Book review: The World Until Yesterday

September 15, 2015

I’ve been feeling a little under the weather the last couple of days so I haven’t been out much. I had time to read the book I got from the Embassy library, so here is a review:


Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? (New York: Viking Penguin, 2012) 466 pp. plus notes.

Diamond is the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. These are two very fine books that are pretty much about history, with some diversions into related fields such as anthropology, geography, and sociology. I have used Guns, Germs, and Steel in my classes, most notably as the first text in Humanities I at Mt. Angel. We return to the themes of G,G,&S throughout the four-semester sequence of Humanities, relating the outcomes of civilizations to the geographic conditions that Diamond underlines. In Collapse, Diamond focuses more on cultural explanations for civilizations’ bad outcomes, with reference to what he sees as cultural failings that our own civilization suffers from today and the bad outcomes that could result. In The World Until Yesterday, he goes further down this path, not ignoring history but writing a work that is situated more in historical anthropology than cultural history.

In this book he also revisits some themes of his first major popular work, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, in which he makes use of his scientific training as an evolutionary biologist to couch human behavior in evolutionary terms. In The World Until Yesterday, Diamond looks at behaviors seen in humans in traditional societies as evolutionary reactions to the environments those societies exist in, and discusses how they contribute to (or sometimes detract from) the success of those societies. This is the core of his entire body of work; his attempt to describe human behavior, and how it changes over time, in terms of biological impulses; the quest by human genes to replicate themselves.

The book is divided into five sections: the first is a look at space and time, in which Diamond points out that humans have lived in what he terms “traditional societies” for most of our existence as a species. In G, G, & S, he used a four-way division of human societies into – in increasing order of size and complexity – band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. In The World Until Yesterday, he concentrates on the first two of these typologies, while occasionally comparing them to today’s state-dominated world. He points out that pretty much all of our contemporary social science research is based on WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies, and what you learn from studying psychology undergraduates or faculty children at an American university is not necessarily generalizable to most people throughout human history.

In the second part, Diamond studies conflict and conflict resolution. He makes the point, also made by Stephen Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), that war has decreased in relative terms as a cause of human death and suffering since the creation of the state system; that in fact, despite the enormous death toll of WW2 and other recent conflicts, people are much more at risk from organized violence in traditional societies than in contemporary ones. Warfare is a principal cause – often the principal cause – of death for New Guineans who have not been contacted by the state system, while warfare is way down the list in western society, even among the generations who fought in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. He offers a definition of war that some students of the subject might reject as being too broad, taking in conflicts between very small bands. However, given his definition, it is clear that inter-group violence is a serious problem for traditional societies. His scientific work was mostly in New Guinea and the Pacific islands, and apparently the risk of inter-group violence was always present and often limited fieldwork in remote areas, even after the arrival of state officials (of Australia, Indonesia, or the newly-independent nations of the region), who try to prevent or punish warfare. Stranger = enemy, he argues, is natural and pro-survival for humans in traditional societies. However, he looks at the way traditional societies, especially within groups or between closely allied groups, manage to contain violence without appealing to the higher authority of the state. He terms the process “restorative justice”, in which the parties to the dispute recognize each other’s suffering and some form of recompense is made, permitting the restoration of a previous relationship. In the Blue Ridge Mountains where my family has some roots, there was a similar process until quite recently, with an older neighbor, my godfather, once declaring to a visiting sheriff’s deputy from the valley below “we don’t need no law up here, we make our own law.” Perhaps Ivan Pettit might have understood the process Diamond’s New Guinean friends went through when someone was killed in an automobile accident: the driver and his employer, though not “at fault” as we would understand it in our modern society, nonetheless engaged a respected intermediary, contacted the family of the child who was hit, determined that recompense would be acceptable, went in person and offered food and other goods, expressed his sorrow, and normal relationships were restored.

In the third section, Diamond considers questions of youth and age and family relationships in traditional societies. He starts by acknowledging that there are many aspects that are repugnant to contemporary observers from state societies. Most traditional societies, especially hunter-gatherers, practice some form of infanticide, and many societies, especially in very harsh environments such as the Arctic or deserts, also practice the killing or neglect of elders. This is because resources are limited – for example, a mother who already has one child less than three or four years old cannot carry another and still keep up with a band of hunter-gatherers who are changing camps. For this reason, !Kung hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari desert routinely give birth alone some distance from camp, and if there are multiple births or if the newborn has come too soon after an earlier birth, the mother smothers her child. Only if the child is brought back to the camp and passed around from hand to hand do the !Kung consider the baby to have become a person. This puts our contemporary arguments about abortion in context – if we feel that resources are limited and we need or want to kill our babies, we can do it much earlier in their development. However, many practices of traditional societies are arguably more humane that our own. One of Diamond’s Pacific Islander contacts, a man from Fiji who had visited the US, expressed his horror at how Americans treat elderly people by “throwing them away” in old folks’ homes. In my own family, my wife works as a nursing assistant in an elder-care facility, and, since she is from Africa and a society closer to its traditional roots in this way, she has also expressed some surprise at how little contact American adults have with their elderly parents. In traditional societies, elders often care for their grandchildren, have important tasks to do that liberate adults for more strenuous duties, and serve as the collective memory of the community. Equally, in traditional societies, little children are not locked away in their own rooms as babies or left to “cry it out”, but instead are almost always in physical contact with adults, soothed quickly when crying, and nursed almost continuously until what we would think of as quite advanced ages (3 or 4 years old). As a result, they develop more quickly and show more independence and self-esteem as young people than do children in our modern society. I was struck when reading this section by the memory of the enormous battle that I waged with my oldest child trying to get him to go to sleep by himself when he was a baby. Our life as a family in 1998-2000 would certainly have been more tranquil if we had followed the practice of the New Guineans.

