The World Until Yesterday

Jared Diamond

2012


Perhaps the best summary discussion of the differences between traditional and modern societies one could imagine. Diamond is both an expert in his field and an expert in communicating its intricacies – and he doesn't shy away from the details in making often subtle points.

There is no romance here for traditional ways of life: no room for Rousseau. It's a life that many traditional peoples, when offered the choice, abandon with little regret. The perils of the traditional life are many, not least from other members of neighbouring tribes or bands. Diamond makes an identical point to that made by Stephen PinkerStephen Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity: modern societies are by far the most stable and peaceful social structures we've ever created. But there are other hazards: skin scratches are elevated to the ranks of the top-five causes of death (from infection). Diamond himself makes the point, in his excellent concluding chapter, that despite his emotional and professional commitment to New Guinea, he's never considered moving there.

Diamond is at his strongest when discussing war, lifestyle, and religion – and he deals sure-footedly with that most difficult of topics. He's less deft in dealing with the diseases of different societies: not because of any lack of mastery, but because the detail feels overwrought somehow. But that's a minor complaint for a book that's overwhelmingly detailed and balanced, and that tries to draw out the best of traditional societies in a way that might find application for we moderns, without ever losing sight of the fact that the modern world is in many ways an infinitely more preferable place in which to actually live.

Finished on Thu, 16 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.