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.

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The Independent Culture

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