Nature’s Intelligence: Coming Down from the Pedestal | Jeremy Narby and J.P. Harpignies
These days, scientists are starting to talk like shamans and shamans are starting to talk like scientists. So says anthropologist and author Jeremy Narby. And, he says, we need to talk about talking – because words matter. In this episode, Bioneers Senior Producer J.P. Harpignies speaks with Narby about how the very language and words we use reveal the topography and limits of our worldview, including Western culture’s adamant centuries-long but now increasingly discredited assumption that intelligence is restricted only to human beings.
Jeremy Narby, Ph.D., an anthropologist who has been working as Amazonian Projects Coordinator for the Swiss NGO “Nouvelle Planète” since 1990, backing initiatives of Amazonian indigenous organizations in land titling, bilingual and intercultural education, environmental monitoring and sustainable economic development, is the author of The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge (1998) and Intelligence in Nature (2005), and co-edited the anthology Shamans Through Time with Francis Huxley.
J.P. Harpignies, Bioneers Senior Producer, affiliated with Bioneers since 1990, is a Brooklyn, NYC-based consultant, conference producer, copy-editor and writer. A former Program Director at the New York Open Center and a senior review team member for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge from 2010 to 2017, he has authored or edited several books, including Political Ecosystems, Delusions of Normality, Visionary Plant Consciousness, and, most recently, Animal Encounters.
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Kenny Ausubel
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
- Producer: Teo Grossman
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
- Production Assistance: Monica Lopez
This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.
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Neil Harvey (Host): So it was obvious that there was this human supremacist thing lurking in the word “nature”.And anthropologists have pointed out that this is a concept specific to Western cultures. So you go to the Amazon and ask people there how they say “everything that is not human”, they say, No, we think plants and animals are people like us. We don’t have this idea – “everything that is not human”.
In this program, we drop in on a provocative conversation about the concept of “Intelligence in Nature” and how language itself can encode our worldviews. Bioneers Senior Producer J.P. Harpignies talks with anthropologist Jeremy Narby, author of many books including “Intelligence in Nature: An Inquiry into Knowledge.” Narby suggests that today you’d be hard pressed to find a scientist who disputes intelligence in nature. But what is intelligence? And what if how we talk about it still signals a human-supremacist bias?
These days, scientists are starting to talk like shamans and shamans are starting to talk like scientists. So says anthropologist and author Jeremy Narby. And, he says, we need to talk about talking – because words matter. The very language and words we use reveal the topography and limits of our worldview, including Western culture’s adamant centuries-long but now increasingly discredited assumption that intelligence is restricted only to human beings.
We join a free-range dialogue between Jeremy Narby and J.P. Harpignies at a Bioneers conference.
J.P. Harpignies (JP): One of your big themes here at the conference has been your insistence on the fact that the words we use and the language we express ourselves in are really determinant in- not just our attitude towards the natural world, but how we behave.
Maybe we should talk a little about that, about why you think that’s so important. And you know- a lot of your life, one of your big intellectual challenges has been this idea of reconciling Indigenous wisdom and ways of knowing with the Western scientific approaches, something that’s very difficult to reconcile, but that’s been your life’s work. And you’ve often used the term being bi-cognitive. Now you’re sort of talking about being plural-lingual. So maybe let’s explore that a bit.
Jeremy Narby (Jeremy): Ok, well, obviously, it’s complicated to talk about the limits of a language in that language. But that also makes it interesting. For me, it started to become clear when I wrote Intelligence in Nature.
So English is my mother tongue. I also speak French. I know that when you go from one language to another, things don’t necessarily translate. So I think that experience of having grown up with several languages, and then Spanish, then a bit of German. I’m not bragging. Actually I feel my head’s relatively small. I know some people who can speak a whole bunch of languages.
But anyway, as I was writing Intelligence in Nature, I still have the reflex of most people just to think that the words that are in our mother tongue are normal there, so “intelligence”. Well, everybody knows what intelligence is, or we think we do. Or okay, you can look in the Dictionary and there’s a definition. Alright. So my book is going to be about intelligence in nature, but the more I started looking into the subject, the problem with the word emerged fairly quickly.
