On one of Jared Diamond's frequent trips to New Guinea, where he was studying birds, he ended up in raging waters alongside eight others when their 30-foot-long canoe began to sink. Clinging to the canoe's hull and dodging waves, the UCLA geography professor lamented the impending loss of his passport, money and ornithological notes — and possibly even his life.
In "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?" Diamond vividly recreates that misadventure, which he attributes to the canoe crew's carelessness. "The scene of our struggles was paradoxically beautiful," he writes. "There was a cloudless blue sky overhead, lovely tropical islands were visible from afar, and birds were flying. Even with the distraction of my struggle for survival, I continued to identify the birds."
Diamond, as we surmise, was rescued, and so were his knapsack of valuables and his water-logged luggage. Safely on the mainland, he encountered a New Guinean who had been on the same island from which Diamond's canoe had embarked. Unlike the professor, however, the native had noticed the crew's cocky antics in the harbor — and decided to take passage with another boat instead.
That New Guinean, according to Diamond, had been practicing "constructive paranoia" — a smart, culturally appropriate response to an environment laden with often avoidable risks, from hostile neighbors to treacherous terrain. The concept, which Diamond believes could help mitigate the dangers of American life, is one of the more intriguing takeaways from his study of traditional hunter-gatherer societies.
If only the rest of "The World Until Yesterday" — strongest when Diamond is reporting from New Guinea — were as fresh and involving.
Diamond is best-known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," a groundbreaking attempt to explain, through a form of environmental determinism, why European societies were able to conquer and colonize so much of the rest of the world. The key, he maintained, lay in Europe's relative abundance of domesticated plants and animals, which spurred social and political organization, technology and disease immunity.
Diamond's follow-up, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," focused on environmental perils such as deforestation, overpopulation and climate change, arguing that the fate of bygone civilizations such as the Maya and Easter Islanders could be ours someday. "Our world society is presently on a nonsustainable course," he warned.
"The World Until Yesterday" is, in effect, the concluding volume of a trilogy. Like its predecessors, it is ambitious and erudite, drawing on Diamond's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of fields such as anthropology, sociology, linguistics, physiology, nutrition and evolutionary biology. Diamond is a Renaissance man, a serious scholar and an audacious generalist, with a gift for synthesizing data and theories.
Yet the new book is satisfying only in spurts. It combines potentially helpful praise for "constructive paranoia" and the cognitive benefits of multilingualism with familiar plaints about our unhealthy salt and sugar-laden diet, increasing social isolation and poor treatment of the elderly. It also decries the prospective demise of hundreds of endangered languages, a fascinating subject that nevertheless seems marginal to Diamond's central argument and certainly beyond his readers' control.
"The World Until Yesterday" is also marred, as was "Collapse," by a plodding, repetitive academic style. Like a stereotypical dissertation writer, Diamond tells us the six points he's about to make, lists them one by one, and then sums them up, unnecessarily adding to the book's length.
Diamond's thesis, as expressed in his subtitle, is that modernity has much to learn from traditional societies, including those still existing in New Guinea, Africa and elsewhere. We needn't ape such societies completely, he assures us; there is, after all, such a thing as progress. "Almost all of us would say good riddance to chronic warfare, infanticide, and abandoning the elderly," he writes, as well as to "the strangling of widows."
But Diamond is an enthusiast of many traditional practices, some easier to import than others. He admires the way justice in such societies often takes relationships into account; the respect some (but not all) traditional societies accord the elderly; shared parenting by neighbors and relatives ("allo-parenting"); familiarity with multiple languages; and an emphasis on exercise and healthy eating.
Diamond also spends several pages on an interesting sociological exploration of religion and its changing functions over the centuries. But the best he can manage, in terms of lessons, is this: "For those of us going through a period of religious turmoil, perhaps it might help clarify our thinking to remember that religion has meant different things to different societies, and to be honest with ourselves about what religion does or might mean specifically to us."
Spoken like an academic.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
"The World Until Yesterday"
By Jared Diamond, Viking, 499 pages, $36