For the vast majority of human history, we lived in traditional societies; small bands of people where everyone knew everyone else and survival came through hunting and gathering. We like to think of our modern, Western societies as superior due to our technological and scientific breakthroughs, but do traditional societies have something to teach us after all? In The World Until Yesterday, Diamond considers the topics of raising children, war, care for the elderly, health and religion, and questions whether there is anything we can learn from the way we lived for thousands of years.
The World Until Yesterday is definitely a thought provoking book. Diamond has spent time among the traditional societies of New Guinea, and has also researched traditional societies still living in other parts of the globe. He doesn't present them as a singular entity with no variation, and nor does he present a simple argument. In each chapter, he looks at the different traditional societies and their approach and honestly compares it to modern life. In some cases, modern life has undeniable benefits (e.g. a far smaller proportion of our populations die in wars) and sometimes, there is something to learn from the past. It's a book to make you think and the chosen areas of focus are all interesting issues that we face in everyday life.
Personally, I found the chapters on childcare and care for the elderly to be the most interesting. In traditional societies, parenting is shared among the extended family and also others in the community (alloparenting), which contrasts with our modern lifestyles, where distance and work commitments make this very difficult. This is something we've been thinking about a lot lately, as we're lucky enough to both have large families close by. Child independence is also a bigger deal in traditional societies. The chapter on the elderly was especially interesting as there was such a large variation among the societies mentioned; in some the elderly are deferred to without question and given the best of everything, but in others they are practically encouraged to commit suicide so as not to be a burden of resources.
What I liked best about The World Until Yesterday was the way that it was never preachy. Diamond refrains from judging either modern or traditional societies, instead giving the reader the chance to think for themselves. Some chapters identified small changes that we could all make to our lives (especially in regards to diet), and others were more broad.
Although The World Until Yesterday was full of fascinating information, it's a book to read for the ideas rather than the writing. Diamond is keen to include examples from all of his research and personal experience, meaning that chapters can feel a bit repetitive sometimes. If I've had an example of a society that practises infanticide, I don't need three additional examples too. The writing is smooth and flowing, but it's not the best example of non-fiction writing I've ever read. Still, it is extremely interesting and it's a great book to pick up if you're interested in society or how we live our lives.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2012
Edition Read: Penguin, 2013
Score: 4 out of 5