In the fourth section, Diamond turns to questions of danger and responses to danger. Physical dangers such as attacks from wild animals, falls and accidents, and communicable diseases are major causes of death and suffering in traditional societies, much more than in contemporary state societies. The traditional response to danger, he says, is a sort of “constructive paranoia” in which people appear to be hyper-cautious, indeed, almost cowardly or paranoid in the face of what appear to quite minor dangers. Minor dangers repeated over and over again, though, by the law of averages, add up to major dangers. So, you only take minor dangers when there is no other way to achieve a needed goal. You don’t camp under the dead tree unless there isn’t a safe place elsewhere. Machismo and risk-seeking is not a valued trait in traditional societies. Diamond relates a near-fatal boating accident that he experienced, which, after his safe return to shore, he discovered had not been shared by an Indonesian acquaintance because the man had noticed the signs of risk-taking behavior on the part of the boat’s crew and had decided to wait for another boat.

Finally, he turns to a mixed bag of traits: religion, language, and diet. His take on religion is interesting and one of the most important findings of the book. He identifies seven things that religion does for human beings. It:

  1. Provides explanations for phenomena that don’t have easily comprehensible explanations in the natural world.
  2. Defuses anxiety over problems and dangers beyond an individual’s control, permitting reasoned responses to those things that can be controlled.
  3. Provides comfort, hope, and meaning when life is hard.
  4. Promotes social organization and obedience to authority among the people (religion as the “opiate of the people”).
  5. Creates and enforces codes of behavior towards strangers, permitting groups of people to coexist even if they don’t all know each other personally.
  6. Justifies intergroup conflict under certain circumstances, even when acts of violence in conflicts would otherwise violate the codes established under point 5, above (“thou shalt not kill” but “God wills that you smite the Jebusites and Hevites hip and thigh”)
  7. Provides difficult and costly rituals of belonging that help cement group identity (like cutting one’s penis in order to show that one is a member of the Jewish or Muslim faith).

For all these reasons, Diamond argues, societies with religion are more successful than societies without, and thus every society that we know of before the modern era had religion as an important part of its collective life. The importance of each of these factors has waxed and waned over human history. For example, the first point is less important today since science has managed to give naturalistic explanations for many phenomena that were once thought of as the work of the Gods. On the other hand, the social functions of religion, points 4-7, were pretty much unimportant to traditional societies. They didn’t need to justify inter-group violence because it was natural for them. Modern soldiers often have difficulty with the moral justification for violence; New Guineans in traditional societies had (and have) no such inhibitions. For people in traditional societies, the only inhibition is practicality – can I successfully attack this stranger/enemy? Is this going to harm my relationship with any allied group? They also didn’t need complex rules about relations with strangers since all strangers were by definition enemies.

He points out that most people in traditional societies are multilingual, which I have noticed myself. Pretty much everybody in Africa speaks at least two or three languages, mostly learned before school years, as well as an international language like French or English, learned in school. Diamond argues that multilingualism is good for the brain in a variety of ways, and calls for further research. Finally, he puts in an argument in favor of the diet of traditional societies (except for the intermittent famines) as being generally healthier than our contemporary high-salt, high-sugar diet. He points out that hypertension and diabetes are increasingly serious problems in our modern world and often become serious problems when people move from traditional to modern societies. Some of the places in the world with the worst problems with these diseases are places like Saudi Arabia, where sudden wealth permitted people to change rapidly from a traditional lifestyle to a contemporary one. I can sympathize, since I suffer from the common first-world problems of obesity and hypertension. I’m careful about sugar and so haven’t had issues with diabetes so far (knock wood! 😉  )

While I’ve been writing this, the kids have been voluntarily and without any recompense, cleaning my patio. It is Mariette’s birthday tomorrow, and I have volunteered to buy her a birthday cake, so maybe she is trying to thank me. But she cleans all the time. They did break a glass earlier, so perhaps they are concerned about getting all the broken glass up and thus not cutting their feet. Anyway, nice thought on their part.



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