Should we look to traditional societies to help us tweak our lives? Wade Davis takes issue with the whole idea


Anthropology was born of an evolutionary model by which 19th-century men such as Lewis Henry Morgan and Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, envisioned societies as stages in a linear progression of advancement, leading, as they conceived it, from savagery to barbarism to civilisation.

Each of these phases of human development was correlated, in their calculations, with specific technological innovations. Fire, ceramics and the bow and arrow marked the savage. With the domestication of animals, the rise of agriculture and the invention of metalworking, we entered the level of the barbarian. Literacy implied civilisation. Every society, it was assumed, progressed through the same stages, in the same sequence. The cultures of the world came to be seen as a living museum in which individual societies represented evolutionary moments captured and mired in time, each one a stage in the imagined ascent to civilisation. It followed with the certainty of Victorian rectitude that advanced societies had an obligation to assist the backward, to civilise the savage, a moral duty that played well into the needs of empire.

Oddly, it took a physicist to challenge and in time shatter this orthodoxy. Franz Boas, trained in Germany a generation before Einstein, was interested in the optical properties of water, and throughout his doctoral studies his research was plagued by problems of perception, which came to fascinate him. In the eclectic way of the best of 19th-century scholarship, inquiry in one academic field led to another. What was the nature of knowing? Who decided what was to be known? Boas became interested in how seemingly random beliefs and convictions converged into this thing called “culture”, a term that he was the first to promote as an organising principle, a useful point of intellectual departure.Advertisement

Far ahead of his time, Boas believed that every distinct social community, every cluster of people distinguished by language or adaptive inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy and its promise. He became the first scholar to explore in a truly open and neutral manner how human social perceptions are formed, and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. Boas insisted that his students conduct research in the language of place, and participate fully in the daily lives of the people they studied. Every effort should be made to understand the perspective of the other, to learn the way they perceive the world, the very nature of their thoughts. Such an approach demanded, by definition, a willingness to step back from the constraints of one’s own prejudices and preconceptions.

This ethnographic orientation, distilled in the concept of cultural relativism, was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the field of physics. It became the central revelation of modern anthropology. Cultures do not exist in some absolute sense; each is but a model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of intellectual and spiritual choices made, however successfully, many generations before. The goal of the anthropologist is not just to decipher the exotic other, but also to embrace the wonder of distinct and novel cultural possibilities, that we might enrich our understanding of human nature and just possibly liberate ourselves from cultural myopia, the parochial tyranny that has haunted humanity since the birth of memory.

Boas lived to see his ideas inform much of social anthropology, but it wasn’t until more than half a century after his death that modern genetics proved his intuitions to be true. Studies of the human genome leave no doubt that the genetic endowment of humanity is a single continuum. Race is a fiction. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth, all descendants of a relatively small number of individuals who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago and then, on a journey that lasted 40,000 years, some 2,500 generations carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world.Advertisement

It follows, as Boas believed, that all cultures share essentially the same mental acuity, the same raw genius. Whether this intellectual capacity and potential is exercised in stunning works of technological innovation, as has been the great historical achievement of the West, or through the untangling of the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth – a primary concern, for example, of the Aborigines of Australia – is simply a matter of choice and orientation, adaptive insights and cultural priorities. There is no hierarchy of progress in the history of culture, no Social Darwinian ladder to success. The Victorian notion of the savage and the civilised, with European industrial society sitting proudly at the apex of a pyramid of advancement that widens at the base to the so-called primitives of the world, has been thoroughly discredited – indeed, scientifically ridiculed for the racial and colonial notion that it was, as relevant to our lives today as the belief of 19th-century clergymen that the Earth was but 6,000 years old.

The other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us. They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? When asked this question, the cultures of the world respond in 7000 different voices, and these answers collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species as we continue this never-ending journey.It is against this backdrop that one must consider the popular but controversial writings of Jared Diamond, a wide-ranging scholar variously described as biogeographer, evolutionary biologist, psychologist, ornithologist and physiologist. In Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond set out to solve what was for him a conundrum. Why was it that some cultures such as our own rose to technological, economic and political predominance, while others such as the Aborigines of Australia did not? Rejecting notions of race, intelligence, innate biological differences of any kind, he finds his explanation in the environment and geography. Advanced civilisations arose where the environment allowed for plant domestication, leading to the generation of surplus and population growth, which in turn led to political centralisation and social stratification. No surprises there.

In Collapse, Diamond returned to the theme of environmental determinism as he pondered why and how great civilisations come to an end. Evoking the ecological fable of Easter Island, he suggests that cultures fall as people fail to meet the challenges imposed by nature, as they misuse natural resources, and ultimately drift blindly beyond a point of no return.

