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The World Until Yesterday

Relying on his vast knowledge of New Guinea, Jared Diamond asks what moderns like us can learn from traditional societies.

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The World Before Yesterday
By Jared Diamond
Viking Adult
512 pp.

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The book world is blessed with big-picture thinkers who have earned the “genius” label. Jared Diamond, a geography professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, is one of them.

Many of those geniuses make no effort to write books for general audiences. But fortunately for us, Diamond does not fit that mold. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? is the newest in a line of impressive works from Diamond, all easily accessible to general readers.

The best-known of Diamond’s books is “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” partly because it won the Pulitzer Prize, and partly because its hypothesis is stated clearly and captures the imagination. In this book Diamond posited that human societies evolved at different rates with different degrees of success depending on where they were located. Other prominent Diamond books include “The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal”; “Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality”; and “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”

It is never wise to oversimplify the worldviews of geniuses, but here I go anyway: To some degree, geography is destiny. Humans, obviously, need adequate food to thrive. But, as Diamond explains, “surprisingly few wild plant and animal species are suitable for domestication to become crops and livestock. Those few wild species were concentrated in only about a dozen small areas of the world, whose human societies consequently enjoyed a decisive head start in developing food production, food surpluses, expanding populations, advanced technology, and state government.”

The differences explain what we now call European dominance: Europeans settled around the Fertile Crescent, home to “the most valuable domesticable wild plant and animal species.” Aboriginal tribes on the large island of Australia, on the other hand, “inhabit areas with few domesticable wild plant and animal species.”

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