Book Review: The World Until Yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies?

The World until Yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? By Jared Diamond

My Rating 3 out of 5 Stars

Good, but not great. There is a lot of interesting pieces in this book. I particularly liked the chapters reviewing the diversity of ways children are raised, and how elders are treated in traditional societies. I found these 2 chapters very thought provoking, and on their own make the book worth reading. Additionally, the chapter on the value of languages, and multilingualism was also very interesting, and is encouraging for a multilingual person to read to see there are a lot of long term mental benefits. The chapter about diet was also very interesting and he makes some strong points, particularly about trying to reincorporate traditional diets to help mitigate the many non-communicable diseases that are now plaguing modern western societies (diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, etc.).

In this book, Diamond provides a valuable resource, giving a wide view of what human life was likely like before the development of the state and larger societies. While he clearly respects and values traditional societies, he is also very realistic, and tries his best not idealize them. He fairly highlights both the positive and negative aspects of traditional societies. He also understands the difficulty of trying to reincorporate some of the beneficial parts of traditional societies. While there are some that we can easily do on an individual basis (adopt a more traditional diet for example), many would require communities as a whole to agree to mutually adopt new practices (i.e. more communal child rearing).

So, why does the book only get 3 stars? Well, the book is not written in a way that encourages reading the book from front to back. Every chapter is a separate study focusing on one particular difference between modern western societies and traditional societies. Several of these chapter (violence, multilingualism, and diet) are not particularly new or groundbreaking. While it makes sense to include the chapters in the overall book, the way that it was done makes it difficult to get into a groove reading the book. Diamond’s books also have a tendency to feel somewhat redundant. If you’ve read any of his other books you will notice a lot of his anecdotes are similar to ones he used in his other books.

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