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The world until yesterday : what can we…

The world until yesterday : what can we learn from traditional societies? (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Jared M. Diamond

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Title:The world until yesterday : what can we learn from traditional societies?
Authors:Jared M. Diamond
Info:New York : Viking, c2012.
Collections:Your library
Tags:nonfiction, borrowed from library

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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond (2012)

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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
The book was interesting and had some specific areas of interest for me including discussion of religion, diet, health, and language. Some topics such as that of constructive paranoia were discussed to excruciating detail. Jared is excellent at detailed research and has an academic approach to his analysis. This is helpful to some extent and can also generate some lengthy discussion of minutia. Overall I liked the book and would recommend it. I am convinced to adapt some behaviors from ancient civilization including diet modification. ( )
  GlennBell | Apr 9, 2014 |
Really enjoyed the exploration of traditional societies. He seems overly worshipful of the idea of political power and dismisses free societies as a possibility with no argument.

Great historical stuff in here, highly recommend. ( )
  BillRob | Oct 16, 2013 |
[quote]In Africa you share things. For example, while I was in school, I acquired a red inner tube of a rubber tire. Rubber was valuable to make slingshots. For a long time, I shared pieces of my valuable red inner tube with other kids for them to make slingshots. But in the U.S., if you acquire something valuable, you keep it for yourself and you don't share it. In addition, nobody in the U.S. would know what to do with an inner tube[/quote]

[a:Jared Diamond|256|Jared Diamond|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1355359393p2/256.jpg] writes about the world as it has been in the recent (and not so recent past). He spends a great deal of time living among the people of New Guinea, observing, contrasting, comparing the way different cultures of the world do things.

The book is broken up into topics, space, peace and war, young and old, danger and response, religion, language and health. Within each topic he investigates many cultures around the world and compares them, for better or worse, with our own.

I have welcomed the knowledge in this book, and the way he tries to remain neutral, not romanticising the non-western cultures (as some books often do). The way the New Guineans war with each other is downright scary.

I was very interested in the chapters devoted to birth, child rearing, and the care of the elderly. It is wonderful to see both sides of a story. In the birthing community we often dream wistfully of the way birthing used to be (back before obstetricians started taking over), but this book shows that for many cultures birth and child raising has always been full of difficulties. He talks of one night listening to a woman die while giving birth, powerless to help and shocked the tribes people left her alone in her agony.

Jared Diamond is 75 years old, a Pulitzer prize winner, and a bestselling author. The man has some strong opinions and the book is full of his opinions and beliefs, though I suspect this was unintentional. Still it was a great incite and I would recommend this book. ( )
  alsocass | Oct 12, 2013 |
I really wanted to like this book, but I don't. It would have been better if he had refrained from repeating himself endlessly in the first few chapters. I may get back to this one eventually, but probably not. ( )
  trinkers | Aug 3, 2013 |
Starting point: Evolutionary - traditional societies closer to the conditions we adapted to, this gives a prima facie reason to believe that practices they widely practice make sense. Much diversity among traditional societies - interesting to think of them as experiments and find the success stories. Can get the best of two worlds by combining such experiments with modern freedom? A problem with those societies is probably that people do not have an exit option, it's probably not easy to just join a neighboring band or tribe. But maybe we can organize ourselves s.t. we have smaller experimental zones/cultures while preserving an exit option today?

Possible selection problem: the tribes, etc that we see today are those that are from areas that were never conquered, e.g. because they lived in unappealing places or had some resilient features. But only a selection problem if what we are after is to learn about the past, not for the seeing more diversity part.

Diamond selects the following topics:
-where we can learn something personal: dangers; child rearing
-where we can learn something personal and use in public policy: treatment of the elderly, multilingualism; health promoting lifestyles
-mostly for policy: peaceful dispute resolution
-also: religion; warfare. The latter is said to be the field in which the benefits of modern states are most clear.

Conflict solving more about restoring relationships than establishing who is right. A story about a driver who killed a boy in an accident, but clearly by no fault of his own, but who still had to pay compensation and to a great extent fear retaliation from the boy’s family before that was done. The compensation process would have been much the same in the case in which the driver had been negligent or even intentionally killed the boy, although with higher compensation rates and a greater danger of physical retaliation. So maybe our concept of randomness or accidental is not something that they have? Related to Hacking’s Emergence of probability?

Moral inhibitions against killing humans not as prevalent in traditional societies as in modern, although typically knows the enemy and bears a grudge against him.

