Jared Diamond spoke in Louisville on January 9, 2013 as featured guest at the Kentucky Author Forum, discussing in detail his latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies. Diamond is an author, physiologist, evolutionary biologist and bio-geographer, as well as a medical researcher and professor of geography at UCLA.
Diamond argues that developed, Western cultures can learn much from small-scale, traditional societies, like those of the New Guinea Highlanders. In evolutionary time it has only been a very short while since traditional cultures and so-called “modern” cultures diverged, and Diamond asserts we moderns still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional conditions. His research for the book 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 still have much to teach us today. As he notes, “While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgably wide, we can glimpse most of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies that still exist or were recently in existence.” Of course, his arguments have provoked some strong reactions from other anthropologists who disagree with some of his conclusions.
Diamond is also the author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and the widely acclaimed Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1998.
- Read an excerpt from The World Until Yesterday.