A perspective on the world as Diamond sees it
Reviewed by Peter Forbes
The World Until Yesterday
by Jared Diamond
Orion/Allen Lane. £20

jared Diamond is one of the few people who have changed the way we see human nature and our history. By suggesting that the place of human beings in the scheme of things can be studied as we observe any other natural phenomenon, he has formulated some very powerful ideas that counter our habitual arrogance.

Diamond's aim in this book is to show that the lifestyles of traditional peoples still have something to teach us. But readers who love his broad panoptic sweep over the course of human history may feel its absence in the early chapters, which smack a little too much of an anthropology primer. As an evolutionary biologist, Diamond has ploughed the same furrow for five decades: New Guinea, a place in which Stone Age peoples only encountered Westerners in the 1930s. In the West, removal of dangerous people from society and the restitution of damage is the priority, not emotional closure. He suggests that something could be learnt from the traditional approach, especially in California, where the propensity to lock people up is one of the factors bankrupting the state. The classic Diamond, the one who cuts to the chase with great explanatory power, emerges in the later chapters, the most telling of which concerns diet.

It seems that when most of the world went hungry and whole populations were decimated by famine, natural selection produced adaptations which then proved counterproductive when famine turned to feast. Europeans have had several centuries to get used to a much more regular availability of food. He is also good at explaining the difference between the characteristic diseases of large farming populations, as in the West, and small hunter-gatherer bands. Farming populations tend to suffer from acute disease (such as measles) which lead to personal immunity. These diseases can only develop in large populations. The hunter-gathers never caught them; they, in turn, tend to have chronic diseases (leprosy, yaws) and deficiency diseases such as beriberi and scurvy. And they don't develop personal immunity, which is why contact between Westerners and hunter-gatherers was so devastating after the fateful collision of the Old and New Worlds in 1492. The World Until Yesterday is Diamond's homage to the region and the people he loves: the place that has sustained him and nurtured his thought. He tells us that we need to recalibrate our sense of history. Prehistory should not be seen as some arcane specialism of interest only to a few. In the era of climate change, we need to know how and why we suddenly blossomed as a species in the last 5 per cent of our existence and then became a plague on the earth. Diamond, more than anyone else, has shown us how to begin this reassessment. —The Independent