The World until Yesterday

  • by Jared Diamond
  • Narrated by Jay Snyder
  • 18 hrs and 31 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Most of us take for granted the features of our modern society, from air travel and telecommunications to literacy and obesity. Yet for nearly all of its six million years of existence, human society had none of these things. While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgeably wide, we can glimpse much of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies still or recently in existence. Societies like those of the New Guinea Highlanders remind us that it was only yesterday - in evolutionary time - when everything changed and that we moderns still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional than to modern conditions.
The World until Yesterday provides a mesmerizing firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years - a past that has mostly vanished - and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today.
This is Jared Diamond’s most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn’t romanticize traditional societies - after all, we are shocked by some of their practices - but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us. A characteristically provocative, enlightening, and entertaining book, The World until Yesterday will be essential and delightful listening.

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Customer Reviews

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A visit with our ancient ancestors

Jared Diamond is patient with the non-academic reader. He presents his intriguing ideas in story form with a minimum of statistics and dry facts. He shares his insights from a long career of living among primitive people in several areas -- mostly Papua New Guinea. He tells about the similarities and differences of their lives compared to ours. Then he asks, "Could they have been onto something that we could revisit in our own lives?" It is a good question and one that stays with the reader long after the book is finished.

One example: in primitive groups, children spend a lot of time in age-mixed groups which allows the younger kids to learn from the older ones and the older ones to feel pride and accomplishment when they teach the younger ones. In our culture, children are separated into age-specific groups and taught together by an adult. The age segregation continues outside school in team sports and play dates. With small families, some children do not have experience with children of other ages -- often until they become parents themselves. As I was reading this, my 10-year-old grandson was playing with his 1-year-old cousin, showing her new ways to play with her "baby" toys. She was delighted with his attention and soon turned her push-car upside down as he had done, spinning the wheels with her hands. Later, the 10-year-old went to a museum with his 20-year-old cousin to see dinosaurs. The 20-year-old grew up in this town and had visited the museum many times, so he was an expert in the eyes of the 10-year-old and he seemed to enjoy the adulation.

This book made me think about the "advances" we have made in our culture and question it. Most of it has been good (sanitation, public health, medical care) but some of the old ways have merit and deserve examination. After all, they were in practice until "just yesterday" and helped us survive and evolve to what we are today.
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- FL Grandmom

An eye opener

Up until a few tens of thousands years ago all humans lived in bands consisting of up to a few dussin people. Thus during almost our entire evolutionary past we lived in an environment very different from the one we live in today. To understand the evolutionary pressures that have shaped our behavior and our cognition we need to look at the way our ancestors lived. This is of course more or less impossible because written history did not appear until very recently. However, there are people alive today, who live in a manner we think is very similar to the way all humans used to live. This book is about these peoples. How do they live and think, what are the similarities and differences between us and them? What can we learn from the way they live?

This book shows that the life of our ancestors was not, as some people (especially Disney employees) like to think, all romantic and in harmony with nature etc. Personally I would never switch my life in a civilized western nation for a life in the jungles of New Guinea, and I think that any informed person would be inclined to make the same choice. The life expectancy is about half of what I have now. They are also much more likely to be murdered because crime rates in such societies is extremely high compared to any state nation. Also they have no Wi-Fi, and that would suck too.

In short, life was not better before, it is better now, much better. With that said, there are many lessons to learn from traditional societies and lifestyles. Jared Diamond in “The world until yesterday” goes through many aspects of life, including but not limited to health, crime, diet, child rearing and care for the elderly. Consistently, there are things that we do better in modern western societies and to his credit Diamond points this out. However, there are also lessons to be learned from people living in traditional societies.
The justice system is good example. Crimes in traditional societies are dealt with by the community. There are no absolute laws. For example, murder is sometimes seen as justified and therefore not punished. If someone accidentally causes the death of another person then it may be sufficient for the perpetrator to pay sorrow money to the victims family. Western societies on the other hand see crimes as committed against the community and a perpetrator cannot walk away even if the victim forgives him (yes it is usually “hims”). What lessons can we derive from this. It is probably the case that we can learn things from traditional societies about finding common ground between perpetrator and victim. Grudges are usually resolved one way or another. However, in traditional societies it is also much more common that people take justice into their own hands, which can and do have fatal outcomes.

