I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world


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Authentic culture?

I’ve recently been writing about the theme of Otherness and in a couple of previous posts I mentioned the work of photographer Jimmy Nelson and his beautiful and thought-provoking Before They Pass Away photo documentation of the world’s last indigenous tribes.

As I’d hoped, my own reflections have sparked the beginnings of some interesting conversation on Otherness! I hope it continues because it is a fascinating topic and one that is incredibly relevant in our increasingly inter-connected and globalized world.

One idea I’ve seen crop up a couple of times now is that of authenticity. Both Jimmy Nelson, in his TED talk and other writings, as well as a friend of mine, have commented on the fact that tribal societies have an authenticity that we in the developed world have lost. Their cultures are more authentic than ours, and consequently their lives seem to be more meaningful.

I find this to be an interesting concept – one worth discussing and defining further.

First of all, what do we mean by ‘authentic’ in the context of cultures?

I, for one, take it to mean something that is ‘real’, ‘not a copy,’ ‘genuine’, perhaps also the opposite of ‘fake’.

So, is it accurate to say that tribal cultures are more ‘real’ than developed, first-world cultures? For example, is US culture or British culture or Japanese culture less ‘authentic’, meaning ‘less real’, ‘less genuine’, ‘more fake’?

I am coming from a Western perspective myself, and I think may of us in the West look to cultures around the world – particularly in developing countries, and perhaps most especially in tribal cultures – as being more authentic and a sort of remnant of an idealized past that we can no longer access in modern North America and Western Europe. But if that is the case, then when did North American and Western European cultures cease to be ‘real’ and ‘authentic’? How could we define the shift from authentic to inauthentic when discussing the history and culture of the West?

Maasai family - authentic culture?

Maasai family – authentic culture?

tv family

1950s American family – inauthentic culture?

My first thought in response to these questions is that we may consider Western culture as being less authentic because we see so much of our culture being heavily influenced by modern materialism, advertising and marketing, by machines, industry, and all sorts of advanced technology. Most of us watch TV, we drive cars, we eat processed food, we might not spend much time in nature, probably don’t grow our own food or raise farm animals. There are chemicals and preservatives in much of what we eat. Because of these characteristics of our Western modern culture, we may feel we live in a more ‘artificial’ and ‘less authentic’ way.

A friend of mine wrote an interesting comment to some of my previous questions about why we are attracted to images and information about Others, particularly those who live in tribal societies. Here she mentions the view that tribal cultures are more authentic as a reason why we are interested in Others. Now I’ll let her speak for herself and quote her in full here:

Personally I think [we are interested in learning about Others because of] the desire for meaning and seeing worlds where things are made by hands. We have destroyed our connection to every aspect of living. We don’t make things, our tools, our food… even the milk westerners feed their babies is a powdered manufactured chemical. We don’t go on hikes, we watch strangers hiking on TV. To see people who have meaning and authenticity in the things they do, the way they dress… it’s become the stuff of legend in the west. It’s loved and loathed equally. If I knit a hat from fiber I spun myself people are either amazed or they laugh and say ‘why? Go to Walmart and buy a hat for a dollar!” We live in a manufactured meaningless world, we look at these cultures with a desperate longing like an orphan sees a complete family (functional or not).

I have so much more to say on this topic, but it certainly won’t fit all into one blog post. So, I’ll leave you with some questions to consider instead.

How do we define what is ‘authentic’ in human culture? What do we consider to be the essential elements of a true and meaningful culture?

Is it true and fair to say that modern Western cultures are no longer authentic?

Is it true that tribal cultures are essentially different from developed world cultures, or are all humans everywhere just doing the same sorts of things, albeit in different ways, and with different materials, in both tribal and developed-world cultures?

Have modern cultures irreparably lost something essential, or are the elements of tribal cultures that we value still available to us in our modern lifestyle?

Is it possible to fully live in the modern, technologically advanced, increasingly urbanized world and still have an ‘authentic’ culture?

