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The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
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am 8. Januar 2013
*A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Monday, January 14.

The main argument: The onset of agriculture and farming some 11,000 years ago (termed the Neolithic Revolution), is arguably the most significant turning point in the history of our species. Agriculture induced a major population explosion, which then led to urbanization; labor specialization; social stratification; and formalized governance—thus ultimately bringing us to civilization as we know it today. Prior to the Neolithic Revolution—and extending back time out of mind—human beings lived in a far different way. Specifically, our ancestors lived in small, largely egalitarian tribes of no more than 50 to 100 individuals, and hunted and foraged for their food.

The transition from our traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle to civilization as we know it now (which, on an evolutionary time-scale, occurred but yesterday) has certainly brought with it some very impressive benefits. Indeed, many of us today enjoy comforts and opportunities the likes of which our hunter-gatherer ancestors would never have dreamed of. However, it cannot be said that the transition from traditional to modern has left us without any difficulties. Indeed, some would go so far as to say that the problems that civilization has introduced outweigh the benefits that it has brought; and even the most unromantic among us are likely to agree that our experiment in civilization has not been an unmitigated success.

This then brings us to the problem of solving the difficulties that civilization has left us with. Now, when it comes to solving our problems, it is without a doubt the spirit of our age to look ever forward for solutions—by which I mean we tend to look for new technologies and hitherto undiscovered arrangements to help us out of our current predicaments. However, when we consider that our traditional lifestyle served us well for millennia on end, and that it was under this lifestyle wherein we underwent much of the biological and psychological evolution that lives with us to this day, we can begin to see how it may be fruitful to look back at this traditional lifestyle for possible solutions to the problems we now face (this idea is not new; indeed, the ‘state of nature’ has traditionally been of great interest to philosophers—for it has been thought that understanding how we lived by nature may serve as a guide to help us design the most fitting political communities given our present circumstances).

Also of interest here—and deeply connected to the more practical goal mentioned above—is that investigating our traditional way of life promises to shed light on our underlying human nature in a way that is not possible when we look at ourselves through the obscuring artifice of civilization. It is these things that we stand to gain by learning about traditional societies, and it is this very project that geographer Jared Diamond takes up in his new book 'The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?'

Diamond is certainly not one to deny that civilization has brought with it many important benefits over our traditional way of life (the most important of which, according to the author, being that state governments are much more effective at ending the cycles of violence that tend to plague tribal societies). However, Diamond does contend that there are many areas wherein traditional practices represent an improvement over how we do things in the modern world, and that these practices could (and should) be incorporated into our modern way of life (both at the personal and societal level). Specifically, we could afford to learn a thing or two from traditional societies when it comes to conflict resolution (how to re-establish and mend relationships); raising children (that it really does take a whole village to raise a child); treating the elderly (that they are deserving of respect, and are still capable of contributing to the community in many important ways); approaching risk (with extensive caution); communicating (in a face to face way, and with multiple languages); and in diet and exercise (favoring natural foods, reducing salt, and sugar intake, and adopting a more active lifestyle).

In the course of his exploration of traditional societies, Diamond also delves into why and how our ancestors transitioned from traditional societies to civilizations (with a focus on such areas as social, economic and political stratification, and also religion).

Diamond has made a career out of studying the traditional societies of Papua New Guinea, and is therefore a very credible authority on the subject matter at hand. What’s more, his wealth of experience has left him with a trove of interesting and illuminating anecdotes to draw from, and these are on full display here. Finally, I felt that the author always maintained a very sober and balanced view with regards to the benefits and drawbacks of both traditional and modern societies. I would have liked to have seen certain topics discussed more, and others less, but this is mere personal preference. Altogether a very good book. A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Monday, January 14; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.
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am 7. Februar 2013
"But you must continue in the things which you have learned ...." -- 2 Timothy 3:14 (NKJV)

I enjoyed reading The World Until Yesterday because it describes practices in some traditional societies that I was unfamiliar with. Twenty-five of these societies (and much more of the text) are from New Guinea, a place I'm not likely to visit. Geography professor Jared Diamond mostly draws on descriptions and observations by Westerners who spent limited amounts of time with the traditional societies, sometimes expanded by comments from those who remember practices before interaction with today's typical societies occurred. He addresses these topics:

