The World Until Yesterday

A few weeks ago I finished reading Jared Diamond’s latest book The World Until Yesterday. At almost 500 pages the book is a long and at times heavy read, but overall, a fascinating thesis on the rapid changes taking place in traditional societies and the potential loss of indigenous knowledge and culture as modern civilisation influences far reaches of the globe.

One of the overarching points in the book is how many things that we consider normal, and take for granted, are in fact quite unusual in the history of world civilisations. Diamond uses the acronym WEIRD to describe modern society: western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. This description is then used throughout the book to compare modern society to other traditional societies in matters of friendships, relationships, conflict resolution, decision making, child raising, societal care of aged peoples, languages, religion and food.

My copy of the book is now dog eared in many places from many great insights Diamond makes, of which three in particular stand out:

Speaking of the general behaviour of individuals in modern societies Diamond states:

We not only permit, we actually encourage, individuals to advance themselves, to win, and to again advantages at the expense of others. In many of our business transactions we aim to maximise our own profits, and never mind the feelings of the person on the other side of the table on whom we have succeeded in inflicting a loss. Even children’s games… are contests of winning and losing. That isn’t so in traditional… [societies], where children’s play involves cooperation rather than winning or losing.

Speaking of the purpose of religion in societal development:

For individuals and for societies, religion often involves a huge investment of time and resources… religion thus incurs “opportunity costs”: those investments of time and resources in religion that could have been devoted instead to obviously profitable activities, such as planting more crops, building dams, and feeding larger armies of conquest. If religion didn’t bring some big real benefits to offset those opportunity costs, any atheistic society that by chance arose would be likely to outcompete religious societies and take over the world.

Finally in discussing children’s upbringings and our overall desire to experiment and learn:

In Africa, if you need something, you make it for yourself, and as a result you know how it is put together and how it works. In the U.S., if you need something, you go buy it, and you don’t know how it is put together…
Many people in the U.S. have acquired a great many things, but they remain paupers so far as their knowledge and understanding of the rest of the world is concerned. They seem to be comfortably enclosed within their walls of carefully constructed, selective ignorance.

Despite its length, The World Until Yesterday is a brilliant book that makes you question and consider in our WEIRD modern society if there are things that we have forgotten from our traditional roots and maybe should relearn. Pick it up and give it a read.