BOOK REVIEW: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond

Review by Nathan Seppa

While traditional peoples linger at the outskirts of modern society as curious exceptions, Jared Diamond makes a case that they also offer a glimpse of our ancient selves. Their way of life stands in contrast with modern lifestyles, which changed for most humans only “yesterday” in evolutionary terms.

It is through this lens that Diamond sees the world, be it the Pygmies of the Congo, the !Kung in Botswana or highland New Guinea bands. He doesn’t promote returning to a traditional lifestyle, but he argues that there is perspective to be gained in looking back. Such groups are a reminder, he says, of how humans survived for thousands of years.

As always, his details are remarkable. Diamond devotes a whole section just to crying babies. Rather than let a baby “cry it out,” Pygmy and !Kung groups comfort a sobbing baby within seconds. Or breast-feeding: Modern mothers typically breast-feed infants (if at all) on mom’s schedule, not the baby’s — quite different from traditional societies today.

But it’s not all sweetness. Diamond explores a bloody New Guinea tribal war that raged for years in the 1960s, fought with spears and arrows by everyday people who often knew their enemies by name. In contrast, modern war deploys metal tools and professional soldiers against faceless enemies. Different, but with similar consequences: death, resources lost, energy expended. Per capita, mortality in the New Guinea conflict rivaled or eclipsed that of 20th century European battles, leading Diamond to examine conflict resolution in each culture.

The book also analyzes treatment of the elderly, everyday dangers and religion. There is plenty to learn from traditional people, not least because we “modern” people are hardwired for their lifestyle, not ours. 

Viking, 2012, 499 p., $36