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 is Tyson Yunkaporta.
Tyson: Hi, Jim. It’s good to be here.
Jim: Hey, it’s great to have you here, it really is. I really enjoyed reading your book, and I’m looking very much forward to talking to you.
Jim: Tyson is an academic, an arts critic and a researcher, who’s a member of the [Apalech 00:00:17] clan of Australian Aboriginal people in the far North of Queensland. He carves traditional tools and weapons, also works as a senior lecturer in Indigenous Knowledge at Deakin University in Melbourne. He lives in Melbourne. We’re going to dig in, into some detail, into his remarkable new book called Sand Talk.
Jim: This is a book I normally wouldn’t have stumbled across, but somehow I did. And as I was reading it, I was going, “Wow. This book, even though it comes from a lens that is so different from anything I’ve ever been exposed to before, comes up with some conclusions and perspectives on the nature of reality and the nature of our civilization that I found just uncannily similar to some of the things myself and other people are working on. And I hope you all will enjoy this journey and it will be quite a journey.
Jim: This is a book of incredible richness. Again, it’s called Sand Talk. And as always, there’ll be a link to the book on the episode page for this podcast at jimruttshow.com.
Jim: So often we read about people’s cultures around the world from the Western reductionist scientific perspective, “Oh, here are the kinship rules. Here’s how they extracted energy from the system.” et cetera, sort of classic cultural anthropology.
Jim: Tyson makes what to my mind is an amazing and audacious move. And essentially, while we’ll be learning a fair amount about indigenous culture, what he’s really doing is looking back out at the wider world, using an indigenous lens. Is that fair? You think that’s a good way to describe what you’re doing?
Tyson: Yeah, I think that’s fair. That’s a really good way of saying it. Yeah, it’s a complexity lens, and I think complexity theory is a really good metaphor that aligns quite well with the lens that we’re looking through here.
Jim: Indeed. In fact, I was so taken by … People who listen to the show know I’m a complexitorian, if there is such a thing, and I was very taken with the way you wove complexity into the story in a very natural way. And I got curious, so I had to do the search. I’m a bit of a numbers nerd
Tyson: Your 10 hours.
Jim: Exactly. Right. So in this case, it was more like 12. The word “complex” or “complexity” appeared 77 times in your book. You probably didn’t even know that.
Tyson: I did not know that.
Jim: Before we hop in, let’s talk a little bit about some of the definitions and a tool that you described, which I thought was very interesting. You basically had the concept of two hands, one, fingers held together horizontally, and the other hand held up vertically with the fingers apart. Could you maybe frame that a little bit as sort of a framework, which I found to be useful?
Tyson: Yeah. Well, it’s kind of what you described already. I mean, so often when … Any knowledge of indigenous cultures is always viewed through that Western lens, so I sort of worked that into a hand gesture. Because as with most of the book I tried to … well, I mean, I did express all of the knowledge first in nonverbal forms, through traditional carvings and lots of different practices. And one of those ideas was just in a hand gesture, which also came out as a symbol, a visual symbol.
Tyson: But yeah, so it’s got a closed hand. That’s like reading a book, and then it’s got a spread open hand, like those rock art handstands or paintings you might’ve seen in caves around the world. So usually we’re kind of trying to view that open hand through the closed hand of the book, and you don’t really see it, you just see the edges of it, just the tips of the fingers.
Tyson: But if you turn around the other way and you look at the closed hand through the open hand, you get a lot more clarity and interesting perspective. So I kind of like to do that little bit of reversal. A lot of my work is kind of reverse anthropology, I guess you might call it, and it’s really cheeky.
Tyson: Yeah. I mean, it really just skates along the edge of pop science. In fact, I think you could probably call it pop science, the book, more than serious scholarship. And a lot of my work is like that just because I just like having a laugh most of the time.
Jim: Yeah. I think that’s a good term, reverse anthropology. I also found it kind of this beautiful riff and kind of like weaving. It goes here, it goes there, it comes back. But it makes sense holistically.
Jim: Truthfully, I would say that the book is a work of art, and I’m not kidding. I really did find an unusual richness and yet not necessarily linear. The same ideas would be examined in three different ways at three different places in the book. And they all made sense within the context they were in, not the kind of thing that a typical academic monograph would do.
Jim: Before we jump into the book, I usually don’t do a lot of bio, but your biography is intimately woven through the book. And I don’t want the whole story, but just maybe they should very short version. Tell us just a little bit about the Apalech clan, who they are, where do they live today and maybe just a teeny bit about your own remarkable life journey.
Tyson: My remarkable life journey. Yeah. We always have to do the biography, don’t we?
Tyson: Yeah, so the Apalech clan, it’s on Western Cape York. The homeland there is a few different places, but includes a place called Cape [Kiawah 00:05:42], which is Dutch for “Turn back.”
Tyson: Yeah. 500 years ago, we had a little bit of an incursion there from Dutch traders. Yeah. Most of them ended up getting speared and went back. Because they were trading things like soap and rice and unfortunately Europe at the time regarded women as chattel as well. And they figured that the women were a resource as well to be traded. And they got a bit of a rude shock because the women went, “Nah, were not having that.”
Tyson: So yeah. Most of them got speared and they limped back to Holland. And interestingly enough, that little encounter with the [Wick 00:06:28] people, particularly Apalech clan, Western Cape York there, that spawned the world’s first corporation, because they made such heavy losses on that trip, the people that were funding the trip were quite upset about it. And I guess they had to find a way to shift accountability around, so they invented that corporate entity. So the Dutch East India Company was born, and then that kind of spread British East India Company and all that sort of thing. And corporations became the norm.
Tyson: Yeah. And then out of that came the whole land as capital situation, which pretty much created the pyramid scheme that we have for our global economic system today. So that was our fault really.
Jim: Oh, yeah, definitely, all your fault. Right?
Tyson: So you can blame my extended family for the entire global financial crisis and everything else. We caused that about 500 years ago. Personally, my life, I guess, it’s divided into three parts, and I guess there will be four parts in another 10 years or so.
Tyson: But yeah, I’m just sort of starting on the fourth part. But the first part was … I was defined as part Aboriginal, and so my identity was very much tied up with these weird racist ideas of a genetic inheritance that would mean that I drink and fight more than everyone else. And so, that was pretty much the first third of my life. So there’s nothing really useful or interesting to come out of my youth, just a [inaudible 00:08:14] bloodshed and woe.
Tyson: And then I guess the second part of my life, I sort of saw my identity as being cultural and tied to material culture. So I was playing the didgeridoo and making boomerangs and clap sticks and I was dancing corroborees and hunting, but in a really performative way. Do you know what I mean? Like, “Oh, look at me, I’m the real deal. I’m really authentic.” So that was the second third there.
Tyson: And I guess this last bit, the last decade and a half or so, two decades, has been understanding my identity and my culture more as a knowledge system, as a system of knowledge, but not just know-how about, “Oh, here’s where you get this medicine plant, and here’s how you catch a fish or whatever.” It’s not that kind of thing.
Tyson: It’s actually the ways of thinking and patterns of thinking and the systems of logic that have really taken me. And I don’t know, they’ve just made me into a sort of a better person who is sometimes worth listening to. Yeah.
Jim: Yeah. That’s good. And in fact, I know you referenced it in various ways, but I think one of the things I took away from the book is that you treat your culture as alive rather than as a museum artifact, right?
Jim: This, “Oh, isn’t this lovely stick from 800 years ago and it’s meaning whatever.” Okay, well, there is some use to that, but I took away the fact that you’re interpreting the Aboriginal way of seeing this lens as alive and adaptive and interacting with the world.
Jim: I love the little riff you had with the elder about the cell phone, right?
Jim: Those of you who listen to the show know I’ve had my struggles with cell phone addiction. I wrote an essay called … it was something like Recapturing Our Cognitive Sovereignty, or something, about how I ditched the cell phone for a flip phone. But yet, cell phones have found their way deeply into contemporary Aboriginal culture, with God knows what implications. So I like that.
Tyson: Well, I mean, adult literacy has improved. In communities where all the adults were illiterate, everybody learned to read and write in about three weeks after getting their mobile phones, because everyone was texting. So I mean, that’s a good thing, but there’s also a lot of really negative consequences as well.
Tyson: I did do a podcast about that. We did one season. We’re supposed to be doing another one, but COVID. Yeah, looking at the impacts of those.
Tyson: See, I got my first mobile phone in 2016. That was the first time I had one, and it has messed with my cognition horrendously. It’s messed with the way I connect to the world and to other people. And I kind of went, “Ah, now I understand why everybody got so weird over the last decade.” Yeah, that was it. But I actually have to have one, because I can’t log onto my work computer without having this app for security on, on my phone. You know?
