Thursday, June 19, 2014

The World Until Yesterday

The World Until Yesterday
© 2012 Jared Diamond
481 pages




            Earth has been the province of mankind for hundreds of thousands of years, and for most of the time he has transversed it in small tribal groups, hunting and foraging, living a life on a knife-edge of danger. Several thousand years ago, however, cities and farms appeared, civilization flourished, and the human race filled the globe, teeming into the billions.  Despite that vast difference in accomplishment, however, Jared Diamond holds that traditional societies, for all their tribalism and perilous lives, have much to teach modern man. For despite centuries of technological and social evolution, our bodies are as they were eons ago, and the great horde of wisdom contained within old tradition has not lost use.  In The World Until Yesterday,  Diamond surveys the practices of traditional people throughout the globe, predominantly in Africa and southeast Asia, for what they may yet teach us.

             Elements of Until Yesterday have been given consideration by others; witness the primal movement and the more widespread paleo diet, which hold that since our bodies evolved for the small-village, hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, our minds will feel more at home, and function at their best, recreating that behavior. It's easy to agree to a point;  few would dispute that apples are better for you than AppleJacks, or that daily exercise is more healthy than spending all day in chairs or couches. Diamond's own approach is more nuanced and pragmatic rather than idealistic. Modern approaches are still new, very much wet-behind-the-ears. Traditional approaches are more seasoned, more mature, and their experience  can be used to temper our novel approaches, combing old wisdom with modern power.  One example of this Diamond uses is that of the legal structure;   western law has its place,  but something is lost from the old ways in which criminals were confronted by the victims in a court of those who knew them, and forced to make personal restitution -- instead of being tried, defended, and judged by strangers,   then thrown into a prison where their crimes lose all significance, lost in a sea of others.  The victim, meanwhile, is expected to be detached, surrendering their pain and lust for justice to the impersonal apparatus of the state. But the law cannot feel, it cannot bleed, it cannot flush with anger, and it cannot substitute impersonal punishment for personal crimes. 

       Until Yesterday quickly drives home the point made by other anthropologists that “humans have found many ways to be human”.  A tremendous variety of practices exists between traditional societies, even between those living close by as in on the island of New Guinean.  A grisly example is that of elder ‘care’; while some societies ritually kill the old, others simply abandon them. Yet in most, the aged are revered, not only because the stories and functional knowledge of the tribe are contained within their heads, but because their long practice makes them master craftsmen, and even when their physical bodies deteriorate they can still care for children, leaving adult parents to hunt and forage.  The book’s scope covers justice, war, childrearing,  gender roles,  the elderly, health. and more, but each category bears witness to the glorious diversity of mankind.  Some lessons are familiar, as with health. Some were forgotten by most, but live on in others, like educational approaches;   which is more productive, Diamond acts, sitting in chairs all day memorizing facts, or experiencing the world directly? Opponents of conventional schooling, especially the unschoolers, know how important tactile and immediately-relevant lessons learned are. Traditional children learn to make the tools they will need to live by, and study the animals and rhythms of nature that sill sustain them;  they absorb the stories of the past that inform them of the dangers to come.  Their tests are not academic exercises.  Still other lessons have been lost to us entirely;  in the developed world, living amid plenty in environments divested of all predators and woes, we have become so blind to the thought of a dangerous world that we cross streets with eyes locked on phones, texting and assuming traffic will stop around us. For traditional peoples, however, the world is alive with danger, from animals who can easily  eat your young, or tribal enemies who will do the same if you trespass.

      The World Until Yesterday has much to offer, even with Diamond's thesis aside. It is if nothing else a survey of over a dozen distinct tribal cultures, all providing a wealth of fascinating, living in climates as disparate as the frozen Arctic sea  and the equatorial jungles.  They display how utterly different the human experience can be from the global sameness of modern living; each tribe faces different challenges,  hunts different prey, makes different adaptations.   Diamond's idea does hold, however, that there are lessons to be learned here, that the way we do things presently is not necessarily the most productive or satisfying way. There's much about traditional living no sane person would invite back -- the constant threat of famine, the utter lack of medicine -- but these people are wily and strong, firmly connected one another and committed to their families in ways few moderns can rival.  At any rate, the book offers insight without prescription,  not preaching but demonstrating and leaving it to the reader to consider.



       

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