But then what does he tell us we can learn from them? To value mediation as a method of settling legal disputes. To treat the elderly with greater dignity. To watch our salt and sugar intake.
Fifty years of study — for that?
Diamond's most intriguing discussion, in terms of novel and usable information, involves child rearing. I was happy to find him advocating, for example, that parents allow small children to share their beds; I'm still mad about how strictly my own parents barred me from theirs.
But even when Diamond offers convincing arguments about "the precocious development of social skills" in the children of hunter-gatherers, he dulls them with an irritating habit of belaboring the hyper-obvious:
"Naturally, I'm not saying that we should emulate all child-rearing practices of hunter-gatherers. I don't recommend that we return to the hunter-gatherer practices of selective infanticide, high risk of death in childbirth and letting infants play with knives and get burned by fires."
Or, on the elderly: "I don't know any individual American whose devoted care of his aged parents goes as far as pre- chewing their food, nor any who has strangled his aged parents and been publicly commended as a good son for doing so."
Much like his friends in the New Guinea jungle, for whom "there is no time pressure, no schedule," Diamond is in no hurry to get where he's going.
What disturbs me more than the leisurely blandness of his style, though, is his apparent conviction (or maybe it came from his agent or his publisher) that he had to make his book relevant by delivering news you can use. The idea that knowledge isn't sufficient in itself is depressing if not insulting.
I was absorbed as I read "The World Before Yesterday." But faced with the embarrassing question its subtitle poses — "What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?" — I would have to answer: Not all that much.
"The World Until Yesterday" is published by Viking in the United States. (498 pages, $36).