Wade Davis sits at an unusual nexus, he could be described as part humanitarian, part anthropologist/scientist and part cultural critic.
Embodying all of the things that we romanticise about explorers, from ‘playing’ dead with Haitian zombies to sailing the seas with the Polynesian Sailors. But there is something much deeper at work here, more than just exploring the world, he possesses a yearning to understand what makes us human. Someone who understands where we have been and more importantly where we are heading.
His work has not gone unnoticed, having been named by the National Geographic Society as one of the Explorers for the Millennium, he is the author of 15 books and recipient of numerous awards and accolades. Davis brings to us a unique knowledge acquired by genuine experience and humbling curiosity. Here is a our full profile with Wade Davis.
Let’s step back a bit and start early on in your life. You’ve talked before about the challenge that you faced with your childhood being quite unadventurous.
Well I don’t know. . . I came from a very simple middle-class Canadian family. My parents really believed in education and so they spent all the money they had to send myself and my sister to school and that really transformed our lives. But I think in general, growing up in a middle-class environment, one tends to think that creativity is a subjective force – that it happens to somebody else. Whereas of course creativity is not the spark of action, it’s a consequence of action. And that was a lesson I learnt early on.
I also learned to find mentors wherever I could. I was very fortunate to attend University at Harvard and fall into the orbit of two remarkable men, David Maybury Lewis, a great Americanist, and Richard Evans Schultes who of course was sort of the father of ethnobotany.
One day I remember I was sitting with my roommate in front of the National Geographic map of the world and he looked at the map, and he looked at me and suddenly pointed to the arctic. I had to go somewhere so I watched my hand lift and touch the Amazon. Had it hit Italy I might have become a renaissance scholar but having decided on the Amazon there was just one man to see, this legendary botanical explorer [Schultes]. At the time I’d never studied botany at all, even in high school. But I knocked on his office door on the fourth floor of the botanical museum and I simply said I’d saved up some money working in a logging camp and I wanted to go to the Amazon as he had and collect plants. He didn’t ask for credentials, he just said “when do you want to go?” And within two weeks I was in the Amazon.
So from the very early stages of my career I had a background both in anthropology and in biology and I think that was really critical because I came to understand that the forces that were eroding biological diversity were the same forces that were threatening cultural diversity. That was quite unusual back then.
I remember the night when the Dalai Lama first spoke in the west. He was speaking at Harvard and that same night the legendary biologist Ed Wilson was across the street introducing a man called Norman Myers who had just written a book called ‘The Sinking Ark’. It was one of the first books to draw attention to the looming biodiversity crisis. Naturally all the students were across the way listening to His Holiness and literally in apologising to Myers for the sparse audience, Wilson, whose as kind and thoughtful and decent a man as you’ll ever meet and one of the greatest scholars of our time, said in that moment “if even Harvard students can’t get their priorities right and would rather be listening to that religious kook, how far we’ve got to go to educate the public at large.”
There was this huge chasm between anthropologists and biologists. The biologists tended to think of the anthropologists as part of the problem and the anthropologists tended to think of the biologists as being terribly misanthropic. I must have been the only student that night running back and forth between the two events.
I felt very strongly that the lessons of both biology and anthropology were too important to be sequestered in the silo of the university. I think at a very early age I felt that it was imperative that scientists speak out and find a means to speak out. This was in part because David Maybury Lewis in particular had founded Cultural Survival in 1972 and he had a very strong sense that anthropologists needed to be advocates for the societies that they studied. He was very much in that sense in a long tradition of activism and anthropology that really went back to Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.
Your critique of civilisation and the history of anthropology is so eloquent and you seem to really articulate or cut to the bone of how we view the world through our own prism. When did you start to feel that talent of critique?
It’s funny, sometimes when we’re asked where it all began we can find ourselves almost making things up. It’s hard to know how significant certain events were.