Jim: Yeah. That goddamn second token. It makes almost impossible to be rid of the things. I try hard not to be enslaved. I think I bought my … Well, you’ll like this story.
Jim: When I was at my last work gig, I was a CEO of a pretty high intensity company. And we sort of had to have a cell phone. I was out of the office. So I instructed my assistant to keep three cell phones in her drawer. And when I went out of the office for a business meeting or a trip downtown to argue with the government or something, she’d give me a phone.
Jim: And in those days, in the D.C. area, mostly I think because of the CIA, we were in the outer fringes of the D.C. Area, there were a lot of black spots where the reception just didn’t work. And famously, whenever I was on a call with somebody and the call dropped, I would just roll the window down in my pickup truck and throw the cell phone out the window.
Jim: I’d get back to the office and I’d say, “Jana, you better order another cell phone, because the damn thing pissed me off.”
Jim: But later when I retired, I had a cell phone, but I always warn people, “Don’t ever call it. It’s probably in my sock drawer.”
Jim: And it probably wasn’t until 2010, goddamn it, when they got good enough that they became so seductive, that even I was forced … I was forced. Yeah, just like the fat boy with the bag of macaroons. I’ll confess to say, I am a person of girth. So I can say this. It’s like a fat boy with a bag of macaroons. The goddamned things became so useful and so seductive, they really, really hard to put down. But they have done some-
Tyson: Maybe the CIA was after you then anyway, because, “What’s this game B stuff?” You know?
Jim: Well, this was long before game B.
Tyson: “He keeps ditching his burner phones. He’s up to something.”
Jim: Well, that was back in the day when I was a classic game A motherfucker. So they, at least weren’t worried about that. Right?
Tyson: There you go. I did a word search on your show as well. And the word “motherfucker” comes up 127 times.
Jim: All right.
Tyson: I didn’t really, I just made that up
Jim: Only 127? Shit. I’m not holding up my side of the thing. That’s only about two per episode. Motherfucker. I got to get on the stick.
Tyson: [inaudible 00:13:27].
Jim: Let’s get down to it a little bit further. One of the first things that you talk about in the upfront part of the book is the concept of civilization. And guess what? You don’t use it in the usual positive valence, right? In fact, quite the contrary, what does the word “civilization” mean to you? What are its implications?
Tyson: Well, yeah, exactly. There’s no really good definition for it. They talk vaguely about rule of law and systems of laws and arts and culture and surpluses of food or whatever. I don’t know. And they talk about … and bread for some reason, like grinding flour for bread is a sign of civilization. I don’t know why that is. Yeah, but they’ve found grinding stones now that predate Egyptians grinding flour.
Tyson: So in Australia, we’ve got the oldest flour-grinding history of anybody. They recently actually destroyed that site, a mining company destroyed the site. I think they want to get rid of that. It’s unpleasant for them.
Tyson: But for me, a civilization is basically a community that must be constantly growing or it will collapse. And so, therefore, it relies on the importation of resources. That’s it. That’s all I can find in common across all these places that call themselves civilizations. And they all behave the same way and they have that growth-based imperative, that growth- based paradigm. And it’s impossible. It’s a denial of reality. It’s a denial of physics. It’s a denial of everything. If you want a definition of evil, I think it’s probably a good one. It’s just denial of reality.
Jim: Yep. And just, frankly, plain old math. I mean, the math of exponential growth forever. Guess what? It doesn’t work. Eventually you hit the limit. One of the good thinkers, I forget who. Was it Herbert Simon? Somebody said, “Something can’t grow forever. It won’t.” Right?
Tyson: Yeah, that’s it.
Jim: Let that be a warning to you. Right?
Tyson: Well, I mean, we have a very different … In Aboriginal Australia here, we have a different paradigm, and it sounds similar. It’s just a very subtle difference. And instead of a growth-based paradigm, we have a increase paradigm.
Tyson: So we actually have annual increase ceremonies that we do to organize all those behaviors and get everybody on the right page with that, and also to be able to sort of create a model, I guess, a simulation, I’m trying to translate this into your language, a simulation in a ritual space of what needs to occur in the ecosystem for increase to occur.
Tyson: So now, increase is different from growth, because you don’t want the size of the system to grow, but you want the relationships within the system, the exchange within the system. That needs to increase. And you can increase that quite infinitely.
Tyson: So I guess it would be like, if you want it to get smarter, you wouldn’t need to grow a big brain. You would just have to make more neural connections. So it’s kind of like that. So it’s an increase.
Tyson: We’re not really interested in quantitative easing, this kind of thing. We’re not interested in the size of the economy, but we are very interested in the velocity of the dollar. You know what I mean? It puts that lens on it.
Jim: Yeah, I talk about that sometimes. When we talk about de-growth-ing, I am careful to make a distinction. We certainly need to de-growth with respect to what I call gross growth or macro growth, tearing the earth up, pulling stuff out of it, burning fossil fuels, destroying intact forests and grasslands for industrial agriculture, et cetera.
Jim: But on the other hand, growth into the microcosm doesn’t disrupt the way the world operates. There’s no real limit to, for instance, how rich our poetry could be, for instance.
Jim: Poetry may get richer over time. I don’t know. I don’t know that much about poetry. But art certainly has gotten in some ways richer or at least new techniques have been added. Probably some of that’s circular. But I like your perspective also, that if we make our relationship map better and more fulfilling, that’s a form of micro growth, growth into the microcosm.
Jim: And making that distinction is important, because saying that we want to de-growth doesn’t mean that life can’t keep getting richer. It can. It just has to respect the outer envelope.
Jim: The other thing, again, your perspective of that thing, which has to grow, you also are pretty specific about the manifestation, which is the city, that everything that you call a civilization builds cities. Did the Aboriginal people ever have cities?
Tyson: Not particularly. So you would sort of manage these larger estates that were defined by sort of the natural boundaries of a bioregion, really. And so, your language would be perfectly suited to that bioregion. And those borders were maintained as such. And I guess that’s how …
Tyson: If you look at an Aboriginal map of Australia, there’s about 500 different countries and different languages, dialects, et cetera. There was the one situation referred to in the book of the [Barkergimob 00:19:03] who experimented with a sedentary lifestyle, and they had lots of different people coming together. It’s like the Tower of Babel story in the Bible. And they all came together and they forgot all their own languages and started speaking their own language. But then when the earth moved as the earth inevitably does, they’d forgotten how to move with it.
Tyson: And so, they were nearly wiped out. So they kept that story, and they handed that story down. We’ve had lots of apocalypses to remind us of that.
Tyson: So you have these sort of seasonal estates, like you move around those estates seasonally and care for the different parts of the country in the right season. I don’t know. That’s kind of how you operate.
Tyson: And you have several different camps there. Sometimes the camps are a lot more sophisticated. So we’ve got some down in Victoria where we’re living now. People were building their houses out of stone and some quite large ones that sleep up to 20 people or something. And there’s lots of early settler accounts that they were so sturdy that the settlers are riding their horses up on the top of the stone house and getting their picture taken or body painted or whatever it is that they do know.
Tyson: So there was a aquaculture system here, where there was masonry-lined canals and things like that. But people still moved seasonally around the big estates. So it wasn’t really this permanent sedentary thing.
Tyson: Some places though, the food was so abundant. Particularly on the coast, the Northeast coast there of Australia, there was some places where just some people just stayed put. Yeah. So I’ve have heard reports of, of some permanent settlements are happening, just because the coastal area was so abundant with food that nobody needed to move. But coastlines move.
Jim: Yep. Very true. Especially in something with the time depth of Australia. I mean, Australia was settled when the ice ages were still high and the water level was low. And as you mentioned in the book, there are still traditions about the inundations that came, starting maybe 11,000 years ago as the ice melted. And lots of areas that had been settled are now 300 feet under water.
Tyson: Yeah. We still have maps in our oral histories of the land that’s under the sea there along the coast. So it’s still land that we’re familiar with through the stories, which you kind of … I don’t know, you visualize them. Stories, songs, these things are maps. So you do map that territory, and you’re still caring for that place, even though it’s under the sea.
Tyson: So a lot of the old people, they had this kind of a relationship with whales and dolphins, ritually, whereby they’d care for their country under the sea with their relationship with those things.
Tyson: There’s lots of documented incidences of the old fellows calling the dolphins in. And that’s still actually happens today. There’s still lots of people who do that. So they call the dolphins or they make a sound like bang two rocks together under the water. And the dolphins know you’re there, and they actually will chase fish up towards the beach and into the nets. And then everyone shares the fish with the dolphins like that.
