The World Until Yesterday

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dr. Diamond presents us with a wealth of anthropological stories, experiences, and insights on traditional societies which all add up to a fairly anecdotal view of what this knowledge can offer modern societies. Even the views we get of modern societies are fairly general and do not apply to everyone in those societies. Dr. Diamond does certainly acknowledge that he is speaking in generalities in the introduction, but does this hurt the story Diamond is trying to tell? The narrative often jumps from culture to culture, though mostly focuses on New Guinea where Diamond has dedicated most of his professional career. We often get a few examples of traditional societies compared to modern societies, and Diamond allows us some inference on our own of how these situations might inform possible improvements in our own society, or to allow us to contrast and consider what we give up in order to live a different, possibly better life in modern society. It is a fairly balanced approach that does not romanticize traditional life, while also critiquing faults in modern living. I agree that there are valuable lessons and behaviors from traditional societies that we could use today, but overall I think most readers could agree that the benefits of modern society far outweigh the costs. Those costs could certainly be mitigated more both through individual and societal changes.

If you are a fan of Diamond’s previous work you will probably enjoy this book. If you are also a fan of books that attempt to understand society and historical context, you would probably also find this book interesting.

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Why Nations Fail

Below is my Goodreads review of Why Nations Fail by Daniel Acemoglu and James Robinson.  Books like these are quite relevant to those interested in global health because they do try and look at the big picture of the status quo and how we got there.  I don’t believe this book did as well as others, though, like Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond or Why the West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris.  This book’s focus was just too narrow, like a whole book about an ecological analysis with a few variables.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and PovertyWhy Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoğlu

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I could have given this book 4-stars, but I felt 3 were more appropriate in the end. I really think this book’s title is a misnomer: it should be “How Nations Fail.” I agree the extractive/inclusive dichotomy of political institutions is a useful and explanatory model of a country’s economic success and failure. I think it explains much of how a nation/political organization fails. I also like how they point out that failure can take time, and things may look good for a time before they start going downhill. I cannot, however, agree that only the extractive/inclusive dichotomy (along with creative destruction/innovation) are the only explanation for failure. The dismissive attitude towards geographic, disease, and technological factors is astounding. We may see these extractive/inclusive institutions as the medium through which nations can fail and can succeed, but I did not feel they adequately addressed how such institutions come about in the first place. Would the Spaniards and other European powers have been able to put in place the extractive institutions without most of the indigenous population of the Americas being destroyed by disease? I highly doubt it. The few thousand Spanish that conquered Latin America could hardly have done that without the advantage of disease and immunity. I also felt that many of the examples they gave were anecdotal (which I suppose is the nature of these types of books) and perhaps even extreme situations that exemplified their theory. They completely ignore the threat of Mongol invasions of Eastern Europe in the 13th century, the influence of the crusades, the occurrence of the Renaissance, and hardly mention the Scientific Revolution/Enlightenment. Could inclusive institutions have been created without such events? It seems they would lay the occurrence of all those events at the feet of inclusivity. I would argue that the Glorious Revolution could not have occurred without the scientific and philosophical progress that was occurring and accumulating at the time.

Overall, it is a book that is worth reading to those interested in these grand, sweeping books of theory that attempt to explain civilization (like Guns, Germs, & Steel), though the style of jumping from example to example is a little jarring. It was not as enjoyable as some of the other books like it because of that style. On one page you are reading about one country and on the next another country centuries later. They do provide many interesting examples, so if you are also into history this book would appeal to you. If you are a person that likes the evidence presented rather than a narrative this book will likely annoy you (as it did me). I know they are trying to appeal to a wide audience, but there was nary a chart or graph in this book. A few maps, a set of images and that was it. The narrative text did not even provide much in the way of empirical evidence to back up their claims. The authors essentially ask you to believe and go along with the story they are weaving.

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