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January 1, 2013

BOOKS: Traditional Societies and Our New World

WASHINGTON — Human beings and apes went their separate ways 6 million years ago, Jared Diamond notes near the beginning of "The World Until Yesterday." Yet agriculture has been around for just 11,000 years, and the first state government arose only 5,400 years ago.

In other words, life as we know it accounts for a small fraction of human history. By looking closely at the world's last few "traditional" (i.e., tribal) societies — especially in New Guinea, where he's spent much of the past half-century — Diamond shows what it must have been like before that.

He deftly explodes a few myths, beginning with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "speculative and ungrounded theory" that "humans were naturally compassionate in a state of nature, and that wars began only with the rise of states."

The reality was the opposite — maniacal xenophobia and perennial war. If you encountered a stranger on your path, you had essentially two options: run or fight.

The percentage of people that tribal societies typically lost in conflicts dwarfs German and Russian war losses during the 20th century (even if the numbers seem less dramatic at first because they aren't in the millions).

That's why they've so often accepted state control with so little protest: Since states, for their own reasons, suppress tribal warfare, life under their authority is less dangerous and a lot more pleasant.

"The World Until Yesterday" is packed with fascinating information of this kind. But because Diamond has constructed it as a series of lessons we can learn from what once were called primitive peoples, it's also problematic.

I don't doubt his good faith when he declares, "My own outlook on life has been transformed and enriched by my years among one set of traditional societies, that of New Guinea." (He previously wrote about these societies, among others, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Guns, Germs and Steel.")

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