Wade Davis on What it Means to be Human and Alive

Photo credit: Ryan Hill

Wade Davis might have the most amazing job on the planet. Trained as an anthropologist and ethnobotonist, he's lived among some of the most remarkable cultures of the world and been witness to (and participant in) many moments that no outsider has ever seen. Davis has written scores of books, but is probably best known for The Serpent and the Rainbow, a riveting account of his journey into Haitian voodoo culture to find the zombie potion. He talks with TreeHugger Radio about the essential importance of cultural diversity, and what each culture brings to "the table of human knowledge." He also discusses his newest book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, lends his thoughts to the questions of "appropriate technology" and microfinance (they won't save the world), and comes clean about the fact that he hasn't seen Avatar.

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Full text after the jump.

Music from My Brightest DiamondTreeHugger: So why should those of us in modern society care about indigenous cultures?

Wade Davis: This is the classic question: why should it matter to me in New York if some tribe in Africa disappears? And probably the answer is that it doesn't matter to you in New York if that tribe disappears in Africa. But what does it matter to that tribe in Africa if New York disappears? Probably nothing. But wouldn't the world be a more impoverished place were either event to occur?

But more seriously, why we should care is because these other peoples are not failed attempts at being us. They're not failed attempts to keep up with the pace of history. They're not failed attempts to be modern. On the contrary, they are, by definition, unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that question, they do so in at least 7,000 different voices, and those voices become our collective repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us as a species in the ensuing millennia.

If I sit back, in my lifetime, what are the two great revelations of science? Well, one surely was the moment on Christmas Eve when Apollo went around the dark side of the moon to emerge with a vision, not of a sunrise or a moon-rise, but of an Earth-rise, and the realization that we are, in fact, a finite planet, floating, as the astronauts said, in the velvet void of space. That sparked a paradigm shift that I think people will be talking about for the rest of history.

The other great revelation that's occurred in my lifetime has been a result of another journey of epic proportions, but a journey into the very fiber of our beings. And this is the miracle that has come to us from genetics, where population geneticists, through the story of the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA, have been able to prove, without doubt whatsoever, that the human genetic endowment is a single continuum.

Race is an utter fiction, we are all cut from the same genetic cloth, we are all, in fact, descendants of a relatively small number of ancestors who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago and, on this epic journey that lasted 40,000 years, carried the human spirit and imagination, over the course of 2,500 generations, to every habitable corner of the Earth.

The great corollary of that genetic revelation, in terms of social anthropology, is that if we accept that we're all cut from the same genetic cloth, it means by definition we all fundamentally share the same kind of raw human genius. And that brilliance and potential is made manifest through technological wizardry and innovation--which has been the great achievement of the West--or, by contrast, invested into unraveling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth, or understanding nuances about the relationship between human beings and the spirit world. All of those things are simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation.

In other words, there is no ladder to success. That old Victorian 19th-century idea that you could somehow see cultures as sort of stage sets, freeze-frames of some kind of evolutionary sequence inspired by social-Darwinian thinking that invariably placed Victorian England at the apex of the pyramid that swept down its flanks to the so-called primitives of the world, has been exposed as much a kind of conceit of the 19th century as the idea of clergymen in that era that the Earth was only 6,000 years old.

In other words, all these peoples of the world represent unique answers to this fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And all of those peoples have something to say to that question, and all deserve a place at the table of human knowledge. That's why it should matter to us that half of those voices, therefore half of that knowledge, therefore half of all of humanity's intellectual, spiritual, and philosophical legacy, is literally being swept away in less than a generation.

TreeHugger: And replaced with something that is all too familiar to most of us. If outer-space anthropologists came down and looked at the dominant cultural forces on our planet, what do you think would leap out.

Davis: I never to try to suggest that our culture is bad and, in some sort of Rousseauian way, these other peoples are good. On the contrary, we all represent different options. We all bring wonderful gifts to the table of human knowledge. I mean, anyone who doesn't want to accept the genius of modern allopathic medicine should ask themselves where they would like to be taken if they ripped off an arm in a car accident: to an herbalist or to an emergency room?

What we have done in the West is brilliant. But I would suggest that it's not the paragon of human potential. If that Martian anthropologist (he, she, or it) came down to Earth and looked at, say, American society, they'd see many wondrous things. And if the measure of success was technological sophistication, surely we'd come out at the head of the pack. But on the other hand, if they looked at, say, our social structure, they may raise their eyebrows.

Here we are, a people who celebrates marriage but allows half our marriages to end in divorce. We say that we love our grandparents but only six percent of our homes have grandparents and grandchildren beneath the same roof. We say we love our kids but we embrace this weird slogan, "24/7," implying total dedication to the workforce at the expense of family. And then we wonder why the average American kid has spent two or three years passively watching television before their 18th birthday.

Add to that an economic means of production (which is incidentally just one option amongst many) that by any scientific definition has had an incredibly severe impact on the life-support systems of the planet. We have literally emptied the seas of fish. We have torn down the ancient forests. And if the climatologists are correct in their consensus, we are literally changing the life-support systems of the planet.

"Extreme" would be one word for a civilization that does that. And you take something like climate change--people think of it as humanity's problem. And it has become humanity's dilemma. But it's important to recall that humanity didn't cause that problem. A very narrow subset of humanity, our particular industrial tradition, did so.

I spend much of my time traveling amongst people who made no contribution to that phenomenon whatsoever, but are seeing and living the consequences of it every day and, indeed, through ritual, are doing their best to mitigate its impact on the Earth.

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