Friendship takes a much more local and kin-based form.

Lifelong relationships - norms against investing in a sewing machine to start a mending business, should rather help people for free and get other favors and services in return.

Crime, tort and contract law into one. Take into account how everyone in the community affected. Applications to Western world seems quite limited, like improving opportunities for mediation and closure meetings (between victim and perpetrator after the verdict).
-surprising that he does not mention what I see as one of the big dangers of centralization - the breakdown of the whole system - tribes cannot create world wars.

When it comes to bringing up children, Diamond speaks very much to the choir for my part. Carrying infants close, sleeping in the same room for a long time, exposing children to many caregivers, including from different education, letting children explore the world autonomously pretty much seems like common sense to me. The advantages of an abrupt response to crying infants, multilingualism and from spending time with different age groups are convincingly conveyed.

At times Diamond makes arguments that are not well sustained, for instance rationing health care by age is not about an obsession with a cult of youth or a view that lives of the old are little worth.

Thought-provoking parallel between the old’s right to food and young women in traditional societies and modern property rights.

The big point made about “constructive paranoia” is a bit overmade, as it is not obvious that one should make a different choice when facing a low-probability danger many times than when facing it once.

Maybe forest people’s fear of cars can serve as a fresh look upon what is relatively more risky, e.g. surgeries more than pesticides, and traffic accidents more than …, although many are mistaken about these. We can see their fear as stemming from not having learnt how dangerous crossing a street is. Also there is very little macho culture and hiding of fear. Maybe the macho culture in Western societies comes from us not facing many life-threatening dangers? Interesting to note that they have many wrong explanations, e.g. for male with a respiratory syndrome, which is blamed on female menstruation and other far-fetched things, and only partial explanations for causes for diseases. Learning is insufficient.

Diamond suggests that that traditional people may have a more realistic view of risk since get more direct feedback, whereas we get a distorted view through sensationalist news, etc. about rare types of accidents. American soldiers allegedly more risk-seeking than French in Iraq, speculates that may be because the French have more war history.

We should not forget the fact, underlined by Diamond, that many decide to move to cities or villages, not to be rich, but because life is safer and more stable and mosquitoes and diseases are rarer.

Food and sex have opposite roles in traditional vs. modern societies, they worry about food, but sex is plentiful, whereas we have enough food, but worry about sex.

Some have claimed that Diamond cherry-picks findings to fit his story, but this is less a severe criticism than it might seem, since he explicitly sees the world of traditional people as being full of small experiments that we might learn from, though by no means all or even a majority. To be fair, an extended argument also says that these people through trial and error often have converged on some good practices, but this is not necessary for the approach to make sense.

Overall a great book. ( )
  ohernaes | Jun 20, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
Unlike some critics, I take Diamond at his word: I believe that he does want to show traditional lives in their complex reality, to demonstrate what they have to teach us without unduly idealizing them. He wants us to see people who live careful, attentive lives in a world of want and uncertainty, people who know how to love their children without reading books on how to do so. He wants to show us the dangers of war, and the bittersweet comforts of industrialization. Above all, he wants to show us how he has been changed by the life he has led. In the end, however, his scientist’s eye plays him foul. Diamond’s stories give one a clear understanding of the exact physical locations of the objects he describes, but leave the culture and emotion of Papua New Guineans unexamined. His description of the lives of traditional people accurately describes their digestion and gestation, but not their thoughts and feelings. And in the end, despite his attempts to be nuanced, his portrayal of the life of traditional people is straight out of Hobbes: nasty, brutish, short, and escapable only by submitting to the authority of a sovereign.
added by keristars | editThe Appendix, Alex Golub (Apr 1, 2013)
Diamond has a gift for storytelling. He presents his examples in a seductively readable voice with unflinching confidence, which makes his conclusions about the similarities and differences between traditional and modern society seem like common sense. But as I read the text, I found that I agreed with Diamond in inverse relation to my pre-existing knowledge about whatever subject he was addressing.
added by keristars | editSlate, Bryn Williams (Feb 18, 2013)
added by lorax | editWashington Post, Rachel Newcomb (Jan 25, 2013)

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jared Diamondprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Zebrowski, MattMapssecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Resnick, NancyDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670024813, Hardcover)

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.


(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:34:34 -0400)

Diamond reveals how tribal societies offer an extraordinary window into how our ancestors lived for millions of years -- until virtually yesterday, in evolutionary terms -- and provide unique, often overlooked insights into human nature.

(summary from another edition)

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