What makes us human

Una Meistere

Conversations — 12.03.2020

An interview with Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis 

Wade Davis has written more than twenty books, although he really deserves to have a book written about himself. He embodies the entire spectrum of intellectual, sensual and emotional capacity that the words ‘scientist’, ‘traveller’ and ‘humanist’ contain. Officially and succinctly, Davis is a Canadian anthropologist with a PhD in ethnobotany, a writer, a photographer, a lecturer, and an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. He graduated from Harvard University. In reality, however, he has spent his whole life since the age of twenty travelling around the world, studying and discovering its most hidden and mysterious corners and its most remote tribes, who still live according to centuries-old traditions.

As a young man in 1974, Davis and British writer and researcher Sebastian Snow crossed one of the world’s most dangerous rainforest environments, the Darién Gap on the border between Colombia and Panama. Davis’ research has taken him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Australia, Colombia, Vanuatu, and Mongolia as well as Nunavut and Greenland. He spent three years in the Amazon and the Andes living with fifteen different indigenous peoples and compiling a collection of approximately 6000 plants. In 2018 he was granted honorary Colombian citizenship.

Davis has written 312 scientific and popular articles, essays, op-eds, forewords, and reviews on subjects ranging from the global biodiversity crisis to ethnobotany and the ancient relationship between indigenous peoples and psychotropic substances. He has been a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia since 2014 and is a sought-after lecturer around the world. His 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, a scientific explanation of the Haitian vodoun phenomenon and pharmacological basis of creating zombies, ironically inspired director Wes Craven’s 1988 horror film of the same name. His book One River (1996), for its part, is a fascinating biographical, mythological and scientific ode to South America, its history, its culture and its magical realism. Another book by Davis, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest (2012), won the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize, the top literary award for non-fiction in the English language. In April of this year, his twenty-first book will be published: Magdalena: River of Dreams, which is dedicated to Colombia.

Wade Davis. Magdalena: River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia. Knopf, 2020

This interview took place on Skype right after Davis had returned to his native Vancouver from a lecture series in Colombia, California and again Colombia. Our conversation was the first order of the day, laughed Davis. So, my conversation with one of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever met, it turns out, was just his first job that morning.

You’ve spent decades travelling and exploring the most remote corners of the world and have met many isolated indigenous peoples. Have you understood what makes us human and alive? Is this what you were searching for?

I think that sometimes anthropologists are accused of loving every culture but their own. And I think that certainly for my generation – growing up in the shadow of Vietnam and the assassinations of the Kennedys – even though I was Canadian, the influence of American society was so strong. I was going to university in the United States, and so the civil rights issues – attitudes towards women, the environment, gay people and so on – all of these things created a kind of turmoil during the years of my youth and no doubt played a role in my desire, and I think the desire in many of my friends, to seek a different set of possibilities, a world where we could live more authentically, or more directly if you know what I mean. Basically, to escape the confines of a kind of bourgeois world – what Baudelaire called the “great malady, the horror of home”.

There’s no question that, without really being conscious of it at the time, I went out looking for other visions of life itself. I think that was sort of typical of my generation, not just in North America, but certainly throughout Western Europe. These were aspirations that at the time were not possible for people living in Latvia, for example, because of the hold of the government and the system.

At the same time, I was fortunate to embark on that journey of life, if you will, with two very useful lenses. One was botany, and I found, particularly as I was traveling around the Amazon, that plants were the perfect conduit to culture. I mean, if you think about it, if I turned up at your house in Riga, knocked on the door, and announced that you were going to house and feed me while I was there to study your private lives, you’d call the police. It’s similar when you turn up at a longhouse in the northwest Amazon – you turn up to study the people, it’s a little bizarre, but if you go there to study the plants that grow there, the botany, it kind of makes perfect sense to the people there, in a certain way. So, I found plants to be a wonderful conduit to culture. But at the same time, I had also been trained in anthropology, and I couldn’t help but view the world through the anthropological lens. If I were to distill the power of that point of view, it’s a very simple idea: the idea that every culture has something to say, each culture deserves to be heard, just as no one has a monopoly on the route of the divine. So, it was with this kind of openness, if you will, that I took to the open road as a young man.

Amazon. Photo: Wade Davis. For these and other images see Wade Davis: Photographs, National Geographic Books 2018.

I know people who still look at anthropology quite suspiciously, accenting its link with colonialism and the studying of a subject.

I think that’s a misreading of the history of anthropology. Anthropology grew out of the 19th century, inspired by Darwin, and there’s no question that in Britain and France in particular there was this sense, on the one hand, that if species evolved, so did cultures. There was this sense of a hierarchy that went from the savage to the barbarian to the civilised of Europe, and that you could see cultures around the world as sort of frozen theatre pieces in this imagined evolutionary process.

