

By no means is Diamond counseling a return to these conditions, but he is correct in reminding us that because of the 6 million years of habit and custom that preceded the latest eyeblink of a moment, here in the technological age, contemporary humans still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional conditions than current ones. The benefits of diets high in grain and fruits and child-raising practices that instill a sense of security and community through attentiveness and allo-parenting, in which villagers of all ages help raise the children, are but two ancient examples that Diamond presents as being worth another look.

“The lessons from all those experiments . . . that lasted for such a long time,” he writes, “are worth considering seriously.”

Rick Bass is the author, most recently, of “In My Home There Is No More Sorrow: Ten Days in Rwanda.’’ He can be reached at