The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

An ambitious but effective–and charming–exploration of the salutary lessons offered by traditional societies.

For many decades, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond (Collapse; Guns, Germs and Steel) has split his time between his native United States and the traditional societies of New Guinea. In The World Until Yesterday, he compares traditional ways of life with “WEIRD” (“Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic”) methods of problem-solving. Recognizing the daunting breadth of such a subject, he selects a few areas for examination, including dispute resolution, child-rearing, elder care, religion and the connection between lifestyle and non-communicable diseases like Type II diabetes. In each area, he compares traditional practices with modern ones, considering the evidence from angles both strictly scientific and personal.

Diamond supplements his extensive fieldwork with substantial research to draw credible conclusions and posit plausible theories. But he writes conversationally, using the first person liberally as he meanders across disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, geography, statistics and evolutionary biology. This disarmingly personal tone is one of the greatest strengths of the book. Diamond also discusses preconceived notions that he and the reader may have, then moves on to new theoretical ground. While acknowledging aspects of traditional societies to which we do not wish to return–cyclical violence, infanticide, frequent starvation–he identifies certain strengths as well, like negligible rates of heart disease and restorative justice systems. “What can we learn from traditional societies?” Diamond asks in his subtitle; his plan to discover the wisdom and experimentation of more than 10,000 years of human society is well-executed.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the January 4, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 yams.

10 Responses

  1. Sounds great. I loved his book Guns, Germs, and Steel and would love to read more of his thoughts. Great review!

    • Thanks! I haven’t read any of his earlier work but my father is excited about reading Collapse just now… may get there. All get good reviews. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  2. I read Guns, Germs, and Steel and saw a documentary on it. I’ll keep an eye out for this one. I like his subtle style and he makes good points.

  3. You’re so on top of things! I had never considered documentaries from the library; but I bet there’s a wealth.

    • There was in Boston. Don’t check any out in London since DVDs cost one pound.

      • From your library they do?? Good golly. Not impressed with the London library system based on your reviews. :-/ Maybe I need to shop my local’s documentary section; Houston Public is (as you would expect) a large system with a bunch of good stuff in it!

      • I’m not too impressed either. And i learned they have a policy that if a book isn’t checked out within the past six months they get rid of it. What the?

  4. That’s a heck of an aggressive weeding policy. Hard to imagine how their circumstances could call for such a thing, but as a librarian I’d be happy to examine the conditions (size of collection, budget, rate of acquisitions, etc.) and give my judgment. 🙂 No, really, it’s a shame the local system is so poor. Who knew. Sorry.

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