Anthropologist Wade Davis can be heard on two podcasts with similar, but complementary, lectures on the same subject. While we enter the era of a globalized world and have global problems such as climate change and receding bio-diversity, we tend to think this only hits the eco-sphere, but there is also the ethno-sphere, as Davis calls it, and therein we observe a similar and connected problem: the impending disappearance of languages and cultures. Just as with disappearing species we must ask the complicated question whether it is bad if languages and cultures disappear.
On his talk at TVO's Big Ideas, Davis gives more examples of exotic fading cultures, yet in his speech at SALT (Seminars About Longterm Thinking aka The Long Now podcast) he arrives at the general thought and the bottom-line of his view on the issue. Both lectures are extracted from a series that was broadcast as the Massey Lectures at CBC and as podcast available until December 4th, 2009. It resulted in a book: The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. This is also the title of Wade Davis's lecture at Big Ideas as well as Wade Davis's lecture at The Long Now.
Davis repeatedly says at SALT: Our world is a model of reality. And when he speaks of those small communities and tribes whose languages and cultures are disappearing: Those people are not failed attempts at being us, they are a unique answer to the fundamental question what does it mean to be human and alive. It is important not to take them as savages or as people living in the past, but as real, full fledged human beings who chose to live this way and find here a good life. And when their way of life disappears, a real and sincere version of humanness disappears. It will first of all leave our world poorer, less diverse, but ultimately, possibly, less resilient, less vital.
It is hard to wrap your mind around this issue. And it is hard not to get carried away with the noble savage romantics when you hear the sample stories. I would give you this challenge: listen without judgment. And then wonder about our history. Countless cultures have gone lost. We must have been diversifying, unifying and living and dying forever. If we cannot forcibly preserve what is already moribund, what can we do to keep variation going?
I find it an immensely demanding mind set. And I have experienced this struggle also when listening to other anthropology podcasts. When Tara Carter spoke of the Bambuti people in the Congo, who are hunter gatherers today and seem to love their life and surely seem to have a good life. When James Scott explained why civilizations can't climb hills, which showed how people live in the hills and mountains by choice (and not in the allegedly civilized plains and cities) and how throughout history there has been a migration in both directions. This seems to say that there is no such thing as a progress in human history but rather a varied menu of human conditions existing simultaneously and serving as an object of existential choice for man.
Allowing to appreciate the diversity and allocating value to cultures that are radically different requires a mental distance from one's own culture. In order to see the values of that which is utterly outlandish one must leave for a moment the most fundamental values of one's own culture, which is paramount to thinking without thinking, or being without identity, since we are fully defined within our own cultures. And yet, somehow, sometimes we manage to do this.
More Big Ideas:
Waiting for Godot,
Religion as culture - Camille Paglia,
Christopher Hitchens on the Ten Commandments,
Lawrence Freedman - Big Ideas.
More The Long Now:
The Long Now podcast,
Ran Levi about The Long Now.