Allen Lane, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The World Until Yesterday, By Jared Diamond

As the rich world suffers its crisis of excess, we can learn much from peoples who live with little.

Jared Diamond is one of the few people who have changed the way we see human nature and our history. By suggesting that the place of human beings in the scheme of things can be studied as we observe any other natural phenomenon, he has formulated some very powerful ideas that counter our habitual arrogance.

Most vividly, in Guns Germs and Steel (1997) he showed how Homo sapiens, who had been on the planet in very much the modern form for perhaps 190,000 years, got lucky only about 10,000 years ago. Climate is the first factor to acknowledge. The interglacial warm period ushered in benign conditions in the Near East where annual grasses produced large seeds. Farming began then in the few places with wild crops and animals suitable for domestication.

It transpired that the farming practices initiated in what is now Turkey and Iraq were even more suited to Europe, much of which had previously been under ice and unfit for a blossoming of civilisation. The rise of Europe, first thanks to farming and later to industrial technology, followed.

Diamond's aim in this book is to show that the lifestyles of traditional peoples still have something to teach us. But readers who love his broad panoptic sweep over the course of human history may feel its absence in the early chapters, which smack a little too much of an anthropology primer. As an evolutionary biologist, Diamond has ploughed the same furrow for five decades: New Guinea, a place in which Stone Age peoples only encountered Westerners in the 1930s.

His bias in favour of the New Guineans is evident from the start when he refers to most studies of human nature having been conducted on WEIRD subjects: Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic. If that's not a loading of the dice, I don't know what is. Diamond is more persuasive when he recounts his own experiences, usually of dangerous situations: a boat accident, for instance. A small boat carrying him and a few others back to the mainland was sunk by a reckless New Guinean pilot whose unsuitability might have been noticed before the voyage if Diamond had been more vigilant. Following this wake-up call, he incorporated the idea of "constructive paranoia" into his life: a trait, largely absent in the West according to him, that he identifies in New Guineans.

Constructive paranoia means attending to warning signs, assuming that the world lays multiple traps for the unwary. He has always drawn lessons from his findings. In this book, they are not a new interpretation of history but a comparison of the social systems of New Guineans and Westerners. A major plank of Diamond's thesis involves crime and punishment. In the thinly populated societies of New Guinea, everyone knows everyone else, and resolving conflict involves ways of trying to restore harmony.

In the West, removal of dangerous people from society and the restitution of damage is the priority, not emotional closure. He suggests that something could be learnt from the traditional approach, especially in California, where the propensity to lock people up is one of the factors bankrupting the state. But he then weakens his argument by admitting: "as an American I am glad not to share responsibility for my cousins' marriages", a reference to the practice of all family members being liable to repay dowries on the occasion of a divorce.

But the classic Diamond – the one who cuts to the chase with great explanatory power – emerges in the later chapters, the most telling of which concerns diet. Everyone knows that the Western lifestyle has led to an explosion of obesity and degenerative diseases, especially diabetes. Diamond goes beyond the supersized stereotypes. It isn't simply that traditional peoples such as the New Guineans are lean and don't suffer from degenerative disease; Europeans are also far less prone to diabetes than many other populations. It is those peoples that have rapidly switched to a Western diet that exhibit the worst of this syndrome. Richer Arab states and some affluent island populations, such as the Pacific islanders of Nauru, top the league. Nauru sits on top of once-vast reserves of phosphate fertiliser – the islanders gorged on the proceeds.

There is clearly a genetic component. It seems that when most of the world went hungry and whole populations were decimated by famine, natural selection produced adaptations which then proved counterproductive when famine turned to feast. Europeans have had several centuries to get used to a much more regular availability of food, and Diamond speculates that Europe may have suffered its first obesity and diabetes epidemic two or three centuries ago, JS Bach being a likely victim.

He is also good at explaining the difference between the characteristic diseases of large farming populations, as in the West, and small hunter-gatherer bands. Farming populations tend to suffer from acute disease (such as measles) which lead to personal immunity. These diseases can only develop in large populations so the hunter-gathers never caught them; they, in turn, tend to have chronic diseases (leprosy, yaws) and deficiency diseases such as beriberi and scurvy. And they don't develop personal immunity, which is why contact between Westerners and hunter-gatherers was so devastating after the fateful collision of the Old and New Worlds in 1492.

The World Until Yesterday is Diamond's homage to the region and the people he loves: the place that has sustained him and nurtured his thought. As his other books have stated so eloquently, we need to recalibrate our sense of history. Prehistory should not be seen as some arcane specialism of interest only to a few. In the era of climate change, we need to know how and why we suddenly blossomed as a species in the last 5 per cent of our existence and then became a plague on the earth. Diamond, more than anyone else, has shown us how to begin this reassessment.

Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived' is published by Yale

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015