Derbyshire, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)
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? …