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Thoughts from Linda:


The World Until Yesterday

By Jared Diamond



This book, by this amazing author and ‘polymath,’ was first published in 2012. We have reviewed Guns, Germs, and Steel, which he published in 1997 last year on our website. Another in this series, Collapse, was published in 2005 and will be reviewed later this year.

And what, you might ask, is a polymath?  It is a term that clearly applies to Jared Diamond.

According to Wikipedia, a polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, "having learned much;" Latin: homo universalis, "universal man") is an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. Others have defined polymathy as "knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies... ranging freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them."

In this wide-ranging book, he displays these traits and, in addition, is a gifted teller of stories based on his own experiences in New Guinea and other locations around the world.

As a former teacher of anthropology and someone who has worked in a more traditional society in Indonesia myself, this book holds great interest for me, and I have learned quite a bit by reading it. 

The book's title reflects the short span of time that humans have occupied the world in the whole scheme of things.  He notes that modern man diverted into our proto-human species roughly 6 million years ago and that modern features of our planet began to emerge a mere 11,000 years ago. Thus, the World Until Yesterday refers to traditional societies and what we can learn from them. As he notes, “much of yesterday is still with us… Modern conditions have prevailed, even just locally, for only a tiny fraction of human history; all human societies have been traditional for far longer than any society has been modern.”

The wide-ranging Sections and Chapters include such interesting topics as; Setting the Stage by Dividing Space, Peace and War, Compensation for the Death of a Child, Bringing up Children, The Treatment of Old People: Cherish, Abandon or Kill?, What Electric Eels Tell us About the Evolution of Religion, Speaking in Many Tongues, and Salt, Sugar, Fat and Sloth.

Here are just a few interesting facts from the book:

  • There could be no states until food production emerged about 9000 BC, with the first state arising in the Fertile Crescent in 3400 BC, followed by others in China, Mexico, the Andes, and Madagascar.

  • New Guinea is home to 1,000 of the world’s current 7,000 languages.

  • All of Europe west of Russia has fewer than 100 native languages.

  • Languages are disappearing rapidly, so fast that 95% of the world’s languages will be extinct by 2100.

  • The African continent and the Indian subcontinent have over 1,000 native languages.

  • Mandarin is the world’s most primary language today, followed by Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese, in that sequence.

The book is about much more than languages, devoting a substantial amount of space to child-rearing in traditional societies, the development of religion itself in traditional societies, and includes a section on comparative religions of today. He also tackles the health issues of the young and old.

Jared Diamond was born on September 10, 1937, in Boston. Both of his parents were from Ashkenazi Jewish families who had emigrated to the United States. His mother was a teacher, linguist, and concert pianist, and his father, Louis Diamond, was a physician who emigrated from Moldova. He began studying piano at age six, and years later, he would propose to his wife after playing the Brahms Intermezzo in A major for her.

At the age of seven, he already developed an interest in bird watching, which became one of his significant life passions and resulted in several works published in ornithology.

At the age of 15, for the first time, his parents took him outside of the eastern U.S. to Montana, where they spent holidays on the Big Hole River. In summer 1956, as a college student, he returned to the ranch to work. Later, impressed by the state's beauty, he regularly spent his family holidays there. Montana and the Bitterroot Valley became one of the key examples in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

He earned a BA in Biochemical Sciences from Harvard in 1958 and a Ph.D. in physiology and bio psychic of membranes in the gall bladder from Cambridge University in 1961. 

Yes, polymath for sure.

In the last chapter of the book, he proposes what we can learn, and some actions we can take (in our WEIRD world, i.e., that of Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic) as individuals and as society as a whole, to learn from the “thousands of experiments,” as he says, from years past. A few include: 

  • Incorporate different eating patterns, especially around salt, exercising more, and eating more slowly.

  • Raise our children bilingually (he has a terrific chapter on the benefits of this, including enhanced problem-solving skills as well as help for Alzheimer’s).

  • Explore child-rearing practices such as more on-demand nursing, more physical contact with adults, co-sleeping, transporting children vertically and forward-facing, adding multi-age playgroups, and more socialization versus manufactured gaming and pre-packaged entertainment.

  • Employ restorative justice and mediation where appropriate.

His words of wisdom in the last paragraph of the book include:

“The societies to which most readers of this book belong represent a narrow slice of human cultural diversity. Societies from that slice achieved world dominance not because of a general superiority, but for specific reasons (see Guns, Germs, and Steel!).  Despite the particular advantages, modern industrial societies didn’t also develop superior approaches to raising children, treating the elderly, settling disputes, avoiding non-communicable diseases, and other societal problems. Thousands of traditional societies developed a wide array of different approaches to those problems.” 

We can learn much from what he presents in this book, plus it is the most enjoyable and easy read. 

I hope you give it a go!

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