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

  • Jared Diamond
  • Viking
  • 512 pp.

The Pulitzer prize-winning author argues that modern-day Western approaches to cultural and social matters should be informed by the study of traditional societies.

In 49 years observing the people of New Guinea, Jared Diamond has assembled a rich lode of captivating stories about “traditional societies,” small and isolated native cultures that have only recently come into contact with a world that is Westernized, educated, industrial, rich and democratic. (Diamond fetchingly shorthands this modern world as WEIRD.)

“Until yesterday” is the six million years since humans diverged from chimpanzees, “yesterday” being the last 11,000 years (hunter-gathering begins a shift to agriculture), the most recent 7,000 (use of metal tools) and since 3,400 BC (population growth and concentrations necessitate state-level governance).

The author sets out to suggest what we in the West might learn from traditional societies  about a vast array of cultural and social matters, including: dealing with friends and enemies, responses to danger, how justice is administered, child-rearing and how to regard the elderly, learning through personal interactions, the power of language in culture, evolving religious beliefs and why being more aware is vital to our health.

Diamond’s day job is Professor of Geography at UCLA. He is a raconteur, a polymath who deftly spans the physical and social sciences, and the author of sweeping surveys of civilizations, most prominently the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. It was bird watching that first brought him to the New Guinea group of islands in the Pacific Ocean. (Diamond is also a professional ornithologist.) His study focuses on people who have been exposed to outside influences only in the last 75 years or so. He adds briefer anecdotal observations of the !Kung people in Africa’s Kalahari desert, natives of North and South America, Iñupiats and Inuits of Alaska and two dozen other cultures around the globe. All of these are societies that have been traditional far longer than we have been modern.

In traditional societies, relatives remain physically close throughout their lives. There is little movement outside the community. Learning and adapting comes from direct interaction with others. In our modern world, Diamond finds loneliness. It is the individual who is isolated, surrounded by many more strangers than people we know well and typically lacking life-long social bonds. The implications of this run through many parts of The World Until Yesterday.

To extrapolate lessons that could apply to us from small groups in very different times, places and conditions requires attention to elements of our WEIRD world, too. My concern is not that what Diamond suggests for us is wrong, but that he does not follow through persuasively enough to call them lessons from traditional societies.

On religion, for instance, Diamond concludes it would be well to supplement rote metaphysical beliefs with principles of conduct, explanations of the physical world, ways to deal with stress and death, being “honest with ourselves about what religion does or might mean specifically to us.” His high altitude summary of shifts in religious beliefs over time is fine. I happen to agree with his conclusions. But he builds his bridge from observed beliefs on broad declarations such as, the “roles of religion other than sources of beliefs … have waxed and waned in different historical periods for societies over the millennia.” Yes …

To demonstrate how intimately language is linked with culture, Diamond points to Winston Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech to Parliament. By evoking English identity and history, Churchill mobilized the British people to fight on “against seemingly hopeless odds.” After all, at the outset of WWII, he had little ammunition other than his words. But then, concluding that the speech reads equally compellingly in German as in English, Diamond asserts: “I doubt that Britain would have resisted Hitler in June 1940 if the British had already been speaking German.” A conclusion like that requires considerably more development to be convincing.

Discussing civil and criminal justice, the author relates many examples of how New Guineans resolve disputes, assess responsibility for accidents, and impose retribution for criminal behavior. He follows these with brief references to a victim shooting at muggers in New York City, Roman Polanski’s troubles, and the outcome of the O. J. Simpson trial. These don’t represent justice we can be proud of, but they are a wobbly bridge to his recommendation to use mediation instead of litigation “under some circumstances” and to employ what he terms “restorative justice.” As far as “restorative justice” goes, its application is far more problematic for us in modern societies. More must be said to recognize the applicability of that advice.

As for mediation, lawyers and judges already encourage dispute resolution by means other than litigation. “Under some circumstances” is content-less, nothing to go by. While Diamond devotes many pages to sensitive observations of human interactions in New Guinea, he gives little consideration to what fosters protracted litigation in our era. To name a few examples: divorce and employment litigants who often are psychologically invested in extending disputes to vanquish their opponent; victims of medical malpractice who can’t otherwise assess fault; corporate defendants who fear setting precedents; and the lack of reasonable inducements to come to a bargaining table.

On the other hand, Diamond well justifies the lessons he suggests from traditional societies in his chapters on “Young and Old.” Child-rearing today likely would be improved by closer physical contact with babies, parenting by relatives as well as the parents (“allo-parenting”), and fewer second-hand interactions with video games and television. Raising multilingual children almost certainly would speed the learning process by teaching them early, enrich their lives, and broaden not only their world-view but their cognitive processes as well. As for our senior citizens — in contrast to traditional cultures that typically keep their elderly within or close by the same roof throughout entire lifetimes — our “cult of youth and our negative view of aging” leads us to underutilize the elderly, even warehousing them so we can get on with our lives instead of capitalizing on the talents and wisdom they can offer.

On balance, this book is informative for its explorations of traditional societies. Professor Diamond’s engaging style of storytelling makes his astute and scholarly observations accessible to lay readers. His suggested lessons from the past, however, would be considerably more compelling with persuasive rationale that they suit the WEIRD world we live in.

Tom Phillips is a retired attorney who lives in Chicago. He, too, believes Pliny’s maxim that “There is always something new out of Africa.”


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