At the same time, in Europe there was this very practical need to understand the peoples living in lands that had suddenly been taken into the spheres of influence of various nation states of Europe. Particularly in the wake of the race for Africa and the Berlin Conference of 1885, when suddenly tiny little countries like Belgium, as well as France, Britain and Germany, were carving up vast territories and there was a practical need to know who lived within those territories. In that sense, in those early years, anthropologists to some extent served the needs of the colonial authorities.

But that was very, very different from what happened in the Americas. What happened in the Americas was Franz Boas. He was a physicist who was studying light refraction in water for his doctoral thesis, but in the marvellous way of 19th-century scholarship, his interests shifted – insight into one field jumped into another, and he began to think of this thing that he called culture. He came up with the fundamental idea that evolutionary anthropology was not only scientifically suspect, it was morally reprehensible, and that every culture was a product of its own history and adaptive imperatives. If you wanted to understand culture, you had to do your very best not just to learn the language, but to understand how the people think, what are their priorities – to get yourself, to the extent possible, into their worldview. Not that that was ever entirely possible, but that was the aspiration.

That was really the birth of American anthropology. It was the birth of participant observation, it was the birth of recognising this fundamental idea that every culture has something to say. In that sense, American anthropology distilled in Franz Boas at Columbia University and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York… and with his students: Margaret Mead; Kroeber; Zora Neale Hurston, the great African-American folklorist; Ruth Benedict, who famously said that the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. The American school, and I include Canada in that, was activist-oriented from the very start. It was to break down the conceits of European colonialism; it was to put a dagger in the heart of racism; it was celebrating the fundamental intuition of Boas, which is the idea that the world into which you are born – your social world, your culture – doesn’t exist in some absolute sense but is just one model of reality. It’s the consequence of one set of particular choices that your lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago. All of the other peoples of the world suggest that there are other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of orienting yourself in social, political, ecological, spiritual space.

And this intuition, which drove anthropology throughout the 20th century, was inspired by two events that, I think, quite perfectly occurred in Canada. The first was when Boas was living with the Inuit on Baffin Island. He got caught out in a storm, and he knew that he would have had no chance of surviving had he not been with the Inuit and their brilliant capacity to deal with that challenge. That was when he realised that this ridiculous notion of European superiority was nonsensical. Second, he goes out to the west coast of Canada and sees high civilisation achieved on the bounty of the sea without benefit of agriculture. Then he suddenly begins to think that everything he has been told could quite possibly be false.

The amazing thing about Boas is that the fundamental idea of cultural relativism has finally been – ironically, in a sense – proven to be true by hard science, by genetics. Within the last generation, geneticists have proven without a doubt that the human genetic endowment is a continuum. Race is an utter fiction. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth, and we are all descendants of the same handful of people who walked out of Africa some 70,000 years ago and embarked on this incredible journey that carried the human spirit to every habitable corner of the world.

But here’s the important point: if we’re cut from the same genetic cloth, we all share the same genius. And whether that genius is invested in technological wizardry, the great achievement of the West, or placed instead, for example, by the Aboriginal people of Australia into unravelling the mystic threads of memory inherent in a myth, is simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation. Of course, there is no hierarchy in the fairest of culture. What this means is that the other cultures of the world aren’t failed attempts at being modern, they’re not failed attempts at being us. Every culture is a unique answer to a fundamental question – what does it mean to be human and alive. And when the people of the world answer that question, they do so in the 7000 voices of humanity, and those answers collectively become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us in the coming centuries. That’s why Boas said every culture has something to say, each deserves to be heard just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine.

So, people who invoke that old canard, that meme, if you will, that anthropology is a tool of colonialism, they simply do not know their history. In fact, if it had not been for the activism of people like Boas, Margaret Mead, and so on… Boas ranks among the four pillars of modernity: Charles Darwin shows us that species are immutable; Freud shows that we control the sanctity of our own thoughts; Einstein shows that the apple doesn’t fall as simply as Newton suggested; and, with his insight about cultural relativism, Boas ranks up there with those other three. What he was proposing was an absolute shattering of the European mind. Bear in mind that in the late 19th century, there was not even a word in the English language for what we now call racism, simply because the superiority of the white European male was accepted as a given.