So intelligence is a word that comes from the Latin inter legere, to choose between, so it’s in Western tongues, and if you look in the dictionary, the definition of the word is often in exclusively human terms, which means that it can’t really be applied to other species if we’re strict with words.
So then you think, well, wait a second, how come intelligence is in exclusively human terms? Well, you look into it and you realize that there’s this thing in Western cultures, human exclusivity, this whole idea that humans have things that the others don’t, and there’s like a kind of a long shopping list that Western thinkers have tended, especially modern Western thinkers, to line up as being what makes us above all other species. And you think, but hold on. What is this above other species business? I mean, we’re all—we’re mammals, after all, so where is the above?
Well, we say there’s a whole list of things that humans do and that other species don’t do, and intelligence is one of them; that over the centuries, Western thinkers have said humans have intelligence and the others have instinct or–
JP: (overlapping): Well, but those goal posts have moved quite a bit. Right? Because a lot of recent research on animal—I mean, when you wrote [CROSSTALK] your book, it was early, but now there’s been quite a lot…[CROSSTALK]
But when I was doing the research in 2002, so, yes, the goal posts have been moved all over the place, but when a Japanese researcher showed that a slime mold could solve a maze and use the word intelligence in Nature magazine in 2002, all the Western commentators said, Wait, you can’t use the word intelligence for a single cell of slime.
I remember he said that if he used the word “cleverness” they were better with it.
Jeremy: (overlapping): “Smart. Smart.”
JP: Yeah, “smart”.
Jeremy: But, so it was obvious that there was this human supremacist thing lurking in the word intelligence. Okay…And then I found that it was also lurking in the word “nature”, so that if you look in the dictionary, “nature” is defined as the phenomena of the physical world – plants, animals, and the landscape, as opposed to humans and human creations. This is the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word – as opposed to humans and human creations. Nature is everything that is not human.
And anthropologists have pointed out that this is a concept specific to Western cultures. So you go to the Amazon and ask people there how they say “everything that is not human”, they say, No, we think plants and animals are people like us. We don’t have this idea – “everything that is not human”.
So then you think, okay, so let’s wind the tape back. So English is my mother tongue. Nature, we know I like nature; nature’s plants and animals. Okay. But it means everything that is not human. Yeah, it’s kind of a weird concept. I thought that nature was a natural concept. I thought nature existed. I like nature. I’m a friend of nature. But actually the concept is this weird concept.
JP: (overlapping): So what do you think about how to transcend—to deal with that, because as you were saying, the only languages we have are the ones that we are raised with, so how to—Is there any escape?
JEREMY: Yeah. There’s escape. Like, for example, I tend to not use the word nature. I tend to say plants and animals, or the living world, or all living organisms. You know, there are ways of—or the biosphere.
JP: Or the web of life.
Jeremy: The web of life. There’s all kind of ways of talking, but… So then, both intelligence and nature are centered on humans but in opposed ways. In fact, “intelligence in nature”, if you’re strict with words, is a contradiction in terms, because intelligence excludes non-humans, and nature excludes humans. But that just shows that our categories or our concepts have these blind angles.
So I think this is interesting, but it means that if we want to move forward with understanding what we would call “intelligence in nature”, or let’s just say “the full capacities of all living organisms”, if we want to understand that, doing away with concepts that put a difference between us and the other species seems like a good move. In other words, okay, if intelligence is problematic because it’s irremediably a human exclusivity, forget about it; we need a new concept.
If nature is problematic because it also excludes humans and puts a difference between us and other species, then we don’t need it; we can use alternatives.
JP: There is a sort of more underground philosophical tradition in the West, of panpsychism, this idea that consciousness permeates everything in the universe, even inanimate—what we think of as inanimate—that’s probably another problematic word. So—
Jeremy: Still, but you note that — let’s call it the capitalist world that has been established; this sort of huge industry, market-driven, worldwide distribution containers, plastic objects made all over the place, that world is a world that has considered plants and animals as objects, not as subjects. So there’s humans on one hand. They’re the subjects, they’re the consumers, and all the rest are objects. We can wrap them in plastic and sell them. And that’s what’s going on.
