The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Tyson Yunkaporta. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest on this Currents episode is Tyson Yunkaporta.
Tyson: How you going, Jim? No howdy today? Usually, it’s howdy!
Jim: Howdy. That’s on the pre-roll, the howdy. I picked that up when I was living in Idaho, out in actually sheepherder country and all the local people said, “Howdy.” And I picked it up and I’ve used it every since and when I lived in Boson, people looked at me like I was the man from the moon when I said, “Howdy.” But that’s the way it goes.
Jim: Howdy, Tyson.
Jim: Tyson’s an academic, an arts critic and a researcher who is a member of the Apalech Clan in Far North Queensland. He carves traditional indigenous tools and weapons out of wood, mostly, and also works as a senior lecturer in Indigenous Knowledges at Deacon University in Melbourne. And he lives in Melbourne, at least most of the time.
Jim: Tyson’s been on the show twice previously where we have dug into his remarkable new book, Sand Talk. And, as always, we’ll have a link to Sand Talk on the episode page at jimruttshow.com. If you care about the future of humanity, read this book. In fact, Jim Rutt says “Read Sand Talk, or I’ll kick your ass.” How about that for a blurb?
Tyson: That’s an endorsement. That’s going on the cover of the next edition, that one.
Jim: I’ve got to tell you, send that one to your publisher and say that that, in the next printing, that’s got to be on the back cover.
Jim: Now, seriously people. This is not only a must read book for anybody who cares about the future of humanity, but it’s also a great work of art. I’m serious about this. It’s not linear, it’s not a list of the 13 things you can do to save the planet. It’s a beautiful weaving of Tyson’s personal story, the story of the people of Australia, the people of the world, the craziness of the world, complexity, indigenous knowledge, all woven together into an astounding tapestry. If you read one book this year, read Sand Talk.
Jim: But now, let’s get into the topic of today. Since I read the book and had those two wonderful conversations with Tyson, one idea from the book in particular has pulled at me. It just keeps pulling me back and making me look at it again and again, so I reached out to Tyson and said, “Let’s just talk about this one topic.” And that’s a topic which he calls, Humans as the Custodial Species of the Earth. So what do you mean by that?
Tyson: Well, this a foundational understanding in most of our aboriginal cultures and [inaudible 00:03:13] cultures in Australia. And most of our creation stories culminate in human beings being given this role, of human beings passed this knowledge and this lore from our creator entities of how to be in the world, and what your role is and how your maintaining this custodial relation with all of creation.
Jim: Of course, the Christian cannon also has that when they kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, good old Yahweh says, “You will have dominion over everybody,” and it’s kind of ugly, frankly. I’m not sure I like that model of a custodial species. Do you have a better one?
Tyson: Yeah, well the dominion’s a different thing. Even the word custodial is about as close as you can get in English to it. It brings to mind ideas of custody and like you’re holding, capturing, trapping this nature. And that’s not quite the idea. But most people have an idea of what custodianship is. And it’s a bit of a light hand and something that has to be deeply considered and has to be governed by more natural law than anything else.
Jim: And what is it you think that allows or permits or demands, maybe is a better word that humans be that custodial species? Could it be, again, I do a lot of work in cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience and there does sure seem to be a pretty bright line between the mental and reasoning capabilities of homo sapiens and all the other species. We’re the only one that has what we call general intelligence; given enough time and enough paper, we can figure out almost anything.
Jim: That’s very different than the other animals. Is that what makes us the ones who are the custodians? Or, is there something [crosstalk 00:05:30] about humans?
Tyson: If you look at most of the other beings in the system, in a complex, dynamic system, they’re largely concerned with their niche and the relation of that niche to the other things around it, with the exception of some things like mycelium and that sort of thing, which tends to be a big sort of underground, almost internet, that goes through the entire system and communicates things in real time right across, say a forest, or whatever.
Tyson: Mycelia, they don’t have opposable thumbs, you know?
Jim: Yeah. And they don’t have symbolic reasoning and they don’t have discrete memory. They do have a chemical memory. Mycelium are very, very interesting.
Tyson: They really are.