To say that anthropology has been a tool of colonialism is to reveal one’s utter unawareness and ignorance of the history of the discipline and its incredible contributions to generating a pluralistic, multicultural world. You know, the armies of young anthropologists who went out from Europe and North America during the 1950s and 60s... Men and women who gave of themselves (and I don’t put myself in this category because I didn’t do deep ethnography), like my friend Stephen Hugh-Jones, the former head of anthropology at the University of Cambridge. This brilliant guy and his wife, a brilliant woman, who could have done anything they wanted to in the world, chose to go live with the Barasana, a small group in northwest Amazonia. Stephen has devoted his life to understanding that particular worldview and, in doing so, he has revealed extraordinary worlds of wonder. Including the fact that their entire cosmology is nothing more than a land management plan dictating how people can live in great numbers in Amazonia. Or the fact that, through Stephen’s work, we now understand that this complex of cultures is the direct descendant of the great civilisations that Francisco de Orellana witnessed in 1541. The fact that Stephen gave all of his life to reveal the cosmologies and mythologies of a people that would have been completely forgotten had he not brought that knowledge into the universal realm of scholarship.

Another close friend, Martín von Hildebrand, decides to canoe the Miriti Paraná River as a young student. He finds an old native man who has an old hand-pedal sewing machine that he’s been paying off to the rubber barons for fifty years, so Martín immediately makes himself a rubber baron to give fair and just prices to indigenous people. He then studies and learns Tanimuca, gets his PhD, and then the president of Colombia, Virgilio Barco Vargas, says to him: “Do something with the Indians,” as he put it. In five incredible years, Martín, an anthropologist, did more than something – he secured legal land tenure to an area of land in the Colombian Amazon (collectively the size of the United Kingdom), in perpetuity and encoded in the 1991 constitution of the country, for the 57 ethnicities of northwest Amazonia. Behind the veil of isolation created by the troubles of modern Colombia, a whole new dream of culture was reborn.

We asked the elders: “Why did you let the missionaries in as you did, and why did you let them say what they said about you?” They answered: “Because they promised to make us human.” Now that’s colonialism – that’s the essence of colonialism. The coloniser has to persuade the colonised of their own inherent inferiority. That’s what governments do, that’s what missionaries do, that’s what rubber traders do. That’s not what anthropologists do. In moments like that, anthropologists are the antithesis of the colonial enterprise.

Haiti. Photo: Wade Davis

You mentioned the phrase “the same genetic cloth”. Meanwhile, many people in the Western world still use the terms ‘developing countries’, ‘third-world countries’, ‘less-developed countries’.

We still even use the word ‘primitive’. It’s absurd.

Do you see the thinking of the Western world changing in this regard?

I think that things are always changing; you just have to continue being part of the conversation. In my lifetime, women have gone from the kitchen to the boardroom, people of colour have gone from the woodshed to the White House, gay people have gone from the closet to the altar. Things change. One of the unfortunate things about the idea that anthropologists are invariably allies of the colonial adventure is that it has caused anthropology itself to turn inward in a kind of agonising self-critique that has resulted in a kind of paralysis whereby anthropologists seem to study anthropologists these days. Instead of laying hold and claim to this incredible tradition of activism. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every anthropologist by definition is an activist – but I personally come out of that tradition. For example, my professor Dr. David Maybury-Lewis, who founded Cultural Survival, which along with Survival International were the two great human rights groups working in collaboration with indigenous people. I still firmly believe – and that’s what motivates much of my work – that anthropology has a unique contribution to make. In many ways, I see anthropology as the antidote to Donald Trump and nativism.

One of your mentors was Richard Evans Schultes. What are the most important lessons you learned from him?

Looking back on it, I was so incredibly lucky. If you can have one great mentor in your academic training, or even life, you’re awfully fortunate; I had two. Schultes was a botanist, he was an explorer, he was a great scientist, but I would never describe him as a great thinker. He was man of action and deeds whose own achievements were so extraordinary that to merely walk in his shadow was to aspire to greatness. When around him, you never felt that something was not possible. He would say things like, “There’s one river I’d like you to know,” knowing full well that the process of getting to that confluence would involve experiences guaranteed to assure you that, if you emerged from the forest alive, you’d emerge a wiser and more knowledgeable human being. He just made everything possible.

At least in me, Schultes generated a spirit in which I just said yes to any interesting adventure or opportunity. When I was really young, I used to do kind of insane things. On a day’s notice, I decided to walk the Darién Gap – 250 miles of swamp and rainforest. I’d go anywhere, do anything to get a new plant specimen. Schultes inspired in that way, and of course he introduced me to ethnobotany. He gave me the perfect conduit to culture, the perfect metaphor for getting to know the lifeways of the Amazonian people, because the plants are so important to them.

