What does it mean to be human and alive?
This is the fundamental question posed by renowned Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis in his January 13, 2010, SALT lecture, “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.” There are some people, I think, who find themselves satisfied with merely knowing that they are sentient beings–“Cogito, ergo sum,” and this is quite sufficient explanation. For these individuals, the power of rational thought is indeed enough to illustrate their humanity, their aliveness, if you will. Wade Davis, on the other hand, demonstrates that the answer to the above query is not just found in the universality of the functioning of the human conscience. Rather, what defines our species more than simply biology and/or psychology alone is the cultural organizing principle he terms “the ethnosphere.”
According to Davis, the ethnosphere is “the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, ideas and myths, intuitions and inspirations, brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness.” In the course of his ethnographic fieldwork among communities of “the Other”–that is, non-Western cultural identities and indigenous groups–Davis has observed and participated in the practical application of these components of the ethnosphere. Studying the Vodoun acolytes in Haiti, the yak herders on the slopes of Qomolangma, the eagle hunters of central Asia and the thunder hoof shaman of Mongolia, among others, Davis has found that in the very existence of these diverse cultures is the qualitative evidence of our shared humanity. In terms of the “web of human culture,” such diversity must be seen as the commonality of humankind; we think (differently) and yet we are (the same).
As it so happens from his decades of professional and personal experiences of and within the ethnosphere, Davis has been able to articulate these principles with great logical certitude. For instance, in reference to the aforementioned cultural groups, Davis says, “All of these people teach us that there are other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of orienting yourself and social and spiritual and ecological space, and that’s an idea of course [that] can only fill us with hope.” I find myself agreeing with much of what Davis offers in regards to the destruction of cultural identities–he notes that genocide is the extermination of a people while ethnicide is the extermination of a way of life–because by no means does cultural change signal the total loss of a culture. Behind the centrality of sacred tradition, of how the ancestors did things, in cultures’ myths and practices, there exists a certain dynamism that characterizes ancient cultures in the modern world. “All cultures are dancing with new possibilities for life,” he says. “And that’s actually an optimistic observation because it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction we can be the facilitators of cultural survival….Culture is the glue of civilization.”
Culture in Peril encourages readers to ponder what Wade Davis means when he insists that humans can be the “facilitators of cultural survival.” How can each individual contribute to the preservation (read: perpetuation) of our species’ shared cultural heritage? Alternatively, how can each individual NOT contribute to its demise?
[Video and a transcript of the lecture can be found here. It is definitely worth watching though for the stunning photography from his years of fieldwork.]