Light at an oblique angle illuminates more than when it is face on an object. Like how I experience moments of clarity while reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance alongside a text completely different in subject matter, intent, and style: the December 2009 National Geographic’s article by Michael Finkel on East Africa’s Hadza, one of the few remaining hunter/gatherer groups on the planet. I was drawn to the article because a few months ago I did some research on the Hadza for a steampunk story I wrote for Volume II of Book View Café’s Shadow Conspiracy to be published later this year.
The Hadza are an anomaly in Africa. Not just because they remain staunchly anti-agrarian, but because they are so amazingly successful. They live a stone’s throw from Olduvai Gorge (or would that be a prehistoric human skull’s throw?) where they have probably lived for 10,000 years. Are they the oldest culture on the planet? Were our ancestors members of the Hadza?
Their language is unrelated to that of any of the groups surrounding them, most of which speak a version of Bantu, (Swahili is just such a version) or a Nilotic (having a connection to the areas around the Nile) tongue. The Hadza truly are alone in the universe.
Neither livestock herders nor crop tenders, the Hadza are considered backwards and unsophisticated by their Bantu- and Nilotic-speaking neighbors. It’s the same sort of attitude that city-dwellers have about farmers, and post-industrialists have about factory workers. We’re all so much more evolved than they, aren’t we?
Coming up with complicated tools and rules, though, is not an indication of intelligence or facility with brain function. In Guns, Germs, and Steel (not part of this mashup, but referenced nonetheless), Jared Diamond noted that the New Guineans, another primitive group, had an impressive amount of information residing in their skulls, much more than he, or anyone he knew, was capable of holding. With our computer memory, pocket calculators, and programmable phones, we have no need of biological memory anymore. The New Guineans’ only mnemonic devices were their individual brains. And what their brains had in them surpassed what any American Idol-watching, football-stadium going, sex-drugs-and-rock&rolling early adopter out there has in theirs.
Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance portrays a civilization well beyond that of the Hadza. With its depiction of one man’s intellectualization to the nth degree, it could almost be considered a look into the post-Singularity world. One wonders if heavy intellectualization will drive us all mad once the Singularity hits. Maybe, instead of passing on our genetic materials, our life’s goal will become overcoming insanity. Or accepting it.
On another level the book is a manifesto for dealing with technology, an urging to embrace it and not separate yourself from it. Pirsig insists there is a bridge between rational thought and intuitive thought. How to build that bridge is anyone’s guess. He went mad thinking about such things, so we’re not left with much help.
The point of all this is that in one instance you have the modern world with its inhabitants thinking dualistically instead of holistically. In the other instance you have a pure holistic culture. The Hadza seem backward and in need of saving. A life without semiconductors is hard and doesn’t have to be that way, we believe. We want them to progress the way we did. We are convinced that our move from the hunt to the plowed field was a step to a better lifestyle. A necessary step, in fact, to get us to the cities where living was even easier. The next stop from the cities, of course, is virtual reality via The Singularity.
For the benefit of our species, we must progress to our manifest destiny where life will finally reach its pinnacle. We are sure of this, but do we really know? The agrarian lifestyle gave us diseases via domesticated animals. City living further weakened our health with its overcrowded conditions. Factory work gave us cancer and industrial accidents. A high tech intellectual lifestyle brings insanity.
Certainly down through the ages, the privileged who never had to sully their hands with pig stys, ghettoes, coal mines, and office drudgery, have felt the benefits of all that social evolution. But most of humanity has not been part of that elite class. Most people had to sully their hands. Even today, most, if not all, of us work for a living. Even if we’re no longer grubbing or doing manual labor, we all still work and work hard. Are we truly better off than our foreparents?
Hunting and Gathering may be the very best lifestyle for the most of us, after all. According to Finkel, the Hadza do not engage in warfare, they rarely have outbreaks of infectious diseases, they are not subject to famine, their diet is “more stable and varied than most of the world’s citizens,” they work only four to six hours a day in the pursuit of necessities, they have an almost non-existent carbon footprint.
The list can go on, but you get the point. In fact, this is nothing new; we know it all already. But we won’t go back to the forests. We would never give up our tech. We need our diversions, our toys, our shiny lights, and high-fructose corn syrup. We want our MTV even if it makes us depressed.
So what do these people, these Hadza do without their MTV? Who knows, but Robert Pirsig has an idea:
“Mental reflection is so much more interesting than TV, it’s a shame more people don’t switch over to it.”