When I did a series of lectures in Canada called the Massey Lectures, a lot of media would ask me, where did you start thinking about these themes? And the one thing that did come to mind that I had never really thought about was that I grew up in Quebec at a time when there were really two solitudes. When the French did not speak to the English and vice-versa. The community that I lived in was an Anglo community that had been sort of plunked like a carbuncle on an old French village that went back to the seventeenth century. There was literally a boulevard that divided the two communities and on the corner of that boulevard was a little store. I remember at the age of four or five years old sitting there with this wonderful French couple who owned the store and looking across that boulevard, and realising that across that boulevard there was another language, another religion, another way of being. And I was intrigued by that but also haunted by the subtle prohibition in my own culture from crossing that road. Not really from my family at all but the milieu in which I grew up. And sometimes I think that I’ve been crossing that road ever since.
Is that how you view our culture as well? Through that Milieu that you talk about? And do you think because of that there’s a part of you that has a cynical point of view of western culture?
I try very hard not to. . . I mean look, I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say that we’re all products of our times. Obviously I was a child of the 1960’s and we all had a very critical lens upon our own culture for obvious reasons; civil rights, Vietnam, the treatment of women etc. And there’s no question that part of what I think inspired me to travel and to become interested in ‘the other’ was Baudelaire’s disease, ‘Horror of Home.’
But that said, I in no way denigrate my own culture and I’m a proud product of that culture. My point really is, what I criticize is the trait that is ubiquitous in human experience and that’s cultural myopia. If you look around the world virtually every culture shares that intuition. Most tribal names, if you translate them, mean ‘the people’, the implication being that the other folks over the hill are savages or something. The word barbarian comes from the Greek barbarous, one who babbles and if you didn’t speak Greek you didn’t exist. The Aztecs had exactly the same notion in their language Nahuatl. My point is, that kind of ethnocentric cultural myopia shared historically by cultures all around the world is something that we simply cannot afford in an interconnected globalised world. My criticism is not against my society, it’s against any conceit of any society that presumes to be the paragon of humanity’s potential.
Typically what has happened since the nineteenth century is that anthropologists have attempted to impose the lessons of Darwin onto culture. If species involved then presumably cultures evolve and so we created this notion of a hierarchy of success. And this has been utterly exposed as not only nonsensical but a complete colonial conceit. There’s no such thing as progress in the affairs of humanity. This is the great lesson from genetics, we know now that we’re all cut from the same genetic cloth. Every culture shares the same raw genius and how that genius is expressed is simply a matter of choice and cultural adaptation. We project technology as one criterion of advancement and therefore we measure ourselves by the terms of our own gain, when in fact technological sophistication is only one attribute of the human imagination.
"What I criticize is the trait that is ubiquitous in human experience and that’s cultural myopia."
That plays into my next question absolutely perfectly. What does the word globalisation mean to you?
To me the word globalisation is capital in search of cheap labour. End of story. It has this veneer of some sort of positive interconnectedness of humanity but when push comes to shove globalisation is an expression of an economic paradigm. And the foundation of that economic paradigm, the thing that draws corporations oversees, is the pursuit of cheap labour. The minute that a cheaper source of labour is available they up and leave and go to that place. Globalisation when it comes down to it is simply and fundamentally an economic notion. It’s not a cultural notion.
Do you know the photographer Sebastião Salgado ?
Oh yes, I have some of his prints.
In his documentary Salt of the Earth, he seemed to be offering very similar opinions to yours. He said, “Our history is a history of war, it’s an endless story. We should see these images to see how terrible our species is.” Do you agree with that?
Well no, oddly enough I’m wonderfully optimistic. We’re so impatient with the pace of social change. In my lifetime I’ve seen two scientific breakthroughs that are absolutely transformative. Of course one was distilled into that great vision that was brought home to us on Christmas eve 1968 when Apollo went around the dark side of the moon and we saw for the first time the planet as it is – this blue planet floating in the void of space. And I think that will be spoken about 5,000 years from now as the spark of a new way of thinking.
