Monday, February 4, 2013

The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

The World Until Yesterday contrasts modern societies against traditional ones, and tries to sift out the benefits and limitations of both. The book is full of harsh realities, and demonstrates how fragile life is when lived close to nature.

For this latest book, scientist and ornithologist Jared Diamond has moved away from the more speculative themes of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, to concentrate more directly on natural history and anthropology. The World Until Yesterday is a distillation of a lifetime’s work in the field, especially Diamond’s regular trips to New Guinea. (Apparently he spends about 7% of his time there, by his own estimation.)

The main theme of The World Until Yesterday is: what positives can we learn from traditional societies that can be incorporated into our modern Western lifestyles? The book isn’t particularly prescriptive on this front. In fact, the whole notion of adopting aspects of the traditional lifestyle isn’t really pursued with any vigour. If anything, the book offers a thoughtful study and contrast of human evolution from the traditional to the modern, from hunter-gatherers to the nation state.

In the opening section, Diamond reminds us that agriculture is a fairly recent phenomenon. Humans have been around for approximately 100,000 years, living as hunter gatherers, while agriculture was invented 11,000 years ago. For most of human history we have not farmed or been protected by central governments. We lived much closer to nature, and were subject to its whims. Our currently evolved state is really an anomaly in human history.

The World Until Yesterday concentrates on a range of traditional behaviours and cultural practices: warfare, treatment of the elderly, diet, approaches to danger, religion and so on. Diamond certainly doesn’t romanticise traditional societies and their way of life. He has had enough first-hand experience to know the harsh realities. In fact, at the end of the book he states that he’s never wanted to relocate permanently from his Los Angeles home to New Guinea. His time spent in New Guinea he refers to as his ‘career’.

What sort of picture does Diamond paint of traditional life? On the whole, I must admit, not a particularly attractive one. In many, many instances, his descriptions fitted Thomas Hobbes’s famous account of life before central government as nasty, brutish and short. Warfare in traditional societies in chronic, everyday life is full of life threatening risks, disease can easily fell its victims when there are no antibiotics or hospitals, infanticide and sometimes euthanasia of the old are necessitated by the scarcity of resources.

The chapters on traditional warfare are very sobering indeed. When Diamond crunches the numbers, he finds that there are far more deaths, per capita, in traditional societies. This is even when numbers are compared with the world wars of the twentieth century. Basically, when there is no central government, everyone outside your traditional band is an enemy. Central government brings order, no central government brings perpetual disorder.

Overall, The World Until Yesterday highlights just how fragile life is, and how protected we are from nature’s harsh realities. The global trend is towards a Westernized lifestyle. Traditional peoples everywhere are finding the benefits of regular food, modern medicine and protection from war very attractive. On a sliding scale, however, Diamond shows that in many areas Western society has somewhat been a victim of its own success. Too much food has led to obesity, busy lifestyles leave no room for one-on-one human communication, commercialisation has sapped us of our creativity, the world is leaning toward a monoculture with diversity quickly evaporating (thousands of the world's unique languages face extinction). We don’t exercise or play. Another hidden trap: we also take our many blessings for granted.

Traditional societies, by contrast, enjoy the benefits of close communication, a deeply collaborative approach to solving life’s problems and an absence of competition.

The World Until Yesterday, in the final analysis, shows how fragile life has been for many people for thousands of years. This is a book of reality, describing life when it is lived close to nature without a protective central government and surplus food production.

The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 9781846147586  RRP: $29.99