Friday, January 11, 2013

Traditional Societies

Not having much time lately for blog writing, I've just been sharing as much as I have time to read via my Facebook and Twitter pages. But this article had too many great things to pull out of it not to put them on my blog.

The article "The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond - Review" is a review by Wade Davis of Diamond's new book. But it is also a great article on Anthropology. As the article is somewhat long, I've pasted some excellent parts of it below (but I encourage you to click over and read the entire thing!)


Wade begins by giving a short historical background on anthropological thinking in the early part of the last century. One of these theories, that of cultural evolution, envisioned "societies as stages in a linear progression of advancement, leading, as they conceived it, from from savagery to barbarism to civilisation." Or, that there was an evolution that all societies went through, advancing over time from savage to civilized in the same sequence, and clearly the civilized peoples were the ideal goal.


Franz Boas was the first to posit that cultural variation is produced by diverse mechanisms and "that all cultures share essentially the same mental acuity."

From the article:
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.

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.

Franz Boas
In his reflection on Diamond's works, Wade writes:
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.

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.

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. 

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.

Jared Diamond
And if you're super into Anthropological theory, read through the comments on the article and jump in on the arguments about whether this is a fair review of Diamond, or if IQ can measure intelligence in every culture. 

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