So, this view that humans are somehow above all the rest and can do with all the rest what they want, is the world we live in.
Host: For over 30 years, Jeremy Narby has worked with the Swiss-based nonprofit Nouvelle Planète supporting Indigenous Amazonian initiatives in Peru for land conservation and cultural preservation. Living and working with tribes including the Asháninka, he participated in their ceremonial use of ayahuasca, a psychedelic plant medicine central to their medical and spiritual practices. These powerful experiences ignited in him a desire to seek to build bridges between shamanic and scientific worldviews.
JP: So one thing that will certainly interest probably a certain subset of listeners, is because you’ve written about ayahuasca, and ayahuasca experiences had a big influence on shaping your world vision when you were living with the Asháninka in your younger days, how do you think the use of sacred plants and ayahuasca in particular, and other sacred plants, might influence that type of—that linguistic struggle or does one access states that are beyond language or apart from language? Or what do you think the relationship is?
Jeremy: Well, I can talk on the basis of personal experience. For me it’s been clear that ayahuasca has kind of heightened or enhanced my attention to words, how one pronounces them, the choice of words, also the sound of one’s voice, that what comes out of one’s mouth counts and participates in the creation of the world. So that may sound a little bit – I don’t know what – but, yeah, words matter. What you say matters. And if you can say things clearly and with a pure heart, it has a ring that people can hear, and so you really can transmit, well, knowledge or these things through how you speak. Yeah, that is a kind of an ayahuasca insight.
Language almost seems more concrete in that state of mind, or breath, certainly. And actually in the ayahuasca experience, people sing spontaneously, and as they sing, they experience the power of melody in their voice, that it’s really this beautiful thing that we can make these sounds with our voice and add meaning and melody to them. It’s such a precious and beautiful thing, that you don’t want to spend your day cussing and having garbage coming out of your mouth.
JP: Do you think that those early ayahuasca experiences, you describe them as having really changed your worldview. How does that apply to this issue of language? Do you think the seeds of your questioning of Western language began then, or do you think it’s something else in your anthropological training that triggered that, or some combination of the two?
Jeremy: Well, it’s true that the ayahuasca made me think about language and how you say things, and then how when you say things in one language, it’s not the same as the other, and so forth. Then I started writing The Cosmic Serpent, and trying to think about things, and realized that actually it’s like two different systems of logic here. It’s not just that we’re in English on the one hand and in Asháninka on the other hand. It’s, we’re in Western science on the one hand and in a kind of a shamanic epistemology on the other. And it’s kind of like oil and vinegar, and making sense of one from the other is difficult.
And then I started seeing it was towards the end of writing The Cosmic Serpent that I understood that it was kind of like bilingualism, and that you could look at the world from the point of view of science, and so the molecules that it contains, and so what does science tell us about ayahuasca and the brain, and so on and so forth. And then you could look at the same scene from the point of view of shamanic knowledge. And they’d be fairly complementary. The Cosmic Serpent was all about that, how you could reunite these two different gazes that had been separated, and actually they’re surprisingly coherent and agree on many fundamental levels about the nature of nature.
So, hmm, it was like the metaphor I had, it was like a reserve camera angle. My main camera angle was Western science, but we could see the replay from a reserve angle, and you could look at any question, like how does a DNA molecule function. Well, seen from the shamanic side, there must be some portents of vibration, melody, if what the shamans say is true about the essences that animate living beings, then vibration must be part of what makes a molecule tick. Well, okay, so that’s what you can get from the reserve angle. It may not—These are ideas for future research, for example.
And so then I understood that what was at stake, or what could then happen, if you could line up science and shamanic knowledge, then it would be a question of learning to go back and forth, like a bilingual person. And as somebody who’s had experience learning languages, other languages to the point of more or less becoming bilingual, there’s a period when you learn the second language where you cease to speak your mother tongue as well as you used to, yet you don’t speak the second language fluently yet either, so you’re in this kind of no-person’s land, so you speak two languages poorly. And what it takes is a lot of going back and forth, and that’s how you become bilingual by going back and forth a lot.
