Wade Davis – Loss of Language and Cultural Diversity
“If we accept that we are all cut from the same genetic cloth, all cultures share the same genius. And whether that genius is placed into technological wizardry which has been our great achievement, or, by contrast, placed into the unraveling of complex threads of memory inherent in a myth is simply a matter of choice.” –Wade Davis, 2011
Transcript by Thorsten Pattberg
This is a transcript from the ABC Radio National Breakfast Show with Fran Kelly. It was broadcast on Sept 8, 2011. Here to the Youtube Video; here to Download audio. © ABC Radio National, Australia. This interview with Wade Davis is valuable in so many ways, I think, to scholars and students of Cultures, Languages, and Literature.
Fran Kelly: Now to a man with one of the world’s dream jobs. His business card for National Geographic describes him as ‘explorer in residence,’ I love it. For the past 30 years Canadian botanist, writer, photographer and filmmaker Wade Davis has lived with and documented indigenous communities from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Mali to Mongolia. He’s in Australia to deliver the 2011 Thomas Foundation Conservation Oration tonight in Sydney, and he is in our breakfast studio right now. Wade Davis, Welcome to Australia!
Wade Davis: Hello Fran, Thank you!
FK: Your business card says ‘explorer in residence,’ what does that mean?
WD: Well, it sounds like an oxymoron; it’s sinecure. But, you know, actually we are rarely in residence. The Geographic when it went into its second century sort of decided that not just to tell you about the world; it’s mission be to help you save the world, so they kind of embraced conservation, and they recruited seven people around the world to personify that mission. Jane Goodall – primatologist; Robert Ballard who found the Titanic; and I was just lucky to be selected as a social anthropologist.
FK: And very lucky indeed to have the gig because your simple personal philosophy is: follow the heart, never compromise; do the thing that fills you most with fear; risk discomfort for understanding. You know, not everyone gets to do that when you got kids to feed and…
WD: [laughs] Where did you get that? No, I am very lucky because my mission is to celebrate the wonders of the human legacy. You know, it is interesting that I am over here for the National Conservancy which has only operated in Australia for a decade; but in North America it’s probably the most important force in conservation and the fact that I am here shows that the National Conservancy also realizes that the plight of biological diversity is also paralleled by the plight of cultural diversity. It’s interesting because no biologist would suggest that half the species in the world are at the brink of extinction: it is not true; and yet from the linguists we learn that, literally, of the 7000 languages that were spoken the day you were born, Fran, half are being taught to children, which means we are living through a time where half of humanities knowledge bases being eroded rapidly, you know, within a generation or two. And our position at Geographic is that that doesn’t have to happen.
FK: When you say “half the world’s knowledge bases,” with half of the 7000 languages disappearing, does that equate to, though? It’s quite… it does not have quite the devastating impact as if half of the world’s species disappeared.
WD: Well, you know it’s like comparing apples and oranges on some level. But remember that language isn’t just grammar and vocabulary – it’s sort of a flash of the human spirit; it’s the way that the soul and knowledge of a culture comes to the material world. I always say that every language is like an oracle (?) forced off the mind. You know, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual and psychological possibilities. So, to loose a language is really something of to loose ourselves. And one of the incredible things that has come out of science, I think in the last twenty years, is that geneticists have proven it to be true what philosophers always asked for or had hoped: we are really all brothers and sisters. And I don’t mean that in the spirit of hippy-ography, we came from the same DNA. Race has been exposed as a total fiction; the human genetic endowment is one continuum. We are all descendants of a handful of people who’ve walked out of Africa 65,000 years ago, and in 2,500 generations settled the whole world. But if we accept that we are all cut from the same genetic cloth, all cultures share the same genius. And whether that genius is placed into technological wizardry which has been our great achievement, or, by contrast, placed into the unraveling of complex threads of memory inherent in a myth is simply a matter of choice. So that old Victorian idea that there was a ladder of success that plunked Victorian England at the top of the pyramids and, you know, right down on the sides is the primitive world, has been dismissed by anthropology as much an artifact of the 19th century as the idea that the world was only 6,000 years old.
FK: But as you said it is a continuum, and as we emerged from the same DNA and continued and split off as you just described… is part of the continuum perhaps that we don’t need all those languages anymore… is that just part of the evolution, rather than the destruction?
WD: You see that sort of touches on this idea that the disciplines of these cultures are something naturalist, that they are failed attempts to be modern, failed attempts to be like us; nothing could be further from the truth; in every case these are dynamic living people’s being impacted by identifiable forces. You know that is actually an optimistic observation, because it is just about human beings, the agents of cultural destruction, we can be the facilitators of cultural survival. Those forces can be biological, diseases still, they can be sort of industrial decision, or they can be sort of triumph of ideology, whether Marxist-Leninist model of Beijing planked out upon the Tibetans, or the kind of cult of modernity in which we sort of spread our notion of the world through parts of the world that have had other ways of being.
FK: But if everyone’s culture, everyone’s lifestyle, everyone’s belief-system are equally valid, are equal, and I think that is the premise, let’s hear a specific example. We hear a lot of people talking about the rain forests You say there are traces there of a true lost civilization – The people of the Anaconda. It’s a complex of cultures there inspired by their mythical ancestors who even today still dictate how humans must live in the forest. But in the borderings of London or New York, that’s not going to save the Amazon rain forest. No one in corporate America or Europe is listening to the Amazon ancestors.
WD: No, but on the other hand the fascinating thing is it’s not an old tradition versus the modern, but what kind of world do we want to live in. Do we want to live where the voices of those extraordinary people are silenced, or do we want to live in a world where the Amazon no longer exists? It’s not an either or situation. And what is fascinating about those societies is they actually tell us how you can live in that forest with great concentrations of population.
FK: It’s an amazing thought, after an amazing life. Thank you very much!
Wade Davis is a Canadian anthropologist, ethnographer, filmmaker and photographer. He is an Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society and author of fifteen books.