daniel_l_everett's picture
Linguistic Researcher; Dean of Arts and Sciences, Bentley University; Author, How Language Began
Researcher of Pirahã Culture; Chair of Languages, Literatures, & Cultures, Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology, Illinois State Universi

Humans Will Learn to Learn From Diversity

I am optimistic that humans might finally come to understand that they can learn from other humans who are not like them. The supposed 'curse' of the Tower of Babel, the diversity of languages and cultures, is perhaps our greatest hope for continued healthy occupancy of this rock we all share in our unforgiving universe. Sure, there are dangers in this diversity that have led to murder and suffering. Diversity can all too easily be interpreted as 'incomprehensibility, inferiority, wrong-headedness'. But I am optimistic that our species has grown tired of this view of diversity. And I am optimistic that groups we have heard very little from will motivate us all to learn new solutions to old problems in the coming years.

However we define the group to which we belong, ethnically, geographically, linguistically, or nationally, I believe that 2007 could be the year in which we come to embrace a symmetry of status between groups and a cross-pollination of ways of living and ways of thinking about the world. 

Let me say what I think it means for people groups to learn from one another and then why I am optimistic about it.

The world presents us all with similar problems at the level of biological and emotional need. We need shelter, food, companionship, affection, sex, and opportunities to develop our abilities, among other things. As humans we also have intellectual and social needs that go beyond other species. We need affirmation, we need respect, we need to feel good about our lives, we need to feel like we are useful, and we need to feel optimistic. And we need to know how to get more meaning out of the world around us. And, especially, we need to learn to love more and tolerate more. But how do we learn these things? Where can we go for new ideas for the problems we are still beset by in 2007? Anthropological linguistics can offer some suggestions. We can learn from the stories and values of smaller, overlooked groups, endangered peoples, and even extinct peoples that we have records of, about how to live more harmoniously in the world.

For example, when we look back to the now extinct cultures of the Narragansett Indians the Northeastern British colonies in the early 18th century and before, we learn about their tolerance of difference. When Increase Mather and his father Cotton Mather expulsed Roger Williams from the colony of Massachusetts in 1735, during a ferocious winter, Mather expected Williams to do the right thing and freeze to death. Williams had expressed views of tolerance and respect for others and against tenets of the church of Mather that Mather and Governor Winthrop found intolerable. But Williams was taken in by the Narragansett and spent the winter safely with them, learning about their language and their philosophy of tolerance, of which he was living proof. When Williams later wrote about these people, his writings influenced the thought of Thomas Jefferson and eventually the Narragansett philosophy seems to have influenced, though indirectly, the writings and thought of William James as he helped to develop American Pragmatism, perhaps the only uniquely American contribution to world philosophy — a philosophy that evaluates ideas by their usefulness, by their tolerance of diverse ideas, and by their rejection of the idea that any one group holds a monopoly on Truth.

We have spent most of our existence on this planet in an attempt to homogenize it. To remove uncomfortable differences. But I believe that we are growing weary of this. I believe that this year the hurt and pain that our species is inflecting on itself will surpass, for many of us at least, what we are willing to bear. We are going to look for other answers. And we are going to need to turn to humans who have mastered the art of contentment and peace and tolerance. These people are found in various parts of the world. Zen Buddhists are one example. But there are others.

My thirty years of work with the Pirahãs (pee-da-HANs) of the Amazon rain forest, for example, has taught me a great deal about their remarkable lack of concern about the future or the past and their pleasure in living one day at a time, without fear of an afterlife, with full tolerance for others' beliefs. The Pirahãs know that people die, that they suffer, that life is not easy, through their daily struggle to provide food for their families without being bitten by snakes or eaten by jaguars and from loved ones they bury young, dead from malaria and other diseases. But this doesn't dampen their joy of life, their love for other Pirahãs or their ability to look at death without fear and without need for the idea of heaven to get them through this life, to them the only life.

Religions have a concept of Truth that lacks tolerance, a Truth that wants to missionize the world to eliminate diversity of belief. Western history has shown what that leads to. But peoples like the Narragansett, the Pirahãs, Zen Buddhists, and many others offer alternatives to homogenizing and destroying the diversity of the world. They show us how different people can solve the same problems of life in ways that can avoid some of the by-products of the violent homogenization of Western history. I believe that the impact of the internet and of rapid dissemination of research in popular and professional forums, coupled with widespread disgust at some of the things that our traditional cultural values have produced, can be the basis for learning from other peoples.

What is there to learn? Let me give some examples from my own field research among Amazonian peoples.

Cooperation: I once thought it might be fun to teach the Pirahã people about Western games. So I organized a 'field day', with a tug of war, a foot race, and a sack race, among other things. In the foot race, one Pirahã fellow got out in front of everyone else. He then stopped and waited for all the others to catch up so they could cross together. The idea of winning was not only novel but unappealing. We cross the line together or I don't cross it. And the same went for the sack race. The tug of war contest was a joke — just guys keeping the slack out of the rope talking. The people loved it all, laughing and conversing all day and told me they had a good time. They taught me more than I ever taught them: you can have a great time and have everyone win. That is not a bad lesson. That is a fine lesson.

Pluralism: The Pirahãs, like the Narragansett and other American Indians, believe that you use your knowledge to serve yourself and to serve others in your community. There is no over-arching concept of Truth to which all members of society must conform.

Communalism: The Pirahãs seem to accept only knowledge that helps, not knowledge that coerces. Think of our English expression 'knowledge is power'. The concept as practiced in most industrial societies is really that 'knowledge is power for me so long as I have it and you don't'. But to many peoples like the Pirahãs, knowledge is something for us all to share. It is power to the people, not power to a person. The Pirahãs don't allow top secret conversations. Every member of their society knows what every other member is doing and how they are doing it. There is a communal mind. There is freedom and security in group knowledge.

Toleration: In Western society we associate tolerance with education — the more you learn, the more you tolerate. But there is little evidence for this thesis when we look at our society as a whole (where education is even compatible with religious fundamentalism, one of the worst dangers for the future of our species). Yet among some hunter-gatherer societies, toleration of physical, mental, and religious diversity can be much greater than our so-called pluralistic Western societies. Not everyone has to look alike, act alike, behave alike, or believe alike. In fact, they don't even have to pretend to do so.
In the 1960s there was a similar optimism among my fellow hippies, as many of my generation went into fields like anthropology, literature, and science to learn more about diverse facts and truths and to give us a cornucopia of coping lessons for life. We are ready now for a new 60s-like exploration of diversity and I am optimistic that we will do this. I am optimistic that we will learn the simple and useful truths of cooperation, pluralism, communalism, and toleration and that no one Idea or Truth should be the ring to bind us all.