“The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn From Traditional Societies” by Jared Diamond (Viking Press, 2013)

The World Until Yesterday
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After the bestsellerdom of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel and the popular Collapse, the talented anthropologist Jared Diamond returns with his long-awaited next book, The World Until Yesterday.  But things have to be long-awaited for Diamond, as he doesn’t just keep churning out non-fiction books, but decides on what message he wants to tell and teach to his readers. He also spends a lot of his time lecturing, giving talks, and traveling around the world, as well as most importantly, to New Guinea where he does his research and has been visiting since the 1960s.

In The World Until Yesterday, Diamond goes into detail about what a number of traditional societies from around the world do and how they act and react when it comes to things like raising a child, religion, conflict resolution, treatment of the elderly and many other important subjects we all have to deal with in our lives. The traditional groups Diamond focuses on are: New Guinean tribes, Australian tribes, Eurasian tribes, African tribes, North American tribes, and South American tribes.

As with his other books, Diamond is not looking to tell the reader what to think or believe, but merely to illustrate what these traditional societies have done for many centuries, and what they continue to do, and what we can possibly learn from this. This includes the subject of child rearing and always keeping the child close in a skin to skin contact in the early years of birth, instead of putting the child in a stroller and away from the parent; or treating the elderly in a more respected manner, than putting them away in elderly care home; or having a detailed system to deal with conflict situations so parties that have suffered harm can be correctly compensated. Again, Diamond is not saying that the first world should adopt all these measures to better their society, but to learn from these and perhaps apply some of the techniques to help improve their lives.

As with any Diamond book, The World Until Yesterday is not an easy read, and takes some long focus and concentration to read through, but at the end of it the reader is filled with a new understanding about the world and how many traditional societies live and breathe in their own lifetimes. Diamond uses a poignant framing device of his boarding a plane in Los Angeles to New Guinea and talks about the world he is about to leave, and the one he is about to enter; and then does the opposite at the end of the book, leaving this traditional society he has become a part of for some time, and returning to the modern one in California. As with any Diamond book, it is an enlightening and fascinating story that is well worth the read.

Originally written on June 12, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

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Collapse  Guns, Germs and Steel

“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” by Jared Diamond (Viking, 2004)

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Jared Diamond, renowned author of the Pulitzer-winning Gun, Germs, and Steel, returns with another piece of mind-blowing work that will simply astonish any reader.  In his last book, Diamond took us on a journey into the history of humanity, with cogent and logical answers for why our ancestors did the things they did, tying it in with geological and biological processes; how location matters very much for why certain of our ancestors did much better than others.  Guns, Germs, and Steel serves as an excellent introduction to Collapse, though it is not required.

In his new book, Diamond tackles the overarching reason for why certain cities and civilizations decline and collapse, while others get through the hard times enough to get by and sometimes even thrive.  What are amazing are the many case studies Diamond uses, ranging from early history with the Anasazi, Vikings, and civilization of Eastern Island; to the modern day cultures of Rwanda, Australia and the area of Montana where Diamond now lives for part of the year.  In his introduction, Diamond clearly lays out his plan with the book – much like a scientist about to run a number of experiments – with a specific list of factors that determine a society’s success or downfall, including: geographical location, amount of natural resources, amount of possible food, amount of trees.  Some societies suffer from a lacking in just one of these factors and are still unable to survive, while others suffer from a lacking in a number of them.  What’s fascinating with these thoroughly researched and explained case studies is how two societies in close proximity to each other will have different outcomes: one may collapse, or barely survive, while the other thrives for many hundreds of years.

Diamond’s reason for writing this book, he explains in the beginning and elaborates at the end, is to help the people of the present day realize the predicament we are in.  With global warming, astronomically high carbon dioxide levels, overpopulation, and a dwindling supply of nonrenewable energy resources; Diamond seeks to enlighten us in first world countries (those most likely to be reading this book) of collapses and failures of past civilizations – some in the distant past, some in the not too distant, some still ongoing today – as an educational lesson so that we may learn where others failed and why, perhaps then we can ensure our own continued survival.  With the factors mentioned above, like overpopulation and dwindling energy supplies, we are right on course with some other past civilizations that collapsed.  The question is whether the governments of the world will realize this and react soon enough to halt us on this doomed path, and start us on a new and healthier one.  Like many things in our lives: only time will tell.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on May 20th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond (Norton, 1997)

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This is one of those books that takes you a while to read — it’s pretty heavy non-fiction — and yet at the end of it, you feel like Hippocrates, a Muslim scientist, or Leonardo Da Vinci must have felt at the realization of a great discovery. The Eureka! moment. This book is kind of like the movie Hotel Rwanda: the movie was life-altering for me, and just made every other movie that came out that year seem tawdry and unimportant; it was one of those movies that everyone should see (especially Americans and Western Europeans) just to understand the world and its history better. Guns, Germs, and Steel is one of those books that everyone should read to better comprehend their existence at this specific moment in time.

