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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 18 (next | show all)
Jared Diamond has spent a lot of time with traditional societies, particularly in Papua New Guinea where most of the remaining such societies are based, and not surprisingly he finds much to recommend them, whilst accepting that he wouldn't want to spend much more than the 7% of his time there that he currently does, and also mentioning that "first contact" tribes are not at all sentimental about their life and quickly recognise the appeal of more rice and fewer mosquitoes.

In The World Until Yesterday, Diamond points out some of the benefits of traditional societies that he thinks modern society has eschewed to its detriment. One of the more interesting of these was his discussion of relative styles of child rearing - and it is probably true that a child benefits from continuous "skin contact" with its mother and other adults and rarely being on its own. But to do anything about that requires a complete restructuring of modern society which seems unlikely to happen. We are not going to stay in our community our entire lives; personally, from where I live, the nearest family member is 4,000km away. The next nearest is 11,000km away. This is the case for an increasing number of people. And it seems unlikely and is certainly undesirable, that women are going to depart from the workforce on mass to spend more time in touch with their child (although if workplaces where more child friendly, it would be another story entirely)

I enjoyed his reflections on "constructive paranoia" - yes, its true, we are certainly lax about everyday hazards - child rearing, the elderly, and traditional vs modern warfare. His comments on the benefits of a traditional diet are certainly true - no one doubts the epidemic of obesity and Diabetes 2 that a modern diet brings, but then why not explore why all societies are so keen to abandon it at the earliest opportunity? His comments on religion, though interesting, didn't really seem to fit with the rest of the narrative. Most sensible people accept that religion is the attempt of an inquiring mind to make sense of its environment with the information at its disposal; sometimes supernatural intervention must have seemed the most logical explanation. Why so many educated people still hang on to these myths is another question entirely - but then many books have all been written about that.

All in all I enjoyed this, although it was slow going at times. Rather than "The World Until Yesterday" though the book might rather have been titled "Why I enjoy spending time with traditional people in New Guinea, but am pleased to get home" ( )
  Opinionated | Sep 6, 2015 |
I decided a long time ago that the best way for me to maximize my learning was to make a conscious effort to read books that did not simply reinforce my own opinions. You only learn when you encounter difference.

And, every once in a while in the process of escaping your box, you run across someone like Jared Diamond. I must admit, having read Diamond's "Big Three," that I've found him thoroughly engrossing...even when I vehemently disagreed as I did in his analysis of the social uses and accompanying value of religion.

In a sense, this work is probably the most "preachy" of his books; he is very pointed in his analysis of areas where WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies have gone amiss. The range of issues addressed is broad: from elder and child-care to social justice to food sourcing and preparation. This breadth gives the book a slight "piece-meal" feeling...as if we may be reading a collection of chapters that were cut from his other two books by a myopic editor. However, it IS cleverly brought together.

So, why would I-a Christian who rejects the theory of atheistic evolution-find so much...well...pleasure in reading Jared Diamond? Well, for one thing, many of his theories about social development are plausible if you simply "unplug" his chronology (e.g. think "thousands of years" when he writes "billions"). But the real reason is Diamond's gift of writing: he thinks clearly within the parameters of his assumptions but is able to express those ideas with astounding simplicity. Few academic writers achieve the clarity that seems so natural in Diamond's work. Even if you don't agree with WHAT he thinks, you must admire HOW he thinks. And how he challenges you to express with equal force your own views. ( )
  Jared_Runck | Jun 12, 2015 |
Did not finish
  MaggieFlo | Dec 5, 2014 |
I confess that I didn't get very far into this book at all, so maybe my review is unfair. However, there were so many major methodological problems at the beginning of the book that I was afraid to read on - I wasn't willing to trust any of Diamond's conclusions, because he is so cavalier with his evidence.

My problem is that he treats "traditional societies" as a single homogeneous thing. He acknowledges at the beginning that he is oversimplifying his terminology, but "oversimplify" doesn't begin to describe it. He only briefly touches on the fact that gathering reliable information about "traditional societies" is extremely problematic. For pre-modern traditional societies, we have to rely on archaeological evidence, which can only tell us so much and can be extremely difficult to interpret, especially depending on the quality of the archaeological dig. For traditional societies who have come into contact with modern societies, the evidence is even more difficult to interpret - the very act of gathering the evidence taints it, because it requires interacting with these people. Diamond briefly mentions these facts, then goes on to totally ignore them. He will make a statement about traditional societies, and then he will provide 5 examples, but these examples are all from different time periods and different parts of the world. It is very problematic to make generalizations based on such disparate evidence, but Diamond doesn't seem to mind at all. When he gives examples, he never discusses how certain we can be about the statements he is making, or what evidence he bases these statements on. I fear that he is cherry-picking the examples that back up his points and ignoring examples that do not.

So that's why I didn't read much of this book - Diamond's use (or misuse) of evidence made me distrust any conclusions he might make. ( )
2 vote Gwendydd | May 16, 2014 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 18 (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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in appreciation for decades
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April 30, 2006, 7:00 A.M. I’m in an airport’s check-in hall, gripping my baggage cart while being jostled by a crowd of other people also checking in for that morning’s first flights.
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:19 -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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