People have been living, loving, fighting and dying — and raising children to do the same — for a long time. You’d think we would have figured out how to do all of those things better by now.
But history isn’t one long series of improvements, and there are a few things that pre-modern people did a little better than us. In The World Until Yesterday, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond looks at how the few remaining traditional societies live to see what we — as members of Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic, or WEIRD, societies — can learn.
Unfortunately, this unnecessarily long, sometimes dense and often tedious book doesn’t offer many surprising conclusions.
For example, sitting at a desk all day and having cheeseburgers, French fries and sodas for lunch every day will lead to health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes. People who live in hunter gatherer societies don’t suffer those chronic diseases because they are physically active (hunting and gathering) and because they don’t stuff themselves with salty and sugary food. No real surprise there.
Diamond is adept at mining research in a wide variety of fields to draw conclusions about why some societies succeed, as he did in Guns, Germs and Steel, for which he won a Pulitzer; and why others fail, which he did in the highly acclaimed Collapse. Both books offered readers those aha moments that made history and evolution make more sense.
But The World Until Yesterday rarely surprises. Diamond’s basic premise is that we as humans evolved for between 60,000 and 100,000 years and have only lived in modern states for 5,400 years, therefore our bodies and minds are adapted to a lifestyle we have mostly abandoned. We can look for ways to be healthier and happier — and even raise smarter children — in the practices of pre-modern societies.
And Diamond is careful to point out the ways in which traditional societies had harder lives than we do in the WEIRD world. Starvation was a regular threat. Warfare was constant and killed a higher percentage of people than it does in modern societies, even as we have developed such efficient killing technologies. Some traditional societies abandon or even kill their old people once they have worn out their usefulness.
But even when Diamond examines traditional societies that cherish their elders, he finds odd and less-than-reassuring evolutionary reasons for the practice. In one society living on the Southwest Pacific island of Rennell, the old people, like one elderly woman he met, held the knowledge of which wild plants were edible when a once-in-a-lifetime storm wiped out all the traditional food sources.
“If another big cyclone were to strike Rennell, her encyclopedic memory of which wild fruits to eat would be all that stood between her fellow villagers and starvation,” Diamond writes.
Hopefully there’s another reason to keep grandma around, now that we can write down her stories.
Diamond asks his readers to ignore holes in his logic that burn through some of his conclusions. In the story about the islanders of Rennell, Diamond notes that this specialized knowledge of which foods to eat after a cyclone was first related to him by middle-aged members of the society. Grandma had already passed down her “encyclopedic memory,” meaning she wasn’t actually what stood between her grandchildren and starvation.
The most interesting parts of the book explore the ways children are raised and how some traditional societies have practices we might want to adopt. The book is particularly interesting on the pros and cons of learning multiple languages. Here, Diamond unearths research that shows that babies who grow up speaking two languages have higher executive function — the ability to solve problems and make decisions while tuning out unnecessary information — than their monolingual peers. This even holds true before they can speak as long as they are raised hearing two different languages.
But in that same chapter, Diamond dismisses arguments that letting languages die out and having fewer languages would lead to a more peaceful world by citing a few recent cases of horrific civil wars fought by people who spoke the same language. Then, just six pages later, Diamond argues that linguistic diversity should be preserved because it helped England vanquish Germany in World War II.
“In June 1940, speaking English meant having something worth fighting and dying for,” Diamond writes.
So linguistic diversity doesn’t cause wars, but it helps us keep fighting them?
That sort of relativism detracts from several of Diamond’s carefully constructed arguments, as do the long passages of definitions and explanations of how research is conducted. Leaving aside the weak arguments and the dreary exposition, there are periodic nuggets of fascinating research that do tell us more about who we are and why we came to be this way. But they are too few and too far between.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.