The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
(Allen Lane $37)
Big topics, big issues, best sellers: it's the Jared Diamond hallmark. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) he took on the reasons why in some parts of the world great civilisations develop while elsewhere others live in traditional societies not much different to the world in 9000BC.
His answer comes down to luck of the geographical draw for farming. Environment as fate.
Diamond extended the notion in Collapse (2005) to explain the sudden demise of civilisations - the Mayans, the people of Easter Island - a fate he argued will be ours unless we reduce our population and consumption of resources.
In The World Until Yesterday Diamond's panoramic gaze persists - traversing, potentially, "all aspects of human culture, of all people around the world, for the last 11,000 years". A ridiculous proposition, as even Diamond admits, because it would require "a volume 2397 pages long which no one would read". He settles instead on 498 - in the main, ponderous - pages with far too much dreary exposition choking some fascinating research and personal experience of traditional societies, especially those in New Guinea.
Diamond's aim is to question whether the West can learn from the lifestyles of traditional peoples. The problem, especially in the early part of the book, is that he goes into so much rambling detail about traditional societies' practices - objects of trade, delivering justice, child rearing, treatment of elders, religion and diets - yet never seems to arrive at anything particularly profound. Talking about trade, Diamond notes that the Siassi Islanders spend months carrying cargoes through treacherous seas in order to feast at year's end on as many pigs as possible. A practice he says may seem silly to us "until we reflect on what Siassi Islanders would say about modern Americans who toil in order to flaunt jewels and sports cars."
Diamond makes similarly inane pronouncements in his discussion about war. "All human societies practice both violence and co-operation; which trait appears to predominate depends on the circumstances."
His prose is also littered with chatty, irritating asides - "before we proceed, let me deal with", "we shall return to the" or "let's reflect on differences". At times he becomes a patronising professor: "Readers who haven't spent years talking with New Guinea highlanders may still find themselves wondering . . ."
The World Until Yesterday is a weird combination of personal anecdotes, memoir and anthropology/sociology textbook - including some surprisingly fatuous photos to illustrate the Western lifestyle (fat boy chomping on fried chicken).
Amid the mire there is however a wealth of knowledge and information - although Diamond's detail on infanticide, endocannibalism (eating of one's dead relatives), routine wariness and killing of strangers, widow strangling, and five methods on how "burdensome old people are jettisoned" does tend to provoke a big cheer for civilisation.
Diamond's non-judgmental anthropological eye does provide some insights, particularly on restorative justice and traditional methods of mediation. So too, on some child rearing practices, roles of the elderly and how a "gene to sequester dietary glucose as fat" might have once been useful. But sifting through the tedium to find them requires perseverance that may be beyond many readers. At one point Diamond seems to recognise his excess: "This advice is so banally familiar that it's embarrassing to repeat it." An insight a reader wishes Diamond had heeded.