I never studied Anthropology. I wish I had. I think I could have learned a lot. I think it would encourage humility. I think a study of anthropology would relieve one of a sense of superiority. For example, the feelings of superiority that westerners brought to the “New World” are truly breathtaking.
One person who knows intimately how unfair and how unjustified these feelings of superiority are is Wade Davis, perhaps Canada’s premier Anthropologist. In June of, 2015 he delivered the Milton K. Wong lecture at the University of British Columbia. The name of the lecture was “Catalogues of Culture.” Part of his talk was aired on CBC radio’s Ideas, my favorite radio show on my favorite radio station. It aired September 22, 2015. It was fantastic.
Davis was an anthropologist, ethno botanist, and an author of 17 books, one of which I have read, The Wayfarers. He talked of being an anthropologist who tried to discover as much of the diversity of human culture as possible. In doing that he came to realize the immense loss that we would experience if we permitted the continued obliteration of cultures around the world. For centuries we in the west have been doing exactly that out of a horribly misguided sense of our superiority that has no justification at all when the evidence is examined and myths scrutinized.
A basic question that Davis asked was ‘what kind of world do we want to live in’? Do we want to live in a world of monochromatic monotony or polychromatic diversity? The answer was obvious. Who would choose differently? That was why Davis had so much respect for a wide variety of cultures. We have a lot to learn from them, but learning is difficult if our minds are chained by prejudice and self-serving misguided beliefs in our own cultural superiority.
As Davis pointed out, one of the great benefits of travel is to live among those people who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel truth in the path in the wind, feel it in the stones polished by rain, and the taste of the bitter leaves of plants. He said he was comforted by the knowledge that the Shamans of the Amazon still journey beyond the Milky Way, that to the people of the high Arctic the myths of the elders still resonate with meaning, and that in the Himalaya the priests still pursue the breath of the Dharma.
According to Davis, a key insight of modern anthropology is that the world in which each of us was born is just one model of reality and there are many such realities. As Davis said, “the social central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.”
Anthropologists study people around the world. And there is an incredible variety of people around the world. Davis realized what many anthropologists have learned, that “all these peoples teach us that there are other options, other possibilities, other ways of thinking and interacting with the world. This is an idea that can only fill us with hope.” That is the same insight that travelers around the world have come to realize; tourists seldom understand that. It is for that reason that Paul Theroux was right when he said, “Travellers don’ t know where they are going, tourists don’t know where they have been.”
Our world in which we were born is just the result of a particular set of adaptive responses that our cultural lineage made however successfully many generations ago. Any claims we might want to assert to cultural supremacy are but “worthless foam from the mouth” to borrow the words of Bob Dylan. If we forget that we we lose the world.
Whether it is a voodoo acolyte in Haiti, a yak herder in Nepal, or an eagle hunter in Central Pakistan, or a thunder hoof shaman of Mongolia, all of these people teach us that there are other waysof thinking other ways of being, other ways of orienting yourselves culturally, in social, spiritual, ecological space. That is an idea that if you think about it can fill you only with hope.
From this insight made Davis concluded, “together the myriad of cultures of the world make up a web of social life that envelopes the planet and is as important to the well-being of the planet as the biological web of life that you know so well as the biosphere.” He called this the ethnosphere. He believed it was just as important as the biosphere.