Bryn Williams in Slate:
Jared Diamond is a master of cultural and historical bricolage. His books weave epic stories about the human condition from the disparate cultural practices of a wide range of people living in different environments. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond used this eclectic empiricism to tell a story about the role of geography in human history. In Collapse, he used the same approach to stage a morality play about the dangers of disregarding those geographic conditions. In his new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, Diamond probes the differences between modern cultures and traditional societies that subsist through hunting and gathering, and he comes to several bold conclusions about their relative merits. His examples are evocative and his narration is powerful, but Diamond ultimately fails to substantiate his arguments. By the end of the book, it is impossible to tell if one has finished reading a masterpiece of rigorous analysis or a masterfully written collection of just-so stories.
Each chapter offers a window into a specific cultural practice. These chapters typically follow this script: He posits a difference between traditional and modern society, cherry-picks a few examples from ethnographic or archaeological sources, and provides an evaluation about potential benefits (and/or drawbacks) of the traditional compared with the modern approach. The choice of topics is eclectic: Danger, religion, diet, dispute resolution, childrearing, linguistic diversity, and the treatment of the elderly all get a hearing.