By contrast, David Maybury-Lewis, a social anthropologist who was one of the great Americanists, if you will, inspired others by the power of his ideas and the depth of his heart and his incredible humanitarian compassion, which was masked behind a somewhat formal, Oxbridge kind of style and personality. David electrified your imagination with the power of his ideas, the moral authority of his convictions, and the sincerity of his intent. The power of his writing, the beauty of his elocution...just the way he spoke could make the stars shift in the sky. I was very fortunate to have those two mentors.

Haiti. Photo: Wade Davis

Do you support the theory that evolution occurred largely as a result of synergy between human beings and various plants, which is what Terence McKenna said in his books?

Terence was a great friend of mine, and I’m still a great friend of his brother, Dennis. But even Dennis would admit that Terence had the Irish gift of the gab. Terence would never let the truth or science get in the way of a good story. He was one of the most amusing and wonderful men I ever knew, but I think some of his ideas were not patently wrong, but in a way disrespectful of indigenous people. For example, his idea that religion was born from mushrooms. I find that ridiculous, because religion was born because of death. Death is the first mystery; it’s the edge beyond which life as we know it ends and wonder begins. How any culture deals with the inexorable separation that death implies will determine their metaphysical and religious world view. That seems pretty obvious to me.

By the same token, it seems pretty obvious to me that all human beings, for whatever reason, periodically seek means to transcend consciousness – to invoke some technique of ecstasy that will allow the human being, for a time, to escape the realm of the mundane in pursuit of “the realm of the divine”. That is an inclination that’s ubiquitous in the human experience, and it’s ubiquitous in the ethnographic record. It’s satisfied in any number of ways: from the vision quest, the ordeal, and dance (in the case of the dervishes) to meditation and prayer, extremes of physical endurance and, of course, the ingestion of these curious entheogenic plants – the so-called hallucinogens. If religion was born of a mushroom, we’d see, among other things, ubiquitous evidence of the use of these entheogenic plants around the world. But we don’t.

Of the 120 known hallucinogenic plants, 95% are from the Americas and Siberia. It’s not because of the forests of Equatorial West Africa, or Southeast Asia, or depauperate, or because the people there didn’t learn to discover and manipulate biodynamic plants. Quite the contrary – in West Africa, the manipulation of toxic plants is probably the most ubiquitous traded material culture. But with the exception of a handful of anomalies (outliers such as the iboga plant in Nigeria), the people of West Africa for the most part did not use hallucinogenic plants. Why is that? Because they had an another avenue to the divine – spirit possession. Spirit possession is the doorway to the gods for the peoples of Equatorial West Africa.

The idea that religion was born of a mushroom – no. A handful of societies around the world discovered in mushrooms a vehicle to the divine, just like other societies did in peyote, the San Pedro cactus, ebene (“the semen of the sun”, a tryptamine-containing snuff from northwest Amazonia), etc. There are various other societies that use other entheogens. Some of Terence’s ideas, gloriously colourful as the anecdotes he told could be, just don’t hold up and at the end of the day became a bit of an indulgence, I think.

The other thing about Terence, bless him, is that he was almost completely trapped inside of his head in the sense that he was not a physical person. I remember when Dennis and I were with him in the northwestern Amazon, he had much more interest in sitting in his hammock and pontificating about his ideas about mushrooms than actually hanging out with the Indians in the longhouse, where a quite fascinating ritual event was unfolding at that time. He certainly wasn’t comfortable walking through a forest. I think Terence was absolutely wonderful, but sadly, as some of us can do, he became a bit of a prisoner of his own notoriety, and therefore he became a bit of a prisoner of his own shtick or rap, if you will. By the end of Terence’s life, even Dennis was growing frustrated with the extent to which Terence had become a bit of a prisoner of his own rap. Dennis is a very serious scientist and his integrity is impeccable, and he was quite concerned about Terence’s advocacy of heroic doses of psychedelic substances at a time when Terence himself was not even using these things anymore.

Southern Africa. Photo: Wade Davis

You once said in an interview that “I’m very happy to say that the use of those psychotropic substances changed my life.” What have plants taught you?

When we look at the social changes that have led us away from organised religion and towards a sense of Gaia – people thinking about the environment, thinking that nature is alive, all of these things that really represent astonishing transformations of perspective, orientation and values and that have occurred at almost the speed of light within our own lifetimes – the one ingredient in the recipe of social change and transformation that we seem to expunge from the record is the fact that millions of us lay prostrate before the gates of awe having taken a psychedelic. I’m not saying I never took psychedelics just for fun – I did. But in general I was very sincere, perhaps excessively so, in my sense that these really were plants of the gods – that you didn’t take them casually, that you paid attention to the moment and treated that moment with reverence even as you anticipated illumination.

