Review: The Wayfinders

The Wayfinders
The Wayfinders by Wade Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Davis sets out in this book to prove the value of ancient wisdom to the modern world. The great hurdle he must overcome to do this is the great superstition of the present age: that newer always means better. Derived from this supposition are modern man’s cocksure belief in his own superiority over his forefathers and the disdain with which he treats his heritage. Though these hurdles do cripple modern man and must be overcome and though Davis gives us a fascinating attempt at that, ultimately he fails to accomplish his goal.

Davis’s ultimate failure in proving his point is largely the consequence of avoiding addressing it head-on until the final lecture. After a series of lectures in which Davis presents us with a pathetic set of descriptions of various examples of the Noble Savage and attempts, as is usually the case with such presentations, to wow us with his amazing prowess as a hunter/gatherer/navigator/animal tamer/navigator/[insert skill set here], he suddenly switches gears in the final lecture. He commits the unforgivable sin of non-fiction writing and offers us a surprise conclusion with a new focus on global warming.

Perhaps the greatest problem with Davis’s lectures is his apparent disdain for his own culture, the only culture which provides anthropologists with an inclination to preserve minority cultures and a concern about the negative impact of certain technologies. On pages 216-7, Davis lists the various cultures he has discussed in his lectures and which he believes can provide the wisdom the modern world needs to overcome its current crisis, including Tibetans, Polynesians, Inuits, the descendants of Incas, and others. Notably absent from this list are any Western cultures, and yet these cultures, and the greatr cultural entity of Western Civilization, are equally endangered. Cultural literacy is at an all-time low and the very treatment Davis gives to Western culture in this book is evidence of the lack of esteem in which its own denizens and products hold it. If we wish to save the cultures of Tibet and the Andes and to cultivate an authentic appreciation for these cultures, perhaps the best place to begin is by rediscovering our own culture and developing an admiration for it. This admiration should, of course, be one that recognizes the limitations of our culture, but it should be an admiration nonetheless. The identification of scientism, materialism, and colonialism with the full range and depth of Western Civilization is false and fatal.

Davis does a good job of making the point that every culture says something unique and valuable about the human experience. If he would have finished this thought by applying it to his own culture, the book would have come full circle. If a conference of cultures and a renewal of received wisdom are what are called for, surely the Bible, Greece, and Rome have places of honor.

Davis’s lectures are entertaining, enlightening, and engaging. They are filled throughout with insightful anecdotes and interesting stories. I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in anthropology. In spite of its shortcomings, this book does make for some very good reading.

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