Animist v. Scientific Worldviews

While there is no such singular or essential thing as the “animist worldview,” this doesn’t prevent scholars and others from writing about it. Over the past 100 years, these worldviews were studied because they supposedly shed light on “primitive” thinking. Over the past 30 years, they have sometimes been studied (and mined) for insights they might offer into psychology, ecology, and politics. These latter “alternative” uses turn animists into foils — useful as counterpoints or critiques of modernity. Because we are rarely treated to all aspects of animist lifeways, including all the killing, this can often become uncritical adulation or romantic idealism.

If we could transport a crew back in time to film a year in the life of hunting and gathering animists, we’d probably be horrified by what a bloody affair it all was. Despite this, we have nature columnists such as John Burnside, waxing poetic (and partially true) about animists and their deep “spiritual” connection to all living things. That connection, of course, required a great deal of killing.

But let’s not dwell on the gory details — Burnside correctly senses that animist worlds are much different from our own:

For the Inuit, all life was continuous, animal with human with “spirit”, and recognising that continuum allowed them to undergo transformations that we, locked into our own disappointingly Cartesian skins, find impossible even to imagine. But the term “transformations” here is somewhat misleading, for what we usually think of as a transformation happens in a temporal realm that, (as any good, down-to-earth mystic will tell you), while it may be a highly useful convention for several excellent, and some not so excellent purposes, is also quite illusory.

As is becoming clear, it is easy to get tied up in semantic knots when trying to speak of the shamanic and the transformational.

It is indeed easy to get tied up in linguistic knots when trying to walk in animist shoes. Attempts to convey these ideas usually require long strings of adjectives such as those that I used in my post on RR Marett’s animatism. When writing that post, I worried that it sounded too mystical – though this certainly was not (and is not) my intent. These concepts are hard to describe using the dry and not very resonant language of cognitive science.

This brings me to the subtitle of Burnside’s rumination: “We are living without the sense of the shamanic and the transformation that our forebears found vital for survival.” There certainly is something to this — I’m confident that animist worldviews are near perfect adaptations to hunting and gathering lifeways. Because we have supposedly become modern, these ancestral worldviews may seem out of place and time.

Perhaps so, but I often wonder what would happen if we plopped a breeding population of scientists into a re-wilded Pleistocene Park (and made them stay). These are people who understand how things like weather, ecosystems, stars, and animals “actually” or “really” work. Would they survive and thrive? I’m guessing not. Within a few generations, their descendants would probably be more like animists than scientists.

This would be an interesting experiment. Your thoughts?





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13 thoughts on “Animist v. Scientific Worldviews

  1. Paul

    By the same token, I suspect that certain peace-loving types who promote a harmonious existence with everything would also rapidly “revert” to animist thinking (and gore) within a few generations. Certain behaviors would seem to have default (and bounded) conditions though not specified in any exact sense.

    While reading Melvin Konner’s “The Evolution of Childhood”, I came across an interesting parallel in the bird world:

    “Central Park … is dense with obsessive birdwatchers, and not far from it a young scientist named Olga Feher …. raised some zebra finch males with no chance to hear their father sing. Predictably, some very strange noises ring out when those boy-chicks in the ‘hood grow up and blow their pipes like kings of the hill. But here’s the news: take one of those males, get a female to hold her ears and do the deed with him, and his sons will sing more normally than he does. His grandsons sing better still, and his great-grandsons approach the normal wild song—which none of these boys has every heard. Some collective cultural evolution puts the song right again.”

    Certainly this behavior is simpler than aspects of animism, but how quickly it can be re-established is interesting. And the metaphor is perfect: I hear a lot of “very strange noises” out of believers in science and believers in a higher power. The “truth”, the real song, must be somewhere between.

  2. Dominik Lukes

    Four points.

    1. I wonder if we’re not confusing the social organization and expression of belief for its nature. One thing that strikes us as different about animism is the pervasive nature of the belief and its continuity with the environment. Ever since people have started theorizing about religion, it has been separate from the daily environment. But since it seems to have emerged from religious organization that immediately preceded it, that organization was seen as something different. But I’d suggest that medieval Christianity would not have found animism at all difficult to comprehend nor would the Greeks or Romans think of it as a different category. As far as I know, they never commented on that aspect of the Barbarians – but it would be interesting to read their writing on them with that in mind. Cris, I wonder if your China rule would be relevant to invoke here.

    2. Another possible source of confusion is the content and nature of reasoning. We don’t believe many things about animals, plants, the sky, etc. because we don’t think about them. But we believe in things like energy, force, market forces, good life, etc. And people Stephen Jay Gould, Nicholas Kristoff and Rush Limbaugh are our shamen. And I’d say that we believe in them and reason about them in the same way that the animists did about theirs. We may not appear to have the manas and manitous to label them but I doubt that serious linguistic anthropology would sustain their universality. Again, I still think that we need to explore further ways in which liminality and meta-liminality finds their expression in various societies.