Jim: But they lack a lot in the ability to generalize and look at the really big picture and also to work, to even understand the idea of depth of time. I was looking at my dog the other day and he’s a pretty damn smart dog as dogs go, but he has definite limitations. For instance, in this place we’re renting in Pittsburgh for a few weeks here, waiting for a grandchild to show up, we walked the dog around the block and he has not yet figured out that… We go out the back door, through the alley and then around the city block, he hasn’t figured out that the front door and the back door are somehow related.
Jim: But humans have the capability to do that very easily. A four year old figures that out in one day.
Tyson: Yeah, well I guess they’re specialists, aren’t they? A lot of animals are specialists whereas we’re more generalists.
Jim: Yeah. But [inaudible 00:07:24], there’s clearly a difference in our capability, so, “Hey, we’re the ones who are the only ones that really can be responsible-”
Tyson: Well, we can see, like our minds are such that we’re able to perceive the entire system, if we really do put our minds to work the way they were designed to be. We can perceive an entire complex system, but we can also perceive the systems beyond that system and they way they interact. So I guess it’s that unique capacity, we would say we’ve been given by the hero ancestors and the creation entities. We’ve been given those gifts particularly, so that we can be that custodial species.
Tyson: So there’s a dreaming story in western Australia, they talk about there was a big meeting. Everything, all the trees, the plants, the animals and humans who were in there, when they were sitting down at the moment of creation to decide who the carers for everything were going to be. So that’s the language they used. Now, they call it the carers of everything.
Tyson: So who was going to care for all of this and oversee it? It went through each of the traits of each animal and the trees were like, “Well, we can’t move around.” And the kangaroo came really close, apparently. But he just had these shitty little arms. And they weren’t quite going to do it, so it ended up being the human beings. They had that capacity. And the hands are really important. They have a really big significance, spiritual significance in our culture. And for human beings all around the world, that’s what you see on the cave walls in that rock art.
Jim: Yeah. It goes all over the world, I’ve seen them. I’ve seen where people have put their hands against the wall and apparently, they would take paint, and put it in their mouth and spit it out to produce those patterns. That was a common way they would do it.
Tyson: Hands are remarkable and of course, they’re the things that allow us to have that haptic cognition, where a tool becomes recognized in our brain as an extension of our arm. The way we interact with the world.
Jim: Yeah, and also tools… and I’ve worked with other people on a theory of linguistics. It may not be true, but it’s possible that it is, which is that we learned how to make multi-part tools before we developed syntactical language. And it turns out, based on our analysis, that tool making is in many ways, similar to syntactic language in that it’s not rigid, you can make the parts in a different order, but you have to put them together in the same way to have the tool.
Jim: So it has both the requirement and freedom of language. That may well have been the mental capacity for building tools is what we were able to leverage into our even more tool of language.
Tyson: And potentially the language may have developed out of a need to sing. It’s an interesting little thing to think about. Because you often see, when your grandchild is born and you watch him grow, you’ll see kids are always… They’re singing before they can speak. Or trying to sing. It’s one of the first things we try and do. The same way they try and run before they can even stand up.
Tyson: I think the singing is important because that’s how you encode all those relations of being the custodial species, is through ceremonies. And you sing all those stories, but you sing like I mentioned to you before about the increase ceremonies. And the increase ceremonies are not about increasing the size of the system that you’re a custodian of, but increasing the combinatorials within the system.
Jim: I love it.
Tyson: So you’re increasing the connection between things and you actually sing those connections, you sing them into being. You’re taught this from a really young age. I was talking to a Samoan fellow yesterday, and he was talking about there’s this concept they have… like their word for warm data, I guess you’d call it, I think it’s vaʻa, is what he said. It’s an actual thing. It’s a force, an energy, it’s a substance. But it is the thing that exists between thing in the relation between things.
Tyson: He was telling me about the five stages that you go through in coming to increased knowledge of that Samoan warm data thing. And the first one is when you’re very young, when you’re just starting to stand, and right the way through when you’re a toddler and you’re a young kid, your mother will take you and put you there on the beach and get you to pay attention to your feet on the sand and the vaʻa between your feet and the sand, that relation between them. But right at the edge of the water.
Tyson: So then the waves come up and wash over your feet. And so then you’re seeing the connection between those three things, that relation that you have. And that’s the earliest, simplest form of that. So all of your cultural expression, all of your ceremony, ritual and just the way you live from day-to-day, it’s all about working with that in-between, which is just as real as the things themselves. The connection between things, it’s very real.
