Paperback review: The World Until Yesterday By Jared Diamond


The World Until Yesterday opens with a fascinating scene: Port Moresby airport in Papua New Guinea, 2006, a picture of modernity, staffed by New Guineans, tapping on computers, screening baggage, flying planes. Yet it is only 80 years or so since the New Guinea Highlands were “discovered” by Australia. The grandparents of today’s New Guinean pilots, clerks and baggage handlers were still using stone tools.

Western technology and ideology have swept the world. Jared Diamond’s project is to investigate whether there is anything the West can learn from vanished or vanishing tribal societies, and he deploys his expertise in geography, history, sociology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology to do so. He examines not just Papua Guinea, which he knows at first hand, but other tribal societies such as Australian Aborigines and the Piraha tribe from the rainforests of Brazil.

Only 11,000 years ago, all our ancestors lived in tribal societies. All human societies have undergone changes that, on an evolutionary timescale, are both rapid and recent.

Diamond is clear that not all tribal practices have things to teach us. There is no reason to regret the passing of customs such as widow-strangling, or infanticide, or the constant state of warfare which commonly exists between neighbouring tribes (I was amazed to learn that deaths from warfare are far higher, proportionately, in tribal societies than in modern states – and that’s taking into account the carnage of the First and Second World Wars).

On the other hand, Diamond makes a very good case that the West would benefit from adopting, or re-adopting, certain traditional tribal ways: eating in moderation with only occasional feasts; multilingualism (there is evidence that speaking more than one language slows down the onset of Alzheimer’s); letting infants sleep with their parents and feeding on demand; adopting an attitude of “constructive paranoia” towards risk.

A well-written, well-argued, and extremely thought-provoking book.