Tyson: The idea of when whales are beaching, the idea is that they’re bringing the spirit out of the land under the sea there that got flooded. They’re bringing a spirit child up to be born. So the whale brings it up and beaches itself there. So the old people do a ceremony to take that spirit, that child spirit, and put it in the freshwater so that it can travel up and get born into the baby.
Jim: It’s quite interesting. It’s amazing. It’s amazing the depth of the stories. One of the recent learnings of European science is that one of the most important settlements in the British Netherlands region is actually now underwater in the North sea. Apparently, it was probably the …
Jim: … now underwater in the North Sea. Apparently it was probably the biggest such settlement maybe 8,000 or 9,000 years ago, but within the traditions in a Western civilization, all that’s been swept away and nobody remembered it. It’s really quite impressive.
Tyson: Yeah. You look at the things that get triggered by these shifts. You’ve got to wish that the land of the Angles hadn’t ended up starting getting flooded, because if they hadn’t had that inundation coming up, then they might not have ended up looking for greener pastures in England, what became England anyway, and I think things might’ve been different.
Jim: Yeah. But of course as we know, both of us are interested in the complexity of the world. The ability to predict a future is very slim, because so many things are contingent, right?
Tyson: Oh, that’s it.
Jim: Yeah. A climate, or, frankly, a family feud. So, Charles the Bald gets thrown out of the family for being an asshole, and he and his cousins get in a boat, a leaky boat, and go across the English Channel and go over there and attack the people there. And maybe they’re successful, maybe they’re not. But the time that somebody is successful, then they end up slowly colonizing a new country, and it’s happened again and again. You made the good point that the Brits, who were the uber colonists, themselves had their ass kicked at least three times, right?
Tyson: That’s it.
Jim: They had their ass kicked by the Romans, by the Celts, and then by the Vikings. Let’s not mention the Normans in 1066. So everybody gets their ass kicked by somebody, though, and it’s of course back to our deep theme. I always like to say, “Mother nature bats last.” If somebody else doesn’t kick our ass, mother nature will, and I think that’s a really important part of-
Tyson: That’s last, but it’d be like playing baseball with Emperor Nero or something. You don’t want to beat him by accident, because he will cut your head off if you’re lucky. Sorry. I got my pronouns mixed up there with … I can’t talk about … I was trying to write about Nero the other day, and I wasn’t sure what the correct pronouns were to call him, because it just kept changing throughout the story, like when he killed his wife in front of everybody and then said that didn’t happen, and then forced some poor guy who was unlucky enough to look a bit like his wife, had a sex change on him there on the spot, and then just dressed him up like the wife, and then that was his wife.
Tyson: Then he dressed up as a woman and married a dude, as well, so he was married to both of them at the same time, so I don’t know whether it’s, is it she/her, is it they/them, and it keeps changing throughout the story. So I gave up. I didn’t write that essay in the end. I just went, “I’m not even going to try. This is a pronoun nightmare here.”
Jim: I didn’t even know all that.
Tyson: Pronouns are important, though.
Jim: I guess, I guess. I don’t know. I think maybe we’re getting a little too … Sometimes I’ve sensed that … Maybe I’m just an old fart. I’ll admit to being an okay, boomer, right?
Tyson: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: Yeah. Goddamn.
Tyson: We don’t have gendered pronouns in my language, so it’s all right.
Jim: You’ve got some very empty, collective pronouns there. Was it us all or something like that? Or was it … The one that you used a lot.
Tyson: Yeah, there’s quite a few, but yeah, the one I use in the book, as far as I know, it’s the first book that’s largely written in the … What do linguists call it? The dual first person plural, it’s called. So the dual first person plural is basically … Yeah. I just translated it as, “Us too.”
Jim: Us too. That was it. Yeah. I actually liked that. It made me feel like I was sitting next to you and we were having a conversation or something.
Tyson: Yeah. Yeah. But then there’s the exclusive first person plural, which is us, but not them. So just us fellows. Just us guys. Just us overweight people, or …
Jim: Full figured fellows, please. Right?
Tyson: Honestly, you can have your exclusive groups, but then they also have to interact with the bigger inclusive groups, which is us all. But then there’s heaps more. There’s us belonging to him, us belonging to her, us belonging to them. There’s a whole lot of different ones. But your pronouns basically tell you who you’re supposed to be in the world, what your social roles are. And what I saw coming out of the pronouns was that they line up pretty much under what I came to think of as the operating protocols for an agent in a complex adaptive system, which I kind of liked.
Jim: Yep. We’ll get to those. That section is a real important one in the book.
Tyson: Yeah. With your indigenous languages is something that comes from the landscape. It’s embedded in the landscape and perfectly describes it. And so your social system, it’s not separate from the land, either. There’s no two separate words for society and nature. It’s one thing, so you have these totemic connections to everything within the ecosystem, and so your social system and your way of operating in the world, it really follows along precisely as part of what you call natural system, I guess, or the ecosystem.
Jim: Yep. What I particularly like about it is that it showed a huge amount of nuance, frankly more so than English by a whole lot, which is famously poor in its pronouns, how important relationships are, and that we are all [wholeons 00:06:00]. We’re all both a thing, an individual, but we’re also part of many other higher level structures. We have a pair bond with our wife and with our brother and with our best friend, and then that relationship’s embedded in other relationships, et cetera. And I thought your people’s language perhaps is focused on that more and is rich in the same way that they tell me that the Inuit people have 34 words for snow.
Tyson: No, don’t go superior wolf on me.
Jim: Yeah. I don’t know if that’s true or not. That’s sort of folk anthropology.
Tyson: Yeah, yeah. One of the trendy one in the 1970s. I know you were smoking reefer with a college for that one.
Jim: Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but in a similar way, they have such a finely articulated set of collective pronouns. It’s interesting.
Tyson: Yeah. There’s heaps of different words for snow in English, too, if you think about it, slush, and sleet, and all kinds. But yeah, it’s kind of like that, but their research superior wolf was shoddy, and so it got debunked, because they hadn’t crossed the I’s and dotted the T’s on their experimental something or other, so that actually got debunked, and then the idea of linguistic relativism, which I know you don’t like the R word, that one got shut down for a long time. But then there’s been a lot of heaps better studies that have been done over the last decade or so, so they’re actually finding, well, yes, language and culture do affect your cognition.
Tyson: They affect the way you sequence things, they affect your focus, like what you attend to in an image, like you notice the foreground figure first, or do you notice the context and the background? Your indigenous cultures and non-Western languages tend to focus on the context first. They’ll see all the trees, the bird, the time of day, where the sun is, the shadow, all the things in the picture, and then they’ll say, “And a man’s walking his dog,” whereas a settler or a lot of Europeans will look at the same thing and go, “Oh, that’s a guy walking his dog in the forest.” So you kind of sequence things differently, and you attend to different things, and yeah, that is mediated by language, and it’s mediated by culture, that cognition.
Jim: Yeah, it’s the so called Sapper Wharf hypothesis, that our language actually conditions our thinking in pretty substantive ways. It hasn’t been proven. It’s still a conjecture, but I’ve always thought it likely to be true. Some of the examples you give, is it-
Tyson: Yeah. But there’s some good ones. There’s a lot more better studies, studies of language where they’ve shown that, so Turkish, Spanish and Japanese people will sequence … So the cat roll down the roof in English. If you speak those other three languages, you actually process that in a different order, because the cat descended the roof rolling. They’ve done a lot better studies in the meantime, arranging objects on a table, and then removing the objects and moving the table on a different angle, in a different place, and then saying, okay, place the objects back on the table as you remember them. Non-indigenous people will tend to put the objects, align them with the corners of the table, whereas the indigenous people will align the objects with the original position in regard to North, South, East, West. It’s that more contextual place-based cognition rather than what they call that field independent cognition. Yeah.
Jim: Yeah. One would make sense that the cognitive models that we’re developing from a very young age, much of it mediated by language in the case of humans, are going to impact the way we work.
Tyson: That’s it. And yet, you can’t just generalize and say Europeans, either, because Scottish people do the same thing, apparently, and a lot of other different communities, and in some places it’s interesting, they’ve found that the cognition starts to change the more contact you have with the global economic system.
Jim: You gave a great example in your book, actually, which I have later in my notes, but I think we’ll hop to it, because I think it makes a distinction that you pick up on, which is “European,” “white,” those are just labels we slap on these phenomenon. You gave the very interesting example of the Sami people, used to be known as the Laplanders, who are about as white as you can possibly be, from bright yellow hair and nice pink cheeks and all this stuff. They live in the far, far North of Sweden and Norway, I think maybe a little bit over the border into Russia, and yet they don’t live in a way … Maybe they do a little bit more now, but until very, very recently, they lived much more like indigenous people and still to this day have a lot of indigenous style ways of seeing the world.
