Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

The World Until Yesterday: A Book Review

I have just finished reading “The World Until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond.  It is a good book and I recommend it.  Diamond is a controversial “public” scientist and educator who is into big ideas about the forces that have shaped what might be described as human culture and ecology.  His best known book “Guns Germs and Steel” discusses how and why Eurasian civilizations (especially those in with roots in the Middle East and Mediterranean) have become so dominant over the last 10,000 thousand years.  Diamond argues that a number of geographic factors led to the development and diffusion of agriculture and technology that were then amplified over time as advances in one area led to advances in other fields.   Guns, germs and steel, in one notable example, then explains how hundreds of Spanish soldiers could conquer the Aztec and Inca empires in the 1500s through a combination of better technology (guns, steel, horses), and disease resistance (germs) that all had their roots in who lived where and how vs. genetic or cultural superiority per se.


Lessons From the Past

In “The World Until Yesterday” Diamond discusses how humans lived before the advent of things like modern agriculture, writing, and industrialization.  He uses examples from remaining elementary “tribes” and asks a number of overarching questions about how the structure of society and modernity influence things like child rearing, dispute resolution, how we deal with dangerous situations, aging, and what diseases we get.   The general idea is that while that life is very uncertain, violent and dangerous for those living in elementary tribal societies; these societies offer a number of positive examples that we in the modern world can learn from.


Over Parenting is Modern

One example I found especially relevant as a parent and teacher is the independence that these societies give children.   In my professional life in medical research, I deal with young adult academic elites who range in age from about 16 (High School honors students) to their 20s (medical students, graduate students and just finished M.Ds. and Ph.Ds.).  By far the biggest issue I deal with is fall out from lifelong “over parenting”.  Many of the super bright struggle with even a hint of set back or failure, and they get involved in a lot of psychic churn over what seem like pretty minor issues (for example getting a B) or decisions.  I would say the biggest thing I do for the “trainees” under my supervision is give them a chance to decide for themselves, “fail” intellectually, and then perhaps learn to bounce back with a new idea or experiment.  I would also say that many of my most successful students have been a bit rebellious and had experience with “failure” and responsibility through things like athletics and the performing arts.  Situations where there are no do-overs.


Criticism of Diamond

Several of the links so far include pretty detailed criticisms of both Diamond’s ideas and the depth of his scholarship on the topics he tackles.   For example, people say he cherry picks data and examples that support his pre-conceived world view and then generates compelling but incomplete narratives.  At some level this is a pretty stock criticism of focused experts when they disagree with generalists trying to cut across intellectual boundaries.  In other words biologists, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and economists might have differing explanations for a given set of observations.  In an area I know something about, blood pressure; he discusses the link between dietary sodium and high blood pressure in the modern world (both are typically very low in the elementary cultures).   Diamond does a good job explaining the standard teaching on the topic but misses a number of other ideas (my own included).  However, how realistic is it to ask him to take a deep dive into the nuances and debates of every issue? In this context, I am perfectly willing to cut him some slack and not get too territorial as I read what he writes.


Read This Book: More vs. Less Big Picture Thinking!

As I just mentioned, I am more than willing to cut Jared Diamond some slack and his efforts to raise, synthesize and comment on big issues that affect us all.   The bigger issue is not that he might be “wrong” in selected areas, but the general lack of big ideas and big thinking that we are exposed to.  We live in a fragmented world with all sorts of data, less information and even less insight.  Anyone attempting to communicate insights and big ideas about how the world might work to a general audience deserves our applause.   “The World Until Yesterday” is an excellent read.


Leave a Reply