The World Until Yesterday

When I was much younger, I nearly had a career as a documentary film maker (as unlikely as it might sound), for I and a friend submitted a proposal to the BBC for a series of programmes on what 'we' in the West might learn from traditional or indigenous societies. The proposal went right to the last hurdle and fell because Alan Yentob, then Controller of BBC2, had not liked my friend's previous work for the Corporation. Channel 4 subsequently made (badly) a series with a similar theme and this strand of opportunity was lost (to the world, and to me).

The subtitle of Jared Diamond's latest book is 'What can we learn from traditional societies?' which Stephen Corry of the human rights group, Survival International, finds unobjectionable, it is the title itself (as well as the content) that has sparked controversy; namely, 'The World Until Yesterday'.

This implies that indigenous people live in a world representing our pasts (and by implication in the world of ersatz evolution are more 'primitive' than ourselves). This is, I am afraid, to coin a technical phrase 'bollocks'. Indigenous people live, surprise, surprise, in the present and whereas they offer vividly distinct and different forms of life, both to one another and 'ourselves', they do so as responses to the complexity and challenge of our actual world, now (as we do ourselves).

Stephen Corry has dissected the book in greater detail here:

That their world is exceptionally challenging is a given because they continue to be subject to colonisation, expropriation and marginalization to a degree that is a painful witness to precisely the kind of institutionalised, sanctioned violence that Diamond suggests is a feature of indigenous societies (more so than our own).

Diamond's response to this criticism has been to first to suggest that Corry is idealising indigenous societies (the reverse of Diamond's own black/white vision) for which there is no evidence in any of Corry's work that I have read. It is usually a sustained plea for recognising people as people in all their complex diversity: an exercise in thinking in colour. Second, to point to activities, such as  infanticide or disposing of the old, that undoubtedly exist within all societies, including our own. And, finally, third suggesting that his text has been read by anthropologists and they have found it unexceptional. This is akin to saying I have had a text read by my friends, who agree with me, and look I find they agree with me!

Nevertheless I look forward to reading the book for myself partly because I suspect that at one level Diamond means well (tiptoeing along the path of good intentions into hell's mouth) and second because it illustrates how deeply ingrained are our assumptions about our status quo (at the top of a presumed evolutionary ladder). This is odd coming from Diamond as his excellent book, 'Collapse' showed, complacency is a very real threat to the sustaining reality of any culture.


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