Tyson: Yeah. Well, they maintain their languages and cultures, and they also maintain their herds, their reindeer herds and all that sort of thing. Yeah. But when I met those two old ladies, I was just learning, they’re like, yes, and we are indigenous people from … and I’m like, ah, but then listen to them for a while, this is just like talking to my auntie. This is insane. It was like exactly the same way of thinking and relating and being together, and they just were doing all the same protocols that I was doing, and it just blew me away. But then it made me quite troubled, because I was still using that black and white language before, even though I’m like, personally, I’m more beige than anything. We still use the word black a lot. We call ourselves black fellows, even though most of us, as I said in the book, we can’t scrape together enough melanin to scare off a taxi anymore.
Tyson: We still use that language, and some of the young people started taking the C out of it to make the distinction, they just B-L-A-K kind of thing, just to try and make sense. Try … Why we’re saying that. Because it actually offends a lot of, when African people come here, and those of us who are heaps more pale are calling ourselves black, and they get really wild. Yeah. So yeah, it’s problematic. There’s the P word. But yeah, I wasn’t comfortable with those terms after that, and I guess once I smashed that binary, then I started smashing a lot of other binaries, too. All of them.
Jim: Yep. Well, I must say, that resonates with me very strongly. I’ve, for a long time, thought … I call it the race swindle, this idea that these alleged races are actually hugely significant and who we are, when if you actually look much more carefully, who we really are is what our cultures are. And the culture is very variable. Even in Europe, you have your Sami people, who you found.
Jim: There’s another group, which is much less well known, which are the mountain Serbs that live on top of a tall mountain in Montenegro. They were still tribal people until 30 years ago, and they still have very strong tribal styles of being. I happened to know one, and you would not want to get into a fight with her is all I can tell you. She would kick your fucking ass in a heartbeat. She is still a mountain Serb to the bone, even though she lives here in the United States. It’s about our culture. I, truthfully, over the years have come to the conclusion that the actual differences amongst the races are so immaterial as not to be even worth thinking about in terms of the actual people. But it’s the cultures.
Tyson: Well, it was an economic classification. Originally the race theory, it was just whoever they wanted to make into slaves. Remember that they had the Cockney race, and the Irish race, and the Scottish race. They had all these different races and charts showing the different skull shapes and how much more stupid they were.
Jim: Yeah. Well, the Irish, us Irish, we were considered the black men of Europe until quite recently, right?
Tyson: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you look at even Polish people in the United States until very recently, they were only just included in the last few decades as white people. It’s so weird. It just shifts and shifts. It’s just whatever it needs to be to suit the interests of the powerful, I think, at any time, and I don’t think we have to buy into it.
Jim: Yeah. I think we shouldn’t. I think we’re a hundred percent on the same page. Another interesting historic example is the caste system in India. If you dig into the history of it, you basically find, surprise, surprise, that each new invader of north India, and that’s really where the caste system is strongest, essentially invented a new caste to sit on top of the previous castes, and north India has been conquered again and again and again. Essentially, the caste system is just an institutionalization of the fact that the new invaders are ranked higher than the previous track of invaders, frankly, not very different than the way the Norman French invented the idea of the nobility to sit on top of the English. This is a pattern we see over and over and over again. This is all very interesting.
Jim: Let’s move back towards maybe what I would think of as the main theme here, and that is, you talk about the fact that growth is the engine of the city. If the growth stops, the city falls, and as we talk about is happening again and again and again, the so-called fertile crescent, ain’t so fertile anymore. North Africa used to be the grain basket of the Mediterranean region. In our game B talk, we talk about the fact that our current system and all systems that have been operating on essentially the same template are essentially self terminating. And this time, the stakes are really high. In the past because we hadn’t built our stack of infrastructure so high, okay, Rome falls, right? And a fair a number of people die, but human race doesn’t disappear.
Jim: New German tribes come in and intermarry with the Romans, and life goes on. The level of culture falls quite a bit. Literacy … the example I like to use in 400 AD, 60% of the people in a French city, French town, were literate. By 600 AD, the King of France was illiterate. So we did lose a lot of culture, but most people survive. But in our world with 8 billion, soon to be 10 billion people, depending on artificial fertilizer, electricity, all kinds of stuff, people, bad habits, need fancy healthcare. This time, the fall is going to be ugly. My guesstimate is the world can only support one to 2 billion people without advanced technology, so if we’re at 10 billion when the shit hits the fan, do the math. Not pretty. And we got to find her way out of this self-terminating trap.
Tyson: Yeah. Well, I went to a modern monetary theory conference. I had to do a speech there a few months back, and they had a Bernie Sanders financial advisor there. I can’t remember her name now. Yeah. But they’re really convinced that they can do a soft landing using modern monetary theory.
Jim: They can kick the can down the road is my guess.
Tyson: Yeah. Yeah.
Jim: But eventually, the can goes over the cliff.
Tyson: Your surplus is my deficit, they say, and you just expand the deficit. And as long as you’re not pegged to another currency, you’re right. You can just print as much money as you want, and then somehow you’ll have all the resources you need. I don’t know. They’re talking about that to fund a green new deal, and I was like, ah, that sounds lovely. but it sounds a bit magical to me, as well. I think people are dreaming of a soft landing, but I don’t think this landing’s going to be too soft. This next decade is going to be an interesting one. You’re lucky. You’re in the mountains. You got your farm in the mountains there. You’ll be all right.
Jim: Yeah. And in fact, I hate to say it, but global warming will actually make our land more productive.
Tyson: Although if you talk to people who went through little civilization apocalypses in places like Serbia or in Argentina, that people who were really prepped and sitting on land out in the countryside, they’re the ones who were least likely to survive, because there’s heaps of bandits, so I hope you got a big bunch of guns.
Jim: All right. Well, I will say you better fucking beep your horn before you come up to the farm. Yeah, we are well prepared. I will leave it at that.
Jim: But you’re right. You’re right. In fact, just a quick little story. When we first bought the farm, this is actually interesting and ties in a little bit to some of your other themes. We had done the title search as we typically do under the English common law to see the history of the land, and we found quite interesting and extremely rare in the United States that this parcel had been settled by one of the five original settlers in this area in 1746, and our parcel had been handed down father to son unbroken for 220 years. That’s a lot. That’s 10 generations, approximately. Maybe it was eight generations. Father to son, no break.
Tyson: And the one of them got a mobile phone, and he was finished.
Jim: Well, a little bit. It was a different temptation. In 1973, the last one of the family decided he liked drinking more than he liked farming, and so he sold our farm to a bunch of back to the land hippies, and it turned into a hippie commune. They tried growing sheep. They tried growing corn. They tried even garlic, which is a terribly bad idea where we are for various reasons. They finally found the one product that they can always sell. Guess what that was? Reefer, right? The place had sort of a dodgy reputation, and so when we bought the place, a nice young married couple with a six month old baby, I called the sheriff just to introduce myself. I’m from a law enforcement family. My father was a Washington DC cop. My brother’s a cop, so I know how to talk to law enforcement people, even though I did have my life of crime period there in my late teens. We may talk about that later when we get to that topic.
Jim: But anyway, I just called the sheriff said, “Hey, we bought the X place,” and blah, blah, a little bit about us, yada, yada, yada. We talked for about half an hour, very pleasant conversation. And the last thing he came out of his mouth was, “Hey, y’all know you’re 35 minutes from the sheriff’s station. Something comes up, do what you got to do.”
Jim: That’s life in the country, and we take that pretty fairly seriously. Anyway, let’s get back a little bit onto our theme here, which is self-termination. Interestingly, you hit on one of my favorite topics, and if you listen to the show a lot, we talk about it fair often. It’s the Fermi paradox.
Jim: Yeah. If there’s aliens, why don’t we see them? And you say, “Maybe the reason,” I’m reading, this is the direct quote from the book, “Maybe the reason all the powerful instruments pointing at the sky have not yet been able to detect high tech alien civilizations is these unsustainable societies don’t last long enough to leave a cosmic trace.” An unsettling thought. That’s one of the 99 arguments about the Fermi paradox. Maybe-
Tyson: Yeah. I thought it was my original idea, that one, and then I started listening to your show. There’s a lot of people saying the same thing. Yeah.
