I reviewed Diamond’s “Guns Germs and Steel” last year and it is fair to say it made a significant impression on me. Readable but serious, refusing to duck some really challenging issues, I still find myself referring to some of the ideas and stories set out in this book. Guns Germs and Steel tried to answer the question why Western European countries were able to colonize large areas of the globe in the second millennium AD, and why other advanced civilisations were almost powerless to resist in the face of Western weaponry, bacteria, and technology. While I found many of the arguments in GG&S compelling, there were some sections that asked more questions than they answered. That’s a good thing of course; anything that gets me reading more is to be welcomed. No academic book with such a broad and controversial range of subjects can hope to tie down every issue. So the end of the Easter Island civilisation, the Viking settlements in Greenland, and the future of Australia were all subjects which I read further on and on which I retain an open mind.

Diamond’s overall thesis however was one which I found compelling, with one caveat. He argues Western dominance arose from our Guns Germs and Steel, but the development of these stemmed from an early move to city states, which in turn was caused by early advances in agriculture and domestication of livestock. He traces this to the fertile crescent in the middle east, a region that is now largely arid, and certainly not the home of super-powers. Is it simply that early civilisation arose here and spread to Europe where it took root and developed the ability to spread across the globe?

The World Until Yesterday is a natural sequel to GGS and opens with the observation that traditional hunter gatherer societies, where we lived in bands of at most a few thousand people, was an almost universal experience until relatively recently – in some case in the last few decades. He uses some striking images to make his point – for example in the introduction he surveys Port Moresby airport, and is struck by how much the Papuan New Guinean people have changed since first contact with westerners less than 100 years ago.

Diamond knows he is going to be taken on by many critical fellow academics, and in traditional style get his retaliation in first. He explains the terms he uses with care, and makes clear that generalisations can always be unpicked with individual exceptions, but still have value. He uses a measured, academic tone, writing more like a professor for a journal than a popular science writer writing for the mass market. This is not an academic paper of course ,footnotes aren’t used, not every source is identified, and there is more personal anecdote than you would usually find, but it is written to appear as such. Certainly it is carefully researched and referenced compared to many other popular science books.

This is necessary – Diamond makes claims about traditional cultures and their practices which could easily been seen as being made from a colonialist, first world perspective that fails to understand the cultural differences between the West and the traditional societies he writes about. Survival International, a group campaigning on behalf of tribal peoples http://www.survivalinternational.org/ launched a strong attack on this book when it was first published in hardback, claiming that Diamond patronises tribal peoples by saying they represent life as it was once lived by westerners, ignores the impact of the west on these peoples, and manipulating statistics to show they are more violent than the West. The full case for the prosecution can be found here http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/30/savaging-primitives-why-jared-diamond-s-the-world-until-yesterday-is-completely-wrong.html

However aware Diamond is of the risk of sensationalism, he cannot avoid it completely. An example of this that jumped out at me was his description of the gruesome practice of widow strangling. Here’s what he says, writing about the Kaulong people, a tribe of New Britain, just east of New Guinea.

“When a man died, his widow called upon her brothers to strangle her. She was not murderously strangled against her will, nor was she pressurised into this form of ritualised suicide by other members of her society. Instead she had grown up observing it as the custom, followed the custom when she became widowed herself, strongly urged her brothers (or else her son if she had no brothers) to fulfil their solemn obligation to strangle her despite their natural reluctance to do so, and sat cooperatively as they did strangle her” (Page 21 of the paperback Penguin edition).

As soon as I read this I was instinctively sceptical. What is the evidence that tribal peoples killed their sisters or mothers in this fashion, and that the widows passively accepted their fate? Obviously there are parallels with the well documented Indian sub-continental practice of suttee which stubbornly persists in one form or another to this day. But however disturbing suttee may be, widow strangling with the passive participation of the widow is hard to swallow (sorry). Was this an extreme case of men enforcing their control over women, treating them as inanimate property to be disposed of on the man’s death? In this interpretation the acceptance of their fate by the women is less a case of indoctrination than a choice between the lesser of two evils – accept their fate or face a worse one, with the shame brought on your family to make things worse. Widow strangling would have been a strong disincentive to women murdering their husbands, and a way of maintaining population control in an environment where infanticide was also practiced to the same end. But did it happen? Was it an established cultural practice (the internet gives examples from other cultures including Fiji) or simply some isolated murders inflated into a cultural practice for the benefit of nosy missionaries and explorers? Something like this would be extraordinarily difficult to prove other than by weight of personal testimony, or possibly independent witness. But I can’t resist the impression that Diamond introduces this topic for more salacious reasons – look at these weird people, aren’t they brutal and unfeeling compared to us? Don’t they need our civilising influence? Strangely the reaction to Diamond’s book online has not focussed on this topic – his commentary on modern against tribal warfare has attracted much more comment for example.

I am still less than halfway through TWUY thus far, and I am sure I will have more to say. I don’t usually write reviews before completing the book, strangely enough, but this is a bit of an experiment.