The World Until Yesterday
What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
Jared Diamond is a celebrated scientist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and a dauntless explorer of the world. Likewise, his keynotes take audiences on a journey through some of the most profound evolutionary questions of our time: Why do some societies prosper while others die? What can we learn from the collective history of every human society? A practitioner of sustainable development, Diamond shows us how we got here, and where we’re going.
Dr. Jared Diamond is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. His most recent book, The World Until Yesterday, grew out of Diamond’s 50 years of studying the birds of New Guinea and its neighboring islands. Of course, he also met the people who lived there. Until recently, New Guineans were living traditionally, with little or no influence from industrial Western societies. This meant: no matches, steel tools, or manufactured clothing. They still practiced tribal warfare, divided into a thousand tribes speaking a thousand different languages. But Diamond was struck by how common certain human attributes were—pain, love, family—even if it expressed itself differently.
Diamond compares life in modern, industrialized societies with so-called traditional ways of life arguing that these societies have much to teach us about conflict resolution, care of elders and children, risk management, multilingualism, and nutrition. The World Until Yesterday debuted in the top three of The New York Times bestseller list. His new book, The Third Chimpanzee for Young People: On the Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, is an adaptation of his bestselling book The Third Chimpanzee, intended for the future generation and the future they’ll help build.
“Diamond meshes technological mastery with historical sweep, anecdotal delight with broad conceptual vision, and command of sources with creative leaps. No finer work of its kind has been published this year, or for many past.”— The Washington Post on Guns, Germs and Steel
With a unique blend of anthropology, sociology, and evolutionary biology, Diamond depicts a way of life that is enticingly different from the way we live today. Focusing on how we can improve contemporary society by learning from the past, Diamond’s message is both urgent and persuasive: With some thought and effort, we can have the best of both worlds. The New York Times calls Diamond’s writing “one of the most significant projects embarked upon by any intellectual of our generation.”
Currently a professor of Geography at UCLA, Jared Diamond is also the author of bestselling book Why Is Sex Fun? He has received some of the world’s most prestigious awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, the Dickson Prize in Science, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and the National Medal of Science, America’s highest civilian award in science.
We citizens of all big modern industrialized societies take for granted many features shared among those societies—such as encountering strangers every day without freaking out, living in societies of thousands or millions of people under a central government with laws and police, and eating food grown by other people. We forget that all of those shared features emerged only recently in the history of the human species. Until then, all people lived in tiny societies of just a few dozen or a few hundred people, where encounters with strangers were rare and terrifying, central governments didn’t exist, and everyone grew or hunted and gathered their own food. In the modern world today, there still remain many small traditional societies retaining many of those traditional features of human history. While tribal societies are in some respects very different from our modern industrial societies, in other respects they are similar, because they confront the same universal human problems of bringing up children, growing old, resolving disputes, staying healthy, and dealing with dangers. Jared Diamond will discuss tribal solutions to these problems, on the basis of his 50 years of experience of living and working among traditional societies. It turns out that many of the ways in which traditional peoples solve those universal human problems are ones that we can incorporate with great profit into our lives. For instance, Diamond will show you why you should stop worrying about dangers from terrorists and plane crashes, and start paying serious attention to the dangers of slipping in the shower, on the stairs, or on the sidewalk.
Today, there are huge differences between peoples of the five inhabited continents in their wealth and power. In particular, over the last five centuries, European peoples have expanded and conquered around the world. Why did history turn out that way, instead of in a different or opposite way? Why didn’t the Aztec Emperor Montezuma conquer Spain, instead of the actual result that soldiers of Spain’s emperor conquered the Aztecs? 13,000 years ago, all peoples on all continents were hunter/gatherers, living at approximately similar levels of technology and social organization and power. Hence the inequalities of the modern world must have arisen from differences in rates of societal development on the different continents over the last 13,000 years. Those different rates of development constitute the biggest question about human history. How can we account for those different rates of development? Jared Diamond will discuss that big question in the light of his famous Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel.
The U.S. is the richest country in the world, with the world’s strongest military. Those strengths of ours arise from our underlying geographic, socio-economic, and political advantages. But history shows us that countries enjoying advantages can squander them, as has happened to Argentina, Brazil, and China. In this keynote, Jared Diamond explains that the U.S. today faces four fundamental unfolding problems that threaten American democracy, wealth, and power. History also shows us that some nations have confronted and solved unfolding problems, while other nations haven’t. What factors make it either more likely or less likely that we Americans will solve our own emerging problems?
In the course of our lives, most of us as individuals face personal crises triggered by relationship problems, or job problems, or health problems, or the death of a loved one, or just normal age-related developments. Getting through such a crisis requires adopting selective changes, which some of us are more successful at figuring out than are others of us. Psychologists have identified a dozen factors predicting the likelihood that an individual will succeed in resolving such a personal crisis through selective change. But nations similarly undergo national crises, whose resolution similarly requires selective national change. To what extent do the factors identified as predicting the outcomes of personal crises suggest factors predicting the outcomes of national crises? Could understanding of those factors help a nation to resolve a national crisis? This is also the subject of Jared Diamond’s forthcoming book.