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

Author:Quest, Linda
Position:Book review
 
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Diamond, Jared. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? New York: Viking, 2012. 512 pages. Hardcover, $36.00.

Geographer Jared Diamond has done it again. In The World until Yesterday, the celebrated author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse has given us another thought-provoking and fascinating book. As in his previous writing, he brings together multiple disciplines, including anthropology, economics, sociology, political science, and psychology, to draw lessons from a pastiche of human cultures. Diamond's subjects live in traditional societies and in state societies, in bands, clans, tribes, chiefdoms, in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies, and more. They include Aboriginal Australians, Ache Indians, Aka Pygmies, iKung, Inuit, Nuer, and others, particularly New Guineans, whose homeland is Diamond's principle area of expertise. They differ. Some practice idiosyncratic customs, such as widow strangulation or elderly abandonment. Some allow children to play with sharp knives or fire, to wander off for days from home. Taken together, these subjects illuminate mantras of political science and justifications of government. People live in groups. They never completely agree. Conflicts are bound to arise.

Diamond shows us that all societies have conflicts, but he argues that state societies are both necessary in a complex, population-dense world and advantageous--shown in words and movements of traditional individuals and peoples. Diamond summarizes: "[A] prime concern of effective state government is to guarantee or at least improve public safety by preventing the state's citizens from using force against each other" (p. 97). He also illuminates the legitimacy of Criminal Justice and of Peace and Justice Studies among the social sciences--"the overriding goal of state justice is to maintain society's stability by providing a mandatory alternative to do-it-yourself justice" (p. 99), and "maintenance of peace within a society is one of the most important services that a state can provide" (p. 98). The appreciation of persons for this is reflected in the ease with which they gave up thousands of years of practicing traditional war.

The current of change at present is running from traditional societies to state societies. Hunter-gatherers and small-scale farmers aspire to a Westernized lifestyle and seek to enter the modern world. For his part, Diamond regularly visits Papua New...

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