1. How friends, enemies, strangers, and traders were viewed ... particularly in terms of geographical boundaries.

2. Some ways that small-scale conflicts were resolved.

3. A war between related peoples is recounted.

4. A contrast is drawn between "limited" war and international war.

5. Child-rearing methods are characterized.

6. The role of aged people is related.

7. Ways of identifying and responding to signs of danger are detailed.

8. The sources of religious sentiments are theorized.

9. The advantages of knowing many languages are spelled out.

10. The consequences of changing diet and exercise from what traditional societies have practiced.

While you don't need to know my views on Professor Diamond's conclusions, I suspect that you will find many of them scanty and others may not sit well with you. While almost everyone will agree that eating lots of salt and sugar and not exercising are bad practices, most everything else is much more controversial. I suspect that the flaw is in book's research design. Professor Diamond probably needed to draw on more perspectives from other scientific disciplines to make his conclusions.

Certainly, there's food for thought and discussion here. Just don't rush to judgment ... or to change too many things without more investigation and testing.

I do recommend the book for those who would like a better sense of what life has been like for people who lived independently of the global strip mall that seems to be reducing so many differences among people and cultures.
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am 28. Januar 2013
Ich finde es fast unmöglich, dass ich eine adäquate Besprechung des Buches darlegen könnte.

Der Autor will viele Gebiete abdecken:

Geschichte, Evolution, allgemein die Wissenschaft, Organisation von Gesellschafteinheiten, Rechtsprechung, Entwicklung von Sprache(n), Fragen zu Krieg und Frieden, Generationenverhältnisse, praktischer Ratgeber in Erziehungs- und Gesundheitsfragen.

All dies mehr oder weniger basierend auf einer virtuellen Zeitreise. In Neu Guinea leben die Menschen noch sehr verbreitet als Jäger und Sammler, also ein Zustand, der in unseren Breiten vor ca. 11000 Jahren anfing aufzuhören und vor gut 5000 Jahren abgeschlossen war. US Bürger Jared Diamond stellt nun diverse Aspekte des Lebens dort vor und vergleicht diese mit der unsrigen Welt. Das Leben in kleinsten Einheiten (bands) oder in größeren Einheiten (tribes) im Vergleich zum Leben in Königreichen oder gar Staaten. Was für Unterschiede existieren z.B. in der Erziehung, der Regelung von "privaten" Streitigkeiten bis zum Krieg, wie sieht die Ernährung "hier wie dort"aus mit allen gesundheitlichen Konsequenzen oder auch die Funktionen, die Religionen in verschiedenen gesellschaftlichen Einheiten spielen und diese sich auch zeitlich anpassen.

Sehr gut finde ich, dass er keine Schönmalerei, also keine Glorifizierung des einen oder anderen Zustands (Jäger und Sammler band/tribe vs seßhafter Bewohner eines Staates), betreibt sondern recht nüchtern und pragmatisch Vor- und Nachteile (speziell im Epilog) aufzeigt.

Ich habe viel gelernt (bilinguales Aufwachsen mag Alzheimer vorbeugen) und sehe einiges anders (die sich wandelnden zeitlichen Schwerpunkte von Religion) und schaue mir nochmal meinen Speiseplan an. Ich kann nicht bewerten, ob alles "stimmt" bzw. welche wissenschaftlichen Diskussionen offen oder relativ sind, aber da vertraue ich dem "peer review", sprich: Jared Diamond ist kein "Dünnholzbohrer".

Es ist ein umfangreiches Buch, aber ich habe es sehr schnell gelesen und es wirkt mächtig nach.
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am 7. Dezember 2013
Although arguably maybe not quite as good as "Guns, germs and Steel" and "Collapse", it still rates five stars.

So far, I'm through the warfare section.

So, the "noble savages" (a.k.a. traditional societies) may not have been so noble after all, but rather caught between a rock and a hard place. Maybe they did (sometimes) cultivate an outside face of solid stocism in the face of pain and death, but they were just as scared inside as any "modern" person under similar circumstances (war and battle).

