Like Noam Chomsky in the field of linguistics, Jared Diamond is the modern patron saint of evolutionary biology and anthropology, and his latest book is another insightful collection of facts and what we can deduce from them about the way we live our lives.
The cryptic title is Diamond’s assertion that for the vast majority of Homo Sapiens’ 100,000-year existence we’ve lived in a state not so easily forgotten in the modern era (the last three to five millennia). The World Until Yesterday reminds us of our genetic heritage and asks what it does for (and against) us today.
In many ways, Diamond’s work shines a light on the 18th century concept of the noble savage, overturning it where necessary but pillorying enlightened Western methods where it’s warranted. Next time you want to complain about a frivolous court case clogging up the legal system, remind yourself that suspicion, murder, rape and war were the accepted way to treat strangers among much of humanity for most of our history. As recently as 1961, New Guinea jungle tribes were photographed facing each other down with spears in a battle that left 125 dead.
Using his many travels to the remotest corners of New Guinea as a prism to view the way we evolved, Diamond – perhaps unwittingly – makes it easy to conclude we really are as bloodthirsty as we’ve always feared. It seems the ‘civilisation’ that orients societies when they grow big enough for bureaucratic organisation is all there is to protect us from chaos.
Together with his other title The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, The World Until Yesterday makes you realise not only that we’re not so different from other animals, but also that the animal kingdom itself is a messy spectrum with no simple ‘us and them’.
Diamond introduces his arguments by assigning almost mathematical terminology to anthropological concepts about the size of societies, then proceeds to outline how their evolution tends to follow quite ordered paths from animal-like hardship and violence to a more human-like state of grace (or at least the artifice of it).
You might come away depressed about just how savage we really are without modern trappings of law and order, but the fact that we’ve built a mechanism to put the words from Diamond’s mind into your hands is still cause for celebration and wonder. The trick, as he would no doubt agree, is to find and use the best of both worlds.