With The World Until Yesterday, polymath and popular science writer Jared Diamond is back with a sweeping and potentially controversial new work that aims to show readers what is missing from modern life.
A professor of geography at UCLA, Diamond has attracted criticism for his insistence that environmental factors explain the rise and fall of many of the world’s great civilizations. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, he argued that the advent of settled agricultural communities ultimately led to European dominance, while in Collapse, he contended that the downfall of great societies was linked to their failure to adapt to environmental changes.
His latest work moves away from environmental explanations and instead compares the lifestyles and customs of so-called traditional and modern societies. He aims to answer the book’s subtitle, What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, with a range of evidence from several small-scale societies around the world that have only recently begun to experience Westernization in earnest. Examining topics such as child-rearing, old age, conflict resolution, and nutrition and diet, Diamond asserts that while humans basically benefit from modernity, there are a number of areas in which traditional societies may have an edge.
To better know ourselves, Diamond believes, we can study the features of the traditional societies that are still in existence. The world of yesterday wasn’t erased and replaced by a new world of today, he writes. Much of yesterday is still with us.
Until relatively recently, most humans lived in small, face-to-face communities where we knew everyone, and we rarely ventured beyond the confines of our villages or towns. Diamond reminds readers that modern’ conditions have prevailed, even just locally, for only a tiny fraction of human history; all human societies have been traditional for far longer than any society has been modern.
From 6 million years ago until roughly 11,000 years ago, humans were hunter-gatherers, foraging for food and living in small groups. Then farming appeared. Agriculture further enabled population growth, which ultimately necessitated governments, first arising around 5,400 years ago.
State societies, Diamond argues, brought law and order to conditions of great insecurity, in which vigilante justice often kept warring groups locked in cycles of violence. Most of us are glad to surrender some measure of our liberty for the protection of the state. Yet when crimes occur, the anonymity of court proceedings and their resolution can feel unsatisfying. One fundamental defect of state civil justice, Diamond writes, is that it is concerned with damages, and that emotional closure and reconciliation are secondary or irrelevant.
Instead, he suggests emulating traditional practices of mediation in Papua New Guinea, which bring together aggrieved parties not only for the purpose of compensation but also to promote forgiveness and emotional closure.
He describes an incident in which a boy was accidentally struck and killed by a minibus driven by a member of a different ethnic group. A mediator brought together the deceased boy’s family and the driver, averting a possible revenge killing while also brokering emotional reconciliation between the two sides, and restoration of their previous relationship.
Diamond continues this approach throughout, describing where traditional practices have existed until very recently, noting which were worth eliminating – such as infanticide, which was prevalent because small, nomadic societies often could not support too many children in infancy – and which we could learn something from, such as diet and nutrition.
The catch is that many of the ways of life that Diamond suggests we imitate seem to disappear once traditional societies become integrated into the global economy. Diabetes, for example, is almost nonexistent in societies that depend on hunting and gathering or small-scale agriculture, but with the adoption of the modern Western diet, high in processed foods and fats, rates of the disease soar. Take the Nauru islanders of the Pacific, who in the 1920s abandoned their fishing and agricultural lifestyle for phosphate wealth. Today, in addition to obesity, two-thirds of the population older than 55 suffers from diabetes, less than a century after the disease first made its appearance.
Although Diamond is not an anthropologist by training, The World Until Yesterday covers much of the territory of an introductory anthropology class, where the principal concern is often to compare the everyday lives of people in traditional societies with our own, albeit without the implicit claims to progress in Diamond’s writings. Some parts of the book tread over familiar ground. A chapter on the evolution of religion, for example, offers standard explanations for the presence of religion in society: assuaging anxieties about the unknown or fostering obedience among citizens who fear divine punishments.
There are also important areas this study ignores, such as the diversity of gender roles and marriage practices around the world. These are notable for their absence only because of Diamond’s exploration of other topics that strike at the heart of what it means to be human. The culture wars over the definition of marriage could be informed by descriptions of traditional practices, which are so diverse that the idea that marriage has always been about one man and one woman is a mistaken assumption. Consider woman-marriage, for example, found in at least 40 pre-colonial African societies, in which one woman married another, often to maintain control of her own economic interests and to pass inheritances directly to her children.
Aside from some discussion of breast-feeding and child-rearing, women are nearly absent from Diamond’s account. Many anthropologists believe that women enjoyed greater equality with men in hunter-gatherer societies. Through foraging for food, they contributed more to the family’s economic well-being than women did after the rise of agriculture. But most of the cultural practices Diamond describes speak to a non-gender-specific humanity, giving little sense of women’s roles or gender dynamics. One reason for this may be that some of his examples are brief, when there could be more extensive stories from the rich ethnographic record from which he is clearly drawing.
Still, Diamond’s examples from traditional societies show that many aspects of modern life may be maladaptive. For an audience that may consider the present moment uncritically, The World Until Yesterday reminds us that in the headlong rush to modernity, much has been lost. While noting that the advantages of modern society far outweigh the insecurities of traditional life, Diamond nonetheless makes a compelling case for the lessons that traditional societies have to teach us.