The premise of the book is revealed in the prologue in a conversation between the author and a New Guinea native who lives his very simple life in Stone Age conditions. The thesis that arises in their conversation is what specific events led to the fact that Europeans were the ones to reach New Guinea and interact with its people, and why it wasn’t the New Guinea people to develop the technology and abilities to travel the world and make first contact with the Europeans.

With the concept in place, Diamond sets about doing this in his conversational and, quite frankly, mind-blowing and ingenious way. As a professor, with studies in anthropology and biology, he has an astounding way of seeing things and being able to explain ideas in a simple manner that make so much sense and you’re left saying to yourself: “Oh, that’s how that happened,” or “that’s why it’s like that.” At times he can bog you down with details, mainly because he explains them in minutest and seemingly most insignificant level (such as different seeds around the world). And yet you are left with that adage of chaos theory: everything on this planet happens for a reason and has a knock-on effect.

One of Diamonds most astonishing explanations for the reason the continent of Eurasia was able to develop to a much more advanced level than the rest of the world, with its complex empires, cradles of civilizations, and large amount of farming and domesticated species was due to its latitude on a specific east-west axis. The other continents — North and South America, Africa, Australasia — are all on a north-south axis. What does this difference mean? For one, climate is greatly changed the further north or south ones goes, which has an effect on the migration of people, animals, and plants, as well as the spread of information, technology and culture. Because of this, Eurasia was able to develop more crops and have them spread around the continent through trade, as well as the spread of domesticated animals, culture and more importantly, technology. The other continents did not have this ease, which Diamond explains in clear detail with facts and dates.

Of course, I am vastly over-simplifying the book and it’s really necessary for one to peruse through its pages to get the full understanding. Another concept that I was very happy to be made so clear is the explanation of why white people conquered most of the world was not because they were a superior race in any way. And how is this simply explained? To use Jared Diamond’s example:

The Aboriginal people spent many thousands of years keeping to their simple ways due to the harsh conditions of Australia. When the Europeans arrived they were able to educate the Aborigines and share their technology and make it seem like these advanced whites were helping and “bettering” the Aboriginal people, and therefore making them civilized. And yet it was necessary for the Europeans to bring all their technology, culture and science with them for them to survive, otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted a week in Australia. It had nothing to do with the Caucasians as a race, but everything to do with the specific parameters for living in Europe and developing the technology and culture under those conditions. This is made clear when Diamond talks about two European explorers from different backgrounds who set out, with all their technology and science, to cross the vast landmass of Australia. Neither of them made it to the other side; they both died under the severe conditions. However, the Aboriginal people frequently cross this landmass on their nomadic journeys and make it relatively unharmed.

Overall, what I get from this book is this: Why are we all fighting and killing and hating one another? After all the seemingly random events over the last two million years that led from the ape-like hominid to the homo sapiens sapiens of today, it seems all we should be doing is hugging each other and patting everyone on the back for getting through the whole mess and still being alive to tell about it. A lot of other animals and dinosaurs aren’t.

But don’t take my word for it: read and absorb the ideas of Jared Diamond and have your life and your ideas changed for the better.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on July 22nd 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

Something I Wanted to do at Least Once in My Life

Today I officially held and fired a firearm; a pistol to be exact.  In celebration of my wife’s birthday, we decided to all go to the shooting range.  Part of me was looking forward to this just because I was going to get an opportunity to shoot a real gun, but the writer part of me was looking forward to all the details and experience I would get from it which I would be able to use in future writing.

There were so many interesting facets from the feel of the heavy, solid bullets, all lined up in a box.  The toughness of loading the bullets into the clip, and how it’s pretty tough and not as easy as they make it look on TV.  The extreme noise the gun makes with each shot, as well as the constant shooing going on around you with everyone else firing their pistols or rifles.  (I can only try and imagine what it must be like with automatic weapons!)  The great (and in my opinion, best) feeling of loading/jamming the clip into the gun, then chambering a round, and the feel of squeezing the trigger slowly and having this hunk of metal pieces turn into an astonishing and terrifying killing machine.  A weapon.  Then there’s the expended shell launching into the air, often hitting you with its hot metal surface.  It even jammed a few times, adding another great experience.  (I of course took some shells home with me.)

I tried two pistols: the Beretta and the Sig Sauer P 229, which were similar and at the same time different, with the balance of the weight, the feel of the gun going off, and being able to somewhat tell where I hit.  We were using 9mm rounds.  We all actually managed to hit the targets a number of times, with some shots in the center too.

It was a truly fantastic experience that I do look forward to doing again at some point (though it can be expensive, especially with the cost of all the rounds) and possibly trying out a rifle.

And as a final note, a small part of me is somewhat horrified that our species has created this assemblage of metal, gunpowder, and pieces to be this mortifying killing machine.  It just feels so dooming, firing off an explosive bullet and imaging it going into someone’s body.  I don’t think there are really any people who, when shot, can get up and walk away like they do in the movies.