I first heard about Jonnie Hughes' On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves) on NPR - either on Radiolab or Science Friday, I can't remember which one. I was so taken with the name, and then, when I looked the book up online, I was even more enamored with the cover image that the book went immediately onto my wish list. And there it sat, unassuming, until I realized recently that I have access to a university library system and that I could check the book out and read it very easily! So, thanks again, University of Michigan Library!
On the Origin of Tepees is a science book written by an ecologist, but I really hope you don't let that scare you away. I know that already, some of your eyes are glazed over and that you're just going to skim the rest of this post and write something like, "Sounds interesting, but not for me" in the comments, but that is NOT what you should do. There are some books that make you smarter in an everyday sense- ones that really make you think critically about the way the world forms and why things are the way they are, and this is one of those books. After reading this book, you'll a) want to take a road trip to the Black Hills; b) add "construct a tepee" to your bucket list; and c) look at barns in a totally different way than ever before.
This book is about ideas: how they come about, how they change, why some stick around and some are forgotten forever, and how they impact us as individuals and as groups. And Hughes argues that people don't have ideas... ideas have people. He argues his point on a road trip from Minneapolis' Mall of America through Yellowstone National Park to the Black Hills and then up into Canada, giving readers details on the evolution of the cowboy hat, the American barn, tepees (of course!), the wheel and jokes. Just as species are locked in a battle for survival over generations and millennia, so too are ideas. They want to live long lives, too, and when two ideas come into conflict with each other, then it's often the case that only one can "survive."
Hughes expands on this theory and applies it in a myriad of ways. Most of them are very believable, though I admit I don't really like the way he uses this theory to explain the fall of Native American culture:
The species of Ideas from the Old World...had evolved in the noosphere's most competitive arena: Western civilization. They'd had a harder Life, competed with more rivals, moved through a larger pool of mind habitats. The rules of natural selection would suggest that these more complex species were destined to replace the endemics and that, because of the degree of the imbalance, they would do so at a breathtaking speed...When New World Ideas came into direct competition with the Old World species - the languages, the religions, the tepees - they just couldn't cope.This is difficult for me to swallow for many reasons. One, if ideas go through an evolutionary "survival of the fittest" test, then why would Western Civilization, the "most competitive arena" still have multiple religions, languages, dress codes and cultures, rather than just one? If it's the case that competing ideas can co-exist in such a small space as Europe together, then it seems unlikely that the same would not hold true in America. Two, it seems like Hughes assumes that Native Americans lived in isolation and never challenged each other's ideas, assumptions, or beliefs. I don't know that much about this period of history and the cultures that thrived at the time, but I think this is a huge assumption. If pre-Columbian population estimates are accurate, then America was home to a large population of people that would encounter and challenge each other regularly- I don't see, then, how European ideas would triumph so easily over American ones.
That was the only real blip in my reading, though. Hughes admits that "We may all have the power to participate mindfully in cultural evolution, but there isn't much in history to claim that we do so with any regularity or skill. We are far too passive in our role. Just as we would rather learn a solution than devise one, we too readily accept the culture we receive, and too rarely question it." And this, too, he explains using science. Our imaginations aren't equipped to make huge leaps that require conjecture; we're much better at taking small steps and getting there incrementally. But we can be so set in our own ways that we don't ever consider that maybe a different way is better- and that, tragically, is what happened in America.
It's a very hard lesson to hear and an even more difficult lesson to learn- especially when you consider that even if you learn the lesson, you must keep the idea alive by passing it on to someone else, and hoping that somehow, the lesson will catch on and everyone will just know it. It's a huge task.
Hughes put other things in perspective for me, too. It's easy to think of Native American culture as static. They were here before the Europeans came, for eons, living the same life they had always led, until they were wiped out by a combination of disease and genocide. But that's not the story at all. It's unfair and narrow-minded to think that Indian culture was stagnant and unchanging. The culture and the people and the technology were all dynamic, and all subject to the pressures of the environment even before Europeans arrived. It was so interesting to read about what brought Indians over to North America, and what brought them further and further south, and how they adapted their lives to the changing environment. It was important for me to understand that.
