Bruce Parry: BBC Documentary Film Maker and Author
Daniel Everett: Anthropologist and Author
Sarah Chan: Bioethicist
Janet Radcliffe-Richards: Oxford Professor of Practical Philosophy, Author
Chair: Sean Curran: BBC Editor
The debate took place earlier this year at How the Light Gets In, a philosophy festival in Hay on Wye that ran from 22nd May to 1st June. I have been meaning to write it up, but have been so busy these last months that it was delayed. We happened upon the talk by chance and were delighted to see that Explorer and Author Bruce Parry had joined the panel.
‘Thomas Hobbes believed life before civilisation was ‘nasty, brutish and short’ but from diets to lifestyles, some anthropologists think otherwise.’
The debate asked whether we should look to modern hunter-gatherers for lessons on how to live our own lives. Do they have a better grasp on life? Is this a romantic delusion? What has ‘civilisation’ done for our societies?
The debate was one of the most thought-provoking and interesting discussions I have heard in a long time. There was a definite tension between the views of both Bruce and Daniel and those of the philosopher Janet Radcliffe-Richards as is clear from the transcript below (although that tension was clearly projected from one direction). Both Bruce and Daniel spoke eloquently and movingly about their experiences and the audience was clearly transfixed. I had heard neither speak before and I have to say that I could have listened to them for hours. Their views were neither romantic nor simplistic and both stressed the need to remember that tribes differ greatly. Both men felt there were definite lessons to be learnt from their time spent with modern hunter-gatherers and both had changed profoundly from their experiences. A fascinating and very moving debate; it made a big impact on me. I hope you enjoy it too.
Each of the panellists gave a brief statement about their position on the subject before starting the debate. At the end of the debate there was time for a few questions from the audience.
Daniel has spent over 35 years living and working amongst modern hunter-gatherer tribes, including 8 years with the Pirahã tribe in the Amazonian Basin. His life has been ‘transformed’ by these people but he stressed that it was important not to think of them as ‘original humans’ as we can never fully know the conditions that our prehistoric ancestors faced. They are instead modern societies. However, in his search for options on how to live life, the hunter-gatherers that he had worked with were happier, smiled more and held an outlook on life that he had not seen elsewhere. He described the tribe as ‘happy societies of intimates’ that know each other (as opposed to modern ‘societies of strangers’) and this affects how people relate and talk to each other that has lessons for us all. Although Daniel did not believe that they are ‘noble savages’, these people do help us to understand our place within the world and how we should live as human beings in complex societies.
Sarah noted that philosophers all through the ages have studied the issue of wellbeing and asked the questions ‘What is the Good Life and how can we obtain it?’ Is technology conducive to a good life? Although not all technology makes our life better, much of it can and does. We shouldn’t presume that rejecting technology will necessarily make our lives better. Sarah stressed that there is a ‘fetishisation’ of the natural which is irrational but agreed that not all products of human invention are necessarily good for us – even if they started out that way. Technological inventions often come with their own concerns such as pollution, sustainability etc. but just imagine a life without modern medicine, transport, electricity, clean water etc. This doesn’t mean that there are not useful lessons to be learnt from societies that are very different from our own but these need to be evaluated critically with our eyes open, rather than assume they are better for us as a movement away from the idea of technological progress.
Bruce has spent time with many different hunter-gatherer tribes around the world and as Daniel stated, this had changed his life profoundly and very much for the better. He is especially interested in studying pre-agricultural societies and believes the dawn of agriculture is a fascinating time in human history.
Bruce then talked about the specific issues that interest him. He is concerned with issues of identity and how they have transitioned from the group and the family to the individual, technological (avatars) and media identities and the loss that this has brought about. Also issues of ownership and the transition from a ‘loose’, group, shared ownership towards a much more individualised notion of ownership. A shared, gift economy has also moved towards one in which those who do the least are rewarded the most. There is usually communal child-rearing (paternal and maternal) and a strong family unit in comparison to much of our society. There is also very little addiction or addictive traits in hunter-gatherer groups. Emotions are shared and expressed with no repression (and the behaviour patterns this induces). Although not able to access the medical care that we enjoy, such societies use plant-based drugs to cure aspects of their being and Bruce’s experience with these have had profound positive effects upon his life. Regarding gender, Bruce stated that we currently live in a patriarchal society but this needs to be questioned. Finally Bruce added that he was brought up to look at Animism as a backward way of looking at the world, when in fact it is now cutting-edge. Looking at the world as as anima and full of meaning is a belief that should be reintroduced to our thought patterns. Hunter-gatherers live in the present (obviously in order to hunt) but perhaps they have a very different way of using their minds, in ways that bring them a perspective of reality that is hard for us to understand. These different ways of seeing the world may be very valuable to us.
