'The World Until Yesterday' Reflects its Author’s Wildly Broad Scope

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

The Pulitzer Prize winner's purpose here is twofold: to trace how traditional cultures deal with these issues, and then to draw lessons for contemporary life.

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

Publisher: Viking
Length: 512 pages
Author: Jared Diamond
Price: $36.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-12

A number of years ago, I found myself at a dinner party with Jared Diamond, the UCLA geography professor and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond had just published Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a follow-up to Guns, Germs, and Steel, and we at the table were eager to hear his thoughts on environmental degradation, the relationship of modern and traditional cultures, and what it all might mean.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Diamond’s writing involves a big idea: As he observes in his new book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? the industrialized West “achieved world dominance not because of a general superiority, but for specific reasons: their technological, political and military advantages derived from their early origins of agriculture, due in turn to their productive local wild domesticable plant and animal species.”

That’s a fascinating thesis, although it has been challenged in certain quarters for being overly deterministic. During dinner, however, Diamond didn’t talk about any of this. Rather, he discussed birds (he’s a serious and committed ornithologist) and his love of Bach (at one point, he considered a musical career before deciding he wasn’t good enough). By the end of the evening, I felt as if I’d attended a brilliant if not entirely cohesive seminar.

The same, I’m afraid, might be said of The World Until Yesterday which reads in many ways like a sequel to Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse — or, more accurately, like the third volume in a trilogy. Here, Diamond shifts his attention slightly, moving between traditional and modern cultures to consider what we may learn from how they interact.

For Diamond, the phrase “traditional society” refers not only to the distant past. “(The) features of modern human societies are relatively new in human history,” he explains in a prologue recounting a typical day at the airport in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. “For most of the 6,000,000 years since the proto-human and proto-chimpanzee evolutionary lines diverged from each other, all human societies lacked metal and... other things. Those modern features began to appear only within the last 11,000 years, in just certain areas of the world.”

Eleven thousand years may seem like an eternity in human time, but it’s “a mere yesterday” when it comes to evolutionary history. Not only that, but it’s a yesterday that lingers, since in places like New Guinea, traditional societies continue to operate with varying degrees of contact from their modern counterparts. Indeed, the decision to open The World Until Yesterday — and to center so many of its arguments — in New Guinea reflects precisely this sort of interaction: As a member of both birding and ethnographic expeditions, Diamond has spent considerable time there since the early '60s, which gives him the double vision a book such as this requires.

And yet, as The World Until Yesterday progresses, it begins to suffer from this double vision, losing focus, or at least clarity of purpose. Part of the problem is its polymathy, his apparent wish to cite everything he’s ever thought about, at times indiscriminately. “This book’s subject,” he admits, “is, potentially, all aspects of human culture, of all peoples around the world for the last 11,000 years.”

To mitigate that, perhaps, Diamond chooses several broad topics, including war, justice, territorial boundaries, religion, language, nutrition and caring for family. His purpose is twofold: to trace how traditional cultures deal with these issues, and then to draw lessons for contemporary life. Yet more than once in The World Until Yesterday Diamond seems to lose track of these intentions, especially in the chapter on religion, which never makes a compelling enough connection between the traditional and modern worlds.

As in his previous work, he’s fond of definitions — one favorite is “Elman Service’s division of human societies into four categories of increasing population, size, political centralization, and social stratification: band, tribe, chiefdom, and state” — that he uses to illustrate how cultural norms shape the ways we see the world. Here, though, his terms start to get fuzzy almost as soon as he gets into specific subject areas.

“Why should we be interested in child-rearing practices of traditional hunter-gatherer, farmer, and herder societies?” Diamond asks in a chapter on raising children. “Small-scale societies offer us a vast database on child-rearing. They reveal the outcomes of thousands of natural experiments.”

One of Diamond’s points is to decry the ethnocentrism of most childhood development studies, which, he argues, “are actually sampling societies all drawn from the same narrow slice of human cultural diversity.” But he falls into a similar trap, assigning broad significance to what he himself has seen. “Some readers may feel that disproportionate numbers of my examples are drawn from the island of New Guinea and adjacent Pacific islands,” he writes. “Partly, that’s because it’s the area that I know best, and where I have spent the most time.”

To his credit, much about New Guinea — its diversity of language and lifestyle and environment — makes it a ripe experimental landscape, and when Diamond writes directly about his experiences there, The World Until Yesterday becomes the kind of cross-disciplinary study he must have had in mind. Especially effective is his discussion of “constructive paranoia,” which he defines as “paranoia that makes perfect sense.”

For the New Guineans, this may involve not camping under a dead tree in case it falls on you, and in fact, the best writing in the book involves Diamond’s account of nearly drowning when a canoe he hired to take him to an outlying island ended up swamped and capsized because of the carelessness of the crew. When Diamond tells the story to a New Guinean, the other man responds that he too looked at the canoe but had been scared by “its big engines” and the “young crewmen and their cocky and laughing behavior.” Constructive paranoia, to be sure, although to me it sounds more like simple engagement, like paying attention to where you are.

Here, we see the key issue with The World Until Yesterday, that the claims it makes, while based on fascinating anecdotes and information, don’t seem particularly revelatory. It’s better to engage with children, to take care of our elderly than to warehouse them, to eat healthily and think realistically about the dangers we face: Well, of course it is, but I’m not sure that’s something traditional cultures have to teach us so much since it’s common sense. Diamond is clearly a brilliant man, and he knows more about more things than most of us ever will. Still, in The World Until Yesterday, the broadness of the argument ultimately undermines its conclusions — not unlike that dinner party long ago.


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