I’m not trying to be sanctimonious or precious here, but I certainly did always take these substances with great respect and reverence in anticipation of true illumination. I experimented with any number of plant substances, and we discovered new plant hallucinogens. Andy Weil and I were the first to publish on the Bufo alvarius [the Colorado River toad – Ed.] in an academic sense, and so on. I experimented in my youth with any number of substances. I was never interested in cocaine, the opiates, tobacco (except in a ritual context); I never drank a whole lot...I wasn’t a druggie, if you know what I mean. But I did have a judicious and very eclectic experience with scores of different interesting psychoactive substances, and I am happy to say that, were it not for them, I wouldn’t write the way I write, I wouldn’t think the way I think, I wouldn’t view the natural world as I do, I wouldn’t treat women as I do, I wouldn’t have understood the essence of homosexuality as I came to do...I wouldn’t be the person I am.

That always reminds me of how, during the height of the 1960s and early 70s, our parents were terrified of these substances, as was the government, because they really were going to transform the children. Our parents would say, “Don’t take that stuff, you’ll never come back the same!” But what our parents didn’t understand was that that was the whole bloody point. We didn’t want to come back the same. In the same spirit, we trekked off to Kathmandu or went south to Cusco on these journeys of discovery and life as we tried to flee the constraints and the tedium of the Unites States in the 1950s and 60s. At least in my case, I also tried to free my mind by the use of these curious plants, and I was able, in effect, to do so.

We’re seeing ayahuasca and other entheogens spreading from Amazonia to the West in a new wave of “spiritual rebirth”. Do you think that entheogens could play a role in finding a solution to the current climate crisis? If yes, what kind of solution or role could that be?

I think there’s a very exciting rebirth of potential in the whole field of entheogens, and serious work is being done on clinical application. It’s really tragic that just when these substances came to the attention of the general population, the government shut them down ferociously. People can say what they want about Timothy Leary, but the truth is that he was a very serious social psychologist. His profession was in a crisis; studies had shown that no matter the psychological problem or the intervention, a third of the people got better, a third got worse, and a third stayed the same. That’s when he discovered psychedelics, and he did sincerely believe in their potential. But then, of course, he became kind of a pop figure, proselytising the use of these substances. That said, he certainly didn’t deserve the treatment given to him by the Nixon government. Tim Leary was a man who ended up spending a couple of years in solitary confinement in a maximum security penitentiary for the crime of advocating the use of psychedelics. There is no crime, and the punishment is obscene. So, it was all shut down, but now it’s opening up again. There’s no question that some of these substances, particularly things like MDMA, are so obviously fantastically good for basic therapy. I think it’s very hopeful.

On the other hand, there’s this whole question of not just cultural appropriation but a kind of industrialisation of these things. For example, around Iquitos in Peru there are now literally several hundred shamans all claiming to be Shipibo. I mean, at this point there are probably more Shipibo shamans in Iquitos than there are in the forest. It becomes an industry… Restaurants in Iquitos have menus that follow the food prohibitions you’re supposed to follow before you take ayahuasca. If you had asked me forty-five years ago which of all the obscure psychedelics would hit the zeitgeist and be used ubiquitously in Europe, the United States and Canada, I never would have guessed ayahuasca.

There’s a shift that has occurred in the perception of ayahuasca by consumers. In my generation, people like William Burroughs went looking for ayahuasca; he discovered many things, but being pleasant wasn’t one of them. Native people use very harsh metaphors to describe the ayahuasca experience – like you’re nursing at the breast of jaguar-woman as she lifts you off of her tit and throws you into a pit of vipers – I mean, it’s not supposed to be pleasant. Now, however, the set around ayahuasca has chanced so much, and young people in cities around the world are taking this powerful potion and reporting transformation and transformative experiences, which I find interesting but certainly does not recall my own experiences of when I’ve taken ayahuasca, which is maybe about twenty times.

And there’s another aspect to it. The industrialisation, the commercialisation of ayahuasca seems to be all about the individual – my personal journey, my healing journey, the individual outside of their own society, seeking and indulging in a personal experience that will help them. That’s so different from the way that the indigenous people take ayahuasca, in my experience. Think of the Barasana – they take ayahuasca as part of two- and three-day ceremonies in which the entire adult male population takes ayahuasca repeatedly for 48 hours, becoming not symbols of the ancestors but literally the ancestors themselves who fly through space to visit all of the sacred sites as they effectively kind of reprogramme the world. The interesting point is that it is quintessentially a collective experience whereby the individual is not focused on the self but on the strength and wellbeing of the collective.

West Africa. Photo: Wade Davis

Do you think it’s possible to integrate these indigenous perspectives and worldviews into current Western thinking?