Again nothing to suggest controversy, save for the shallowness of the arguments, and it is this characteristic of Diamond’s writings that drives anthropologists to distraction. The very premise of Guns, Germs and Steel is that a hierarchy of progress exists in the realm of culture, with measures of success that are exclusively material and technological; the fascinating intellectual challenge is to determine just why the west ended up on top. In the posing of this question, Diamond evokes 19th-century thinking that modern anthropology fundamentally rejects. The triumph of secular materialism may be the conceit of modernity, but it does very little to unveil the essence of culture or to account for its diversity and complexity.Advertisement

Consider Diamond’s discussion of the Australian Aborigines in Guns, Germs and Steel. In accounting for their simple material culture, their failure to develop writing or agriculture, he laudably rejects notions of race, noting that there is no correlation between intelligence and technological prowess. Yet in seeking ecological and climatic explanations for the development of their way of life, he is as certain of their essential primitiveness as were the early European settlers who remained unconvinced that Aborigines were human beings. The thought that the hundreds of distinct tribes of Australia might simply represent different ways of being, embodying the consequences of unique sets of intellectual and spiritual choices, does not seem to have occurred to him.

In truth, as the anthropologist WEH Stanner long appreciated, the visionary realm of the Aborigines represents one of the great experiments in human thought. In place of technological wizardry, they invented a matrix of connectivity, an intricate web of social relations based on more than 100 named kin relationships. If they failed to embrace European notions of progress, it was not because they were savages, as the settlers assumed, but rather because in their intellectual universe, distilled in a devotional philosophy known as the Dreaming, there was no notion of linear progression whatsoever, no idealisation of the possibility or promise of change. There was no concept of past, present, or future. In not one of the hundreds of Aboriginal dialects and languages was there a word for time. The entire purpose of humanity was not to improve anything; it was to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation. Imagine if all of Western intellectual and scientific passion had focused from the beginning of time on keeping the Garden of Eden precisely as it was when Adam and Eve had their fateful conversation.

Clearly, had our species as a whole followed the ways of the Aborigines, we would not have put a man on the moon. But, on the other hand, had the Dreaming become a universal devotion, we would not be contemplating today the consequences of climate change and industrial processes that threaten the life supports of the planet.

❦Jared Diamond’s failure to grasp that cultures reside in the realm of ideas, and are not simply or exclusively the consequences of climatic and environmental imperatives, is perhaps one reason for the limitations of his new book, The World Until Yesterday, in which he sets out to determine what we in the modern world can learn from traditional societies.

He begins by opportunistically selecting nine topics to explore, limiting the scope of his inquiry from the outset. He examines how indigenous peoples raise their children, treat the elderly, resolve conflicts and manage risk. He addresses the benefits of multilingualism and healthy diets. And he devotes two chapters to the dangers inherent in indigenous life, which lead to a chapter on religion, for “our traditional constant search for the causes of danger may have contributed to religion’s origins”. From certain of these topics – child rearing, for example – he distills lessons that might be incorporated into “our personal lives”. The treatment of older people, healthy lifestyles and multilingualism suggests “models for individuals but also policies that our society as a whole could adopt”. The discussion of dispute resolution suggests “policies for our society as a whole”.Advertisement

Diamond is at his best when drawing on his lifetime of fieldwork in New Guinea, home to 1,000 of the world’s languages, where his achievements as a naturalist and scholar have been truly remarkable. Stories of his time among the Dani, his years in the field studying birds, his random encounters whether in airport terminals or the most isolated of communities, are humorous and insightful. His observations in any given moment are invariably original and often wise. Yet the lessons he draws from his sweeping examination of culture are for the most part uninspired and self-evident. One could be forgiven for concluding that traditional societies have little more to teach us save that we should embrace healthier diets, include grandparents in child rearing, learn a second language, seek reconciliation not retribution in divorce proceedings, and eat less salt.

Simply put, when it comes to culture, Diamond is on unsteady ground. In The World Until Yesterday he makes reference to 39 indigenous societies, 10 of which are from New Guinea, seven from Australia, and the remainder scattered about the world. Diamond makes no claims to be an ethnographer, and most of his conclusions and observations are drawn from his experience with Dani porters who assisted him during his New Guinea bird studies. His personal experience of indigenous peoples outside of New Guinea is limited, as apparently is his knowledge of the anthropological literature; the bibliography of The World Until Yesterday is meagre. A book of great promise reads as a compendium of the obvious, ethnology by anecdote.

Traditional societies do not exist to help us tweak our lives as we emulate a few of their cultural practices. They remind us that our way is not the only way. A child raised in the Andes to believe that a mountain is a protective deity will have a relationship with the natural world profoundly different from that of a youth brought up in America to believe a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined. The mythology of the Barasana and Makuna people is in every way a land management plan revealing how human beings once thrived in the Amazon rain forest in their millions. Take all the genius that enabled us to put a man on the moon and apply it to an understanding of the ocean, and what you get is Polynesia. Tibetan Buddhism condenses 2,500 years of direct empirical observation as to the nature of mind. A lama once remarked that Tibetans do not believe that Americans went to the moon, but they did. Americans may not believe, he added, that Tibetans can achieve enlightenment in one lifetime, but they do.

The voices of traditional societies ultimately matter because they can still remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual and ecological space. This is not to suggest naively that we abandon everything and attempt to mimic the ways of non-industrial societies, or that any culture be asked to forfeit its right to benefit from the genius of technology. It is rather to draw inspiration and comfort from the fact that the path we have taken is not the only one available, that our destiny therefore is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say that we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet. This is a sentiment that Jared Diamond, a deeply humane and committed conservationist, would surely endorse.Advertisement

• Wade Davis’s Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction last year.

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