Jim: Yeah, absolutely. Indeed, that’s part of the modern thinking of complexity, which you and I both enjoy studying. As I often will say as a shorthand, to help people understand the idea of complexity, older science, reductionist science can be thought of as the study of the dancers, while complexity can be thought of the study of the dance. The interrelationship between the dancers. And the dance is as real, in fact, I would argue in some sense, more real than the dance, than the dancers.
Jim: What is life but a dance of chemicals? What is a society, but a dance of people and stuff? So the relationships and the dynamics are, to my mind, critical. Which actually brings me to the first quote I’m going to read from your book, which I’d love to comments. It’s a perfect time for it. Oh, by the way, just to show you how central custodial species is to your book, I used my little tool I have and I discovered custodial species appears 12 times in your book.
Jim: So it is actually a very important concept. I found that authors don’t often know those kinds of things. Isn’t that interesting, right? Anyway, here’s Tyson on one of his earlier, not the first, writings in the book on custodial species. The book is, by the way, Sand Talk, read it or I’ll kick your ass. Here we go: “Creation is in a constant state of motion and we must move with it as the custodial species or we will damage the system and doom ourselves. Nothing can be held, accumulated, stored. Every unit requires velocity and exchange in a stable system, or it will stagnate. This applies to economic and social systems as well as natural ones.”
Tyson: That’s it.
Jim: Isn’t that good?
Tyson: It’s that accumulation of things. Do you have that game in the States, pass the parcel?
Tyson: Okay, well in Australia there’s this thing, I don’t know, I think they do it in the UK, too. At a birthday party, or wherever, there’s a little present, like a gift, but it’s got about 20 layers of wrapping around it and all the kids sit in a circle and they have to pass the parcel, and they take off one layer at a time until finally the one who unwraps the gift, they get to keep the gift.
Tyson: And they usually have music playing and they’re doing it really fast and everyone’s really excited, but there’s always that one fucking kid, you know? When he gets the parcel, he just holds it. He sits there and holds it and everyone’s getting really uncomfortable and everyone’s trying to get him to pass it on, he won’t pass it on. There’s just always that prick in this.
Jim: He’s a gamester. He’s figured out the game. He’s the Game A motherfucker, as we’d call him.
Tyson: [crosstalk 00:16:44] game made. I was thinking the other day, I was saying you should get Game B hats. And then I don’t know, it popped into my head… you know those MAGA hats?
Tyson: MAGA is almost an anagram of Game A.
Jim: It’s surprisingly similar. It’s kind of a degenerative version of Game A for fucking idiots. Fortunately, the idiot players of Game A, are less dangerous than the smart players of Game A, right?
Tyson: Yeah. That’s one of the principles, is interaction. In all the nodes in that system, there has to be this constant, dynamic interaction. It’s resources, materials, matter, information particularly. It has to-
Jim: It’s all information really, right?
Tyson: Yeah, you don’t have one node that’s collecting all that information for itself and holding it, storing it. Or that energy. It’s the same with money.
Jim: Exactly. This actually caused a thought to jump into my head. People who listen to the show know that I’m, generally speaking, a skeptic of bitcoin and other similar kinds of cryptocurrencies. And, as it turns out, if you look at those money systems quantitatively, you find that there’s almost no velocity in them. People never use them to buy anything. It’s basically speculators, hoarders, people sitting on nest eggs. There’s no life to it, there’s no velocity in exchange.
Jim: While I can, in my money system, which you can find on YouTube. I have a 90 minute talk on Dividend Money, An Alternative to Central Banking, Fractionally Reserved Banking Money. One of the key things in it, is to make sure the system has lots of velocity and lots of exchange and lots of dynamism. A money system where people just sit on their ass on top of their money, that’s sick, actually. And that’s really what bitcoin is.
Tyson: Yeah. That’s what we mentioned in the last show, I was talking about that we had this increase paradigm, as opposed to a growth paradigm. That’s exactly it. It’s having that velocity within the system of the information value, objects… Trade has to go like that. So I think that’s what some sort of qualitative easing might look like instead of quantitative easing would be. Increasing the velocity of the dollar, improving the health of your system.
