Saturday, January 31, 2015

Review: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond

I love popular science books. I hope that many would be translated into languages Muslims often speak, particularly Arabic, since many educated Arabs only read Arabic, unlike Urdu, for example, of which I'm told its educated speakers typically can read English.

One of the authors whose books I suggested should be translated is Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. His latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies?, also deserves the widest possible audience.

By comparing how modern and traditional societies handle war, raising of children, care of the elderly, health risks, religion, language and diet, The World Until Yesterday stretches our conception of the ranges of choices available to us in a matter similar to the best science fiction.

By learning how other human societies have chosen particular paths and pondering the reasons why they chose them, perhaps we can come to see our own "givens" as choices which made sense (i.e. were "functional.") Once we realize that a time-honored practice in our societies is not in fact universal or intrinsic to being human, we can begin asking whether it continues to fulfill necessary functions or if its continuation brings us harm.

For the readers of this blog, the chapter on religion is of particular interest. Professor Diamond identifies seven functions of religion (p. 367). If we are claiming that Islam is a universally valid religion for all humans, perhaps an analysis of our practice of religion according to these functions could reveal whether we're placing the proper emphasis on what we as individuals and societies need in a given era. For example, if "supernatural explanation" is a function of religion, do we use such explanations in a self-serving, misogynistic or ethnocentric way? Does our practice of religion simply buttress an oligarchical order? Perhaps we could examine our religious practices and emphasize those which work against the more problematic of these functions of religion.

Another chapter of interest to many readers of this blog will be the chapter on the development of languages. In brief, the chapter promotes learning multiple languages, but read it to understand why.

I've also gently criticized Dr. Diamond at my other blog for calling Abraham () a "Hebrew patriarch" and for focusing on "heaven populated by beautiful virgin women" as a Muslim belief.