In some areas the conclusion that progress have been made is inescapable. One perhaps unexpected example of this is wars. The first time I heard about the relative casualty rates in traditional and modern “total” wars I was rather surprised. I had always thought that the second world war was the worst war in the history of mankind, however, if one compares the casualty rate in the second world war with the casualties in wars between traditional tribes it is actually much higher in the latter. In some traditional wars the casualty rate reaches one percent of the population annually whereas Germany and Russia (the two worst hit nations) saw casualty rates of about 0.16 percent annually during the second world war. In other words, you would be much more likely to die in a “traditional war” than in WW2… One factor here is also the fact that whereas children in western societies are taught that killing is wrong and often feel bad after having killed another person (even in wars), children in traditional societies are sometimes taught to feel pride upon killing an enemy. Taking into account wars as well as violence that occurs between wars, it is crystal clear that we are much better off in our modern world. As Jeff Niehaus, who was teaching developmental psychology at UCSB once said, downtown Chicago is actually really peaceful if you compare it to traditional societies.

I guess that it is clear to the reader that I feel quite fortunate that I live in a modern society and not in the jungles of New Guinea. In a few respects however the sometimes cannibalistic tribes outperform us. One obvious example is language. An average New Guinean knows five languages, which is rather impressive. I personally know only three and I think that is probably better than the average person in modern societies. Diamond argues that we should try and preserve languages which are otherwise bound to go extinct. I was not entirely convinced by his arguments. I accept that bilingualism is associated with performance on other types of tasks, delayed dementia etc, however, I also think that it would be desirable if communication between different peoples of the world was easier. Maybe there is a compromise between extinction of all languages except english (or chinese), and the ability of people to talk to each other (I’ll have to return to that topic).

In one of the last chapters Jared Diamond compares the health of people in modern and traditional societies, with mixed conclusions. Once again it is absolutely clear that we live longer in western societies. This ought to be problematic to explain for those who like to claim that a “natural” lifestyle is preferable and more healthy in general. Even though we are using more and more “chemicals” (everythings is chemicals really), we also live longer and longer. If chemicals kill us, then why do we live longer? In some respects our modern lifestyle is not so good however. We do consume too much salt and sugar. Diabetes is pretty much unheard of in some traditional societies, and high blood pressure (which occur if we eat too much salt), is also extremely uncommon. So one lesson we can learn is to eat less sugar and salt.

There are many more interesting topics in this book. One that I found particularly interesting was child rearing practices where people in traditional societies spend much more time which their kids and have much more skin to skin contact, an approach I personally do believe in to a certain extent. I also liked the discussion about treatment of the elderly which ranges from leaving them to die when they go dement (this was the practice of Swedish natives), or killing them when they are no longer of any use, to chewing their food for them when they have no teeth (yuk).

Overall I liked this book. It was 20 hours well spent although I think Diamond could have excluded certain parts that were personal and not so interesting if you are not extremely interested in Diamonds personal life. However, I did learn a lot that I did not know before and it gave me some new perspectives and it even made me want to change a few things in my own life. Above all however, the book reminded me of the privileged life I live. I live in peace. I have a family that I love (and I am under the impression that they like me too). I have a stimulating job that I like, and I am able to explore the world in a way that would be completely unimaginable to 99.99% of all humans that have existed on this planet. I really did win the lottery in the most important sense. Lucky me =)
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- Neuron "Family father, neuroscientist, and non-fiction addict."

Book Details

  • Release Date: 12-31-2012
  • Publisher: Penguin Audio