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March 5, 2013 / Leslie

Review – Audiobook: The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

World Until Yesterday by Jared DiamondThe World Until Yesterday
by Jared Diamond
Narrated by Jay Snyder

Genre: Non-Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publish Date: December 31, 2012
Format: Audio, 18 hours | 31 minutes
Audio Listening Level: Easy – Intermediate
Rating: 4½ of 5

Publisher’s Synopsis:

The World Until Yesterday provides a mesmerizing firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years—a past that has mostly vanished—and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today. This is Jared Diamond’s most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn’t romanticize traditional societies—after all, we are shocked by some of their practices—but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us.

My Thoughts:

I have always had a strong interest in the sciences so it wasn’t a big surprise to me that I liked this book, but I didn’t expect it to be so interesting. The subject matter is at times complex, but it’s well-written in an easy to follow style that’s perfect for the layperson. Yes, the material can be a little dry and the first few chapters were slow, but once we got into the details I was caught up in the narrative.

The book explores the theory that we have changed our societies and how we live faster than our bodies have evolved and adapted to modern conditions. The human race has existed for tens of thousands of years but only recently moved from a primitive, tribal society to today’s modern cities and states. The author offers a range of examples and explanations while comparing modern society, described by the acronym WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic), which derives from an article on behavior and brain science, to those people still living in, or recently removed from, traditional society.

Psychologists mainly study the human nature of WEIRD societies; the author demonstrates why we need to expand our view into other groups of people. Some of the areas I found particularly interesting were the contrasting ways different groups treated children from childbirth to parenting. In some societies infanticide, an unthinkable practice in WEIRD societies, is still condoned. One example would be only caring for the stronger twin when the mother does not have enough food for two babies. Another area of interest to me was elder care and the way traditional families have multi-generational households and support systems in place. Empty-nest syndrome is unknown to them.

Most fascinating of all were the chapters on our modern world diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, virtually unknown in traditional societies but occurring at a rapid rate in groups of people who adopt a western lifestyle. In a nutshell, the theory is that through years of evolution we are predisposed to store fats and sugar which protects the individual from starvation during lean times when crops often failed and food was scarce. Today our high fat diet is causing an epidemic of disease.

The audio, narrated by Jay Snyder, was presented in a documentary-like style. His friendly voice and engaging manner made 18½ hours of listening a pleasant experience. I glanced through a copy of the hardcover print book which is large, about 500 pages, and I doubt I would have been able to read through all that text with the same enjoyment as I did listening to it. With the audio I felt like I was listening to a National Geographic or Nature special. However, the downside to the audio instead of the print is not being able to read faster to skip ahead to the conclusion at the end of chapters that were less interesting.

Although this book is not for everyone, I highly recommend it to science and non-fiction fans, especially those with an interest in anthropology or evolutionary biology, and even the casual listener might be pleasantly surprised.

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Source: Review copy
© 2013 Under My Apple Tree. All rights reserved.

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4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Suko / Mar 5 2013 11:54 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed listening to this book, Leslie. It would be interesting to me as well, I think, although 18 and one half hours is a long time.

    Like

  2. nrlymrtl / Mar 6 2013 11:56 am

    I’ve read 2 of Diamond’s other books (both monster big) and they were great. Lots of science, but easy to digest. I will keep my eye out for this one at my library.

    Like

  3. Survival International / Mar 19 2013 7:38 am

    Diamond falls into the trap of characterising today’s tribal peoples as ‘like our ancestors’. He thinks they are more violent than ‘us’, and backs this up with dodgy data – he’s really saying they are ‘savages’ (albeit intelligent ones with things we can benefit from, and he doesn’t use the word).

    Worse, is his political message: warring tribes welcome state governments because it reduces violence. This amounts to thinking that ‘Westernised’ governments should impose themselves on tribes to stop them being savages. 1890s, anyone? Tell it to the tribes of western New Guinea, tortured and killed by the Indonesian occupiers, a fact Diamond doesn’t mention in his 500-page book, much of it about… New Guinea.

    For Survival International’s critique of the book, please see: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/30/savaging-primitives-why-jared-diamond-s-the-world-until-yesterday-is-completely-wrong.html

    For the reaction from West Papuan tribespeople, see: http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/8958

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