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Jared Diamond: "I enjoy writing things and I enjoy explaining things"

The Books Interview.

Your new book, The World Until Yesterday, asks what we can learn from traditional societies. How do you define “traditional”?
Traditional societies are the small-scale societies of the past – sufficiently small, with relatively little social stratification and political centralisation. Today, the world is divided into states but embedded within our state societies are lots of traditional mechanisms.

So those traditional mechanisms don’t necessarily wither away as societies develop?
No. Take Japan. Japan went through a profound change in the second half of the 19th century. But the Japanese were explicit about the traditional things they were going to retain: they were going to retain the emperor, the Japanese language, the role of the military. And they were going to change other things: Japan was going to become industrial.

Would it be fair to say that in this book you’re drawing up a balance sheet, with the advantages of modernity on one side and the disadvantages on the other?
That would be accurate. And the reason one has to do it is that I had to avoid the trap of romanticising traditional societies. Yes, there were wonderful things that we can learn from them but also terrible things about them – their getting locked in cycles of war, parents getting used to the deaths of children, short lifespans. So we can’t romanticise.

On the other hand, there are things that we can learn from them. At the end of the book, when I summarise the things that we have learned, in order to deflect the accusation that I’m romanticising I remind readers of the advantages we’ve got.

I’ve got some New Guinean friends who were very clear to me about what they liked about living in the west. They liked the anonymity; they liked the way that they weren’t constantly surrounded by their clans. So there’s a freedom and a possibility to get ahead in the west that you don’t have in traditional societies.

Would you say, by contrast, that one of the advantages of traditional societies is the way they nurture connections?
Yes. A friend of mine spent a lot of time in Africa. I asked him: “How would you compare your time spent in Africa with all your time spent in the US? Have you ever considered moving to Africa?” His summary was that life in Africa is socially rich but materially poor, whereas life in the west is materially rich but socially poor.

The reality is that friendship and lifelong maintained friendships are much more scarce in western societies for obvious reasons. The average American moves every five years: you move away from your childhood friends, your parents and your siblings, whereas in traditional societies there is much less movement so you spend your life surrounded by your childhood friends and family.

How does this book relate to your previous book Guns, Germs and Steel, in which you tried to account for the emergence of European civilisation?
We in the European world behave differently from people in traditional societies not because we’re different people but because we inherited cows, sheep, goats, pig, horses. We combine all the stuff from the Fertile Crescent that has all these consequences.

But the fact that we inherited all this different stuff doesn’t mean we also inherited better ways of bringing up children, better ways of dealing with older people, better ways of dealing with disputes – we didn’t.

Do you enjoy writing for a non-academic audience?
Some academics find it difficult but I enjoy writing things and I enjoy explaining things. I think it came, first of all, from my mother, who was a schoolteacher. She loved explaining things to me.

The other thing is that I have a younger sister, so growing up I was constantly in a position of explaining things to her. It’s in the course of explaining something that I come to understand it.

Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies” is published by Allen Lane (£25)

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel