On the vast time scale of human evolution, it was just this morning that Jared Diamond was a trained physiologist writing calculation-laden papers on sodium transport in the gallbladder. That was 1962, to be precise; but in the lives of individuals and even societies, a half-century can make all the difference. Setting his sights well beyond gallbladderata, Diamond, who teaches geography at UCLA, has become that rare author read by academics in various disciplines and huge popular audiences. Guns, Germs, and Steel, his Pulitzer Prize–winning bestseller from 1997, sought to explain nothing less than Western global predominance over 13,000 years of history, arguing forcefully for the influence of geography on the development of human societies. What Guns did for bio-geography, Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, attempts for sociocultural anthropology. One anthropologist who got hold of an advance copy was so transfixed by the book that he scurried to his blog and proclaimed: “He is the new Margaret Mead. The new Margaret Mead, people.”
Should we believe the hype? The World Until Yesterday offers a grand tour of “traditional societies,” as it terms the various hunter-gatherer, herding and farming communities into which humans organized themselves for most of their existence, before large state structures took over the world. Though Diamond has long claimed to challenge the ethnocentrism of his fellow Americans, the new book is his most sustained effort to see radically different societies from the inside, as their members do. Drawing together scores of anthropological findings, as well as insights from his own trips to New Guinea, he plumbs dozens of nonstate societies to discern the function of nine common social practices, from conflict resolution to child rearing to religious ritual. He describes two tribal alliances waging the ferocious Dani War in New Guinea, killing their enemy without compunction despite their common language and culture. We meet a !Kung band whose every member joins in the constant bickering between husband and wife: picture the borough of Queens composed entirely of Costanzas, but with spears, on the Kalahari. Not least, we see Diamond clinging for life to a capsized canoe, only to discover after his rescue how a New Guinean knew to spot and avoid the boat company’s cocky crew.
Diamond intends his book to be more than the sum of its titillating anecdotes. He wants to convey the wondrous cultural diversity of the world until yesterday—and the narrowness of the world today. What’s strange about our world is not just that, say, parents and their young children sleep in separate rooms, whereas out of ninety small-scale societies not one put a wall between mother and infant. (“Current Western practice,” Diamond concludes, “is a recent invention responsible for the struggles at putting kids to bed that torment modern Western parents.”) It’s also that the differences separating modern societies from each other look minuscule compared with those separating their predecessors. The Aché in Paraguay practice infanticide and the Tallensi in Ghana hit their kids, but when an anthropologist in the Amazon wished to spank his daughter, the Pirahãs would not allow it. Treatment of the elderly likewise runs the gamut: old people rule many herding societies as tyrannical “gerontocracies,” but elsewhere they face abandonment, even strangulation, once their productive years elapse. Though Diamond isn’t counseling us to kill our elderly or anoint them as oligarchs, he does suggest that our sense of human possibility has been dulled by the relative uniformity of the modern world. Our psychologists, he notes, “base most of their generalizations about human nature on studies of our own narrow and atypical slice of human diversity.”
Diamond even implies, faintly, that humans may be best suited to life in traditional societies. “The world of yesterday shaped our genes, culture, and behavior for most of the history of behaviorally modern Homo sapiens,” he writes. The corollary is that we aren’t as well suited to modern life. Diabetes threatens us now, Diamond postulates, because natural selection favored genes that store sugar in the body, girding against long swings in the availability of food. Diamond seems especially impressed by the psychology of tribal peoples, though he makes no effort to square their seeming composure with their affinity for routine infanticide, ruthless killing and other practices he finds abhorrent. Hunters like the !Kung won’t seek out risks to prove their courage; prudence does not seem cowardly or unmanly to them. Diamond is struck by the emotional security of children, who appear never to undergo adolescent identity crises. At age 14, he remarks, a New Guinean girl was “better qualified to be a parent than I had been when I became a father at age 49.”