I don’t know. There may well be settings in which ayahuasca is used in a context where people aspire to think of something greater than themselves, but my impression is that it’s often very much in the context of a self-help, personal transformation journey for revelation of the self. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but to me, it’s an extension of the obsession with the self that broke the back of the 1960s and 70s.

As an anthropologist, one of the things I’ve always noticed is the extent to which people of affluence can become indulgent about their health and wellbeing and their food. Food has become a fetish. You can go to San Francisco and sit with ten people over a three-hour meal in the fanciest of restaurants and the conversation will never get beyond the origin of the lettuce. There’s a kind of bourgeois indulgence that comes into this “transformation of self” movement.  I’m not knocking it, but for me – as a writer, as a seeker, as a scholar – I’m always interested in not me, but what lies outside of me. Even in my books (I think of myself as more of a writer than an anthropologist) you’ll be hard-pressed to find the word ‘I’ in many of them, even in my travel books. I remember when I was first recruited to the National Geographic Society as an explorer in residence, which at the time was quite a prestigious post there. Their public relations people called me up and asked me to send them all my video film footage and still photography of myself in the field, and I laughed – I said, “What are you talking about? I don’t have any.” They then almost questioned me whether I had actually gone to the Amazon or Tibet, because how could you have gone there without having pictures of yourself? My generation of anthropologists was looking outward, not into a mirror.

From your experience, do you think there’s such a thing as progress?

I don’t know what you mean by progress. There certainly is change. Change is constant, but progress is something that we’ve become so obsessed with in the West. The 19th century was the century of progress and optimism, and that all died in the mud of Flanders in the First World War. It’s interesting, this idea of progress, because many societies have no sense of time. If you go back to the deserts of Australia, when the British arrived there, they saw a people that looked strange and had a simple material technology. But what really offended the British was that in the ten thousand clan territories that we estimate to have existed, not in any one of them would you have found anyone with any interest in changing or improving upon their lot.

That’s because improvement and progress was the ethos of European society during the era of the colonisation of Australia. The British just couldn’t believe it. So, in their inimitable way, they concluded that the Aboriginal people were not people at all, and they began to shoot them. As recently as 1902, in Melbourne – in Parliament! – it was debated as to whether Aborigines where human beings or not. As recently as the 1950s, ranchers had quotas dictating how many Aborigines could be shot with impunity if they trespassed on their stolen lands. A schoolbook used in the curriculum of Australia in the 1960s – a treasury of the fauna of Australia – still listed Aborigines as amongst the interesting forms of wildlife. This is hard to believe, but it’s true.

What was missing from the British was any appreciation of the subtle devotional philosophy of the Dreaming. The Dreaming wasn’t a dream – it was the idea that the earth at your feet both existed in the phenomenological realm but was always waiting to be born in the realm of the Dreaming. The purpose of life in Australia was the opposite of progress. It was stasis. The entire purpose of being alive was to do the ritual gestures deemed to be necessary to keep the world just as it was at the time of its creation in the realm of the rainbow serpent, when the ancestors walked the song lines, singing the world into existence. It’s as if all of European civilisation had been invested in the pruning of the shrubs of the Garden of Eden to keep it just as it was when Adam and Eve had their fateful conversation. The interesting thing is not to say who is right and who is wrong. Had all of humanity followed the ways of the Aborigines, we wouldn’t have developed modern medicine or put a man on the Moon, but we also wouldn’t be talking about a climate crisis and our capacity to transform the fundamental life support systems of the planet.

New Guinea & Melanesia. Photo: Wade Davis

Regarding the climate crisis... In the past, when a certain species of animals died out, we used to say it was eliminated by natural selection. Now, however, the human race itself is on the threshold of extinction, and we’re the ones who’ve pushed ourselves so far. Do you think it could happen, could we go extinct?

That’s the whole idea of the Anthropocene, and I think it’s a very useful concept. I wrote a book called The Wayfinders, and the editors added the snappy subtitle “Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world”. I then had to answer that question, and I ended up doing that with two words: climate change. I’m not suggesting that we all go back to a pre-industrial past or that any culture or individual be kept from the benefits of science and modernity, but the very existence of these other ways of thinking is useful because they put a lie to those of us in our own culture who say that we can’t possibly change, although we all know that we must change in a fundamental way in order to save the planet.

If we look, for example, at new viruses such as Ebola, bird flu, and this new coronavirus and at what we humans are doing to the planet – the waste we’re producing, the resources we’re using – is humankind really any better than viruses or ticks?

