The World Until Yesterday: Review

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel was a game-changer, one of the most important and remarkable books of the last fifty years.  The mystery he set out to solve was this: why were some civilizations dominant?  Why had some civilizations developed technology and made advances in science and medicine and warfare, and others had not?  The mainstream answer was that some societies were better than others; more intellectually capable and curious.  The mainstream answer, in fact, was essentially racialist.

Diamond’s response was geographical.  For example: why had some cultures domesticated animals while others didn’t?  Because there are relatively few species capable of being domesticated.  If you were lucky enough to live in a place where those species lived. . .  It was an accident of geography.  As were most other phenomena previously attributed to some kind of cultural or (whisper it) racial determinism. He replaced it with what might be called ‘geographical determinism.’  Technologically advanced civilizations got that way through sheer dumb luck, by living in areas with plants that were easy to cultivate, and steel that was easy to find and use.

Diamond had spent a great deal of time in New Guinea, grown to love its people and cultures, and found offensive the notion that their lack of technology was due to some inherent defect unique to New Guineans.  His book came out in 1999, and forced a kind of anthropology paradigm shift.  His book led to a terrific PBS series.  His thesis is now mainstream.  It’s now what we all believe.

Diamond followed it with a second book, Collapse: an examination of why some otherwise thriving civilizations hadn’t survived.  Another terrific book, and one I found particularly fascinating, in part because one of the civilizations he made the focus of the book is Viking Greenland, and I’m of Norwegian ancestry.  In some respects, these two books are a matched set: Guns, Germs and Steel describing how we got where we are now, Collapse describing how some cultures hadn’t survived things like climate change, and what we might learn from that history.

Now he has a third book. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies goes back to New Guinea, and other similar cultures scattered around in what might strike us as inhospitable eco-systems.  He describes these, as he calls them, ‘traditional’ cultures, and how they handle various issues common to all cultures.  He then goes on to point to some things they do pretty well, that maybe possibly we might learn something from.

He does not romanticize these cultures.  When talking about warfare, for example, he does not ascribe to the view that ‘traditional’ societies are inherently peaceable; that warfare and killing is unique to us Westerners, but that ‘primitive’ folks lived in harmony with nature and with their neighbors.  This is not, as it happens, true, nor really should anyone have thought it might be.  Rousseauian elegies to noble savages aside, people are people, and human beings are violent and ferocious killers, when circumstances require it.  The best evidence suggests that ‘traditional’ societies suffer losses in warfare more or less double the losses suffered by even, say, Europe in the 20th century.

So is there something we can learn from ‘primitive’ peoples?  What can we learn about, say, conflict resolution?

Diamond’s examples are endlessly fascinating.  I couldn’t get enough of it, his descriptions of the lives of folks in the Kalahari, or New Guinea, or the tropical South American rain forest.  In some respects, the book reads like an autobiography.  He tells stories of difficulties he experienced doing his research in New Guinea, and what he learned from solving them, and it’s terrific stuff.

But the conclusions he reaches strike me as less compelling; certainly less convincing.

Just to take one example: he describes an experience in which a New Guinean teenager was killed in a traffic accident.  The teen was unfamiliar with highways and traffic, and stepped out in front of a delivery van owned by a local business.  The van driver–who was found to have obeyed all relevant traffic laws– had no chance of avoiding the boy, and of course felt terrible about it.  The owner of the van’s business was approached by a representative of the boy’s tribe, and they began negotiations, which eventually led to a reconciliation between tribal leaders and the company.

It’s a terrifically interesting story.  And the conclusion that Diamond reaches is that mediation, in this case, proved effective.  And so he concludes that Western legal systems can and should use more mediation instead of litigation.  Fair enough.  But mediation is an important part of Western legal structures.  The conclusion we’re left with is ‘well, we should use mediation more.’  I mean, sure, fine, let’s do that.  But given the promise of the book’s title, his conclusion seems paltry, inadequate.

And of course, there are lots of things traditional societies do that we wouldn’t want to emulate.  One culture, for example, practices ‘widow strangling.’  That is to say, in this culture, when a man dies, his sons have the obligation of murdering his widow, their Mom. May I suggest (as of course Diamond does) that we not try that.  Other ‘traditional’ societies, on the other hand, treat their elderly folks with much more consideration than we Westerners are prone to do.  In New Guinea, the idea of an old folks home (or ‘retirement community’ or whatever other euphemisms are currently vogue) strikes tradition folks as bizarre, macabre, disrespectful.  We might consider doing more to make our elderly parent’s twilight years more agreeable.  But again, his research doesn’t suggest anything surefire.

I don’t consider this book as ground-breaking and paradigm-shattering and marvelous as Diamond’s earlier work.  But it’s a terrifically interesting book, well-worth reading on its own merits.  It feels a bit valedictory, a final statement in a great scholar’s career.  Diamond is 75, after all.  I recommend it, but please, read his earlier work first.

Leave a Reply