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‘Yesterday’ looks for lessons from traditional societies

Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Collapse” and “Guns, Germs and Steel,” has written a new book, “The World Until Yesterday,” whose title is a shorthand for how “… it was only yesterday, in evolutionary terms, when everything changed.”

Diamond’s professional skills include anthropology, sociology, evolutionary biology, linguistics, history and other academic fields, leading one reviewer of an earlier book to postulate that Diamond wasn’t an actual person but a pseudonym for a committee of specialist experts.

The timeline of the book concentrates on a comprehensive review of the last 11,000 years when modern features, including the production of metal, appeared in certain areas of the world.

Before that there is the broader panoply of 6 million years of human and proto-human history to scan, particularly in traditional societies, for good practices that might be emulated as we search for a better future. Be aware that Diamond, a 75-year-old professor of geography at UCLA, defines a traditional society as tiny bands or tribes, “where no one is a stranger, and where kings, presidents and bureaucrats are unnecessary.”

Beyond these classifications are what he calls “chiefdoms and states,” organizations whose complexity increases with size, social stratification, politicization and extensive sharing of resources. As in all examples, there is some variation.

Some of Diamond’s scientific colleagues are saying that his insights into improving our future through a survey of anthropological literature and field visits to highland New Guinea may be on a par with the exploits of English naturalist Charles R. Darwin. Darwin’s trilogy of books, “On the Origin of Species,” “The Descent of Man” and “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” dealt with human evolution and moved the needle of progress forward against grudging conservative societal forces.

Time will tell if the comparison is apt. Diamond’s heart is in the right place. For now it is enough to say that Diamond’s examination of how our ancestors lived in traditional societies for most of their history is radically different from the way we live now – think air travel, cellphones, literacy and obesity. His premise is that we shouldn’t romanticize the past but pick up cues about doing things right from those who have gone before.

Diamond says that we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that “People are basically all the same everywhere.” In New Guinea alone, he indicates that they “… count differently (by visual mapping rather than abstract numbers), select their wives or husbands differently, treat their parents and children differently, view danger differently, and have a different concept of friendship.”

What lessons from our forebears does Diamond think we should take up from traditional societies to improve our lives?

• For starters, give more respect and esteem to the elderly.

• Teach children to be more confident and socially astute in their choices by adopting certain traditional child rearing techniques.

• Learn from traditional societies how they avoided contemporary illnesses such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

• Learn what Diamond calls “constructive paranoia” to assess dangerous situations.

• Realize the value of multilingualism. Diamond thinks that if current trends continue, 955 of the world’s languages will be extinct or moribund by the year 2100.

This book is huge, and is divided carefully into parts and chapters that develop incrementally, topic by topic. For example, the first part includes “Setting the Stage by Dividing Space” that shows varying degrees of awareness in evolutionary terms of “Friends, Enemies, Strangers and Traders.”

The second part, “Peace and War,” gives examples of how justice operates across cultures. The third part deals with the beginnings of life and its end – the “Young and Old” – and variations in child-rearing and what is done or not done with older people.

Part Four is entitled “Danger and Response,” a series of chapters that demonstrates how attitudes toward the concept of danger varies from place to place. Part Five covers “Religion, Language and Health” with specific chapters on the evolution of religion, the importance of multilingualism, and another on how “Salt, Sugar, Fat and Sloth” contributes to the illness explosion in modern societies.

I wasn’t satisfied with Diamond’s handling of religion. It seems to me to be a topic that cannot be dealt with by using only the assessment tools of an evolutionary biologist. And to his credit he recognizes this fact.

Diamond himself offered a definition of religion in one of his classes that he wasn’t satisfied with over time. He defined religion as “belief in a postulated supernatural agent for whose existence our senses can’t give evidence, but which is invoked to explain things of which our senses do not give us evidence.”

He realized that his definition would include phenomena that no one would consider religious – such as “belief in fairies, ghosts, leprechauns, and aliens in UFOs.” He also failed to realize that religions are also social movements of people who identify themselves as sharing deeply held beliefs. As a result he included this notion in his definition.

So what did he do next? He began to consider human attributes that might have arisen alongside our sophisticated ability to deduce cause, agency and intent, to anticipate dangers, and predictive behavior, thinking that these ‘triggers’ would engender a belief structure. To a degree, this is valuable analysis of causal explanations, but it doesn’t get to the basis of belief. Diamond made a table of “Examples of supernatural beliefs confined to particular religions” (page 341) that shows a productive mind at work in search of an answer.

Diamond then considered religion’s function of explanation, its role in defusing anxiety and providing comfort.

He uses another evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson’s measure for resolving religion’s paradox: measuring its relative success by its number of adherents.

The answer is that Diamond is only postulating why people believe. He doesn’t know, and about religion’s future he is not so sure. He writes, “If living standards rise all around the world … religion will decline … If, on the other hand, much of the world remains mired in poverty ... then all functions of religion … may undergo a resurgence.”

In short, he is guessing. I could have said as much.

This is why we need philosophers and theologians. Religious experience is a subtle romance between the believer and the beloved. “The World Until Yesterday” gives the importance of religion in our world the old college try, but religion’s reckoning goes beyond pick axes, computers, analysis of data and hypotheses.

Notwithstanding this consideration, “The World Until Yesterday” is a beacon for understanding what we can learn from our forebears.

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

By Jared Diamond


512 pages, $36

Michael D. Langan is a former headmaster of Nardin Academy.