Saturday, January 12, 2013

Relativism and The World Until Yesterday

Anthropologist Wade Davis hates Jared Diamond's latest book, which is about what we modern people might learn from the world's surviving tribal peoples, and in his review he goes after all of Diamond's other books, too:
The other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us. They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? When asked this question, the cultures of the world respond in 7000 different voices, and these answers collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species as we continue this never-ending journey. It is against this backdrop that one must consider the popular but controversial writings of Jared Diamond, a wide-ranging scholar variously described as biogeographer, evolutionary biologist, psychologist, ornithologist and physiologist. In Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond set out to solve what was for him a conundrum. Why was it that some cultures such as our own rose to technological, economic and political predominance, while others such as the Aborigines of Australia did not?

The very premise of Guns, Germs and Steel is that a hierarchy of progress exists in the realm of culture, with measures of success that are exclusively material and technological; the fascinating intellectual challenge is to determine just why the west ended up on top. In the posing of this question, Diamond evokes 19th-century thinking that modern anthropology fundamentally rejects. The triumph of secular materialism may be the conceit of modernity, but it does very little to unveil the essence of culture or to account for its diversity and complexity.

Consider Diamond's discussion of the Australian Aborigines in Guns, Germs and Steel. In accounting for their simple material culture, their failure to develop writing or agriculture, he laudably rejects notions of race, noting that there is no correlation between intelligence and technological prowess. Yet in seeking ecological and climatic explanations for the development of their way of life, he is as certain of their essential primitiveness as were the early European settlers who remained unconvinced that Aborigines were human beings. The thought that the hundreds of distinct tribes of Australia might simply represent different ways of being, embodying the consequences of unique sets of intellectual and spiritual choices, does not seem to have occurred to him.
When I consider what Davis is saying here, I find it true and ridiculous at the same time. I agree that each culture is a different way of being, that each has its own wonders, and that it is foolish to assume our own superiority and imagine that everyone wants to be like us. So far as we can tell, our astonishing civilization, with its technological wizardry and awesome economic productivity, has not made us much happier than our Paleolithic ancestors were. The most amazing thing about humanity may not be the point we have arrived at, but how many different ways of being we have created over the 200,000 years of our existence.

And yet modern culture is at least very different than all others that came before. It has already absorbed hundreds of disparate cultures and tribes and looks set to absorb, and in a sense destroy, all of the rest. Isn't Davis even a little bit curious about how it came to be, and why it arose in one part of the world than in another? I am, and I think it would be an important question even if we all agreed that modern culture was clearly worse than every other.

But is there any sense in which modernity is clearly superior to what came before? I think there is. First, modern technology has allowed the existence of billions more people than could ever have lived without technological progress. Davis is very eloquent about what an amazing thing each culture is, but what about each person? We have also greatly expanded the range of our knowledge. Thanks to anthropology and history, I know something about dozens of different cultures; if each culture is an amazing thing, isn't our ability to learn about many different ones something good? What about some of other creations, like democracy, human rights, equal legal standing for women, and so on; does Wade see any value in those? Wade writes,
The goal of the anthropologist is not just to decipher the exotic other, but also to embrace the wonder of distinct and novel cultural possibilities, that we might enrich our understanding of human nature and just possibly liberate ourselves from cultural myopia, the parochial tyranny that has haunted humanity since the birth of memory.
If anthropology presents us with the possibility of escaping from a narrow-mindedness that has troubled us from our origins, doesn't that at least open the possibility of our creating a society better than any than any that came before? As many people have noted, pure relativism is self-refuting, since the relativist would have to admit that cultures insisting on their own cultural superiority are equal to his own worldly way. Any real ethical system has to recognize that some acts are right and others wrong, and therefore to postulate that some societies at least could be better than others.

Wade also seems bothered by the premise of Diamond's latest book:
Traditional societies do not exist to help us tweak our lives as we emulate a few of their cultural practices. They remind us that our way is not the only way.
I found this huffiness off-putting. All cultures borrow from other cultures; is there something wrong with our copying practices from people in New Guinea? Doesn't that rather represent the open-mindedness that Wade wants to praise? Wade also seems, to use an awful word, to reify culture, that is, to turn it into a pure thing that never changes and is subject to no differences of interpretation. I dispute this. I think that many cultures have existed in states of flux, have hosted rival schools of thought, have experienced violent upheaval and even civil war over cultural questions. Change is part of culture, not a violation of it.

I think that humanity's cultural diversity is a splendid thing. But I am suspicious of anyone who has so suspended his own moral judgment that he cannot single out practices in other cultures for condemnation, or recognize the unique achievement of modernity.

I wonder whether Wade thinks there is any sort of cosmic point to our existence. To many scientists, the point of humanity is to know; through our intelligence, they believe, the universe becomes aware of itself. And of course religious believers think that over the millennia we have become more aware of God and his teachings. What does Wade think?


Miri boheme said...

I think Wade is reaching in this criticism of Diamond. Diamond seems to go out of his way to avoid making qualitative judgment on any culture he discusses. I understand what Wade is trying to say, though, and I certainly agree that we all must be careful in that regard.

What I'm getting from your post is that it might be okay to judge other cultures as right or wrong in some cases, and to "emulate" those practices we find beneficial to ourselves. Is this right? I agree that cultures have borrowed from one another for millions of years. This is a big factor in our survival, I believe. I'm not convinced that we should be passing judgment on each other, though, as that can lead to empiricism. Am I not understanding you?

John said...

Yes, that's what I'm saying. That, and trying to sort out my reaction to Wade's defensive relativism.