“The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” by Jared Diamond

In Papua New Guinea, Asaro mudmen pretend to be spirits of vanquished warriors returned from the dead to haunt their enemies.CreditJodi Cobb/National Geographic Stock
UK Travel Advice Map of Papua New Guinea-Updated April 25, 2019

Jared Diamond, the bestselling author of Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel surveys the history of human societies to answer the question: What can we learn from traditional societies that can make the world a better place for all of us?

The World Before Yesterday explains that existing tribal societies offer a window into how our ancestors lived. Examining tribal cultures provide insights into human nature.  Diamond argues the West achieved global dominance due to specific environmental and technological advantages. Westerners, however, do not necessarily have superior ideas about how to live well.

***** Book Club Meeting Results *****

The club met on the “World Before Yesterday” on June 17, 2019.  The following are the mean results of the group’s impressions, on a five-point scale:

Readability: 3.93

Content: 4.0

Overall: 3.69

Comments include:

“Interesting information.  Enjoyed the sections on war and child-rearing.”

“Slow start, but worth five stars once you get locked-in”

“A bit dry and the take-aways were less profound that I had hoped”

“Enjoyed the anecdotal stores but didn’t find practical take-away lessons”

“An interesting look at the various ways humans solve problems.  Loved it!”

“There are insights to be gleaned here”

Jared Diamond in New Guinea
SOUTH SUDAN. Gathering of Dinka and Nuer Tribes at Duk Fadiat.

Discussion Questions:

1). It’s Jared Diamond’s belief that some aspects of traditional cultures can be beneficial to modern ones. What aspects of tribal life would you welcome? Which are best left to the dust bin of history?

2). People in traditional societies converse constantly, learning from one another and sharing. “Loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies,” Diamond observes. “People spend their lives in or near the place where they were born, and they remain surrounded by relatives and childhood companions.” In modern cultures, however, loneliness is a major problem as we stare at our computers and smartphones. Can we get this aspect of tribal culture, the face-to-face connectivity that used to be the dominate feature of humans culture, back?

For a great discussion of why loneliness is so prevalent in western civilization see:

3). The book discusses tribal methods of raising children and how they compare to Western society. Practices vary wildly across tribes and parts of the world. Among the Piraha of Brazil, childbirth is an event that occurs in the wilderness and alone. Among the Agta in the Philippines, childbirth is a community event with the whole tribe offering assistance to the mother. Other tribes, like the !Kung in Africa, practice infanticide.  In general, children in tribal societies tend to experience more skin-to-skin contact and are allowed greater autonomy. What child rearing practices of tribal societies are superior to those of our own? Which are not a good fit for modern life?

See also “How Inuit Parents Teach Kids to Control Their Anger”:


For more than 30 years, the Inuit welcomed anthropologist Jean Briggs into their lives so she could study how they raise their children. Briggs is pictured during a 1974 visit to Baffin Island.


Laura Randall, pictured at Mill Pond Park in Portland, gives her son, Matthew Randall, 7, a lot of freedom to explore on his own.

4). One of the more fascinating aspects of the book is how tribal cultures deal with litigation issues. Tribal systems of justice must take into account the players will, by necessity, be forced to interact in the future. In the modern legal system, participants in divorce or inheritance disputes will likely never talk to each other again after that traumatic experience. What can the western legal system learn from the tribal focus on restorative justice?

5). Diamond approaches the topic of religions from an evolutionary biologist perspective. What can electric eels tell us about religion?

6). Diamond lays out three options for care of the geriatric, “cherish, abandon, or kill.” Which of the three does our country practice? How can our treatment of the elderly be improved?

“By 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.7 million (previously 76.4 million) under the age of 18.”
Jonathan Vespa, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau.

7). An interesting aspect of the book is how the New Guinea tribesmen perceive risk Are we sensible in our culture about how we tabulate and act on risk?

8). We have discussed in this group before how, although counter-intuitive, we live in peaceful times. The highest war-related death rates for modern societies (Russia and Germany during the 20th century) are only a third of the average death rates of tribal societies. Pre-state tribal societies are just a lot more violent. Does this surprise you? Is it shocking that one of the best features of modern society, for all its wonders, is the ability to walk to the restroom at night without fear of being shot by your neighbors?

Chimbu Tribe of Papua New Guinea

9). Finally, Diamond’s style is to tell stories from his decades on Papua New Guinea and share anecdotes about those times. Did you find this effective? Would you recommend the book to others?

Podcasts and Media


About the Author

Jared Diamond is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. He is Professor of Geography at UCLA and has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He has dedicated this book to his sons and future generations.

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