We live in a biosphere, we’re a dominant creature in that biosphere, and our own presence on the earth is so relatively shallow, if you think about it. We’ve been around as a recognisable species for 250,000 years, which is just a short moment in the history of Earth. One of the things that scares me most about the human species is the fluidity of our memory, our capacity to forget. We can adapt to almost any degree of environmental degradation. How many of us in North America remember that, in the lifetime of our great-grandparents, passenger pigeons made up 40% of all birds on the continent? Flocks of three billion birds would eclipse the sun over cities in the American Midwest... There was also a time when the buffalo outnumbered the people in North America – again, in the lifetime of my great-great-grandfathers. We adapt in really frightening ways. That was probably a useful adaptive trait when we were small populations coming out of Africa, but it can be very daunting today. Part of this is just the overall concentration of human beings – the coronavirus [epidemic] is not something new.

One of the myths of this “cult of progress” is the idea that the rise of agriculture and animal domestication and the so-called Neolithic Revolution (which, of course, was no revolution at all) brought only benefits to humanity. You could argue quite the contrary – that agriculture may have been the worst thing to ever happen to both humans and the earth. If we look at the physical size of our Paleolithic ancestors, human beings began to shrink after adopting agriculture because, in place of a protein-rich diet, they were on a carbohydrate-rich diet of crops that were also susceptible to frost and environmental impacts, and, as a result, famine lingered and loomed over the lives of many people. With agriculture, a woman who in a hunter-gatherer society would have had a child every three years or more, was now suddenly popping out children to work on the farms. The clearing of forests is ongoing, and as we domesticate animals and bring them into close proximity to ourselves...well, every major disease that has haunted humanity – from smallpox to AIDS – has been vectored from animals that have been domesticated and are living amongst us, including, undoubtedly, this new coronavirus. AIDS is the most recent great plague, but we can also date the arrival of polio, smallpox, etc.

If you think about the human experience as being a 24-hour clock, agriculture only came to us at 11:54 PM. And with it came the ongoing destruction of wild spaces in every corner of the world, the increase in population, the creation of hierarchy, and specialisation, although specialisation also occurs in places without the cult of the seed, such as the Pacific Northwest of Canada. But above all, agriculture brought hierarchy and class and all the associated abuses implied in a society of hierarchy. You could, as Jared Diamond argues in one of his books, say that agriculture is the worst thing that ever happened to both people and the planet.

Sahara. Photo: Wade Davis

It has become very fashionable to claim that individual actions have no significant effect on history. For example, if Joan of Arc had not stood up for her beliefs, others might have taken up her cause instead. Can you or I, or any single human being, really make a difference in finding a solution to the current environmental crisis?

I’m sixty-six years old now, and I can’t imagine how I got here. The energy, the passion with which I write, the ideals that I maintain... I haven’t really changed that much since I was in my twenties. I think that one of the reasons I’ve been able to get to the age of sixty-six without becoming cynical or bitter is that I never expected to win. My father used to say (and he wasn’t a religious man): “There’s good and evil in the world. Pick your side and get on with it.” What he was really saying was that you’re never going to win. We have this illusion (mainly in the Christian tradition) of the fallen archangel who is the devil, the force of negative, and on the other side the Christ Child, the son of God, the positive. We set them up in this holy battle with the expectation that one day, just one day, good is going to triumph over evil. Well, it’s not going to happen.

In a very different cultural context, when Lord Krishna in India was asked by a disciple why, if God is all-powerful, does he permit evil in the universe – a famous question that was regarded as heresy elsewhere in the world and led European monks to be burned at the stake for asking it – Lord Krishna wasn’t threatened by this question. Instead, he said: “Why is there evil in the universe? To thicken the plot.” In other words, evil is not going away. It’s like the Buddhist idea of the pilgrim: it’s not the destination, it’s the state of mind that is the quest of the pilgrim. One of my favourite American writers, Peter Matthiessen, famously wrote that anyone who thinks they can change the world is both wrong and dangerous. He had in mind people like Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, etc. He didn’t think that, as a writer, one had an obligation to bear witness to the world. In that sense, I don’t expect to change the world. But I do have to live in this world, and I’ve picked my side, as my father wanted me to do. That attitude allows me to keep pushing and, in a certain sense, to keep fighting, even though I don’t win every battle. The fight is just my life.

I think that history is actually made by the sum total of those who push the wheel of righteousness in the right direction and those who don’t. It doesn’t mean that everybody who doesn’t push that wheel is somehow evil, and it doesn’t mean that life is always black and white. But there’s no question in my mind that the forces unleashed in the United States by the Trump phenomenon represent the side of darkness. As we saw the forces unleashed in Germany in 1933... I’m not necessarily comparing the Trump people to the Germans of that era, but I have no doubt that this whole phenomenon represents the dark side of human nature as opposed to the better angels of our nature that Abraham Lincoln spoke of.

