The Value of The Ethnosphere

09 November 2020 in Resource Center.

This resource condenses, contextualizes, and explores a nearly two hour video featuring Wade Davis to exemplify a way to open the world of video lectures to people pursuing collaborative comprehensivism, learning in groups to understand the world ever more extensively and ever more intensively. It examines a poignant topic that reveals an important source of learning for comprehensivists. It further illuminates fundamental issues involved in establishing the new tradition of comprehensivism.

This enthralling Wade Davis presentation is itself a condensation of five 2009 Massey Lectures which were published as the book “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World”.

The Value of Other Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Being

Wade Davis introduces the concept of the Ethnosphere as the cultural analogue of the biosphere, the zone of all biological life. So the Ethnosphere is the zone of the cultural lives of all peoples. In the highlighted video Davis reflects on his travels in the Ethnosphere. From him we learn the value of many ways of knowing, doing, and being of peoples all around the world.

We learn that the Polynesians navigated nearly one fifth of the Earth’s surface before the first crusade (late in the eleventh century) including the widely separated Hawaiʻi, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the Pacific well before radio let alone GPS and without a marine chronometer, sextant, or compass. Davis explains that Polynesian sailors “can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching and studying the reverberation of waves across the hull of the vessel knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its own unique refractive pattern that can be read with the same perspicacity with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint.”

What incredible know-how and without the technologies our tradition depends on for navigation!

We learn from Davis the vital importance of sharing among the Penan who were the last hunter-gatherers in Malaysia before they were forced to settle. We learn how the Inuit creatively use the cold as a technology for life. We learn how Vodou acolytes convene with the dead in acts that defy pain.

We learn from Davis that Tibetan Buddhism is the “science of the mind” for “what is science but the empirical pursuit of the truth, what is Buddhism but 2500 years of direct observation as to the nature of mind.”

We learn that the Amazon isn’t a dark Jungle whose biodiversity sits on top of poor soil, but the home to a once thriving civilization of many millions whose descendants, the peoples of the Anaconda, know how to farm sustainably as they have cultivated a dark, fertile soil many meters thick.

We learn about the work of ethnobotantists, like Wade Davis himself, who have brought to our science knowledge of drugs and medicines that indigenous peoples have used for ages.

Davis explains that ayahuasca, the vine of the soul, “is actually a combination of the leaves … of a nondescript plant in the coffee family, chock full of tryptamines, and the bark of a nondescript woody liana filled with these curious β-Carbolines harmine and harmaline which turned out to be MAO [monoamine oxidases] inhibitors of the precise sort necessary to potentiate the tryptamines.”

Davis then asks, “How in a flora of 80,000 species of vascular plants, did the indigenous peoples learn to combine these two morphologically distinct denizens of the rainforest in this powerful synergistic way?” Given the astronomical number of possible combinations, it is not possible to have been luck or trial-and-error discovery. Not only did we harvest potatoes, tomatoes, and maize from indigenous knowledge but many if not most of our drugs have been acquired from indigenous knowledge co-opted by science with the plagiarism “we derived it from extracts of the rainforests”.

Given that our science still cannot explain many of these, evidently superior ways of knowing, it is arrogant, imperial, and colonial to assume that somehow our progress is greater than theirs. As Davis observes, each of Earth’s peoples has had between 2500 and 3500 generations since the great diaspora from Africa some 50-70,000 years ago. All Earth’s peoples have had the same number of generations to form their cultures, they are all equally advanced! As Wade Davis emphasizes,

The other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being us, they are unique answers to this fundamental question ‘What does it mean to be human and alive?’

— Wade Davis

The British knew about the Aborigines when they started settling Australia in 1788. Since they could not see the indigenous dwellings in the bush, they arrogantly and imperially assumed terra nullius, literally nobody’s land, which by European colonial ethics could be seized without cause. To survive in the bush the indigenous Australians did not need the kind of structures Europeans recognized as worthy of land rights. Pray tell, what kind of arrogance is it to fail to realize that knowing how to survive naked in the bush without any provisions is more useful, more resilient, and less expensive than requiring multiple supply lines to survive in an unfamiliar place half a world from home?

We learn from Wade Davis,

A language, by definition, is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material realm. Every language […] is an old growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of social, spiritual, political possibilities.

— Wade Davis

Each language is a way of knowing and being in the world. But Davis warns that many languages are no longer taught to children and will likely vanish along with the unique insights they provided into the possibilities of being human. Our cultural heritage is always fragile and tenuous.

We learn from Davis about “sacred geography” where the potency of one’s beliefs affects one’s relationship with place. So cultures that see the Earth as alive with mutual spiritual obligations between people and the sacred beings of mountains, forests, and streams engender a profound reverence for geography where our moral system sees only profitable ore, board feet of timber, and bottled water. This is the front line of the great on-going colonial battle between the freedom of the corporate person to do whatever is legal versus the freedom of a people to live their sacred values on their own terms.