Jim: Yeah. Velocity’s been falling, too. It’s been falling for a number of years. It’s one of the things I personally follow is part of my work on monetary economics. Now, let’s turn from this beautiful view to the world we live in today. Where I would say that so-called civilization is not doing a good job as a custodial species. And until very recently, wasn’t even aware of the fact that it had that role.
Jim: It’s still rushing towards the cliff at breakneck speed and either will overpopulate the earth, will deplete our soils, will kill the micro species that live in the soils that make plant life viable. Or, we’ll cook ourselves, or we’ll be so crowded together and dealing with each other in such corrupt ways that we’ll have pandemic after pandemic. We don’t seem to give a fuck about being the custodial species, anymore. At least so-called civilization doesn’t.
Tyson: I think these things happen periodically. I think in human populations, particularly after a cataclysm of some kind, people experiment with these unsustainable systems. There’s a place I lived for a year in Far North Queensland called Kuranda. And Kuranda is a new landscape, it’s only 10,000 years old, because there was a big volcanic cataclysm there. And it ended up developing into a rainforest.
Tyson: And anyway, there’s a big story there and so it’s not as old as most of the stories in Australia. It’s a new one because it’s a new landscape.
Jim: That’s very interesting.
Tyson: And it’s this big rainbow serpent travels periodically down to the sea and then up onto the table land along a waterway. Now, the ocean there on that coast, there was this kind of rare spiral shell that the people there started using as a fungible token back then. So they were using it as a currency, basically. So it was an experiment with money. They were using that to store value in their trades.
Tyson: But there were all these problems because all of a sudden things weren’t moving. There was no velocity. There were people who were gathering these shells in piles and just keeping them and it slowed things down and people were getting sick and things were going wrong and there were lots of fights. And this story is the story of the first heist, because the rainbow snake would come up out of the ocean and he’d have a lot of these shells stuck in his scales. So he was ambushed by these blackbird people, going up the hill. And they dropped a log on him and murdered him right there.
Tyson: Now, the rainbow snake he’s one of those really big creator beings in our worldview. One of the ones I was mentioning before. One of the really big, really important creator beings. It’s really central to most Aboriginal cultures all over Australia. So it was a terrible thing that they murdered him. And after that, people decide to abandon that currency and that system because it was obviously going to destroy everything.
Tyson: The warning of that story is you’ll destroy creation yourself. If you’re doing that, if you’re not sharing freely and having constant movement in whatever trading system you have.
Jim: You have to have the dynamism there. It has to work for everybody, right? Why is that so hard? Why is civilization not able to understand that? It’s a very interesting question. You actually propose a reason and I’m going to quote… Well actually, let’s wait until a little later for that one. Here’s one that I’d love you to explicate for me. As I was going through the book again for today’s talk I said, “This is interesting, but I’m not sure I understand it.” Let me ask the man himself. You say, “We are the custodians of this reality and arrow of time is not an appropriate model for a custodial species to operate from?”
Jim: What do you mean by that? Damn interesting words, but I’m not quite sure what it means.
Tyson: That was behind a lot of the just little thought experiments I’ve been doing with the first and second laws of thermodynamics. And the idea that maybe the second law is not the most appropriate model of time. Not the most productive one. Maybe a better one, if we’re looking at a whole heap of vast, complex, overlapping, interacting, dynamic systems that may be the first law of thermodynamics might be worth looking at as an alternative model of time.
Tyson: Because I guess the arrow of time, as it’s being created, is very much come out of print based cultures. They developed print in order to try and control the story of the past so they have printed history. So this is the version of your history and we’re showing progress here because things were really bad and dark and terrible in the past. And now they’re better. And every day is better, therefore tomorrow will be better.
Tyson: So then they write contracts to control our future as well. And they end up making these civilizations fit onto that arrow of time and therefore that illusion of progress. And I think that that illusion of progress and that wrong story of progress, that big lie, I think that’s the cause of a lot of our destruction.
Tyson: We’re all trapped on this arrow of time and just speeding towards the precipice.
Jim: Exactly. This is Game A heading for the cliff.
Tyson: That’s a simple explanation of it. I kind of go into it a bit more in the book. So many ideas. And then later I found out that Charles Darwin had the same idea, when he was messing around with physics.
