The World Until Yesterday. PROLOGUE: At the Airport

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

This prologue as any prologue is a little overview of what the book is about and why this is relevant and you should spend your time and money reading it. The general idea goes as follows:

Most of the traits of the World we are living in are extraordinary recent when taking into account the span of time we humans have been present in the planet. State organization, metal tools, intensive agricultural production of food, urban settlements etc. begin to appear in our history less that 15.000 years ago. Until this moment, for around 6M years, we humans have been living in very different conditions and social structures, what the author calls traditional societies.

This book intends to be an overview of some of the traits of that traditional societies. Why is this important? First, because those societies are much more varied that ours and so we can learn a lot about the human nature and how to distinguish what is essential to being human and what are cultural artefacts. Every traditional society can be viewed as a social experiment where different approaches and cultural traits have been tried with different success rate. To know those cultures can also be important because we can learn something from them that can be useful to help us live a more happy and plenty live. The last reason to look at traditional societies is to be grateful that we are not there any more because there were also highly unpleasant things.

The prologue goes on introducing us to the Elman Service’s division of human societies: bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states. It defines and explains these categories as it describes how they have been evolving in history and also makes and astonishingly short briefing of Guns, Germs and Steel, his most famous book and probably the reason we are here reading another of his books. In this context, he presents us with those surviving traditional societies that will be studied in this book.

The final part: “Plan of the book” I didn’t read as I never do. In fact I tend to skip prologues altogether.

The best of the chapter: the pictures. Those images (plate 30 and 31) showing the first encounter of New Guinea Highlanders with westerners are worth looking a thousand times.

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6 thoughts on “The World Until Yesterday. PROLOGUE: At the Airport

  1. Thank you for your clear and to the point summary.I find the general concept of book suggestive and intriguing. I’m quite convinced that we can learn a lot from ancient societies.
    I also liked his non-partisan view of the subject. The text is neither an apology of the good ole’ times nor a glorification of the hyper-technological XXI century. That gives me good vibes.
    The only thing that worries me a little is the excess of detail. I think he goes too far away, for example, describing how an airport terminal looks like. So I do hope that this is not one of those books that the real content can be written in 50 pages and the rest is just repetitions, pointless anecdotes and so on to make the book look thicker.

    And beware of false friends, Carlos. “To pretend” in English means “to feign”, “to give a false appearance”. It doesn’t have the meaning of “aim” that “pretender” in Spanish has.

    • Thank you David, false friend corrected! It was important since that “pretends” changed the sense of the sentence.

      About your fear of repetitions, I’d like to remind you that “Guns, Germs and Steel” is probably the most repetitive book in the history of good books. Diamond repeats once and again the main thesis of his book till the point that I had to break its reading during some months and retake it again to enjoy it fully. If you look at amazon reviews, there are people that say that this is the most important book they have read ever and the give it ratings of 4 or 3 out of 5 because of its repetitiveness.

      But I don’t know if this is bad or good. The fundamental ideas of that book have become ingrained in the mind of so many people as part of their vision of the world, I think, because of that systematic repetition. We readers consider ourselves to be very intelligent and feel humiliated when we are told again things that we thought we understood at the first time. But not always is so and sometimes the repetition helps us a lot.

      Humility (the real one, not the pretended) helps sometimes.

      Let’s begin the book and see what traditional societies have to offer us. I think is better to use “traditional” as he does instead of “ancient” as you wrote in your comment to avoid confusion with the state organized “ancient” Mediterranean cultures that do not fall at all into Diamond’s definition of traditional societies.

  2. I haven’t read ” Guns, germs and steel” but heard great things about it. I’m curious what Diamond is going to teach us about traditional societies and I will keep reading but I disliked the prologue. Very repetitive and long-winded, I felt irritated at times. But maybe this is just another feature of the modern world – no patience for reading and the urge to simply get an information as quickly as possible,
    @Carlos & David, I think it was a smart decision to choose a book you both haven’t read yet.

    • Welcome on board Ela!
      There are good books out there with poor introductions. Let’s hope this is one of them. As I said, I tend to skip introductions altogether although I have to recognize that sometimes they can be great. The check Manfiesto or The Black Swan, for instance, have introductions that hook you to the rest of the book.

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