Half of All Languages Endangered

Wade Davis says 'agents of cultural destruction' must become 'facilitators of cultural survival'

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Before joining the Department of Anthropology as a professor at the University of British Columbia, Wade Davis spent 15 years with National Geographic. With multiple best-selling and award-winning books on culture, and a portfolio of stunning photographs, it’s easy to see why this professional speaker calls himself a storyteller. Having traveled the world, Davis has come back home to Canada knowing that each culture defines a unique way to be human and alive.

We now know that all human beings are related. Genetics has proven that we all share common ancestry. Over time, many cultures have thrived, but in modern society, there is pressure to conform.

“You know, the curse of humanity is cultural myopia,” says Davis. “It has haunted us since the dawn of consciousness. It’s the idea that I’m the real world and you’re a crude facsimile of me. Every culture shares this. If you look at the name from most indigenous people, it translates as the people. The implication is that when you look upon the hill, are savages beyond the pale.”

Sadly, we are living at a time when many cultures are fading. Within a generation, half of all human languages could be lost. Language is about more than just words and grammar. Language is an important vehicle that conveys a way of thinking and the heart of a culture, and represents a connection to our intellectual, social, and spiritual legacy. But Davis knows that this loss does not have to happen.

“We are at this literal cusp in history where we could be losing half of our legacy, but that does not have to happen,” says Davis. “These cultures aren’t destined to fade away, as if by natural law. In every case they have been driven out of existence by identifiable forces and that’s actually an optimistic observation because if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can be the facilitators of cultural survival.”

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Prof. Wade Davis is Professor of Anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. Between 1999 and 2013 he served as Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and is currently a member of the NGS Explorers Council. Named by the NGS as one of the Explorers for the Millennium, he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” An ethnographer, writer, photographer and filmmaker, Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among fifteen indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations while making some 6000 botanical collections. His work later took him to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies, an assignment that led to his writing The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986), an international best seller later released by Universal as a motion picture. In recent years his work has taken him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Australia, Colombia, Vanuatu, Mongolia and the high Arctic of Nunuvut and Greenland. He is the recipient of ten honorary degrees. Davis is the author of 230 scientific and popular articles and 17 books including One River (1996), The Wayfinders (2009), The Sacred Headwaters (2011), Into the Silence (2011) and River Notes (2012). His photographs have been widely exhibited and have appeared in 30 books and 100 magazines, including National Geographic, Time, Geo, People, Men’s Journal, and Outside. He was the co-curator of The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes, first exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and currently touring Latin America. In 2012 he served as guest curator of No Strangers: Ancient Wisdom in the Modern World, an exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. His many film credits include Light at the Edge of the World, an eight-hour documentary series written and produced for the National Geographic. In 2009 he received the Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for his contributions to anthropology and conservation, and he is the 2011 recipient of the Explorers Medal, the highest award of the Explorers’ Club, and the 2012 David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration. His book, Into the Silence, received the 2012 Samuel Johnson prize, the top award for literary nonfiction in the English language. A professional speaker for 25 years, Davis has lectured at over 200 universities and 250 corporations and professional associations. In 2009 he delivered the CBC Massey Lectures. He has spoken from the main stage at TED five times, and his three posted talks have been viewed by 3 million. His books have appeared in 19 languages and sold approximately one million copies.