New Guinea & Melanesia. Photo: Wade Davis

I think it was Socrates who said that the only evil in the world is ignorance.


You said you’re an optimist. Do you think it’s not too late to save the planet? That is, to find a solution to this crisis?

I’m optimistic because I think that pessimism is indulgence. Despair is an insult to the imagination. Orthodoxy is the enemy of invention. One has to simply live as best as one can and do one’s bit, if you will – push the wheel of justice and righteousness forward to the extent that one can.

I suppose I’m optimistic in part because I have children, and I certainly want to prepare them for a world of hope. I don’t know to what extent my attitude came out of emulating my father, who was just a fundamentally decent and ethical person – so generous and so kind to the world, really a quite remarkable human being. I sometimes think back to when Terence McKenna had his brain tumour and was about to pass away, someone asked him if he was afraid of death. Terence was the wittiest person I knew, and he came right back and said: “If I’m afraid of death, I don’t know why I’ve been taking all of these drugs for so long.” If he was afraid of death, what was the point of taking all of those mushrooms?

I didn’t have deeply meaningful, spiritual experiences when I used to go to church as a little boy. I was a believer and I had faith, but that didn’t stand the test of time. Through the use of psychoactive substances I certainly have had enough visceral experiences of transcendence, and…I just don’t know how you can take these substances as I did and come away with an overwhelming sense of self or ego. At the end of the day, we’re just dust in the wind. Our time on the earth is so fleeting that I feel like I just went to sleep and woke up at age sixty-six. It just seems to have gone by so fast. I look forward to many more years. I have no conceit about the centrality of my own place in the human experience or in the flow of the universe. It’s like the Diamond Sūtra – the whole Buddhist revelation, if you will.

That’s not an excuse for inactivity. On the contrary – it’s a call for more intense activity. But activity with an attitude of grace and humility.

West Africa. Photo: Wade Davis

You came up with the term ‘ethnosphere’, meaning the cultural web of life. I also think the term ‘culture’ has shrunken in its meaning over the past few decades and has been commercialised in a way. What is culture? And is there any separation between culture and nature?

Culture was really coined by Franz Boas when he tried to come up with an organising principle for a constellation of individuals who coalesced together. Culture is, by definition, an imprecise term. A small little community in the highland forests of New Guinea has a culture, but so does a nation-state like France. Culture is not just the sum total of the activities, language and beliefs of a people; it’s also a reflection of their aspirations and a reflection of the landscape in which people elect to live out their destiny. Just as landscape determines character, culture determines spirit of place. I think that the great redemptive hope for human beings, in a sense, is that spirit of place. If you don’t have a sense of connection to your land, it’s very difficult to fight to protect it.

As a writer and an anthropologist, do you believe that the shaman is, in some way, a remote ancestor of the poet and the artist?

Oh, yes. Shamanism is obviously the first religious aspiration. If you look at hunter-gatherer societies, the great contradiction is, again, that in order to survive, these societies had to kill that which they loved most – the animals upon which they depended. I think that shamanism grew out of that era as an attempt to create a link between ourselves and the metaphysical world or the world of animals.

If you look at the Upper Paleolithic art at Lascaux or Chauvet, people have always wondered what those animals depict. I don’t think they depict hunting magic; in fact, I don’t think they have anything to do with the hunt. I think that at some point we knew that our species was, by definition, of an animal nature. At some point something happened – whether it was the development of language, the increase in the size of the brain, or some other evolutionary catalyst – and we were suddenly no longer animals; we were what we now call humans. We were conscious, we were aware. When I look at that art (and I’ve spent weeks in those caves), to me it’s almost as if we’re looking back onto our animal nature across a chasm that was unbridgeable. The art seems to me like postcards of nostalgia as we reach back to our pre-conscious essence across a divide that is now unbridgeable. The fascinating thing about Upper Paleolithic art is that the same fundamental aesthetic – the same use of pigments, the same use of the curvature of the cave walls to create a sense of movement, the scaffolding, everything – persisted for almost 25,000 years. Now, that’s three times the chronological distance that separates us from the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt. So if these were postcards of nostalgia, ours was a very long farewell indeed.

Out of consciousness came the human experience. The whole human experience can be distilled in two words – how and why. And those two words determine the human endeavour. Even to this day, they’re very different questions. One can only be answered by religion - the “why” - and the other, to our mind, can best be answered by the realm of science - and that is “how”. Those two questions have provoked all the slivers of insight around which the myriad cultures of humanity – the peoples of the ethnosphere, if you will – have coalesced their ways of thinking, their ways of being, and their understandings of the world.

Sahara. Photo: Wade Davis