If you’d like to join in the conversation, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

 

*NOTE: I find it difficult to chose terminology to use when discussing a topic like this. How do we chose between terms like ‘indigenous’, ‘tribal’, ‘traditional’ to describe cultures? I feel like all are a bit inadequate, and also are loaded with stereotypes, value judgement and assumptions – and they probably also have different meanings for different people. The problem is the same with trying to write about the ‘opposite’ of tribal cultures – we can use terms like ‘developed” or ‘first-world’ (as opposed to ‘developing’ or ‘third world’), or we can talk about ‘modern’ cultures (although in reality, any tribal society in existence today is also ‘modern’ and has been evolving just as long as any other non-tribal culture!). And here I also talk about Western culture as being sort of synonymous with ‘modern’ or ‘developed’, but obviously, there are many other countries that are modern and developed but not Western, such as Japan and South Korea, just to name a few. So, I’d just like to point out the flaws in my own use of terminology and bring up the fact that all the terms we use to discuss cultures in this way are loaded with biases, generalizations and assumptions. I’m just trying to do the best I can to be understood while discussing an incredibly complex topic, so please forgive my shortcomings!


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The wonders of the universe

I stumbled across this great astronomy site today. There is an amazing collection of astronomy photos from various photographers around the world, each with a brief descriptions by a professional astronomer. It sounds incredible, but it looks like there is a photo for every day of the year, each year, since June 1995!

Click here to check out the Astronomy Picture of the Day. Enjoy some amazing images of our wonderful universe!

 

 


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Fascinating insights into elephant intelligence and culture

Her’s an interesting piece of reading for the day. The capabilities of animals never ceases to amaze me!

Elephants recognize the voices of their enemies: African elephants can distinguish human languages, genders and ages associated with danger | NATURE

File:Serengeti Elefantenherde2.jpg

Female African elephants


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Do we inherit the suffering of our ancestors?

I’ve recently come across a number of articles on the subject of epigenetics. According to LiveScience, epigenetics ‘literally means “above” or “on top of” genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes “on” or “off.” These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells “read” genes.

Studies have seemed to show that the effects of things like stress, obesity, and living through famine or war can be passed on from parents to children, and perhaps even to grandchildren and beyond. The effects of these experiences on a parent can alter the way genes are turned on or off in the DNA of one’s offspring. So, in my lay person understanding, it seems that parents might not just pass on their basic genetic material to their children, but also residual effects of certain life experiences.

I’m not going to pretend to understand it all, and I’m certainly not going to try and explain what I’ve read. It’s a bit too complex for me, and I think I’ll need to give these articles a few more readings to better get my head around the information. But this certainly adds a whole new layer to the way we think about genetic inheritance and the effects parents have on their children and future descendent. Our experiences, life style choices, and physical and mental health may be even more important to those who come after us than we previously thought.

If you’d like to read more, here are a few recent articles on epigenetics:

The Economist Explains: What is Epigenetics? | The Economist

Epigenetics: The Sins of the Father | NATURE

Can Children Inherit Stress? | New York Times

Poisoned Inheritance | The Economist


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Beautiful giants

The blue whale, the largest animal that’s ever lived, dwarfing even the largest dinosaurs. Mind-boggling!

(Although I’ve never actually met one) I find something about whales so charismatic, so enchanting. Maybe it sounds a bit strange to describe a whale that way, but there, I’ve said it.

They are intelligent, seem to exude a sort of calm elegance, and their size – particularly that of the blue whale – boggles the mind. Images of whales peacefully soaring through blue seas, singing to each other, is just so soothing and captures my imagination.

Here is a clip from the series Blue Planet, in which David Attenborough shares some amazing facts about these wonderful creatures. Somehow, contemplating the existence of these whales is a humbling experience and makes me feel very small and insignificant, in a good way. Nothing like Nature’s wonders to remind us of our place in the grand scheme of things!