Sunday, 17 January 2016

'The World Until Yesterday' by Jared Diamond

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

I've just finished 'The World Until Yesterday' by Jared Diamond, and more than most books I've ever read, I want to share this with others.

Jared Diamond is a writer and scientist, who has spent decades researching the indigenous tribes of Papua New Guinea (this is obviously his area of expertise, but he's done a lot of research into other indigenous cultures all across the world for this book). He's most well known for his book 'Guns, Germs and Steel' about how Europeans came to dominate the world (for the answer to that, the clue is in the title!). He seems a fascinating man with a great mix of interests and fields of study. The bio on his website is definitely worth a read if you want to know more.
The book is a non-fiction book that doesn't neatly fit into any category, but instead I'd say it is a mix of geography, history, anthropology, with a bit of philosophy, science, memoir and no doubt various other things in it. The central concept of the book is looking at many different traditional societies to examine their approach to various different aspects of everyday life including crime and punishment, religion, languages, bringing up children, dealing with the elderly and diet and lifestyle. The book is called The World Until Yesterday because by examining traditional cultures around the world, many of them hunter-gatherers, the book is also examining the way all of our ancestors lived, until about 10,000 years ago (i.e. for most of 200,000 or so years that modern homo sapiens have existed for).

This concept is one that greatly interests me, because although there are many different cultures around the world, in many respects we are starting to live in one giant culture, because the vast majority of the world (certainly the Western World, but increasingly a lot of the rest too) operates very similarly in terms of the way it is run, the way people act and live out their lives. This is as a result of European colonisation in the 16th-19th century, and the spread of globalisation and American consumer culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, It is easy to assume the way people are is the only way we could be, when it is simply not true.

So the premise is one I really like, but how well did the author manage to fulfil my expectations? While not all topics are equally good (the crime and justice section at the beginning seemed to drag after a while), it was all fascinating and enlightening. The section on health was particularly excellent. Some of the conclusions were new and surprising to me, others more familiar but still had many new insights. For a knowledge junkie like me, this book was manna from heaven.

Here's a couple of quotes/facts I picked out from the book.

"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."

"the Inuit themselves abandoned war in their own self-interest in order to have more opportunities to profit from trade, and the !Kung may have done the same"

"Roman soldiers were paid in salt, so that our word “salary” for pay is derived not from the Latin root for “money” or “coins” but from the Latin root for “salt” (sal)." [Not particlarly relevant to the thread of the book, but a fact is a fact, I never turn them down!]

"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."

This wasn't the lightest read, but it wasn't particularly difficult either. I should give a shout out to the wonders of the Kindle - I did start reading this over a year ago but put it down after getting bogged down in the first section (on crime and justice). I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago, and was able to go straight to where I left off. If this had been a paper book I'd probably have taken it to the charity shop ages ago and never picked it up again!

Really enlightening and fascinating book. There were some areas I felt he didn't touch on much that I'd have liked to read about - such as more about the politics and economics of traditional cultures but maybe that is for another book. Still, for a knowledge junkie like me, this book was manna from heaven. 9/10