Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Booknotes - The World Until Yesterday

This is my notes from reading 'The World Until Yesterday', summarizing the book and what I learned. Major spoilers (if there can be such in a non-fiction book). If you want to read the review instead, click here.

The World Until Yesterday is an examination of the different approaches of indiginous, traditional peoples to a variety of areas, and how this contrasts with modern western culture (us WEIRD folk - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic).

Crime & Justice

Traditional justice is all about settling disputes in a way that will allow the victim (or victim's family) and the perpetator to be able to live alongside one another in future, as generally everyone knows one another in small tribes etc. This approach of considering the victim and how they are feeling, facing them etc, is lost in modern legal systems. In his epilogue to the book, the author accepts that individuals in modern societies can't choose to adopt traditional forms of justice, but does suggest:

"But you may be able to utilize by yourself the New Guinea emphasis on informal mediation, emotional clearance, and reestablishment of relationships (or of non-relationships) in disputes the next time that you find yourself in a private dispute where tempers are rising."

Which is definitely something to think about.

Treatment of Children

A lot more babies and young children die in traditional cultures, and there are also some cultures that practice infanticide for unwanted babies (particularly where two babies are born close together, less than 3 years apart). However there are a lot of positives, in many hunter gatherer cultures babies are breast fed until they are at least 3, and this closeness with the mother is generally positive. Generally, babies and young children are held most of the time, either by a mother or other women in the tribe. This is called 'allo-parenting, where non-family members also care for a baby. 

Children don't have the structured play and manufactured toys common in western culture. They make their own toys, and also play with children of all different ages, rather than just children of the same age. Parents also let their children take risks, commonly holding knifes, playing near fire etc. Children learn themselves from mistakes, though can sustain injuries.

Children in traditional cultures generally grow up to be happy and confident adults, fully integrated with their society. Because their play is generally imitation of adult activities, there's no clear dividing line between childhood and adulthood, they move smoothly between the two.

The take home from this is that although there are dangerous or unsavoury practices, modern parents can learn a lot from traditional cultures when it comes to child-rearing, particularly encouraging creative imaginative play rather than manufactured/structured play, allowing children to take more risks and learn for themselves, and encourage they to play with children of all ages.

Treatment of the elderly

"Looming behind this increasing social isolation of the modern elderly is that they are perceived as less useful than were old people in the past, for three reasons: modern literacy, formal education, and rapid technological change."

Life expectancy in traditional cultures is/was a lot lower than  modern western society, but nevertheless some did live into their 70's and 80's.  Although some tribal cultures practiced killing of elderly that could no longer look after themselves (though neglect, reduction of food, leaving behind or outright killing), in most cases the elderly were valued and useful to society, more so than they often are today. In pre-literate societies the elderly were the stores of knowledge, some of it invaluable for the survival of he tribe (for instance the elderly woman who was the only one who knew which plants were safe to eat when a storm hit and other crops were destroyed), and often new the best techniques for hunting etc. As the quote above says, due to high literacy, education and technological change, the elderly today are less useful in this regard. One way in which they are still useful is as caregivers, for instance looking after grandchildren while parents go out to work (which was common in traditional cultures, and increasingly useful today). 

Approach to Risk

Traditional cultures take a different approach to risk than we do, and perhaps a more sensible one. Their survival often depends on accurately judging risk, particularly the small ones. The example given was that New Guinea tribe members won't camp under a tree, 'because it might fall down and kill us in the night'. The author, when he heard this from them, wanted to ridicule it, but even if the chance of it happening is 1 in a 1000, sooner or later it will happen if they do it regularly enough, so they avoid it. 

In contrast, in modern WEIRD cultures, we overestimate risk of big things that kill multiple people - disease epidemics, terrorist attack, plane crash etc. - but underestimate the everyday risk, like driving a car, smoking, stepladders etc. By taking more consideration of these and avoiding the small risks, we could learn from traditional societies and minimise our risk.

