October 20, 2005


What makes us who we are? (Robert Sapolsky, The Independent, October 19th, 2005)

The dichotomy is between people who live in rainforests and those who live in deserts. Mbuti pygmies versus Middle Eastern bedouins. Amazonian Indians versus nomads of the Sahara or the Gobi. The sorts of cultures they generate have some consistent and permeating differences.

Some starters about religious belief. Who are the polytheistic animists, who are the monotheists? That one's easy. Rainforest dwellers specialise in a proliferation of spirits and gods, whereas monotheism was an invention of the desert. This makes sense. Deserts teach big singular things, like how tough a world it is, a world reduced to simple, furnace-blasted basics. "I am the Lord your God" and "There is but one God and his name is Allah" - diktats like these proliferate. In contrast, think of tropical rainforest people, in a world with a thousand different kinds of edible plants, where you can find more different species of ants on a single tree than you would find in all the British Isles. Letting a thousand deities bloom in the same sort of equilibrium must seem the most natural thing in the world.

What's more, when you do encounter monotheistic rainforest dwellers, they're much less likely to believe that their god sticks his or her nose into other people's business - controlling the weather and so on. And this makes sense, too. Rainforests define balance in both an ecological and cultural sense. If the forest pig evades your spear, there are endless plants to gather nearby instead. In contrast, in the desert, an oasis that dries up can be a death sentence, and a world filled with such uncontrollable disasters inspires the fatalism of desert cultures, breeds a belief in an interventionist god.

The next big difference emerges from the work of Melvin Ember. Desert societies, with their far-flung members tending cattle, are the classic spawning ground for warrior classes. And with them come all the accessories of a militaristic society: military trophies as stepping-stones to societal status, death in battle as a guarantee of a glorious afterlife, chains of command, centralised authority, slavery.

If you are a woman, you'd much rather stay away from those desert folks. The purchasing or indenture of wives is significantly less likely in rainforest cultures. Moreover, related women form the core of a community for a lifetime, rather than being shipped off to wherever marriage-making demands. Among desert cultures, women typically have the difficult tasks of building shelters and searching for water and firewood, while the men contemplate the majesty of their herds and envision their next raid. In contrast, among rainforest cultures, it's the men who are more likely to do the heavy work. And rainforest cultures are less likely to have cultural beliefs about the inferiority of women.

Finally, desert cultures are likely to teach their children to be modest about nudity at an earlier age than in rainforest cultures, and to have more severe strictures against premarital sex.

Which kind of culture would you prefer to get traded to? Desert cultures, with their militarism, stratification, mistreatment of women, and uptightness about sexuality seem pretty unappealing. And yet ours is a planet dominated by the cultural descendants of the desert dwellers. At various points, the desert dwellers have poured out of the Middle East and have defined large parts of Eurasian cultures. Such cultures, in turn, have passed the last 500 years subjugating the native populations of the Americas, Africa and Australia.

As a result, ours is a Judeo-Christian/Muslim world, not a Mbuti-Carib/Trobriand one. So now we have Christians and Jews and Muslims in the wheat fields of Kansas, and in the cantons of the Alps, and in the rainforests of Malaysia.

A post below details how modern luminaries like Karen Armstrong and Margaret Atwood, having built highly successful careers on deconstructing Western culture and revealing its underlying oppressions, are now suddenly lamenting the disappearance of myth, defined as stories that “help people understand the world and to guide them through life.” While it is true that Biblical and classical myths are rapidly disappearing from our shared consciousness and language, myth is very much alive and well in modern times. It’s source is not theology or ancient history but rather the scientific materialism of the Enlightenment, which brooks no competition in epistemological debates and insists that the knowledge it and only it produces comprises the sole reliable reality.

It is very hard to judge to what extent pre-Enlightenment men believed ancient myths were literal history or not. Our sanctimonious attitude to the past leads us to emphasize their putative ignorance and assume they did, even though such a conclusion hardly sits well with the evidence of artists like Shakespeare and countless others. To a certain extent, Judaism and Christianity have always been preoccupied with the boundaries between myth and history. But there is no doubt that our modern myth makers see them as identical, which is why they suffer from the dangerous conceit that they aren’t in the realm of myth at all, only hard objective fact.

Ten minutes of quiet reflection on what we know of the history of both desert and rainforest cultures reveals the idiocy of the passage here, yet it sits so well with the most fundamental modern myth of all–-the inherent evil of Western religion and culture–-that millions of us nod knowingly without a second thought as we go about our daily business. That very few have the knowledge and aptitude to examine these sweeping inanities critically matters not at all. They serve to confirm our modern impulse to cultural abnegation and suicide and thus help us understand the world and guide us through life. Myths will do that for you.

Posted by Peter Burnet at October 20, 2005 6:08 AM

Not claiming to be smart, but it didn't take ten minutes to figure this article was written by an idiot.

Posted by: jdkelly at October 20, 2005 8:40 AM


You are smart, but that isn't what got you to the correct answer. You have wisdom.

Posted by: Luciferous at October 20, 2005 10:08 AM

"Modeest about their nudity"

Yep, that pretty much somes up the argument. It's all about sex for some people.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at October 20, 2005 11:31 AM

Damn't if its this easy to get something printed, and get paid for it, then I'm switching careers.

Posted by: Scof at October 20, 2005 12:06 PM

From the full article:

Attempts to link culture with climate and ecology have an old history [...] Not surprisingly, the first attempts were often [...] howlers of white male racism. Every study seemed to generate irrefutable scientific proof that northern European ecosystems produced superior cultures, more advanced moral, technological, and intellectual development, and better schnitzel.

Except, of course, that it's all true.

The descendants of white Northern Europeans run the world.

Ten minutes of quiet reflection [...] reveals the idiocy of the passage here, yet it sits so well with the most fundamental modern myth of all-the inherent evil of Western religion and culture...

Yet you buy into that myth as well. From the full article:

This is an age that has not only seen an unprecedented extinction of species, but of cultures and languages as well. The [...] places on earth that have the most biodiversity have the most linguistic diversity as well, and those places where biodiversity is most threatened with extinction are where languages and cultures are becoming extinct at the highest rates. And thus the rainforest cultures, with their fragile pluralism born of a lush world of plenty, deliquesce into the raw sewage of the slums of Rio and Lagos and Jakarta.

You, in the past, have seemed to share Mr. Sapolsky's regret, and sense of immorality and unfair play, over the waning and inevitable demise of certain cultures, in your case the incompetent and dysfunctional Arab societies.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2005 4:01 PM

Hmm. Anyone heard of cannibalistic desert cultures?

Posted by: BrianOfAtlanta at October 20, 2005 4:33 PM



Posted by: Peter B at October 20, 2005 5:13 PM