Jared Diamond is an American Geographer, who started writing for a broader non-academic audience in the 1990’es. Even if his approach is disputed in some circles, I consider him as a very important and influential writer linking Earths past, present and future. I read his books “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse” before. As I really liked both of them, his newest book “The World Until Yesterday” was a must buy for me. This popular science book was first published on 31st December 2012.
As the title already implies Diamond tries to give examples where we as modern societies can learn from our forefathers or societies that still live in a very traditional way. Obviously most if not all places of our planet are in touch with the modernized world nowadays. Everybody on Earth knows about Coke, Lionel Messi or big global events like the Fukishima nuclear disaster. But Diamond still wants to draw comparisons from traditional “unspoiled” life to modern life in Western societies. In what areas can we learn from such societies and in which areas should we rather continue our way? To do so Diamond goes back to the beginning of his scientific career when he took field trips to study birds in Papua New Guinea. Parts of Papua New Guinea were at that point still untouched by modern life and many people lived in their traditional societies. In addition Diamond refers to the works of other scientists who studied traditional societies in Africa, the Amazonas region, the Inuit or the Aborigines of Australia.
In his book Diamond explains first how to study traditional societies in general. Then he moves on to describe Hunter-Gatherer Bands and how these were usually displaced or erased by more organized Tribes and Chiefdoms. The next part of the book deals with conflicts and cooperation. An interesting point is if we can learn to resolve conflicts from traditional societies. Of course there’s no yes or no answer, especially when you keep in mind that many of the conflicts traditional societies fought with each other, were much more deadly (percentage of killed people) than modern wars.
Childhood and Old Age are also two interesting aspects where our modern lifes differ from the traditional lifestyle our forefathers might have had 100 or 3,000 years ago. While some societies were forced by their environment to keep to a very strict one child policy (due to lack of water or food), others needed many children to have enough labour. While some societies killed older people at a point they became a burden, others valued older people as a source of wisdom and knowledge.
Finally Diamond has a focus on Health and Mental Fitness. He explains how we started eating unhealthy once we became rich – and once there was salt on every table in a restaurant. We eat much too salty nowadays, but even traditional fishermen societies in Northern Japan had a diet that was too salty. Even if we eat deliberately unhealthy our life expectancy is much higher than the one of traditional societies. Why do people in some societies learn many other languages easily, while others can’t understand their close neighbours speaking a slightly different dialect? The book finishes with a chapter on the Origin of States and Religion.
Diamond manages well to link traditional, basic life to our modern, advanced world. In every chapter he gives plausible examples for such links – and many of them make you thinking if our modern world developed the right way, or even more worrying will it develop in the completely wrong way in future. Did we start to live wrong? Did we get away too far from the basics? Often our parents are sent off to pensionists care centers once they get “troublesome” – we think it’s enough to pay for it. Is it really enough to pay them off this way?
I liked “The World Until Yesterday” and even if it can be read totally independently from Diamond’s other books, I’d suggest you read his masterpiece “Collapse” first. The World Until Yesterday is a good and interesting book, but if you are not used to a partly scientific approach, it might get a bit boring for you.
Bought online – 01/2013 – € 17,10