Jim: Yeah. The great filter. One version of it’s called the great filter argument that was focused and formulated by Robin Hanson, who we’ve had on the show. His is our argument, and he’s a very subtle guy, he says, “Well, the great filter is either behind us or ahead of us.” And maybe the great filter is something behind us, like the emergence of our particular variety of multicellular life, in which case, great. Even if it’s extremely rare to become a galactic civilization, we’ve passed the great filter. But he gives a lot of interesting arguments that makes one believe that the great filter’s probably in front of us, and that should be an unsettling thought.
Tyson: Look, if you find that yet a really vital missing piece in your game B community design is that there has to be some kind of religion for the whole thing to work, then maybe you could pray to the great filter.
Jim: Great filter, please don’t filter us, right? Now we’re getting into some of the places where your perspective really does come very-
Jim: … to some of the places where your perspective really does come very close to the Game B perspective in almost same words. You talk about the fact that again, right out of the book, the stories that define our thinking today describe an eternal battle between good and evil, springing from an originating act of sin. But these terms are just metaphors for something much more difficult to explain: a relatively recent demand that simplicity and order be imposed upon the complexity of creation. A demand sprouting from an ancient seed of narcissism that has flourished due to a new imbalance in human societies.
Jim: Could you expand on this concept? Two of your very important themes now surface for the first time. Simplicity and artificial order imposed on complexity. And then one I had never seen used quite this way: the idea that narcissism is a very important aspect of what’s going on. Maybe talk about those two things?
Tyson: Yeah, well, first of all, entropy, my understanding of it, is it happens in a closed system. Not that such a thing is possible to have a closed system, so it’s kind of like there’s desire in these civilizations to create this order, this unity, this simplicity. Citizens who think alike on most issues and uniformity in thought, word, and deed, I think, were in the original public school syllabuses. It’s this idea of these monocultures and just the arrogance of that. This is what leads to that idea with the narcissism.
Tyson: So Aboriginal cultures, basically, the entire culture is a response to narcissism. It’s a way of holding narcissism in check. It’s of basically stopping these … I don’t know what you’d call them, assholes or whatever, from running amok and making a mess everywhere. But also acknowledging that everyone’s an asshole from time to time. Everyone’s a narcissist from time to time. It’s a seed in us. So it’s basically our social systems, our cultures, are designed mostly to hold that in check, because when that gets out of balance, things go wrong. Your society breaks down. Your systems break down. Your ecology is damaged.
Tyson: I guess in game theory terms, you get a rise in your defectors and your freeloaders and sociopaths and predators. They all come out of this narcissistic idea, and it’s just that original sin of that thought, “I am greater than.”
Jim: But I really liked that. I really liked that, because one of the things in our Game B talk, we talk about sociopaths and how one of the known failure modes, at least known to us, of Game A, is the ugly fact that the kind of hierarchical power that Game A is built upon attracts sociopaths the same way cheese attracts mice. And in my forays into that world, I’ve come back estimated that probably 10% percent of C-level executives in larger corporations in America are actual sociopaths, compared to 1% in the overall population. And it might be 30% or more in certain areas like finance.
Tyson: In tech, too. I keep hearing that saying. It’s almost a saying now, is that Silicon Valley is an army of autistics led by a handful of sociopaths.
Jim: I made that quote!
Tyson: Was that you?
Jim: That was me.
Tyson: I’ve heard that a few places now.
Jim: Yeah, I originally used it to describe Apple, back in the days of Jobs and his folks. Apple is an army of autistics led by sociopaths.
Tyson: Beautiful. Well, I’ll be able to cite you now when I use that, because I use it all the time. It’s beautiful.
Jim: As far as I know, I coined that expression. I’ve never heard it before, and it’s now being used a fair amount, as you say.
Tyson: I should have known. It’s so [Ruttian 00:00:50:24].
Jim: Indeed, indeed. And I think it is true that we do have a sociopathy problem, but that is particular to Game A hierarchical position-based power, as opposed to role-based leadership, which we’ll talk about later. But I think your idea of narcissism is actually broader and maybe even more important. It truthfully opened my eyes in an important way and something that I’m going to try to add into the working kit of Game B. Not just frankly power-mad, no empathy people, but just the idea that I am greater. And there’s a lot of people who are relatively mentally normal who have that as part of their operating baggage. It’s not that, “You are nothing and I don’t give a shit about your pain,” which is the sociopath, but just, “I am greater.” Greater than what? Why? How? And if we can focus on that …
Jim: I would say of all the learnings I personally made, and there was a lot reading this book, this idea of narcissism as this concept of, “I am greater.” It had some other valences too, but that was the core one I thought was hugely important. One of the things I found very interesting was that you said that the elders, the knowledge-keepers, if they’re starting to work with you and talk with you, yarn with you, as you talk about. We’ll talk about what’s a yarn next. But these elders, these wisdom-keepers, will withdraw if they sense narcissism in you. And it would seem to me if that could be built into the Game B culture or any operating system culture, that would be a damn good thing.
Tyson: Yeah, I think that’s universal, too, because I think I mention in the book that I was talking to a Native American physicist at the Perimeter Institute. Yeah, I’d come into the conversation completely the wrong way, and I was distracted and I think I was a bit narcissistic. And he did that. He kind of iced me in the end, and I thought, “Ah, okay, so he’s politely shut it down. I’ve gone the wrong way here.” Yeah, and you just accept that and then you learn the lesson and move on.
Tyson: And I think that’s the big thing with our culture, too, is that you’re happy to get a rebuke or a punishment or even an ordeal, like a real ordeal, because it transforms you. And then after you’ve been punished, that’s it. The crime is done. You don’t carry that around in your reputation forever. It’s finished. Everyone forgets it, and I think that’s a beautiful idea for anybody’s justice system, as well, I think.
Tyson: The narcissism is dealt with early on, because your life is in almost in these 15-year segments, and you go through our periods of ordeal before you can become a real man. And it kind of happens every 15 years or so. And so I guess the first one happens, men and women, around the age of 14, 15. You go through that rite of passage, that ritual of ordeal, and you experience terror and pain and a lot of other sort of secret things I can’t go into. But basically, the upshot is you learn a very important lesson, the most important lesson in the world, which is: I’m not special.
Tyson: That’s really important to know. You’re not special and it’s devastating. It’s devastating at first. But then there’s a series of cascading realizations that come off that, because eventually you figure out, “Well, actually that means no one else is special, either.” And so that makes you feel a bit better. You can sort of start to see a bit of a governance model coming out of that. If nobody is particularly special, then there’s a sort of heterarchical imperative there.
Tyson: But then you have more. You understand then, “Ah, but we belong to something special. All of us together, we belong to something special. We’re this custodial species. We’re the people who belong here,” and it’s just a beautiful way to live, because it just crushes the narcissism in you. But you’re not going into some kind of hive mind or commune or anything like that, because it’s not like that. Your indigenous identity is really strongly individualistic. You’re a bit of a show-off. It’s important to remain as distinct as possible from those who are most similar to you. You are an individual, but at the same time, you’re profoundly interconnected and related and interdependent with everybody around you. There’s a very fluid self/other boundary.
Jim: Yeah, I like that. A lot of things to talk about here. We talk about you’re not special. Of course, it’s a bit of a stereotype, and I don’t think it’s actually fully true, but like many stereotypes there’s some hint of truth to it. We talk about Millennials in the West, who get the trophies for showing up for the football game, rather than … Everybody is special. The original term of snowflake was every snowflake is different and special and wonderful, et cetera. In my day, you got the shit kicked out of you if you had that attitude, right?
Tyson: Well, Millennials have got 50 different words for snowflake.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. And unfortunately, the helicopter parenting, as they call it here in the West, may have produced a group of higher than normal narcissism. By no means all. I know a lot of good Millennials. Let me get that on the table. I work with a lot of Millennials in the Neo Back to the Land Local Agriculture Movement, and these are grounded people. If you’re farming, it’s hard to be a narcissist. The universe is your check sum, and it kicks you in the butt regularly. But for the ones that are out there in this abstract world of online and jobs that you couldn’t explain to your kids if your life depended on it, maybe there’s a lot more narcissism than there used to be. And you throw that into the inflammatory situation, the social media and the feedback loops, and the signals you get to produce more narcissism. That does not sound good to me.
Tyson: No, but any threat like that, that arises in a system, will spark the creation of its opposite somewhere else in that system. So like you say, you have those kind of disconnected Millennials popping up, but then straight away, then you have that agricultural community you’re talking about, which is very connected people.
