Monday, February 25, 2013

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

Many people fantasize about a world long gone, where life was less complicated by modern day complexities and technology.  Diamond has set out to clarify just what we gave up by moving out of hunter-gatherer bands and into high rises. His latest book compares traditional societies with modern lifestyles without glorifying or vilifying either.

Diamond explores just a few aspects of life, including conflict resolution, war, child rearing, the treatment of elderly, eating habits, and even how different people react (or don’t react) to coming in contact with a stranger.  He argues that both modern cultures and traditional ones have some advantages and some weaknesses in all of these areas.

The fantasy of a less complicated life is just that, a fantasy.  Traditional cultures may not have to worry about job security, but they do need to worry about famine and disease.  Some may also need to worry about whether or not they will be seen as useful as they age, or if their family will kill them as they become more of a burden.  Modern society also has the advantages of being able to live peacefully with people we don’t know, whereas Diamond explains that many traditional people might be inclined to kill a stranger on sight.

Just as there are advantages to modern society, there are areas where it falls behind the traditional ones.  Looking specifically at American culture, most children speak and understand only one language, though recent studies have shown there are advantages to being multi-lingual, which most traditional societies are.  Traditional societies also don’t suffer from the same western diseases that many Americans do, such as hypertension, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease.  People in traditional societies tend to be fitter; their lower life expectancy is generally the result of less access to emergency medical care and the availability of food.  According to Diamond, children in traditional societies also tend to focus on games that require cooperation and critical thinking, but almost never on competition.

Knowing nearly nothing about anthropology or traditional societies, I still found this book perfectly accessible and highly interesting.  I found myself looking forward to each new chapter and the critiques and observations it would contain.
As always, Diamond is a readable expert, making this book perfect for the casual reader or the scholar.  

Buy it indie!

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