February 11, 2013

Review: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm currently reading Jared Diamond's "The World Until Yesterday." Having read other Diamond, and critiques of him, I know that he is somewhat a "determinist," that is, one who gives more weight to outside "nature" events rather than inside "nurture" ones. However, I think this is overblown, and that he's attacked in part because his academic background isn't cultural anthropology, and also because he's not afraid of saying things like pointing out that cultural anthropologists often get attached to "their" tribe, etc., especially re issues such as minimizing tribal level/pre-state violence.

Beyond that, Diamond carefully nuances many of his findings. For instance, on treatment of the elderly, he notes that some pre-state societies do better to much better than modern America, some about the same, and some a lot “worse.”

I've also had one good takeaway from the book, among several decent ones, and that is just how utilitarian tribal religions are, vs. the more universal ones that didn't arise until after the formation of city-state and nation-state societies. Sometimes, we in the modern West, especially if influenced by one of those nation-state religions, may call certain such utilitarian beliefs, let alone actions, "bad," ... like euthanasia of the elderly ... but Diamond does a good job of pointing out "it is what it is." Also, contra his cultural anthropology critics, he does this in a context of individual clans, tribes, chiefdoms, etc.

That relates to what I said above about treatment of the elderly. He shows that ethics, as well as religion, of pre-state societies is often highly utilitarian. We might call it “wrong” to abandon the elderly, but, for such societies, the only real choice to abandoning or even euthanizing them is the potential death of multiple other, younger, more productive people.

Diamond has a good chapter near the end on trying to define religion in general. He leans on Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, among others, and while I don’t find his definition perfect, I think it contributes something to the dialogue.

Finally, though not his goal in this book, one can read this and see that Diamond shows science still needs philosophy to “inform” it at times.

Ideally, I'd 4.5 star this book. But, because of some of the bad press Diamond has gotten, I give it the bump.

I also do that because it's a small bit quasi-biographical.

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