The World Until Yesterday

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond.  Viking, 2012.

The old notion that pre-literate Stone Age people are “noble savages” has been demolished by current research, cited in detail in Steven Pinker’s excellent Better Angels of Our Nature, and given further weight by this latest from Diamond. Unlike Pinker, however, Diamond has actually spent time living among such societies over a period of years, mostly in New Guinea, so he has personal experience to draw on. A person’s chance of dying of homicide is much greater in a traditional society because without centralized governments, people have great difficulty stopping the cycles of revenge killings that arise from a murder, for example. Other reasons not to romanticize these societies include the dangers of wild animals and infectious diseases. Yet they have other aspects that we might like to re-introduce or strengthen in our own lives.
Diamond pulls together quite a lot of food for thought here, with topics to interest just about everyone: dispute resolution, the upbringing of children and care of the elderly, societies’ response to danger, the function of religion, the generally health-promoting diets (despite occasional famines) of traditional peoples compared to the obesity/diabetes/cardiovascular debacle of Western societies, and much more. In his chapter on nutrition, however, Diamond apparently hasn’t yet realized the powerful disease-causing role of animal products in the modern Western diet.
A thought-provoking read.

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