The Pirahã Convert a Missionary
It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curious of inquiry. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.
There's an interesting article on Edge by Daniel L. Everett on his theories and experiences concerning the Pirahã—an Amazon tribe which appears to lack recursive structures in its grammar.
The article is fascinating because the Pirahã are so untouched by civilization culturally, and so show us at least one alternative to the way of being we tend to take as given. They don't have numbers, for example. They tend to live in the present. And they don't have words for colors.
They are also extremely empirical in their world-view, which brings me to the second fascinating thing about the article: Everett himself. He first went to the Amazon as a missionary, as he puts it, "with the knowledge of New Testament Greek and a little bit of anthropology and linguistics."
When I began to tell them the stories from the Bible, they didn't have much of an impact. I wondered, was I telling the story incorrectly? Finally one Pirahã asked me one day, well, what color is Jesus? How tall is he? When did he tell you these things? And I said, well, you know, I've never seen him, I don't know what color he was, I don't know how tall he was. Well, if you have never seen him, why are you telling us this?
I started thinking about what I had been doing all along, which was, give myself a social environment in which I could say things that I really didn't have any evidence for—assertions about religion and beliefs that I had in the Bible. And because I had this social environment that supported my being able to say these things, I never really got around to asking whether I knew what I was talking about. Whether there was any real empirical evidence for these claims.
The Pirahã, who in some ways are the ultimate empiricists—they need evidence for every claim you make—helped me realize that I hadn't been thinking very scientifically about my own beliefs.
Everett ultimately gave up his fundamentalist world-view and made the transition from missionary to linguist, partly because of his encounter with these "uncivilized" people.
I'm not making a case for a "noble savage" here, but I do think that it is important, as humans, that we gather all the evidence we can about what is really human, and what is merely our current culture—in other words, what are our options? It's especially important in these bizarre and dangerous times, that we are aware that there are other ways of being human than those that we have been taught.
For example, the Pirahã culture rejects coercion. Adults don't even tell children what they have to do. And yet the culture survives.
Don't get me wrong. I don't want to be a Pirahã, no matter how instructive I find their ways.
For one thing, I am too enamored of the possibilities of the recursion of structures of grammar of the language of English.