Jim: Yeah, well, we got a great example here of the young Millennials in our area. Lots of farms. There was five farms that were being run by young, hard-charging Millennials to service the high-end restaurant community over an hour away. But they were driving their produce over there, and of course, the pandemic comes. All the fine dining restaurants close. So they are adaptive. They pull together and quickly build a website and offer all this unbelievably nice produce to people, to regular end-user consumers, and we now subscribe to them. And once a week, we drive down to the central farm of the five farms, and they aggregate all the stuff from the five farms that we’ve ordered online. And then we drive down, press the button, open the tailgate on the SUV, They load the stuff into our cooler and off we go. It’s the exact opposite of narcissism. They’ve figured out how to make something work. Quite interesting.
Jim: Now, the other thing I want to jump to … It’s actually in my notes further ahead, but I thought was a very important point, very important, and is one of the ways that the West, especially the most current West, is fucked up. It’s this business about your criminal record and permanently disabling you.
Jim: I’m going to tell a couple of personal stories here. One, I was a bad boy when I was young. Is that shocking? Probably not. I was thrown in jail three times. I got a criminal record, and I got caught once for something really bad and got out of it, but by the most unbelievable good luck imaginable, which I’m not going to get into. But in my day, it wasn’t such a big deal. The databases didn’t exist. They couldn’t find out, and it just wasn’t something that’s done. I suspect I would have had a hard time having the good career I did today with some stupid ass fucking 19-year-old bullshit on my record. And that’s really wrong.
Jim: And I can go an even deeper story, and I don’t know what the truth of this is, but I suspect that it is exactly this. My mother’s father is a mystery man. He grew up in a town in Northern Wisconsin, fought in World War I, traveled around the world as a Merchant Marine, and then showed up in a place where my mother is from, very far northern Minnesota. And just showed up there one day and wouldn’t tell anybody, really, where he came from. He never left the county again for 30 years, never spoke of his family, et cetera. And we figure he was essentially on the run from some misdeed, probably criminal. And yet in those days, easy enough. Just move and behave yourself and go on with your life, and he had a reasonably productive life. He was an eccentric individual, to say the least, but he was able to have a normal life. Had nine kids, et cetera.
Jim: And this idea that people are stigmatized forever by something for which they have received their just punishment for strikes me as very fucked up and actually, one of the bases of some of the black-white racial problems in the United States. And I really do like this idea that we should go back to the way it even used to be in the United States, until 40, 50 years ago, that, “Hey, you done your time. You’re a free man. You’re a citizen again. Let’s just forget about that and go forth and sin no more.”
Tyson: That’s it. I don’t know. It just seems pretty simple to me, but you have to make sure that that ordeal is transforming the person, though.
Jim: Well, you can’t be sure. It’s hard to tell, right?
Tyson: Well, I think for some things, you want some degree of certainty. I think some people probably need to lose their junk before they’re unleashed back into the community, for example. Yeah, but there has to be some kind of ordeal that they go through that actually transforms them and changes them and some people who are wise enough to see that that has happened. It can’t just be, “Yeah I’ve taken Jesus as my personal Lord and savior and reading the Bible now. So can you let me out early?” Because I’ve seen enough movies to know that that’s bullshit half the time.
Tyson: But look, I think all this is coming out of this obsession with safety and security and this idea that it’s a human right to be safe. It’s such a new idea. So when you were growing up as a kid, you run around with a knife on your belt and all these sorts of things. That was just normal, like five minutes ago. But now, that’s a [OHNS 01:01:43] issue. Yeah, no, well, it’s illegal. You’ve got to get fined for that, because we’ve got to keep everybody safe. You might lose an eye. It’s just awful. See, we don’t have a word for safety in Aboriginal languages. Any Aboriginal language I’ve seen, there’s no word for safety.
Tyson: There are words for protection, though, and protection is a very different thing, because protection has agency as part of it. Your protection is your responsibility. Then you have agency in ensuring your safety. But also in our communities, you’re not just responsible for your own protection but the active protection, not just passive safety, of all the people around you. And so that means that you’re watching their back. They’re watching your back. And in a group, you are protected.
Tyson: And there’s power in that, and that power has been taken away. And I guess that’s where, if we talk about violence later … It looks like it will have to be another episode, the way we’re going. But the agency of violence has been taken away and monopolized and concentrated into the hands of a few people. And you see how badly that goes, pretty much lately, especially. That doesn’t work out too well for everybody. Like everything else in a complex system, violence needs to be something that’s distributed throughout the system, and you need lots of agents who are capable of using it. And I think if there’s any group that’s denied access to the agency of violence, then that group’s not going to have a particularly good time.
Jim: Yeah. Let’s talk about this one. Maybe this will be one of our last topics for this first session. To our listeners, Tyson and I have talked offline and we realize there’s just so much good stuff to talk about that we’re going to not try to jam it all into one 90-minute episode. And we’re going to come back and do a part two. On my podcast, I’ve talked quite a bit about when I was a kid, I kept a knife in my pocket from literally age eight. It’s just what we did. My senior year in high school, almost mandatory part of manly dress was to have a folding buck knife, a big hunting knife on your belt in a leather scabbard. Could you imagine today if 50% of the seniors at a high school showed up with big old buck knives on their belt? They’d call out the National Guard, probably, right?
Tyson: Be the end of the world.
Jim: They’d be all like, “What the hell? Revolution!” And then the other one, again, is one of my pet peeves, and that’s why I resonated with what you wrote about violence. The V-word is considered so bad by so many people. When I was a kid, everybody fought. All boys fought, and a non-trivial number of girls fought. It didn’t really matter, frankly, if you won or lost, and some people were better fighters than others. But having the heart to fight was a key part of being a person in our community. And as you say, essentially, it was almost like a clan. It was a protective measure that any group of us knew. We all knew how to take care of ourselves. And so, if there was a group of us, we run into a group of others, whoever those were. We weren’t too concerned about it. We weren’t overreacting. We weren’t anxious, et cetera, because we all knew how to take care of ourselves, and we’d all been punched a few times. We knew that the world does not end if you get punched in the face a couple of times. Jesus Christ, right?
Jim: But today, kids fight in school and literally they call the police. What the hell? If you know anything about young mammals, particularly male mammals, they all play fight, spar, et cetera. And we had what I called the Code of Adelphi, which was the town I grew up in, which there was definitely unwritten rules for fighting within the in-group. Which is you never kick somebody when they’re on the ground. You never tore ears. You never went for the eyes. You never kicked somebody in the balls. Well, with enough provocation, maybe, but that was the outer limits. And nobody … Yeah, teeth got knocked out. Collar bones got broken occasionally, but oh well. But there was never any serious damage.
Jim: But guess what we did not have in those days: school shootings. The thought was just unthinkable. You had a problem with somebody, you went underneath the pear tree and you had it out.
Tyson: Well, and how many hospitalizations do you remember from those fights? Zero, right?
Jim: Zero. Zero overnight. Again, maybe you have to have your collarbone set or something, but no hospitalizations overnight.
Tyson: Yeah, that’s it. But it’s not like that now, because the kids don’t have access to those codes of conflict, because all violence is bad, so it’s just not allowed. So they don’t understand the codes and the rules, and when the violence erupts in a school, they’re getting someone on the ground and stopping on their head and trying to kill them. They’re doing horrendous damage. So now when fights happen, they’re horribly violent and terribly damaging.
Jim: And as I said, we all carried knives, but it would be an absolute violation of the code to ever produce a knife in a fight amongst your peers. It was not even thinkable, truthfully. It was so deeply engaged in the culture, and if someone had, the group would have just jumped in and beaten their ass. But I literally never saw it happen, in probably 100 fights that I witnessed, that anyone produced a knife, even though probably 80% of them had a knife on their person. Just wasn’t done. I’m in a strong agreement that this attempt to make life safe and padded with foam and particularly young males not being allowed at all to fight, it’s just terrible at multiple levels.
Jim: You can’t really become a fully integrated person. That violence is going to be sublimated, not having been articulated in a code, in a cultural norm, as you say. Instead of standing up and sparring with your hands, “All right, no big deal.” Honor was made by both parties. Nobody was hurt too bad. Instead, without that kind of context, finally, the person that’s being persecuted snaps and brings a baseball bat to school and almost kills somebody. That’s what we have instead. Or worse still, they bring a gun to school.
Jim: And I was very intrigued, actually, that you again come to the same idea from a very different perspective, from the perspective of your culture, that violence does have a place, but it needs to be acculturated.
Tyson: Well, it demands expression, so we have this idea of the … You’ve got your big power or big spirit that’s in your belly and that mental illness comes from allowing things to build up there, negative emotions and things like that. So you have to give them expression immediately. If you’re angry, you yell, and if it’s a big transgression and you’re very angry about it, then you have to fight. You have to fight the person that’s transgressed against you, but it has to be public. It has to be transparent, and you don’t want to break the rules, because the crowd will stop you, straight up. You’re not pulling hair. You’re not hitting anybody when they’re on the ground. You’re not kicking. It’s just straight, just boxing.