Janet argued that humans always look back at ‘better state of things’ before something came along and ruined it, with a sentimental view of the countryside and the past which is echoed in stories such as the myth of the fall. There is an idea that things that come later – the civilizing, intellectual things – must automatically be at fault, The idea of the noble savage comes from the idea that all our advances have corrupted things. Janet stressed that she is interested in what we can do now. We cannot go and live in groups of 250 in the jungle as there are too many of us. She added that even if there are some advantages, she wouldn’t want to go and live in a hut in Borneo without dentistry.
SC: This ‘romanticisation’ of the ‘noble savage’ is certainly not a new idea.
Bruce agreed that there is a tendency to romanticise tribal societies i.e. Rousseau, and acknowledged the many different theories of why this is so. For instance, this is echoed in a longing to return to childhood.
‘The rise of agriculture is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon as we have lived as hunter gatherers for the vast majority of our time on earth. Although we think of hunter gatherers as looking back they are in fact rather modern.’
Before agriculture, we experienced our world and our place in nature in a completely different way. It is this connection to nature and to something greater than ourselves that makes us feel as if we have lost something.
SC: Jared Diamond’s new book ‘The World Before Yesterday’ looks at this issue. Is there anything new about the way we view hunter gatherers?
Daniel stressed that although it is new research, it makes essentially the same points that we have forgotten the good life and replaced it with our neuroses. However, this point cannot be completely discounted. Some tribes have no concept of suicide or depression and although they worry about a few things, but certainly not as much as we do. However, this may not apply to a group living 5 miles away with very different values as they may have other concerns etc. The biggest lesson is diversity. The bigger the difference in people, the more we learn. This is why we can learn much from these people.
Sarah added that diversity is good and it is important to realise how big the world is through inventions such as the internet but that it relies on us being able to travel and experience different cultures. If we all lived in these communities we would lose that diversity.
SC: Is this longing was for a real past, or a romanticised version of the past?
Janet stated that it was a worry that people made too much of an inference between where we are now and primitive societies. She stressed the reliance on a romanticised version of events and that the idea that there is an ideal way of living is false. In fact whatever situation one is living in, there will always be the dream of better things. Janet asked Daniel and Bruce if they found this with the tribes they had encountered.
Daniel replied that the Pirahã showed no desire for technology but where other tribes have, this has caused unhappiness. Not because the technology in itself brings unhappiness but because they have learned to rely on something that they do not have the economics to support. So the Pirahã’s rejection of technology has made them happier because in their minds, the adoption of technology has not resulted in them becoming ‘poor’. They do not have a concept of ‘poverty’.
Bruce agreed that exposure to technology promoted insecurity. They initially rush to it – especially the children – but within one generation things change. They realise afterwards that they haven’t got the means to support themselves and have to go to the city to work. On a Polynesian island that he visited, there was one boat a year to the mainland and when members of the tribe did leave the island, they realised that what they had was special. That is very telling – when these groups experience our society they appreciate what they have at home.
SC: What can we realistically learn from these people?
Daniel replied that firstly, personal self-sufficiency and confidence in their own ability is very important. They regularly undergo fasting in order to keep their bodies ‘hard’ and this discipline made them more efficient hunters. The main thing is openness to emotions as Bruce said; the ability to express themselves without inhibitions and to talk about things without euphemisms. Also, to know how everyone else is doing and to take a responsibility not just for one’s self but for neighbours and fellow people.
SC: How we can actually achieve this – it sounds as if we need to remake ourselves?
Daniel replied that it is not just about living simply. Look at our friends – what responsibility do we take for them? Our lifestyles today allow us more time to care for others but how much of this do we take? How do we interact socially?
Daniel stressed that the only reason the panel was able to sit talking was that farmers have produced food so that we have freedom from farming and hunting and gathering. Although he enjoyed his time spent with hunter gatherers, he still enjoyed coming out of the society and going home. However, this does not negate the lessons that he learned and how he can apply them in his life. The experience of this is transformative even if the time spent with them is short. It was important to experience the world in a completely different way, including the hardships. The lessons do not depend on us becoming hunter gatherers.
Bruce added that he has chosen to change the way he lives as a response to his experience with hunter-gatherers. There is a realisation that choices made in this complex society have a detrimental effect on these people, on the environment, the air, the water. As he has made these changes – foregoing many ‘luxuries’ and reducing his footprint – Bruce noticed he became happier and that was a shock.
Sarah noted that the issue is quite complex. Our freedom to pursue our own version of the good life is what is important.
Janet warned against looking for some sort of ‘design’ in the world to make people ‘happy’. This is a problem. She asked about the tensions in hunter-gatherer societies i.e. psychological. Daniel talked about a tribe in Brazil where there are problems with suicide (using poison). Daniel told a story to the Pirahã about his step-mother who committed suicide. He thought that it would be a very meaningful story for them but when he finished, they burst out laughing. They thought that he was making it up as they could not believe that people killed themselves – it was the silliest thing they had heard. Although they all kill very effectively, they could not understand why people would kill each other (after watching a clip from a movie). Ostracism is a form of punishment for those who break tribal rules.
