'The World Until Yesterday' review: Tribal societies offer lessons in new Jared Diamond book

A Mbuti Pygmy boy participates in manhood initiation

A Mbuti Pygmy boy participates in manhood initiation rites. Can modern socities learn from traditional ones? (Credit: Getty)

THE WORLD UNTIL YESTERDAY: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, by Jared Diamond. Viking, 499 pp., $36.

If there is one thing we can all be grateful for, it's that we no longer live as our primitive ancestors did -- hunting and foraging for food, dying of a broken leg or reaching old age only to have younger family members strangle us to death when we've outlived our usefulness.

Yet, in achieving lives that are notably less nasty, brutish and short, we've also lost something. We're out of shape. We're lonely. We get diseases -- such as hypertension and diabetes -- that rarely troubled our ancestors, who knew violence and starvation but not obesity and gout.

Knowing how these ancestors lived could help us today. We as a race evolved more or less to live in the environment they inhabited, after all, and our nature might be more clearly visible in their societies. Understanding their habits and social arrangements could enable us to better arrange our own as we float, unmoored, in the unprecedented freedom offered by modern life. And while we can't travel back thousands of years in time, we can do the next best thing, which is to study the world's remaining isolated traditional societies -- in New Guinea, for example.

"New Guinea is in some respects a window onto the human world as it was until a mere yesterday, measured against a time scale of the 6,000,000 years of human evolution," writes Jared Diamond, whose new book, "The World Until Yesterday," uses these holdout societies to shed light on our own. Unlike most of his academic peers, Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA, unhesitatingly crosses disciplinary boundaries to tackle big questions. Given his decades of research among isolated peoples in New Guinea and elsewhere, he's well suited to answer the large one in his subtitle: What can we learn from traditional societies?

The answer is: a great deal. Diamond isn't suggesting we emulate the infanticide or insularity of the ancient world. But from the Ache and Yanomamo in South America, the Pygmies and !Kung in Africa, and the many such peoples in New Guinea, we can see clearly the extent to which we were made to be physically active, to eat unprocessed foods, to be multilingual, to raise competent and independent children, and most of all to be social. Americans who grew up in far-off traditional societies -- the offspring of missionaries, for example -- are astounded, when they reach our shores, by the isolation, materialism and over-parenting they encounter here.

Diamond's large, wide-ranging book -- more dreadnought than outrigger canoe -- is for the most part fascinating. Covering such broad themes as justice, conflict, child-rearing and treatment of the elderly, he roams the world's primitive peoples to convey the variety of approaches in traditional societies, teasing out which practices these groups have in common and how they differ from place to place, and from modern practices. Although tribal blood feuds are common, for instance, so is an emphasis on reconciliation and making amends, which the author suggests we might emulate as at least a sensible alternative to our legalistic obsession with fault.

The author's own experiences, reflected throughout, are unfailingly revealing, and sometimes even exciting. At one point, Diamond finds himself clinging desperately to a capsized canoe miles from shore in New Guinea, knowing he is unlikely to survive the night at sea or be rescued under cover of darkness. He's only saved shortly before the sun goes down.

Yet "The World Until Yesterday" is also disappointing. It will strike many readers as plodding at times, especially because, unlike the author's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Guns, Germs and Steel," it lacks a unifying central argument. Some judicious editing might have helped focus the vast research and avoid belaboring points already well made.

Worse yet, Diamond goes on for 500 pages without finding the time to address perhaps the most interesting aspect of his subject, which is the differing roles of men and women. Notwithstanding the famous USA Today headline ("Men and Women: We're Still Different"), modern life has made possible a level of androgyny that would seem remarkable to our ancient forebears -- as well as to their descendants on the Kalahari Desert or in the rain forests of New Guinea. But Diamond has almost nothing to say about gender roles in traditional societies.

His silence on this point is part of the book's larger failure to address, in any profound or interesting way, what traditional societies can teach us about human nature. Which parts are fixed? To what extent is it malleable? And what is the role of culture? These are touchy subjects in a culture that cherishes equality and self-invention. Diamond is properly judicious throughout -- he's a scholar, after all -- yet there is such a thing as an excess of caution. It's surprising that such an intrepid intellectual has succumbed to it.

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