Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
March 8, 2010 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World from Wade Davis, Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist.
posted by RussHy (19 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
He also wrote studied zombies and wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow
posted by joelf at 1:29 PM on March 8, 2010

That's quite a pretty song at the beginning.
posted by empath at 2:13 PM on March 8, 2010

This is one of the "short films" from the "Long Now" Foundation. The film lasts one hour and fifty minutes. I'm not enlightened enough to call that short, I guess.
posted by kozad at 2:37 PM on March 8, 2010

Anyone have a transcript? Watching a two hour video clip to get the data I could read in far less than 30 minutes doesn't seem like a good way to spend my time.

I'll also admit that I'm pretty skeptical about what wisdom the "ancients" may have possessed, which gives me even less enthusiasm for watching two hours of video.
posted by sotonohito at 2:42 PM on March 8, 2010

I posted it because he managed to keep my attention for 2 hours without annoying me -- something that is increasingly hard to do. I think it's best of the Web or I wouldn't have posted it.
posted by RussHy at 2:52 PM on March 8, 2010

Is it possible to download this video anywhere? Flash doesn't play nice with Mac/Chrome/Firefox
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 3:01 PM on March 8, 2010

Gozer the Traveler. He will come in one of the pre-chosen forms. During the rectification of the Vuldrini, the traveler came as a large and moving Torg! Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the McKetrick supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!
goes off to actually read article
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:10 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I like Wade Davis a lot, he inspired me to pursue anthropology. I read his book "The Serpent and the Rainbow" (I highly recommend it) and then I found out there was a "The Serpent and the Rainbow" movie.

So I watched the movie...

[dramatic reveal, the user 'fuq' steps out of the shadows to reveal he's a mummy with his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth crudely stitched shut. He throws a snake at you!]

posted by fuq at 4:30 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll also admit that I'm pretty skeptical about what wisdom the "ancients" may have possessed, which gives me even less enthusiasm for watching two hours of video.

This also forms the basis for 2009's Massey Lecture, which was turned into a book.

I haven't read the book, but I did listen to some of the lecture on the radio and can say that you will likely rethink that skepticism if you read/listen too.
posted by Adam_S at 5:06 PM on March 8, 2010

Anyone have a transcript?

It's just a big text dump, but you can get a transcript as a PDF here.
posted by pb at 5:24 PM on March 8, 2010

I heard him speak in Portland back in 2000 and I recall he was talking about some local drug he took in his travels—the effects of which he described as feeling like he was "being shot down the barrel of a rifle, the walls of which was lined with baroque paintings"
posted by blueberry at 6:07 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

We might even find that the ancients knew how to cure scurvy...
posted by autopilot at 6:31 PM on March 8, 2010

Thanks for posting this, RussHy. I love Wade Davis.
posted by thekorruptor at 10:43 PM on March 8, 2010

Thanks so much for posting this. Definitely warrants the 'best of the web' label.
posted by Bartonius at 1:26 AM on March 9, 2010

i went in skeptical of the 'ancient wisdom' part too... but that was a great video. definitely adding Wade Davis to my short list of inspiring writers/speakers.
posted by bilgepump at 8:09 AM on March 9, 2010

Thanks for the transcript pb.

As for the content, I didn't see much in terms of "why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world" in his talk. Yes, cultures that aren't part of our meta-culture are often nifty, and of course they aren't made up of stupid people. But other than the child abuse inherent in the Peruvian priest indoctrination, I didn't see much that had to do with lessons the modern world (by which, I assume, he means people in our meta-culture), needs.

He never said what I think the single most important lesson of cultures outside our meta-culture is: the way we live isn't encoded in our genes. One of the things that always annoys me when talking about the big problems is that someone inevitably says "well, you can't change human nature" as a way of saying "shut up, I don't want to talk about, think about, or otherwise address the problem you've just brought up." We see this put into pseudo-science by the evpsych people.

What cultures outside our meta-culture [1] show us is that the way we live isn't inevitable. That the things that are bad about our culture aren't inevitable. That we can, in fact, change our culture without getting into changing our genes.

I saw nothing in the transcript to make me less wary of the bit about "ancient wisdom". Perhaps that's because I've been through anthropology classes and therefore don't think of the "ancients" as stupid, something I do know many people think, but I didn't see any "ancient wisdom" that was important to us in the transcript.

[1] A cumbersome phrase, but necessary to distinguish the Cori, who fit that description, from the Chinese who are culturally different from the US/European culture but fit into the same meta-cultural classification as we do.
posted by sotonohito at 8:33 AM on March 9, 2010

sotonohito, perhaps you aren't part of the target audience for the talk since you are already not dismissive of others. I agree that people should be wary of "ancient wisdom" so that it is not romanticized. But there is a point that there are many good ideas outside our own culture and we should be actively in search of good ideas. Using psychoactive drugs as an enlightening experience within a culture that values mental exploration is in great contrast to individuals using drugs for recreational purposes within a culture that wages war on them. This latter group could really use some new ideas. Noticing that the glacier is receding and ceasing the ceremonial practice of removing a block of ice is a contemplative step that is in short supply in some societies.
posted by llc at 5:23 PM on March 9, 2010

Davis tells a story of an Inuit making a knife from feces and then a sled from a dog. This story doesn't seem to be of actual events and so I don't know what the point of the story is. The Inuit molds the knife in his hand and so it will be small knife. Even an animal that swallows rodents whole will have feces without much strength. I expect an Inuit would not even have much fiber in his diet and so the feces would be about as strong as compact snow. It is possible to cut something with ice but not by much and the edge surely won't last long butchering a warm dog. A sled made out of a dog's rib cage will be a small sled. What would have been used for the runners ? This isn't a sled that could be used to transport a human so what was the point ? The story doesn't add up in any way for me and it doesn't seem to be a metaphor for anything either.
posted by llc at 5:34 PM on March 9, 2010

I can understand the frustration with Wade Davis. He weaves together stories and anecdotes like an abstract painting. If you're expecting realism then his style can end up feeling like a bunch of brush strokes instead of a complete picture. His big idea is that the sum total of all human cultures makes up an ethnosphere that is similar to our biosphere, and we're losing large swaths of it rapidly as languages die. So he's arguing that ancient wisdom is important to the modern world in the same way that the rain forest or national parks are important to the modern world. He doesn't say culture x does y and if we do y we'll solve [global crisis]. But he does say things like culture x values y and if we valued y a bit more it might point the way to solving [global crisis], therefore let's preserve these ways of seeing the world.

This story doesn't seem to be of actual events and so I don't know what the point of the story is.

I think he was trying to show that different cultures place importance on different things. So it doesn't matter if the Inuit story is true or not, the fact that they're telling it amongst themselves shows that they value the ability to survive in the elements by using what's at hand. It's a different take on living in a harsh environment.
posted by pb at 8:39 AM on March 10, 2010

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