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

Why West is not always best

In The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel, offers inimitable insight into our cultural history through the study of tribal communities, and an entertaining account of the human struggle which suggests that traditional societies can teach us many "things of practical interest".

Drawing on his own fieldwork from nearly five decades working and living in New Guinea, as well as evidence from the Inuits, Amazonian Indians, Aboriginal Australians and others, Diamond combines technical expertise with personal observations to offer a perceptive exposition of our recent past. "All human societies have been traditional for far longer than any society has been modern," says Diamond. And while we take writing, government, police, store-bought food, and obesity for granted, these things are all "relatively new in human history".

Examining how traditional communities approach child-rearing, care of the elderly, war, peace, criminal justice, religion, multilingualism, health, and attitudes to strangers, Diamond argues that Western societies do not necessarily offer the best solutions. Not all his observations are ground-breaking – the poorness of the modern diet has already been acknowledged – but this does not undermine his central message.

However, while Diamond finds that the conditions in which we now live are different from those in which our bodies and practices originally evolved, he does not over-romanticise traditional communities. Though traditional societies may suggest "better living practices", he also recognises that "many traditional practices are ones that we can consider ourselves blessed to have discarded." Infanticide and the killing and abandoning of elderly people, for example. Not to mention the frequent threat of starvation, the constant fear of attack, and the heightened risks posed by infectious disease

In The World Until Yesterday, Diamond cements his position as the most considered, courageous and sensitive teller of the human story writing today. He confirms that it is only by appreciating the inconsistencies between our past and our present that we can shape our future. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the genesis of modern life.