Jim: Of course, you know physicists, hardcore physicists, many of them not tall, but I would say a majority at this time, believe time is an illusion, actually and that there may not actually be any time and that maybe everything happens simultaneously and time is something that we impose upon the structure of the universe. Isn’t that a weird thought?
Tyson: Yeah, well I know a lot of really senior law people, clever people, we call them. The way they talk and interact with the world is definitely on a completely different model of time. There’s a scholar called Christine [Black 00:26:55]. She wrote a book about indigenous jurisprudence called The Land is the Source of the Law. She was telling me the other day, she’s come to the conclusion that those old people live in a state of quantum, was how she put it.
Jim: Where they could hop around with what’s called non-localism. Again, something that physics shows actually does exist. In fact, most all physicists believe that this universe is non-local. Meaning that things can go from A to B without being anywhere in between.
Tyson: Well, Old Man [Jama 00:27:33], who I talk about in the book a lot, and tel his story. And he’s got I think about half a dozen of the symbols in the book are his Sand Talk symbols that he wanted to share with the world. When he first showed me those, it was more than just those. There was have been two or 300 symbols he showed me all in one day. Nearly made my head burst.
Tyson: But he was blowing my mind. He kept saying things that were… like he knew all about my life somehow. And he was referring to things, future events, as though they were happening now. And he said, “That place where you’re going tomorrow,” he didn’t know where I was going. I was actually flying out. I was in the Northern Territory there, and I was going to be flying all the way down to the bottom of Australia to the Snowy Mountains, and I was going to be right up on the top of the Snowy Mountain there, near the Snowy River.
Tyson: He didn’t’ know that. He didn’t know I was flying out and going there the next day. But I hadn’t told him anyway. He said, “Oh, that place you’re going tomorrow, you need to listen to this Yothu Yindi song, because there’s a song line in there and you’ll find that song line. It’s called Timeless Land that song. You need to listen to that and then you need to follow that song line all the way down to the ocean and you need to draw these symbols in the sand there, and draw it right up on the beach there. A big wave will come out and wash that out to the sea.
Tyson: Then I was laughing at him and I went, “Ah, you,” like I thought he was a charlatan, because the Yothu Yindi’s a band from the Northern Territory. And I was like, “What he doesn’t know is that I’m going to be flying down to the bottom of the continent tomorrow. He doesn’t know where I’m going to be.” So I just dismissed it. I thought he’s a silly person.
Tyson: So I was up on that mountain and I was talking to a senior lawman there, initiated into the bigger knowledge and all that. He said, “When there’s old people, you’ve got to do what they say.” And I said, “Yeah, but I’m not in the Northern Territory.” And he went, “Just listen to the song anyway.” So we got it up on YouTube there and listened to it and right towards the start of the song, the lyrics are, “From the edge of the mountain, down through the valley. Down where the Snowy River flows, follow the water down to the ocean, bring back the memory.”
Jim: Oh dear, he had you.
Tyson: He had me. So it turns out that those [Yolngu 00:30:20] people from right up north in Australia had visited that place and sat down with the old people there and they knew hat song line and they’d written it into one of their songs. And I’m like, “Well, how….? Yeah.” And he’s always talking about future things in present tense of even sometimes past tense. Like they’ve already happened. Like he’s narrating something he’s already seen.
Tyson: And I’ve never seen that old man sleep. I’ve camped with him that many times, never once seen him go to sleep. He’s just always there in the same spot in the morning, fully clothed. Looks like he hasn’t… I’ve never seen him go to the toilet. I don’t know what’s going on with him. It’s terrifying sometimes.
Jim: Sounds like Gandalf the wizard from Lord of the Rings, right? He never sleeps and now that you mention it, I can’t hear him ever saying he took a shit either.
Tyson: So that’s it.
Tyson: That’s campfire stories to scare small children with, I guess. But it’s an interesting thought that the possibility that our minds can exist out of linear time in that way.
Jim: Another thought I just had about time, stimulated by this conversation, which is kind of multi-faceted, which is Game A, or our status quo world has distorted time in an extraordinarily dangerous way. If you listen to my show, you’ve heard me talk about the inner engine of Game A is the quest for short term money on money return. How is money on money return denominated? By interest rates. What is thing about interest rates? They’re exponential, which means that if it’s 10% interest the principal keeps growing exponentially over time. And if you turn that around into a so-called discount rate and say, “What is $100 worth in 100 years?” The answer’s almost zero if you assume a 10% interest rate.