A question the author poses but doesn't answer is 'Does modern western culture's experience of mass media cause us to underestimate some risks because we don't have personal experience of them, but only through the media'?  


Some interesting discussion about religion, what it is and how it arose over time. This section is less about what we can learn from religion in traditional societies, and more about learning what makes religion so appealling and so historically successful. As the author says, religion often demands a great sacrifice of time and resources from us, so we must get something back in return.

There are various definitions of religion, which serve to highlight that experts cannot agree on a single definition, and how it means different things to different people in different societies. However it suggests that religion can be seen to fall into five sets:

 "The components commonly attributed to religions fall into five sets: belief in the supernatural, shared membership in a social movement, costly and visible proofs of commitment, practical rules for one’s behavior (i.e., “morality”), and belief that supernatural beings and forces can be induced (e.g., by prayer) to intervene in worldly life."

 Not all are present in all religions, but at least some are. There is a fascinating discussion as well about how religion has changed over time, and it has had seven purposes over time, but these have changed as religion has successfully adapted. For instance, it started out primarily as part of human's desire to find explanations and causes for the world and natural things. This purpose has faded over time, but two purposes that have arisen and increased in importance can be summarized as:

1) Providing comfort in a dangerous and unfair world, particularly for loss and hardship.

2) Providing purpose and meaning in people's lives.

Some interesting perspectives, but didn't go into a lot of detail here. I suppose things to learn from it would be that religion is very adaptable and likely to keep on going, and that it is worth thinking about what religion can offer you.

People in traditional hunter-gatherer and primitive farming cultures are usually at least bi-lingual and often multi-lingual. This is because in a given area there are several different languages spoken by different tribes, and the different tribes often interact and exchange information (in many cultures, women marry men from different tribes and go to live with them, thus most children have parents that speak 2 different languages, and there are often other women (see allo-parenting in the children section above) who look after them who speak different languages still.

 Research has shown that people who are bi-lingual have a slightly lower vocabulary on average in their native language, but have significantly better "executive function", better able to make decisions, decide on strategies and adapt to changing information and circumstances. It has also been shown that bi-lingual people have a much lower risk of developing Alzheimers, and if they do, it is likely to be 6-7 years later in life, and will develop slower.

Many languages are becoming extinct all the time, which the author argues is just a much of a travesty as loss of animal species, but doesn't receive the attention or support that endangered animals get.

Take home from this, it can be very beneficial being bi-lingual and it is worth parents raising their children to be bi-lingual where this is appropriate (i.e. parents with two different languages). In some cases this will help preserve endangered languages.


"Around the year 1700 sugar intake was only about 4 pounds per year per person in England and the U.S. (then still a colony), but it is over 150 pounds per year per person today."

Indiginous cultures have a much lower life expectancy than modern westerners. The biggest killers along with accidents and violence are infectious diseases, such as gastrointestinal diseases, cholera and the like, all diseases that have been conquered by the modern world. What they don't suffer from (or didn't until introduced to western culture) is the slower acting diseases like Diabetes, Cancer and Heart Disease. This is linked by the author mainly to diet and exercise.

In WEIRD cultures, as well as lack of exercise, we have a really high consumption of sugar and salt (see quote above). Sugar contributes strongly to diabetes, and salt in particular is a major factor in hypertension and certain types of heart disease. We can learn a lot from indiginous cultures by eating more healthily. This is partly a matter of individual choice, and partly something that governments can help with. An example of positive government action is when Finland adopted a program to reduce the salt consumption of it's people over a 20 year period. By the end of the period, Finnish life expectancy was 7-8 years higher than it had been before the program.

The book summarizes by saying that while there are many advantages to society in the modern, developed world - longer life expectancy, better healthcare, no shortage of food, less dangers, war etc - there are many things we can learn from traditional societies. Some changes individuals can adopt themselves, some require societal change, and some a mix of the two.