So, state government does have some merit after all. To all libertarians, anarchists, back-to-bare-bottomed-nature-nuts, read this book, please.
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am 16. Januar 2013
Nach seinen Büchern über die europäische Dominanz und menschliches Verhalten hat Diamond sich nun zu der Frage vorgewagt, was wir von traditionellen Gesellschaften lernen können. Dabei nimmt er sich die Themen Konfliktbewältigung, Kindererziehung, Behandlung Älterer, Reaktion auf Gefahren, Sprachen, Gesundheit, sowie - für Atheisten besonders lesenswert, für Religiöse sehr blasphemisch - das Thema "was nützt uns die Religion?" vor. Er analysiert aufgrund eigener Erfahrungen und Beschreibungen anderer Feldforscher die Praktiken verschiedener traditioneller Völker auf allen Kontinenten und versucht, daraus Gesetzmäßigkeiten zu entwickeln.
Wie man es von Diamond kennt, bemüht er sich meistens, seine Thesen auch zu belegen, dies gelingt meines Erachtens diesmal nicht immer, wobei er sich aber auch auf Terrain vorwagt, wo ein wissenschaftliches Arbeiten sehr schwierig ist.
Wer Diamond mag wird auch dieses Buch lesenswert und in vielen Punkten erhellend finden. Ich persönlich fand besonders interessant das Kapitel über Religion, wo er - als offensichtlicher Atheist - herausarbeitet, welche Funktion Religionen in der Gesellschaft erfüllen. Außerdem hat mich schon immer interessiert, wie Kindererziehung in traditionellen Gesellschaften stattfindet, auch hier gibt es ein paar sehr interessante Beobachtungen und Antworten auf die obige Frage.
Im Kapitel "Krieg und Frieden" gibt er sich meines Erachtens etwas zu viel Mühe, zu beweisen, daß auch traditionelle Völker Krieg geführt haben und beschreibt dann in Längen, was Krieg für sie bedeutete. Sehr zäh und letztlich auch keine Antwort auf die eigentliche Fragestellung, nämlich was wir davon lernen können. Vielmehr dient das Kapitel eher dazu, übergroße Romantik der traditionellen Lebensweise zu vermeiden. Das hätte man auch weniger zäh machen können.
Fazit: in weiten Teilen hochinteressantes Buch, aber mit einigen Längen. Deshalb nur 4 Sterne.
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am 6. Mai 2013
This is my favorite book by Jared Diamond so far. The topic as such is very interesting - what can we learn from traditional societies - and Diamond's own experiences in New Guinea and his personal views make it even more enjoyable to read. Hightly recommended!
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am 22. September 2013
The world until yesterday is an excellent piece of writing, based on personal research and decades of experience, would recommend to any reader interested in human development and behaviour
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am 28. Februar 2013
The author puts our western lifestile into an interesting perspective: there is a wide range of possible lifestiles adopted by human societies since humans walked this world. Westerners can profit from adopting features of the lifestiles of native peoples re diet, child raising risk awareness and other aspects. This is worth thinking over. As a charming feature, the book contains many anecdotes of the author's stays with New Guinea natives.
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am 22. April 2014
Das Buch lese ich gerade im Rahmen einer Uni-Vorlesung =)
Der Schreibstil ist sehr gut, man kann relativ viel in kurzer Zeit lesen und das Gelesene auch gut verstehen (was für mich als Studentin mit chronischem Zeitmangel und Tonnen von anderen Dingen, die man lesen muss, hervorragend ist!). Ebenso basieren die genannten Beispiele/Ereignisse auf eigener Erfahrung/Feldforschung und geben einen realen Kontext, in welchem man sich hineinversetzen kann und der durchaus zum Nachdenken anregt.
Die Themen sind hervorragned gewählt, ergänzen sich und bilden als Gesamtwerk einen außergewöhnlich guten Einblick zu Themen wie Menscheit, Evolution, Gesellschaft, Traditionen u.a..
Definitiv lesenswert! =)
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