Tyson: You know how they say every fight … I keep hearing these Americans saying, “Every fight always ends up on the ground.” Not for us.
Tyson: Saying every fight always ends up on the ground. Not for us. They don’t end up on the ground. If someone falls, you wait until they get up again.
Jim: Yeah, it was true in my community as well. Now there was actually two kinds of fighting. There was this, call it ritualistic fighting, where you stand and throw punches, right? And then there was the very much rarer, really serious fucking grudge fight, in which case people would go to the ground. But that was a different thing. And there was also what I would call fighting with others outside of our community, in which case you modulated the level of violence based on an assessment of the risk. And you might well go to the ground, but there was a big distinction. Cultural ceremonial fighting was always done standing and with your hands. It sounds very similar.
Tyson: I’m working on a research project at the moment, actually. It’s a study, myself and another indigenous researcher, we’re doing a study on settler on settler violence. And so we’re looking at our data set is a hundred YouTube street fight videos of settlers fighting in different settler states around the world. So, Taiwan, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the U.S., there’s heaps there. Yeah, and we’re applying a heuristic of indigenous rule governed violence, so we’re taking our fighting rules and we’re judging the settler fights based on our rules. It’s kind of like a cheeky reverse anthropology thing.
Jim: I like it.
Tyson: But we’re finding governance, it’s almost nonexistent in these fights, and it’s terrifying. One of our biggest rules is there’s no collateral damage. You don’t do anything that’s going to injure the crowd. But there’s so much of it, innocent bystanders getting taken out and all these sorts of things. Yeah, it’s quite horrendous.
Tyson: But what we’re finding really horrendous is when there is some attempt at governance, it’s usually by women. But the women are absolutely prohibited in all a hundred cases, women are absolutely prohibited from participating as combatants, that that’s an absolute no-no. And see, it’s the opposite if you look up indigenous fight videos, most of those fight videos will be women fighting. So our women do fight, and naturally human women do. It’s only these civilized women who are prevented from fighting. They’re one of the groups that are denied access to the agency of violence.
Tyson: So, you see, even men who look like big melee, a whole heap of men just struggling to furiously trying to kill each other. They’re really going berserk. And then a woman will start fighting off to the side, and all the men on both sides will stop and join forces and just stop her. We saw this time and time again, the only role a woman’s allowed to perform is to sort of try and break the fight up and “Don’t touch him,” that sort of thing, screaming from the sidelines, you know the one.
Tyson: Yeah, so that’s yielding some interesting results, but it’s the gendered nature of this problem with violence and this imbalance that’s kind of disturbing. And I do touch on that on the book. I feel that Western femininity is it’s kind of projected as this universal femininity, that this is what feminine is, but it’s not. That’s what any person who’s completely confined and disempowered for their whole life, that’s how they’re going to act. They’re going to mince around, and they’re going to throw like a girl. Indigenous women don’t throw like a girl. They throw like a human, exactly the same way that men throw. So, I mean, this kind of cloistered life where these poor women are taught to occupy less space than males and all the rest, it ends up with women in this weakened state, and they’re basically at the mercy of anybody who’s around. And it’s, I don’t know, I don’t like that too much.
Jim: A word I use overly-domesticated. I mean, it quite literally in the same way that a cow is kind of a stupid and weak version of a buffalo, right. And yes, women were overly domestic, especially in the West, think of the Victorian or early 20th century woman in particular.
Tyson: Any civilization, I mean, it’s the same with in Asia.
Jim: Yeah, the foot bindings, things like that. Yeah.
Tyson: Middle East as well, anywhere civilization touches, you end up with this weird kind of domestication of women that sort of twisted and mutated into these weird weakened soft little things. And I think that’s just an absolute crime against nature, against everything, to do that to a being. So, yeah.
Jim: And now we’re doing it to the men, especially in the West, particularly in the more affluent sections of the West to this thing that we talked about before, this snowflake-ism and super safety. And it’s the same thing. It’s taking the self-domestication one step further. And that means that you are now utterly dependent on civilization, right. And how many people do we know who just would have no chance at all to survive if the support apparatus came down? Well, I like to tease them when we get into talks. I like to scare them a little bit about apocalyptic bullshit. And I say, “Dude, you know what’s going to happen to you if the apocalypse happens? You’re going to end up as jerky smoked over a burning tire fire.”
Tyson: Yeah, that’s it. I mean, this is what happens to a domesticated being when they’re thrown into a wild situation or into just the reality of nature. That’s when you get fight or flight. So fight or flight is not a natural condition for human. That’s one of the myths of primitivism that’s projected back onto this paleolithic past, that our entire culture, human culture, has evolved from fight or flight responses because a tiger, right? You never know, you’d be walking along and a tiger will jump out and get you. It’s like, “Ah, no. If you’re a part of that system, if you belong to that landscape and you’re an integral part of it, you always know where the tigers are. You’re never surprised by a tiger.” Nobody in my community has ever been taken by a crocodile because we know where the crocodiles are.
Tyson: You’re part of it, and it’s never just fight or flight. So, I’m fishing for stingrays with a spear with my dad at a place called Eaclip [phonetic 01:15:49], and we’re walking along there, and there’s a sandbank. So we’re up to about our ribs in the water, and there’s a sandbank dropping off into the dark. And you can see the drag mark from the crocodile that’s come down the beach, and he’s in there. And he a giant crocodile, like a big, very big old crocodile. So we know that he’s somewhere along there. He’s just resting on that bank and looking. And we’re walking meters away from the edge of that in the water. And dad says, “As long as you’re not thinking about that crocodile, if you can have the discipline to know he’s there, but not think about him at the point when you walk pass him, he won’t get you.” So that’s a hell of a meditation to do under pressure, I got to tell you.
Tyson: And then we’re walking, a big tiger shark starts just speeding towards us, like a flash of light out of nowhere. And dad’s just straight up, boom, hits him on the nose with the spear, and it turns and off it goes. There’s not fight or flight in that relation there with those predators. There’s none of those things. There’s just a profound knowingness. And then he’s trying to train me up to do the same thing. It’s like, I don’t know, it should have been a training montage. It was like in Rocky or something.
Tyson: So there’s a big flock of these stingrays, and he’s pushing them towards me and making them all run towards me, swim really fast towards me and crash into my legs. And he says, “If you panic and lift your foot, they’ll sting you, so you’ve got to stand.” So he’s making all these stingrays crash into my legs to sort of train me up to have that kind of fearlessness to overcome that and have that relation, come into relation with those things. And if you’re in relation with that and in relation with your place and you’re part of that complex system and your mind, not your brain, and we’ll have to get into that next time, is extending out into that system, you’re not going to be surprised by a tiger.
Tyson: So it’s flight or fight responses is, I mean, I know the game theorists like to base a lot of their theory in a lot of these kind of projections backwards onto a paleolithic past that they’re imagining, but they’re kind of imagining what would be like for them now if they were dropped back there. They’re not imagining what it would be like to actually be part of a landscape, to be part of a natural system, and to be integral to that. And what kind of thinking, what kind of genius it would take to be able to hold all of that, and for that to be the model of your thinking.
Jim: Yeah, to the point about the genius, I mean, something that you allude to, you don’t give the numbers, but you allude to it. It is known in physical anthropology that our paleolithic ancestors had bigger brains than we did by about 10% because they had to deal with all this stuff, right. Frankly, we can get a little stupid, and we have, in the same way that a cow is a stupid form of buffalo. A domesticated human is about 10% less brain capacity than Cro-Magnon man.
Tyson: Yeah, it’s not just the capacity, it’s the connections. You’ve got trillions of potential neural connections, and we’re only using about 15% of them at the moment, if you’re a genius. So, if you can imagine how that brain would have evolved and what kind of thinking we would have had to have been doing to even grow that brain in the first place, then you’re getting an idea of what paleolithic and neolithic lifestyles were like. And that’s what you need to base your theories and your models on, and you need to apply that complexity that way. Because otherwise, you’re grounding it in something that’s not a reality, and you’re going to have a flawed system coming out of that.
Jim: Yeah, I think there’s a lot to that. And again, it comes back to this domestication. Well, I will say, though, I have to kick back on what you said a couple of times in the book. Oh, we’re only using 10% or 15% of our brain. That’s actually not true.
Tyson: No, no, no, no, of the neural connections, of the potential neuro connections, not of the brain. You’re using the whole brain all the time. Yeah.
Jim: All the time, right. But, of course, the way the brain works is by pruning the connections. We actually lose 50% of our connections between the age of about one and six. And that’s how the brain is sculpted. So I’m not a hundred percent, I don’t believe that’s particularly significant.