What is the integrated meaning of these and the other stories Wade Davis shares in his Long Now presentation which condensed his five Massey Lectures? Davis observes,

It’s culture that allows us to make sense out of sensation, to find order and meaning in the Universe.

— Wade Davis

It is not science, but culture that defines the heart of human knowing, doing, and being. Davis emphasizes this realization with his definition of the Ethnosphere:

the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, ideas and myths, intuitions and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness.

— Wade Davis

What do you think? Is there value in other ways of knowing, doing, and being? Is there value in the Ethnosphere? Do all peoples and all cultures have ways of knowing, doing, and being that we should include, accommodate, and celebrate as we strive to understand it all as comprehensivists?

Comprehensivism and the Ethnosphere

There are profound consequences in coming to seriously value and appreciate the ancient wisdom recounted by Wade Davis. We may begin to realize that to make our knowledge sound, we need to systematically compare and contrast it with alternative ways of knowing, doing, and being. We need to carefully examine our metaphysical assumptions (our first principles), our ontological assumptions (the nature of being and the nature of reality), and our epistemic virtues (the values used to judge the reliability of our knowledge) to ensure we are not arrogantly, imperially, colonially, and violently imposing one way of knowing upon others.

For the comprehensivist striving to understand our worlds and its peoples, the Ethnosphere provides a comprehensive inventory of the wisdom and possibilities we need to assess and evaluate our knowledge in the broadest context possible. Gradually we may realize that the Ethnosphere provides this vital resource for any effort to comprehensively “understand all and put everything together” as Buckminster Fuller put it. The Ethnosphere delimits the scope of our comprehensivist learning. Suddenly, we realize the Ethnosphere is the source of all our comprehensivist knowing.

But, in the resource Humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action the source of comprehensivist knowing was given as all Humanity’s traditions which are communicated from person to person and generation to generation. Is Davis’ definition of the Ethnosphere as “the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, ideas and myths, intuitions and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness” equivalent to the notion of Humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action?

And, in the resource The Comprehensive Thinking of R. Buckminster Fuller, we scoped the range of comprehensivist knowing with Bucky’s definition of Universe as “the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience”.

Sources for Comprehensivist Learning ➀ Humanity's Traditions of Inquiry and Action ➁ Bucky's definition of Universe as "the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience" ➂ Wade Davis' definition of the Ethnosphere as "the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, ideas and myths, intuitions and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness" ➃ Some other possibility ➄ The integral of all possibilities

So, we now have these three proposed ways to scope the knowing of the comprehensivist. Are these three equivalent? What are the differences among them? How are we to characterize the sources for comprehensivist learning?

As aspiring comprehensivists, we need to know where we might look for our data, our evidence, and our ideas. We need to know the kinds of working objects used in comprehensivist inquiry and action. We need to know the tools available for building our nascent tradition. There is no established tradition of comprehensivism to consult. There is no instruction book to consult. We are the pioneers of this new tradition.

Can we determine the source of our learning theoretically? Or do we need to figure it out empirically by organizing dozens of groups each pursuing comprehensivism in their own way so we can eventually assess their relative merits?

How are we to forge comprehensivism as a new practice, a new tradition of inquiry and action? What sources for our learning should we consider? Should we prefer the prosaic “traditions of inquiry and action”? Should we prefer Bucky’s cosmic intellectual Universe? Should we prefer the enchanting Ethnosphere of Wade Davis? Are all three sources essentially the same? What differences are there between them? Should we search for yet another approach? Should we engage all possibilities as an integral source?

I do not yet see a crystal clear answer. So, let’s collaborate to forge the answer together. What are your insights for better identifying the sources for comprehensivist learning? What do you think?

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 18 November 2020 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 1h 30m video from the 18 November 2020 event:

Expanding Our Resource Center

The Collaborating for Comprehensivism Resource Center provides essays like the one above to foster the formation of a new tradition of inquiry and action that strives to consider with ever increasing depth and breadth more and more of Humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action, more and more of the Ethnosphere, and more and more of the Universe of all Humanity’s communicated experience.

Condensations of video lectures as provided in this resource enable participants to explore a topic in more depth by highlighting and contextualizing key ideas for focused group examination. In a previous resource, we exemplified condensing a book for the same purpose. We hope these resources inspire you to participate in or organize a session to foster our comprehensivity, our facility for learning that is “macro-comprehensive and micro-incisive” as Buckminster Fuller puts it.

Let us know how you can help us build this pioneering new tradition.

Finally, contact us to join our announcements mailing list.

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

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CJ Fearnley

There has been a lengthy discussion of this essay on Facebook:

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