The second equally significant [breakthrough] was also the result of a long journey but a journey into the fibre of our being, and this of course was a revelation of genetics. It really is significant. As recently as 1965 the head of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the most respected anthropologist in the country was still saying that there were five races of humanity, nothing had changed since Linnaeus. And now within my lifetime women have gone from the kitchen to the boardroom, gay people from the closet to the altar, black people from the woodshed to the Whitehouse.
There’s this incredible wave of illumination which is so profoundly hopeful. I mean forty years ago no-one spoke of the biosphere or biodiversity, now those words are part of the language of school children. I think the genetic revelation is the most important of all and I don’t think we’ve begun to incorporate that into our thinking but once that happens I think it will be very very positive. Race is a fiction. End of Story.
At the turn of the 20th century when Lord Curzon was asked why there wasn’t a single Indian in the Indian civil service he responded by saying that in the entire subcontinent there wasn’t a single man up to the job. The superiority of the white man was taken so for granted in the world of my own grandfather that there was not even a word in the English language for racism as we now know it to be. And yet now a hundred years later science in all of its genius has put a dagger in the heart of that entire horrific conceit.
We’re all brothers and sisters, and I don’t mean that in the spirit of some hippie sentiment but we know we all walked out of Africa 65,000 years ago. It’s incredible!
Your work tends to delve very deeply into the tribal experience. As well as celebrating the successes we’ve experienced like the Apollo mission you also contrast the epic failures that we’ve experienced in western culture with the profound intuitiveness of nomadic tribal cultures such as the Polynesian sailors or the Sentinelese tribes people. I’m fascinated to know, how in your opinion, we get back to the kind the innate successes found within these cultures?
I don’t think it’s about getting back to that and it’s not really a profound intuitiveness. But we’re living through an era in which half the languages of the world are not being taught to children and are on the brink of disappearing. And with that disappears half of humanities intellectual, social, ecological knowledge base.
The question is what do we do about it? If you’re a biologist and you identify an area of high species endemism you can make a protected area but you can’t make a park of the mind. You can’t freeze people in time like some kind of zoological specimen. Change is the one constant of culture. What we determined at the geographic was that perhaps the best thing we could do was attempt in some modest way to help change the way people viewed and valued culture. And we thought the way to do that was not through polemics or politics but through storytelling. So my whole point was to say that these other cultures aren’t failed attempts at being modern. They’re not primitive. Each is a unique answer to a fundamental question. What does it mean to be human and alive? Each culture has something to say to us and each one deserves to be heard.
The Polynesians weren’t intuitive in terms of their ability to navigate that vast ocean. They were natural philosophers, deeply perceptive and intellectually acute. They use the same methodologies of science to figure out how to navigate, not just by the stars but by the entire array of signs that can be found; the sun, the moon, the stars, the aquatic life, the reading of the waves and so on. My point was to say that essentially if you took all the genius that allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to an understanding of the ocean what you would get is Polynesia. And the fascinating thing about it is that it was based on dead-reckoning which meant that the navigator in a society that did not have the written word had to remember over the course of a multi-league journey every shift of the wind and so on. Again this is simply to demonstrate that that is a level of genius on par with anything that we’ve been able to do.
Has there ever been a period in your career where you’ve felt a slight sense of regret or perhaps exploitation of people?
Let me think about that. I don’t. . . I don’t think so. The work that I did in Haiti involved crossing certain ethical rubicons that I’ve often wondered whether I should have crossed. For example going into graveyards and digging up the dead with the sorcerers. I’m not sure that’s something that I would do again. Even though I was just observing what was being done.
I’ve always worked in a very transparent way with people and established true and meaningful relationships. The same traits that would make me welcome at your house in London would make me welcome in any community around the world because hospitality and decency are international traits. Good manners, a willingness to sleep where you have to sleep, eat what’s put in front of you, a self-deprecating humour, a willingness to help out and a basic humility. That’s what people like.