Daniel added that it is not just about the way these people live, but how they organise their knowledge and their personal values. They have a have a completely different philosophy. The Pirahã learned how to predict his behaviour even before he was able to. They ask questions all the time.
Sarah mentioned the idea that we are designed for a different age and the current tendency to explain our choices in terms of our evolutionary history. For instance, in relation to the Paleo diet or the idea (‘monkeysphere’) that we evolved to live in societies no bigger than around 30-50 individuals and so our moral compass has difficulty in making decisions based on larger numbers than this. She warned about the danger in making decisions based on scientific interpretations about why we lived the way we lived, as opposed to how we should live.
Bruce then talked about groups that had been on the verge of changing and that had employed people to destroy the forest around them (a tribe in Brazil). However, suddenly they had a ‘wake-up call’ and stopped. It’s not to say that they do not want comfort and luxury in their lives, but they realised that in order to change the price was not worth it and that there would be no security for their children’s future. That is a trend that he sees again and again.
Daniel added that such transitions are too abrupt – any transition needs to be slow and evolve naturally. When societies change very quickly, it rarely works out.
Janet argued that we should not presume we are designed for happiness. Can we really have Animism alongside modern scientific education? If you are having to choose between them, it presents a dilemma. Bruce argued that there is a convergence. The subjectivity of us actually being a part of what we are observing is an accepted idea and this happens on both a small and large level. He does not see animism as mutually exclusive to scientific explanation. Janet argued that this is an ‘expressionistic view.’
Bruce asked whether happiness is not something that one pursues but that occurs as a result of other choices.
Sarah noted that happiness was tied to consumerism in our society. The promotion of unhappinesss if we do not buy ‘stuff’ is used as a marketing trick. However, our society would be unwilling to give up the luxuries that it now takes for granted.
Sean asked about consumer culture, technology and media networks and their effect on our happiness. An audience member asked if we should not instead look at things like vulnerability, isolation and feelings of powerlessness that make us unhappy and go from there. It would seem that tribal societies can address these concerns.
Another audience member talked about the concept of alienation and commented that hunter-gatherer tribes seemed not to experience this alienation – from their fellow people and from the world around them. In contrast, many people in our society have become alienated.
Daniel warned against generalisation and added that alienation is an issue in some tribes. However in the tribes that he has encountered this has not been the case and people took care of others. Daniel then told a story of a tribe he was staying with. The people were sitting around the fire and they had all taken it in turns to bring firewood. Daniel spotted a very old, stooped man who was struggling to bring a few small sticks of firewood to the group. When he did this, one of the men gave him a large piece of meat to eat in return for the wood. When Daniel enquired of the man why he gave him the meat as the pieces of firewood were so small, he replied: ‘When I was a little boy he put meat in my mouth and now he is an old man, I put meat in his mouth.’ It is not that these lessons are unique to these people, but that Daniel has seen them more with these particular groups than elsewhere.
An audience member then asked if we should look for ‘meaning’ rather than happiness. Bruce replied that he came to the realisation that he had previously taken his scientific, Western mind-set into these societies and when they had talked about the spirit world and similar concepts, he had slightly looked down upon such ideas.
‘I was challenged to look at the world through their eyes and when I did, I suddenly saw and felt in my being a whole new set of values and way of interacting with the world. My actions and my thoughts had a reciprocal effect with everything that was going on around me and this was a level of meaning that brought a whole new sense of being to myself. I am still exploring this and some psychologists may say that is delusional and psychotic but if that takes place within a whole culture that thinks the same, then maybe not. Perhaps that is another level of having ‘meaning’. It is not just about believing that you are part of something bigger i.e. nature but taking it to the next level in which everything including our thoughts are part of a bigger whole which has meaning. That may have been the case for earlier people and playing with this idea myself has had a profound effect.’
Janet then returned to the point that we cannot believe in witchcraft and science simultaneously. Bruce argued that science as we know it is a method of investigation that currently uses the material realm, but there may be other methods of investigation that could be equally interesting and valid even though they don’t fit into our material system of measurement. Janet asked: ‘So the question is not whether something is true but whether it feels good?’. Bruce replied that he could only comment in the context of his own experiences. He has benefitted from alternative ways of seeing reality that and has found meaning that has changed his life in a very beautiful way. He has seen parallels to this in the lives of some of the indigenous peoples he has met.
Daniel added that we live in a society which has managed to produce science while often holding religious views that are seemingly contradictory. He stated that most people hold inconsistent beliefs all the time and talked about an Amazonian tribe that predict meteorological events based on the perceived movement of constellations. Although the constellations do not move in that sense, but only appear at points in the sky that are then correlated with events on earth, they have a very well developed science that is based on false presupposition. There has been a lot of science that ‘works’ for the wrong reasons but we do not call it any less science because of that. He then agreed with Bruce:
‘There are a number of points of animism that offer satisfying personal choices in life, but can I justify them all scientifically? No. Do I try to reconcile them with science? No. And do I care if they are reconciled? No. If we are going to hold mutually inconsistent beliefs, just admit that they are mutually inconsistent.’