A smiling Barasana boy of the Northwest Amazon holds a brilliantly colored macaw (photograph by Anthropologist/Ethnobotanist/Author Wade Davis)
Photo by Author Wade Davis

I saw Steven Pinker tweet to recommend Snakes, Sunrises and Shakespeare: How Evolution Shapes Our Loves and Fears, by Gordon H. Orians.

It reminded me of this passage from The Serpent and The Rainbow, by Wade Davis, which I’ve always wanted to post. Now I have my excuse.

There is a small isolated group of seminomadic Indians in the northwest Amazon whose technology is so rudimentary that until quite recently they used stone axes. Yet these same people possess a knowledge of the tropical forest that puts almost any biologist to shame. As children they learn to recognize such complex phenomena as floral pollination and fruit dispersal, to understand and accurately predict animal behavior, to anticipate the fruiting cycles of hundreds of forest trees. As adults their awareness is refined to an uncanny degree; at forty paces, for example, their hunters can smell animal urine and distinguish on the basis of scent alone which out of dozens of possible species left it. Such sensitivity is not an innate attribute of these people, any more than technological prowess is something inevitably and uniquely ours. Both are consequences of adaptive choices that resulted in the development of highly specialized but different mental skills, at the obvious expense of others. Within a culture, change also means choice. In our society, for example, we now think nothing about driving at high speeds down expressways, a task that involves, countless rapid, unconscious sensory responses and decisions which, to say the least, would have intimated our great-grandfathers. Yet acquiring such dexterity, we have forfeited other skills like the ability to see Venus, to smell animals, to hear the weather change.

Makes you wonder what skills our descendants will possess?

The ability to detect a phishing attempt by spotting one extra letter in the fraudster’s URL?

The art of the reply-to-all or bcc email?

Use of @ versus .@ on Twitter?

Adaptation & Evolution