Jim: So time in Game A in financial terms, in a world driven on money return, causes the future to essentially disappear so nobody cares about it.
Jim: And that is why we are not able to do our duty as a custodial species, if if you are operating under the inner engine of money on money return, which by its very definition, when it’s based on debt money, has an exponential discounting of the future such that the economic measure of the future is essentially zero.
Tyson: It’s the snake eating its tail.
Tyson: That foundational myth of civilization. The Oroborus.
Jim: The worm, Oroborus-
Tyson: They always have that symbol there. It always terrifies me because they call it a symbol of infinity, but how’s that infinity? He’s just going to eat himself, until he’s just a head.
Jim: You notice it’s also a zero, right?
Tyson: Yeah, that’s it. It’s a zero sum game, I guess.
Jim: Though it doesn’t have to be, especially if we… Remember that distinction between increase or growth or I would sometimes call it the growth into the microcosm versus the growth into the macrocosm, right?
Jim: It doesn’t hurt the earth to be ever more intricate. Let’s think of engraving. Our engravings become more intricate. We don’t consume more wood when we do that, but we add a lot more value to the world.
Tyson: That’s a really good metaphor.
Jim: Yeah, that’s what I think of as increase and growth is, “Oh, I’m going to do shitting engravings, but I’m going to do a whole bunch of them.” Versus one very intricate, very beautiful, very integrated engraving. And if we can change our mindset towards richness in terms of detail and connection and dynamics and away from piling up shit, right?
Jim: The idea that the worst idea in Game A is he who dies with the most toys wins, right?
Tyson: Yeah. There’s a caution though, you really, really do have to know your stuff because of that butterfly effect of tinkering with complex systems. You do an intervention over here and it’s very difficult to predict or anticipate which way that’s going to go. You do some good over here and something bad happens over there.
Tyson: That place I was talking about before, at Kuranda, when I was traveling up to there, I was traveling from right down in the south. Kuranda is the end of one of those big song lines for that platypus story. And I was down at the start of that story at a place called Narran Lake, at Western New South Whales. And that story starts with a water rat and a duck doing the wrong thing and mating when they shouldn’t be mating.
Jim: God damn it. I hate when that happens.
Tyson: It’s interesting because scientists have found both water rat and duck DNA in the platypus. How the hell does that happen? Anyway, so I was following that song line but then this old lady, this law woman, clever woman called me up and you have to do what they say when they tell you. It’s really hard. You don’t have to, you can dodge them if you want, but you won’t get asked to do anything else, and they won’t share anything with you again.
Tyson: So I had to do what she said. There had been a big flood in Brisbane in Southern Queensland there. And a huge flood, all the city was flooded. This was about 10 years ago. All the old aboriginal people in the Brisbane area were having respiratory problems there. And they were attributing it to a disturbance in spirit in a place in the mangroves. And the fruit bat is a really important medicine for that respiratory problem. So this old lady had identified that as a disturbance in the fruit bat place, and so she sent me there.
Tyson: And it’s at a place called [Hendra 00:36:52], so I was standing in the mangrove swamp and looking across the highway and there was a horse stud there and then all the penny dropped for me, because there’s a thing in Australia called the Hendra Virus and the Hendra Virus was something that started in horses and spread from the horses to the fruit bat. And I realized that I was at ground zero for that spreading of that virus.
Tyson: It’s like rabies. The fruit bats go nuts and then they bite people and then the people get that virus. So they had it contained there, apparently. Anyway, so I’m there at that site, ground zero for the Hendra Virus so I did the ritual things and called out the words that the old lady had given me. And all these fruit bats that were roosting, and this is thousands, roosting in the mangroves, they all just burst up in the air and they started their migration north early. Too early in the season.
Tyson: The idea was that they’d take that bad spirit away with them. Anyway, that sounds like a nice intervention. All the old people… I don’t know, I heard the story that they were all getting better and their respiratory problems had passed and so I kept driving north because I was on my way up to the end of that song line there, up in Kuranda. So it’s about a 3,000 kilometer journey all up.
