Monday, October 05, 2015

The World Until Yesterday

"The World Until Yesterday" (2012) is the latest book by Jared Diamond. It is subtitled "What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies". Traditional Societies are the world's remaining hunter-gatherers, normally bands or tribes.

I enjoyed this book by far the least of any of Diamond's works. It just did not seem to have near the insights of any of his other books. I did learn some things I did not know, but none of them had the "aha" quality of his other books.

The book is 480 pages, with a prologue and an epilogue and 11 chapters divided into 5 parts. Diamond compares traditional to modern societies in 8 different areas (he says 9???): peaceful dispute resolution, warfare, child-rearing, treatment of the elderly, dangers, religion, languages and multilingualism, and health-promoting lifestyles.

In the first chapter, Diamond discusses territoriality, including exclusive versus shared land use. For traditional peoples, everyone is a friend, enemy, or a stranger. Strangers you pretty much treat as enemies. Traditional peoples normally live their whole lives around the same people and locales.

On peaceful dispute resolution, Diamond notes how traditional peoples are more concerned with figuring out how the disputing parties are going live together for the rest of their lives, rather than worrying only about justice and compensation. This approach would make sense in modern societies for things like divorce and inheritance.

On war, Diamond points out that although the absolute numbers seem small, as a percentage of population the deaths from warring traditional peoples are huge. Not sure there was something we were supposed to learn from this.

On raising children, traditional peoples seem to show children a lot more respect, and to expect more of them. He also notes that traditional peoples tend to crying babies immediately, without worrying that this will negatively affect character.

On treatment of the elderly, there are traditional societies that abandon or kill old people. But most find grandparents to be sources of history, and helpers with tasks they can still handle. There are no retirement homes among traditional peoples.

On dangers, and dealing with them, I liked the chapter titled "Constructive Paranoia". Given that very few traditional people die of old age, they tend to be extremely wary of anything that could signify danger. Diamond thought they were being overly cautious at first, until a life-threatening situation that developed out of nowhere showed him the error of his ways. Also interesting, in dangerous situations, traditional peoples completely admit how frightened they are - no macho cowboys here!

On religion, Diamond lists various definitions and attributes of religion to determine what is religion and what is not. Diamond lists 7 features/functions of religion:

  1. explanation - now being usurped by science;
  2. defusing anxiety over problems and dangers beyond our control;
  3. providing comfort, hope, and meaning when life is hard;
  4. standardized organization - priests, ceremonies, etc;
  5. preaching political obedience;
  6. regulating behavior towards strangers by means of formal moral codes;
  7. justifying wars - I have been big on this one lately.
On multilingualism, Diamond is all in favor of it. Traditional peoples usually speak many languages. Diamond posits that bilingualism leads to increased mind development, since the mind is always having to decide which language to do things in. He also talks about research showing that Alzheimer's sufferers who are bilingual function better even when the disease is further advanced physically.

Finally, on health-promoting lifestyles, the contrast between and traditional and modern societies could not be clearer. Traditional peoples never die of heart disease, diabetes, and the other diseases of our overweight modern peoples. Traditional peoples often came close to starving. The adaptations that developed in the face of that work against us in the modern world where there is always more than enough food. Salt and sugar, which are particularly ubiquitous in processed, packaged modern foods, are craved by all of us, and lead to heart disease via hypertension and diabetes. These are now spreading to India and China as they come out of extreme poverty. Time for the Mediterranean Diet for all of us!

Well, that's it. As I said, my least favorite of his books. Even if you enjoyed his other books, I'm not sure I'd recommend this one.

No comments: