The most recent ancestors that humanity shares with chimpanzees and bonobos died about 6 million years ago. For almost all of our existence, we humans have lived in small hunter-gatherer groups. It wasn’t until 11,000 years ago that we developed agriculture and 5,400 years ago that we formed states.
In many ways, the environments we occupy today bear little resemblance to the world that shaped us as a species, and this fact has any number of implications. Jared Diamond — academic, polymath, and winner of a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel — takes up this topic in The World until Yesterday, a work that manages to be captivating and informative despite never advancing a coherent thesis.
The book’s subtitle asks, “What can we learn from traditional societies?” In less capable hands this would be a recipe for disaster: In everyone from young leftists living in Occupy tents to aging conservatives distrustful of modern technology, there is a temptation to idealize earlier lifestyles — to assume that the levels of dysfunction and conflict in today’s world are a departure from the noble savagery of humanity’s past. That urge will not survive a read through The World until Yesterday, with its frank appraisals of what Diamond calls “traditional” cultures, a category that encompasses the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and early agricultural societies, including ones that have survived into the modern era.
Some of the drawbacks to the traditional life are obvious: Those living it lack modern medicine and run a higher risk of starvation. Others might be surprising: People in many of these societies simply kill babies whom they cannot afford to support, or who are born with defects. People in others kill or abandon the elderly, kill strangers on sight, or even strangle widows. Basic hygienic practices that some might imagine come instinctively, such as washing one’s hands after handling feces, are often lacking. While traditional societies have ways of handling disputes peacefully, there is no backstop when these processes break down, and as a result they often degenerate into blood feuds.
Diamond also offers an assessment of pre-modern warfare, and his conclusions mirror the ones Steven Pinker presented in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). Any given battle between traditional groups might not be a particularly bloody affair, given the primitive weaponry, the low number of people involved, and the lack of formal military training. But many of these societies are at war almost constantly, and conflicts are sometimes punctuated by massacres; all in all, most traditional societies have a much higher rate of war death than modern societies do. Diamond has spent much of his life studying New Guinea, which is still not entirely modernized, and he reports that war comes naturally there. While soldiers from the First World suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and avoid talking about what they’ve done in combat, New Guinean men who were raised as warriors brag about killing their enemies.
But in conceding these realities, Diamond makes his task — the search for lessons to apply to our own culture — more difficult. The fact that traditional life is so bad in some ways doesn’t mean it isn’t good in others, but it does mean we should be careful about what we emulate. Further, lifestyle recommendations based on the norms of traditional societies are useful only if we can’t reach the same conclusions by studying the First World, in which we don’t encounter all the problems of cross-cultural comparisons. Unfortunately, upon finishing The World until Yesterday, one could be forgiven for answering the subtitle’s question with: “Not all that much, apparently.”
Diamond comes closest to finding useful lessons in the realm of child-rearing. Westerners are often struck by how well-adjusted children in traditional societies are, and it makes sense to look at parenting as a potential cause. It turns out that traditional people let babies nurse for much longer than we do, respond to a baby’s crying almost immediately, and let infants sleep near their mothers. And while traditional societies differ in how neglectful, permissive, strict, or abusive they are toward children as they grow up, there are some that grant children more autonomy and responsibility than we do and don’t seem worse off for it. It’s at least possible that we have something to learn from traditional people here.
But otherwise, Diamond’s advice is mostly commonsensical or forgettable. Diamond himself admits that the health lessons one can glean from studying traditional life — exercise, lay off the salt if you have high blood pressure, don’t eat junk food — are “embarrassing” in their banality. His tips for improving our treatment of the elderly — include them more in daily life, let them babysit grandchildren more, and so on — will occur to anyone who thinks about the problem, whether or not he considers what traditional societies do, and in fact these efforts would require rejecting the practices of some traditional societies. Adopting some traditional dispute-resolution techniques might not be a bad idea, but (as Diamond notes) this idea is already being tried in the forms of out-of-court mediation and programs that require offenders to meet with their victims. Studying these programs directly would be far more informative than pointing out the qualities they share with the practices of other cultures.
Also, it’s rather bizarre that Diamond doesn’t address monogamy, given that he wrote a book (Why Is Sex Fun?) about the evolution of human sexuality 15 years ago and it’s a hot topic right now. A bestselling 2010 book, Sex at Dawn, argued that we evolved to mate like bonobos, freely and without jealousy; Sex at Dusk, a 2012 book written in response, says that’s bunk. A recent Slate article went with “monogamish” as a way of describing our sexual inclinations: Humans form pair bonds, feel heartbroken or jealous when those bonds end or are threatened, and are capable of lifelong attachment, but long-term fidelity is often a struggle and societies differ wildly in their norms regarding it. A thorough treatment from Diamond would be welcome here, but he mentions sex and marriage only in the context of other topics.
The World until Yesterday will not change the way you live your life, and you will not feel entirely satisfied upon turning the last page. But it will help you appreciate how much different — and how much better — the modern world is from everything that came before.