Tyson: So I drove all the way up there and took my time. And then so I camped there and I was having breakfast one morning and I heard on the radio that there’d been an outbreak of Hendra Virus in Kuranda, where I was. It had never spread that far north before, so I saw that there was this custodial role manipulating the system somehow for good. But then it had big knock on effects that spread right across the continent. So I’m really careful. I try to be careful with everything that I do now if I’m taking on custodial roles in any system.
Jim: And, of course, that’s one of the things we do learn in complexity science and our Game B work. I market his point again and again. The ability to predict the unfolding of a complex system when you tinker with it is quite limited. And so, one must proceed empirically and experimentally, I would argue at least. Make probe changes, see what happens, wait a bit. Make another change. Oops, that one didn’t’ work out so well. Try something else and that’s the danger of ideology, right?
Tyson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jim: When people come with this book that says you must do all of these things, every one. Every jot and tittle. You can almost be sure that they’re wrong and unfortunately, if they think of Marxist Lennonism as an example of that or some of this new post-modernist crazy shit. If you followed all their prescriptions, you could really put civilization far off its reasonable track with very little ability to recover by following some ideological or utopian vision too far, without taking a live experimental and action, reaction, adjust approach.
Tyson: Yeah. I think a lot of… we have all these plans. People are always asking, “What’s your vision of the future?” All these kinds of things and we’re supposed to design the future, based on a very limited map of what we can see. I think a lot of times, it’s got to be a bit more dynamic than that. You have to allow for emergence. You have to basically be a caretaker of all the conditions in the system that will produce the emergence of solutions and changes in the system. That’s all you can do. I think if you’re-
Jim: More like a gardener, right?
Tyson: Yeah, that’s just it.
Jim: Exactly. Well, that’s a good transition point to my next quote from the book. This is Tyson again, “I made a pointed parrying shield out of thanchal wood while thinking about all this to represent the protection needed while navigating the space between the tangible and intangible worlds that custodial species must engage with.”
Tyson: Often I use the metaphor of theory and practice to talk about those tangible and intangible worlds. So you have to engage with that world of abstract knowledge. I guess that’s almost a place where you can do safe to fail experiments. You know what I mean?
Tyson: Before you do something, you’ve got to… So I talk about it in terms of metaphor if the language of spirit. So you’re translating tangible phenomena and things and situations, you’re translating those into an abstract metaphor and then you’re manipulating those in abstract space. Then you complete that feedback look there, between those two worlds by bringing them back into this world. That’s pretty much how ceremony and ritual works.
Tyson: And if you think about it, that’s what mathematics is. Mathematics is translating tangible systems into intangible symbols and metaphors. And manipulating those in that abstract space and then finding solutions that you can bring back across into the real world.
Jim: Certainly in mathematical physics, that’s the case. Maybe less so in abstract mathematics where some of those guys just pride themselves in living in the intangible, “Oh this doesn’t have any application. Why the hell would I think about that?”
Tyson: Yeah, that’s the problem. You have to complete that loop. You have to complete the loop between the tangible and intangible, otherwise… I talk about the problems that that can create in the mind. And that a lot of education is set up like that. To just be sitting in the practical space or just be sitting in the theoretical and never the twain shall meet.
Jim: And it seems like close to the idea of wisdom is that dance between the two, right?
Tyson: Yeah. Well, real learning is an act of creation. So we talk about that in terms of that being, so the word we’d use for that today is turnaround. So a turnaround event is that act of creation. And it’s an interaction between those two worlds and there has to be a feedback loop happening between that world of spirit or abstract and tangible, physical reality.
Tyson: That needs to be kept constantly in motion. So in learning, that’s like this miniature creation event that happens in your neural processes when you’re closing that loop. And it really sparks joy, but the opposite happens if you’re just sitting in one or the other. You end up with boredom. And boredom pretty much it causes brain damage. It’s a terrible thing.
Jim: That’s one thing I can say, “I don’t know if I’ve ever been bored in my life.” I always find some shit to get into.
Tyson: When you went to school, you were still able to carry knives around your belt. It’s a different world.
Jim: Exactly. Indeed, unfortunately, and that brings us to our final topic before we wrap up here. This is again, another quote. This is right on topic, carrying knives on your belt. What would it mean to reverse this domesticated state you’re talking bout. How humans have become self-domesticated, over-domesticated, particularly in the so-called advanced world. Let’s use so-called. “It would take centuries to transition from human domestication and recover our exceptional physical and mental powers as a custodial species.”
