Allen Lane £20
Review: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
Why West is not always best
Sunday 20 January 2013
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.
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 2 Martha Stewart accuses Snoop Dogg of 'smoking for four hours' during Justin Bieber Roast
- 3 I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts
- 4 Google April Fools': company unveils backwards search engine and huggable digital assistant
- 5 April Fools' Day 2015: The best hoax news stories from around the internet
Gaza Banksy mural sold to 'conman' for just $175
Tidal launch: The most pretentious lines from Alicia Keys' valedictory speech
Tidal: Jay Z's Spotify rival criticised for making wealthy artists even richer
Top Gear live to go ahead: Jeremy Clarkson to join Richard Hammond and James May... just don't call it Top Gear
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans