In an era of global interconnectedness, what is the nature of cross-cultural exchange?
"If you look at the world through a multicultural lens, you realize that that whole idea of exploration is a 19th century concept that has no meaning any more. I think that anthropology actually began in a beautiful way, which was that by studying another culture, albeit the exotic other, you could learn something about your common humanity and about humanity in general. Then it was very quickly co-opted by the ideology of its time and the anthropological lens was used to rationalize distinctions of class and race. Culture came to be seen as a set of frozen moments in time in some imagined evolutionary progression that of course inevitably placed Victorian Europe at the apex and sloped down to the so-called primitives of the world. That idea is now completely irrelevant, but that is not to say that there can be no explorations of spirit and of culture. Rather, all of life is an exploration of new paradigms of thought.
Q: So exploration becomes an intellectual rather than a physical phenomena?
One of the most exciting explorations of our time has come from the realm of genetics. We have literally proven to be true what the philosophers always hoped, which is that we are all connected, all brothers and sisters. Not in the spirit of some hippie cliché, but quite literally: we are cut from the same genetic cloth. We always say Americans are so culturally myopic. Actually, all peoples are. The names of many Indian tribes translate to “the people—” the implication being that everybody else is a savage. And that ethnocentric point of view was what almost all cultures celebrated throughout history. But if you now accept that all populations are descended from this handful of people that walked out of Africa 65,000 years ago, you have to also accept that they all fundamentally share the same raw intellectual capacity, the same genius. How that genius is expressed is simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation. Suddenly you see there is no progression of culture; there is a series of options. It’s not that other peoples are simply failed attempts at being us, or that they’ve missed the train of history by not being like us. No, they are unique answers to a fundamental question—what does it mean to be human? When we stop thinking of ourselves as the paragon of humanity’s potential, it also liberates us from this conceit that we’re on a train to disaster. You realize what we are is just one option, rooted in a relatively shallow past of just 300 years of industrial activity, and that these other peoples offer not some road map to where we should go but a suggestion that there are other ways of living. Those kind of intellectual revelations that are the outcome of intellectual exploration are every bit as valid as discovering a new continent. Exploring how we’re going to all live on this planet—that’s one we all need to be a part of.
Q: We now have instant access to images and voices from around the world. How has that changed the nature of cross-cultural encounters?
Whatever our notion of culture may have been when societies lived as isolates is long gone, and we’re moving towards a world where the issue isn’t modern versus traditional, but just the rights of free people to choose the components of their lives. How can we find a way that people can have access to the benefits of modernity, without that engagement demanding the death of their culture? For one thing, when people lose the conditions and roots of their traditions, it is simply geopolitically unstable. My objection to “the world is flat” theory is that it implies that the world we’re all melting down to is our world. And that’s just not true. It’s going to be a more interconnected world, and its going be a world that will be the consequence of all our own imaginings, but I would not want it to be, and it won’t be, just everybody melting down to being like us. (…)
Q: You’ve written about zombies, witch-doctors, and religion the world over. Where do you see magic in the contemporary world?
It’s not magic so much as metaphor. (…) In the Andes of Peru, a kid really does believe that a mountain is an acting spirit that will direct his destiny. That doesn’t mean he’s living in some la-la-land or fantasy; it means he has a solid sense of the earth being actually what we know it to be—a source of life, a source of food. The most important consequence is not whether the belief is true or not, but how it affects how people treat that mountain. If you think it’s divine you’re not going to blow it up.
Q: You’re advocating a kind of pragmatist environmentalist philosophy.
Exactly. People like to say indigenous people are closer to the earth, like some Rousseauvian ideal. That misses the whole point. I was raised to believe that the forests of British Columbia existed to be cut. That was the foundation of the ideology of what we called scientific forestry. Which was a total construct. It was a slogan; it wasn’t science. Yet we didn’t believe the earth had any resonance to us beyond board-feet cellulose. That is different from a kid from a tribe who had to go into those forests and confront animal spirits to bring back the wisdom to the potlatch. And again, it doesn’t matter whether that forest is the den of demons or just cellulose, that’s not the interesting question. It’s how the belief system affects the ecological footprint of people. So when I talk about magic, it’s really about metaphor. Metaphor is not air, not fluff. People always ask me, do I believe zombies are real? It’s like asking me do I believe Jesus Christ is real. Do I believe there was a guy who walked on water? I probably don’t. Do I believe that this phenomena of Jesus Christ influences behavior on a daily basis? Of course I do! I can’t tell you if there are zombies walking around Haiti but I can tell you that the idea of zombies influences behavior in Haiti. We cling to our rationality. We liberated ourselves from a certain trap and we’re reluctant to go anywhere back towards it. It’s one of the reasons we are all so confused. If you think of the pace of change that people are expected to absorb, and deal with it’s pretty daunting.”
— Wade Davis, Canadian anthropologist, ethnobotanist, "If You Think Something Is Divine, You’re Not Going To Blow It Up", The European, 07.03.2011 (Illustration source)