Jim: Let’s talk about this over-domestication. Goddammit. And what are some of the things that we as individuals and societies ought to do to get ourselves back to having the physical and mental powers to be a responsible, custodial species? A small, little topic.
Tyson: I used to think I had the answer to that but I’m just finding over the last couple of years, I’m jus becoming increasingly domesticated myself. It’s a hard one. But it’s about embedded in a habitat. Whatever your habitat is. Having your awareness on all of the interrelated things in that habitat. As much as possible.
Tyson: Paying attention, knowing what the weather’s doing and the patterns that you’re seeing in the weather. Seeing that when this tree is flowering these things also happen in that season. Going around and around. Even if you’re living in a city, looking at what the pigeons are doing. The hawks and eagles that are nesting up in skyscrapers, when are they nesting? When are they mating? All those kinds of things.
Tyson: But also, bringing that out… I think the example I used in the book is that when the Tea tree is flowering, I know I can get lychees and cherries at the supermarket. So it’s finding all those connections and extending your awareness out and actually trying to interact naturally as a node in that complex dynamic system, as much as possible.
Tyson: And follow those principles of interaction we’re talking about before where you have that velocity happening in your exchange of information and energy and resources. That you have these happening in dynamic relation with the communities that you’re in. Human and non-human communities. And I guess if you’re living like that, being like that, then your consciousness is changing. Your mind, it’s involved in this active increase. And I guess that’s the best we can do for now.
Tyson: But try and keep some memory alive. Try and notice the illusions that are around you and mark those things as illusions and try to keep yourself behaving in some way that you can retain some memory of what it is to be human, when all of this comes down. Because it is coming down. This civilization is collapsing and when it does, you’re going to want to be able to move with the habitat and the communities an the massive changes that are happening.
Tyson: You’re going to need to be able to adapt and if you want to thrive. And that’s about it at this stage. That’s about all that most of us can do.
Jim: Yeah. And some of us have the opportunity to at least try to maintain our connections to our roots. As you know, I continue to hunt and butcher my own deer and in a pinch, I could butcher a cow if I had to, right?
Jim: Probably not as good as a professional butcher, but I can do it. Can grow my own food, my wife better than me, by far. She’s a master gardener. Play with the soil, if you have the opportunity. As you say, notice the world, because the world is going to strike back. Mother Nature bats last, right?
Tyson: Yeah, that’s it. I have a step-daughter, she’s just 13 years old. I made her a blowgun out of a piece of PVC pipe and some nails and so we made all these blow darts so she could practice with those and is a deadly shot. And we’re talking about it in terms of urban foraging if it comes to that, because all these run on the supermarkets that happened when we’re in lockdown with coronavirus and all this sort of thing. We might not be able to get meat one week.
Tyson: So you’re going to have to go out and knock some of these pigeons or some of the possums that are running around with your blowgun so we’ll have meet. We’re just about to move onto knife throwing next. That’s the next skill she’s going to pick up.
Jim: I remember I became obsessed with knife throwing when I was about 12. Bought a set of throwing knives, but pretty good at it, actually. It was a lot of fun, because you have to learn how to get the rotations just right and all this sort of stuff. Quite cool. I would commend you to teach your daughter that excellent skill.
Tyson: Yeah, and then all the women and girls in my house have traditional, aboriginal women’s fighting sticks that are made for them. There’s been a big spike in home invasions in Melbourne recently, with all the lock downs and all that sort of thing with the coronavirus, so we feel pretty safe here. I’m sure my women will be able to protect me.
Jim: That’s a good thing. That’s a very good thing. Well, Tyson, I think we’re going to wrap it up here. I think this, as always has been an exceedingly interesting conversation and all you people out there, go read Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta, or I’ll kick your ass.
Tyson: It’s been fun and we managed to get through the whole thing without sexually assaulting any [megaform 00:51:31] in a thought experiment, which I’m never-
Jim: Yeah, no butt fucking of the man.
Tyson: I’m never going to live that down. I’m not [inaudible 00:51:41] the author anymore. Or, Tyson to think you fuck one mammoth and that’s it, you’re done.
Jim: Yeah, you’re a mammoth fucker forever.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.