"Within my lifetime women have gone from the kitchen to the boardroom, gay people from the closet to the altar, black people from the woodshed to the Whitehouse."
Do you have any particular anecdote that has really astounded you, something that perhaps stands out as particularly unique and special?
Well a marvellous thing happened a few years ago. In the 1970’s, I used to live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Columbia amongst the Arhuacos. And they’re absolutely fascinating incredible people who are descendants from the ancient Tairona civilization and remain ruled to this day by a ritual priesthood. Now the priesthood was described in the forties by a famous Columbian anthropologist. According to his report the young acolytes were taken from their families at two or three and then sequestered in this sort of shadowy world of darkness for eighteen years. Then they’re taken out and taken on this journey to the ‘Heart of the World.’ But no anthropologist had actually seen that, so no one knew if this was a fable or not.
But what happened was this, the Arhuacos are very politically organised and often come to Washington or New York or whatever and this delegation came to visit me at the National Geographic with the Columbian ambassador Carolina Barco. At the head of the delegation was a charismatic young man whose name was Danilo Villafane and as he was speaking to me I interrupted him and I said “I hate to be rude but you look an awful lot like an old friend of mine,” and I pull out a photograph that I had taken in 1974 of who turned out to be Danilo’s father. He had been murdered by the paramilitaries. I said, “Danilo you may not remember but when you were a baby I carried you on my back up and down the mountains with your father.”
And so based on that connection Danielo invited us to go back and actually witness one of the journeys to the ‘Heart of the World.’ That was incredibly satisfying.
You talk about perhaps the most immediate problems that indigenous peoples face day to day but there is a problem that we all face across the whole globe and that’s the environmental crisis, whether you feel it’s right in front of you or whether you feel it’s a hundred years away. I’m interested to know in the world of anthropology and in the work that you do, where do you think we should go from here?
I think it’s interesting, when I wrote that book The Wayfinders, the editors put on a subtitle – Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, and that forced me to answer the question. I answered it with two words: climate change. I think one of the lessons of all this work in anthropology is that the very existence of these alternative ways of thinking, alternative ways of being, puts the lie to those us in our own culture who essentially say that we cannot change, as we all know we must change the fundamental way that we treat the planet. This idea that there’s nothing that we can do about it – that we’re on some kind of train wreck of history, is simply wrong. This isn’t to suggest that we mimic the ways of the Waorani, or mimic the ways of the Penan, but simply to recognize that our way of thinking is just one way of thinking that emerged from one set of historical and cultural circumstances. And like all ways of thinking it can change and evolve. We can draw a lot of comfort and hope in that.
I’ve seen enough of the world compromised. I feel strongly that we need a complete shift of paradigms in terms of the way that we think of the world around us. And I think that shift is in fact happening as we speak.
I hope so. Wade my last question to you is this, what would you want your legacy to be?
You know it’s funny. Peter Matthiessen, one of my favorite writers who sadly passed away not long ago said, “anyone who thinks they can change the world is both wrong and dangerous.” I think that there’s some truth in that. And yet at the same time I think we have a moral obligation, particularly as writers to bear witness to the world and in that sense I guess I’d like to be remembered as a storyteller who was able to serve as a conduit to peoples and cultures that might otherwise have remained voiceless. And I think that’s really a wonderful thing anthropology can do for us.
First edition, leather bound copy of T.E. Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia) Seven Pillars of Wisdom, signed by my grandfather in 1935.
Mask of my face in old age, carved by Simon Dick, superb Kwakwaka’wakw artist, a gift ultimately in exchange for a 1952 chevy that I gave him a decade earlier.
Canoe paddle carved from Sitka Spruce and Brazilian Rosewood, a house gift light as a feather, carved by Geza Burghardt, Canada’s master luthier and the former canoe builder of the Danube. Geza forced into exile had not been back in a canoe for twenty years when he accepted an invitation to our fishing lodge in northern British Columbia.