Tyson: Well, the new nucleus basalis kind of dies off.
Jim: We’ll talk about that next time. I actually called that out as a specific thing to talk about. And I agree with you there, that modern education, so-called, what I call the sausage factory, does very bad things to the young brain. And again, back to this idea of self-domestication that civilization has been doing to us for 10,000 years, in the West at least, is one of my favorite quotes, which is, “The sheep spends his whole life worrying about the wolf only to be eaten by the shepherd.”
Tyson: That’s it. Yeah, yeah.
Jim: Yeah, that’s it. All right, one last thing before we go here. And I thought about where to put this in my topic list because it is important to the rest of the story, but I didn’t think it was good to have up front until we actually did a little bit of it, which is this concept in your culture of the yarn, a form of storytelling, but not just the storytelling. In American English, when you say you’re telling a yarn, it’s a little old fashioned, first of all, something my grandfather might have said. “I want to tell you about… We got this yarn here, young feller.” And it usually means long, humorous, and not very serious. It’s an archaic Americanism. I suppose it came over from England somewhere along the line, but you use it in a very different way. Could you just tell us a little bit about the art of yarning, I guess, is the way to ask the question?
Tyson: Yeah. Well, look, I think it comes back to this idea of a distributed sort of governance, distributed cognition, all of this sort of stuff. It’s just a modality that arises from that. So, basically, the truth and the big picture that you need to form of the context that you’re in so that you can make accurate predictions moving forward, so that you can make plans that are actually going to work in the real world, you have to have an aggregate of stories. So you can’t just have one story dominating. You can’t have one point of view winning the debate and coming out on top, and then we have to build everything from that model. Every different story, every person’s story, must be heard, and the truth lies in that aggregate of all those stories.
Tyson: I mean, a lot of people are doing that with the kinds of data that they’re gathering in corporations now to help them out. They’re getting all those micro yarns, I guess, and putting them together and analyzing them to come up with a bigger picture. And the outliers in those yarns are important, too, like the ones that don’t sort of go along with the consensus, that they actually come out of it as well.
Tyson: So a yarn is kind of almost a ritualized conversation with a group of people, and it’s quite dynamic and overlapping. And there’s lots of story. There’s lots of acting things out, drawing images in the air or on the ground, basically with the goal of arriving at a loose consensus of what the reality is. And yeah, your decisions come out of that. There’s usually food that’s eaten or a cup of tea or something like that, or it’s done around an activity of making something or whatever, but it happens like that. It’s quite ritualized and good.
Tyson: But you see a lot of these silly things coming through, people talk about talking circles and yarning circles and all these things. And I’m sure you have it in the States, too, where they sit in a circle and go around clockwise with a bloody talking stick or something. You know what I mean? So everybody, because people, “Oh, oh my God. Everybody has to have a voice. People have to be heard.” That’s one of the most annoying, whining things that annoys me about the era we’re living in is this idea of being heard. I don’t feel heard. And so everybody has to have their turn to speak, even if what they’re saying is rubbish and they’re going for way too long, probably like I’m doing now. You get someone monologuing, and then everyone has to sit politely and wait for them to finish. And then they pass the stick to the next person, and it goes clockwise, too.
Tyson: And they kind of, I don’t know, they kind of saying they’re doing something indigenous or indigenized and that a circle is more democratic, and there’s no hierarchies here. And that’s bullshit. You basically turned a circle into a line. It’s a queue that’s going around. It’s that ouroboros, that snake eating its tail. I mean, a real yarn is a lot more complex than that and actually give us a rise to some very important outcomes.
Jim: Yeah, let me feed back to you something in my own experience that sounds fair amount like the way you describe a yarn. One of the passions of my life, since I was 15 years old, has been deer hunting. One of the things I’ve done with my best friends and to this day, they’re still my best friends. God damn it, 50 years later, right. And in the evening after a day’s hunt, there’s this very strange, complicated, beautiful, fulfilling conversation that happens amongst the hunters. Let’s imagine in later day, a typical number of us that will be cooking together, eating together, and drinking together, let’s not forget that. Maybe nine or 10 people in the fairly small little hunt camp. And we’ll be telling what we saw during the day. We’ll be talking about where we saw deer, where they were coming from, where they were going to, what they were eating, what their behavior was like. And then, oh, by the way, we might also do a digression into what we were daydreaming about, right, or what we’re thinking about.
Jim: And then, and to your point about it not being linear and everybody having their 10 minutes of time, I mean, it’s people talking over each other. But there’s also an interesting one is that some hunters are frankly, better than other hunters, right? Some hunters are super observant. I’m thinking in our own little hunting circle. And so X, when X speaks, people listen because X really fucking knows deer, right? And if you want to get a deer, especially a big one, we’re typically buck hunters, trophy hunters, this particular group, you listen to what X says, and you’ll learn more than what Y has to say.
Jim: But Z, now this Z is the most amazing one. Z is a buffoon at one level in that he is not super observant of what’s going on around him. He’s not a great shot and he’s got bad eyes, but he still gets his fair share of deer. But what is Z’s superpower? Z is the repository of cultural memory. Z remembers every detail of every deer kill of this group ever, right, typically as related by the hunter himself. Z didn’t observe all this stuff, but Z listens with great precision and interest to the stories as they’re told, and he turns them into history. So, in the middle of one of these wild floating, talking over each other, meta-conversations about deer hunting, there may be a story that’s sufficiently similar, a piece of data that’s sufficiently similar to say, “Hey, Z. Tell us the story about when H shot that 10 point buck over on Big Buck Ridge.” And then sure enough, Z will tell the story in impeccable detail and will have it more or less right every time.
Tyson: Well, see, so the wisdom of your group, the knowledge of your group and the deer knowledge, it doesn’t sit with any individual. It’s held by the entire group and all the stories.
Jim: Yep, absolutely. And then there’s an outcome to it. We decide where each of us are going to hunt the next day.
Tyson: That’s it.
Jim: And, again, it makes a big difference because the deer run differently each year, depending on how the acorn crop is, how much grass there is, how much water, how cold it is. Is there a full moon or not? Is there snow on the ground? And further, because we’re trying to be safe, we want everyone to know where everybody else is. So this whole meta-conversation actually has a result, which is at the end of the conversation, each one of the nine or 10 hunters has selected one of the named spots. That’s the other interesting thing. All these little spots where you hunt have names, right? There’s Big Buck, there’s White Oak Flat, there’s Morgue Hollow. There’s the Knob. It’s funny. And then by the end of the night, it might go on for four or five hours, people will call out, “I’m going to the Knob.” “I’m going to Nash Field.” “I’m go here.” And it’s-
Tyson: So your stories are maps as well.
Jim: Yes, indeed. And we all hunt at the same place every time. So we have a deep, deep knowledge of place, about this place where we hunt.
Tyson: See, I mean, everything that I write about in the book, one of the biggest reactions I get is how familiar people feel with these things, these indigenous ways. They go, “Ah, I’ve done that,” or “I’ve experienced that.” And it’s basically, it’s your factory settings. Indigenous is human, baseline human who you are. You can be taken away from that and domesticated into some kind of shriveled, ridiculous other kind of person. But that, at your base, is who you are. That was who you were born as. Every baby is born the same when it’s born in that wild state. And yeah, and it’s not until it gets sort of twisted and domesticated and ruined and broken that turns into something else, this industrialized thing that we see before us now, that feedlot pig that we’ve become.
Tyson: People are familiar here, and I keep telling people in the last message I would say is don’t be mining the margins for indigenous wisdom. You don’t need to be looking for some exotic other. You’ll find a lot of it is right there with you. If you really do look into yourself, you’ll find fragments of that. And each fragment contains the pattern of the whole, and the whole can be extrapolated out from any fragment, I believe. So, you find your own way and your own stories and your own activities in your own place there would be my advice to people.
Jim: I think that resonates true to me. And one of the things I took away from this book is that the best parts of my life are the ones that are the most resonant with the indigenous perspective. And while I’ve had these great peak experience, truthfully, most of Western civilization life I’ve led has been a little on the gray side, right? If we’re going to build a new civilization, why shouldn’t we make it as wonderful as we can, right, incorporate more of these deep, real human things.
Jim: Well, with that, I think we’re going to end it for today. But as we talked about, we’re definitely coming back for a part two to dig into a lot more in this extraordinarily rich book. We’ll talk about woodworking. We’ll talk about sand talk and the drawings that you’ve done and lots more.
Tyson: Yeah, well, hopefully we might be able to run some thought experiments and see if we can get that robot deer of yours working a bit better.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.