This was an excellent book that really made me think deeply about the world around me and how it came to be as it is. I understand evolution much better now, and am truly impressed by how the concept can apply not only to biological species, but to ideas, too. I didn't agree with everything in here, but every page made me feel more invested in how I help to shape the environment around me.
I love that about how Natives couldn't cope with new things. I'll say! Especially if those new things include muskets firing at them so their land could be stolen, and New World diseases that ensured 90% of them were wiped out (which colonists often helped along by distributing smallpox blankets to them). I would have thrown that book through the window of my house!!!ReplyDelete
Yeah, it definitely was an upsetting thing to read because it really felt like racism couched in some sort of evolutionary phrasing, which made it even worse. BUT the book presents a lot of interesting ideas.Delete
I kept thinking of tapas, duh, mindmelt going on here. As for the book..noReplyDelete
Yeah, I knew you would say that. My second paragraph was actually written ALL FOR YOU!Delete
This does sound like it had some interesting ideas inside it, but also some controversial ones as well, and it's really wonderful to me that you took the time to separate out the negative messages from the positive and affirming ones, and didn't judge the book based on the negative ideas alone. I also agree with Jill's comment, and would have been angry with the idea that the Indians just couldn't adapt, but I think that Hughes actually has some interesting things to say otherwise. This might be a book that I would be interested in looking into; not only for the cultural perceptions on history, but for the ideas about going forward as well. Totally absorbing review today. It really has me both interested and slightly irritated at the author's assumptions!ReplyDelete
Yes, it really changed the way that I think about ideas. Also, I was driving through Michigan today and saw a lot of iconic barns that I didn't realize were iconic until reading this book :-)Delete
Very interesting post. You might be interested in my Travel Bucket ListReplyDelete
hm, I am not sure if I want to read this, but at the same time I am curious... I will put it on my wish list and see how it goes.ReplyDelete
He spends some time in Canada, actually!Delete
The reversal of the ideas have people/people have ideas paradigm catches my interest; it reminds me of the way that Michael Pollan upsets the idea of the way in which plants evolve to urge humans to interact with them in particular ways (in The Botany of Desire). I like it when basic concepts are given a good toss in my reading brain, so thanks for bringing this one off the shelf!ReplyDelete
There's a guy down the street (can't quite call him a 'neighbor') that has a teepee in his backyard. It really does sound like an interesting book.ReplyDelete
You convinced me! Well, really you had me at Science Friday.ReplyDelete
I'm not scared off by this one at all. I am fascinated by this subject and feel like this book will have me running off in other directions to get more information on this way of thinking. This one is definitely going on my list to read.ReplyDelete
People have misunderstood this passage. The author didn't suggest that the native americans themselves couldn't cope with the old world ideas. Throughout the book he treats ideas like living things and in this section says that the "species of ideas" in the north american cultures could not cope with the invasion of the "species of ideas" arriving from the old world. He says it was just like when north american animals invaded south america when the two continents joined - the south american animals were wiped out, because the invaders were highly evolved. When America was colonized, Europe's population was many times that of the whole of America, with cities numbering hundreds of thousands - Hughes is saying that the culture was more complex not the people! I agree with everything else said here - it's well worth a read.ReplyDelete
Yes, and that's the problem I have with it, as I said before. Saying that one area's "culture" is a pretty loaded statement, and I don't really think he had any reason to say it. There was no reason to think that Native American ideas weren't as "evolved." He really can only say that because European culture *did* take over. But I think a LOT more of that is due to disease and politics than less-evolved ideas. That way of thinking is pretty racist sounding to me.Delete
I think you're being harsh. He talks about the disaster that occurred when Columbus arrived: an invasion of genes, germs and ideas. He's very critical of the US policies against the Native Americans in the nineteenth century and throughout he's extremely respectful of Native American culture - indeed, he chose it as his focus of study. As he says elsewhere, "evolved" doesn't mean "better", so there's no value judgment going on here when he compares the arrival of European ideas with the arrival of North American animals in South America after Panama was formed.Delete
You are free to have your own opinion, of course, though I continue to disagree. I think I would take you more seriously if you'd stop posting anonymously and on only one post on the entire blog.Delete