Because Ideas Matter...
The faculty and staff of Butler University's College of Liberal
Arts and Sciences presents
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We
Learn from Traditional Societies?
by Jared Diamond, Penguin, 2012
Reviewed by Larry Riggs
This new book by the author of The Third Chimpanzee;Guns, Germs,
and Steel; and Collapse is even more ambitious than those works.
Here, Diamond continues his effort to give sweeping, well-informed,
and readable accounts of important aspects of human evolution and
of vital issues in contemporary civilization. This endeavor maddens
many specialists, whose cautious findings Diamond often
oversimplifies, but this reader-an unregenerate humanities
professor-feels enriched by what Diamond provides. Diamond's thesis
in The World Until Yesterday is that there may be practices common
in many traditional societies -small-scale, stateless groups of
hunter-gatherers, herders, horticulturalists/farmers, or of
practitioners of combinations of those economies-from which members
of modern, industrialized societies might choose to learn. Diamond
does not idealize traditional life; in fact, his accounts of low
life-expectancy, chronic insecurity and endemic warfare in and
among traditional societies, and the alacrity with which many
traditional people have embraced modernity, weaken his argument.
However, the information he provides in passing is often
fascinating and though-provoking. Most interesting, to me, are
Diamond's analyses of the origins and evolution of religion and of
language and linguistic diversity. The one area of life in which
traditional practices, as Diamond describes them, seem intriguingly
superior many modern practices, is child-rearing. Here, too,
though, as specialist critics have pointed out, both traditional
and modern societies differ so much that generalizations are always
questionable. All-in-all, if read for interesting information and
food for contemplation and speculation, this is an excellent
- Larry Riggs is Professor of French at Butler University.