So the idea was that this was like bi-cognitivism. So it’s not two languages but two systems of knowledge.
Host: When we return, Jeremy Narby and J.P. Harpignies survey the erosion of the heretofore seemingly unbreachable dichotomies between scientific and shamanic ways of seeing the world. They suggest it might behoove us to try to come down from our imagined pedestal to be able to see ourselves as a part of nature, rather than apart from it.
I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature…
You can visit bioneers.org to subscribe to our newsletters and podcasts, check out Deep Dives on the topics that matter to you most, and learn about our events. That’s bioneers.org
Today, science has established beyond dispute human beings’ literal kinship with all other plant and animal species. Half the genes of a banana have exact equivalence in the human genome. Chimpanzees, bonobos and humans share close to 99% identity in their genomes. There are genes common to both humans and bacteria. In other words, we’re family.
At the same time, a growing body of research has convincingly demonstrated that intelligent behaviors and capacities are widely distributed throughout nature. Pigeons have a better memory for paintings than college students do. Sheep have a better memory for human faces than people do. The list goes on and on.
Yet how does the illusion that we humans are the only intelligent species, persist so tenaciously? Is it part of a Russian doll of false dichotomies that mistakenly separate humans from nature? Might our language itself be trapping us into faulty worldviews?
Let’s drop back into the mystery with Jeremy Narby and J.P Harpignies, talking about talking…
Jeremy: There’s that good old dichotomy where you have matter on one hand and then spirit on the other. And that’s what we then learn looking at this is that it’s not that Asháninka people don’t do dichotomies, they have a dichotomy between visible and invisible in that word “maninkari”, it’s that their dichotomies are a lot less watertight than Western ones. That’s what characterizes Western thinking. It’s not only that it’s dualist and it makes dichotomies, but that the categories are so watertight.
JP: So you think fluidity is a key aspect of the Indigenous worldview that we lack in Western languages.
Jeremy: This has been commented on by different anthropologists and so on, is that there is an increased permeability in the categories in Indigenous traditions worldwide, really. You can think of it as the yin yang symbol, where you have not only white and black surrounding each other, but the little bit of black in the white and the little bit of white in the black.
JP: Well that’s the dialectic where you get something else that results from the two forces. There’s a kind of a synthesis or interpenetration or—
Jeremy: But it comes from categories being less water tight.
Jeremy: So what’s also interesting about thinking about other cultures and about the limits of our vocabulary to try to understand those other cultures is that we think we’re trying to understand the others but at some point we’re also looking in the mirror and understanding ourselves. So like, you know, by trying to understand Amazonian reality in English, I’ve learned a lot about the limits of English and of Western thought. And that so—By trying to understand Amazonian logic, I realize the extent to which my Western logic is filled with this tendency to dichotomize you know—mind-body—
I used to think I have a body. I used to think I know what a body is. But actually the body is the result of an opposition between mind and body. You go to Asháninka people, of course they recognize that you have a hand, an arm, they have the word for knee, foot, leg and so on. They don’t have a word for body. They don’t have a word for mind either. They don’t make a separation between mind and body. And when you ask them to say body, they say all my skin standing. [LAUGHTER] So it takes—So actually their word, it’s more like there’s a skin capsule. So that’s their view of the world.
And then what we would call mind is that with which we know, it’s the same word as heart. So then I go back to body and mind. I think that, well, first of all, body is a pretty strange concept, because it is this part of this whole thing of me that is not my mind. And then you think, wait a second, but this idea that there’s a mind that is entirely separate from the body.
JP: Well there also is the Buddhist tradition which tells you that you don’t have a body or a mind, as you think of them, and that your body, in fact, looks distinct but in fact it’s interacting with the environment, molecules are leaving and coming, and there is no clear boundary. And in the same way your mind was deeply influenced by your education, your school, it’s permeable. So there are other traditions that question this.
But also the other thing is that—
Jeremy (overlapping): Well, I’d like to make clear that [CROSSTALK] I don’t doubt that I’m an organism.
Jeremy: I actually do like my whole physical setup. I’m not complaining.
JP: And if you stub your toe, you—
Jeremy: It hurts.
JP: It hurts. Yeah.
Jeremy: But I think that getting away from seeing it as being a sort of a body on the one hand and a mind on the other is what I want to do, because I want to understand myself, and I think that—like calling it body is like turning it into an object a little bit. Why do that?
JP: Yeah. But I mean, there is no complete way out, because we are stuck with language, to some degree. Right? So every effort we make in this will be partial. Don’t you think?
Jeremy: Well, like I could say I think of myself as a pulsating organism. Okay? Or a wet organism. Alright. I do try to think of myself that way. We could do—So it recognizes the physicality, but—And body, which is this kind of weird concept resulting from a pretty water tight dichotomy, we don’t need it.
JP: So, Jeremy, are you thinking of writing a new Dictionary of appropriate terms to describe the human condition? And which words to avoid and new ways to describe ourselves?
Jeremy: You know, it’s more like it’d be a guide to how to think ourselves out of this mess. And it’s true. I think that—
JP: Liberation through nomenclature…
Jeremy: Yeah, kind of. But obviously one would want to avoid word police, absolutely. But just that becoming aware that I don’t think that we can really remove ourselves from the pedestal we’ve put ourselves on relative to all the other species if we continue using the word nature, because it’s a—it’s a pedestal word. So there are pedestal words, and avoiding them is part of coming down from the pedestal. It’s as simple as that.
JP: The linguistic smashing of the pedestal…
Jeremy: Or just the coming down from. No smashing.
JP: No smashing. Okay.
Jeremy: Just get down from the pedestal.
JP: So, Jeremy, the idea of your work having come at a time when very few people were open to this idea of intelligence in nature, forgive the use of those two terms, but it was the title of your book–[LAUGHTER] Do you—Have you seen progress in terms of the mainstream scientific establishment in terms of catching up with the ideas you expressed in that book? And do you see hope there, or do you think it’s just partial penetration and much more needs to be done?
Jeremy: Yeah. Actually the funny thing was that obviously my experience is specific to the quirk of what I lived, but the quirk of what I lived was publishing Intelligence in Nature in 2005. The book was mainly ignored, like it was non-reviewed and so on. Then in the months that followed and the years that followed, the examples of the intelligence in nature reported by scientists kept on cropping up, new ones, like some have said there’s been a revolution in vegetable biology since 2005.
I mean, the timing was almost perfect, not for book sales because the book didn’t sell, but it was like all that science has produced since then has been an enormous confirmation of the surprising capacities of plants and of uni-cellulars, of fungi, of trees and networks of trees, and interspecies communications, and at this point, there’s no articles on stupidity in nature, and thousands of articles and bits of research on these surprising capacities of all kinds of species, including communication, learning, remembering, perceiving, even plants. They perceive. They smell. They hear. It’s just been demonstrated that plants can hear the sound of water and so on. So there’s all this research that has unfolded in the last decade, so, yeah, clearly it’s been shifting. And it’s funny how it happens, because for so long the subject of the intelligence of plants and so forth, this was almost like a taboo subject.
JP: Well hippie. It sounded like hippie nonsense…
Jeremy: Yeah. But now it’s like everybody knows that plants are intelligent. So I’m really happy. It’s never occurred to me to have been so right so fast. These things usually take longer. Now I don’t think there’s any argument.
All plants and animals are objects in the eye of the law, except some are starting to receive personhood, except person is another one of these human-centered concepts. The first definition of the word, if you look in the Dictionary, is a human being regarded as an individual. So by definition, this is what critics say, you can’t grant personhood to other species because it doesn’t make sense.
JP: Although French is a weird one because it’s person and no one.
Jeremy: Yeah. And the etymology, “person” in the Greek, refers to a mask—
Jeremy: And the mask is—can apply to anybody. In other words, person is one of these complicated concepts, and it’s probably going to be—get on the list of concepts that need to be avoided if—
JP: In your linguistic dictionary.
Jeremy: Getting down from the pedestal. We’re going to have to drop that one too. [LAUGHTER]
JP: I think we just came up with your next writing project. [LAUGHTER]
Jeremy: The list. Yeah.