    3. We also often forget individual variability. In our own context people seem to experience the world and therefore talk about it in different ways. Some people seem to be more prone to perceive the world as harmonious and prosodic, some have a tendency to segment it. And of course, this will vary over time and space in individuals. I don’t feel a sense of awe when I see cathedral – just see a very big building and I would be very surprised if there always weren’t people who were skeptical of whatever the prevailing belief/mode of reasoning/discourse was. Also, we must not forget about the great amount of neurological variation – synesthesia, auditory and visual halucinations are much more common and ‘natural’ than we assumed. And of course there’s variability of taste and color perception – all of these would have been present in ‘animist’ societies.

    4. Finally, my research shows that what I call ‘dual framing’ is incredibly common. It is possible to hold two seemingly contradictory beliefs/modes of reasoning at once. The medieval world was full of satire on the church and no-good priests. But at the same time the church’s authority was unquestioned. I think someone should do a study of excommunication – so much was going on there. Equally, today we may believe in energy as a scientific and natural concept but at the same time treat it quite mystically. Or make fun of the president of our country but revere the office of the presidency in quite strangely ritual ways. I’m always reminded of the end of Short Circuit 2 when the little robot who fell in love in part 1 finally says ‘I’m human’ when he gets US Citinzenship.

  3. Dominik Lukes

    Re my point 2: I only now, after years of hearing this term, realized that animism is etymologically connected to soul not animal. I wonder how many like me there are (re my point 3).

  4. Cris Post author

    I agree (especially with your “strange noises” observation), and love the bird example from Konner’s book, which unfortunately I have not yet read. The parallel has some interesting implications, most of which people won’t want to think about. But that’s par for the human birdsong course.

  5. pain0strumpet

    Cris ~

    Your experiment design put me in mind of the Junkyard Wars television show, wherein expert engineers (often from the professional military) would compete with “bodgers,” From what I recall, the bodgers tended to win, primarily because they included a lot of fudge distance in their designs. The engineers tended to lose because they designed with tight tolerances that they could not produce by hand in the shop.

    The learned scientists you posit in the experiment might produce animists within a few generations, but I don’t think this is because of a failure of their modern ideas. Rather, I suspect that animistic grandkids would be that way because the infrastructure required to produce the learned scientists in the later generations would not be possible to produce and maintain.

    But maybe I’m falling prey to more assumptions. I assume that a modern education, covering a lot the science and technology that a modern agronomist might known and use, takes more time and resources to provide than a group eking out an existence in a re-wilded Pleistocene Park would have available.

    – emc

  6. Juggernaut Nihilism

    “But maybe I’m falling prey to more assumptions. I assume that a modern education, covering a lot the science and technology that a modern agronomist might known and use, takes more time and resources to provide than a group eking out an existence in a re-wilded Pleistocene Park would have available.”

    No, I think you’re on the right track. In this day and age, it takes, what, 18-20 years of education to create a competent scientist (excepting the occasional autistic computer programmer college dropout)? This line of thought also leads me to reject all the ideas about exponentially increasing scientific and technological knowledge. I tend to think that the rate of discovery will slow down… that it may be already. Not long ago, a single savant could encompass virtually the entire stock of cultural knowledge at an early enough age to create a revolution from the lab or study in his attic. Today, it takes thousands of scientists working together through the peer review system, spending millions of man-hours and the GDP of several small countries, just to find a way to make Coke contain fewer calories. In other words, there seems to be a diminishing return; more resources are producing smaller incremental advances. There are no more Isaac Newtons advancing the store of human knowledge by double over the course of a few years from his alchemy shop. Now it takes the US Defense R&D budget five years to increase the store of knowledge by a few basis points.

  7. Cris Post author

    The primary distinction between so-called “primitive” and “modern” societies is external symbolic storage and this is a technology. But having such storage doesn’t mean that thoughts are any more complicated, profound, advanced, or original.

    External storage simply provides a different way to “talk” (i.e., write) about them, and the opportunity for lots and lots of recursion (which is a far cry from progress or advance).

    Let’s not mistake a bunch of books, mounds of databases, or a lengthy critical tradition (all in technological writing) for advance, progress, or profundity. There is no difference in complexity between animist worldviews and “world religions.” Anyone who asserts otherwise is simply blinded by the weight of books or is qualitatively biased.

    A point often lost in all the Enlightenment celebration of progress, one made by its best historian (Peter Gay), is that all apparent “advances” come at a cost, and the losses are enormous.

  8. pain0strumpet

    Cris ~

    “There is no difference in complexity between animist worldviews and “world religions.””

    Maybe I’m missing something in what you’re saying, or I’m putting two ideas in conflict when they aren’t even the same topic. Your experiment suggests that a breeding group of modern folks, educated and trained in the hows and whys of agriculture, who are placed in a re-wilded Pleistocene era would result in grandkids and great-grandkids who are animists. Yet you say here that there’s no difference in complexity of thought between animists and modern folks, with the major difference being the modern capacity to externally store information.

    Does this mean that an animist culture could successfully pass on all of a modern agronomist’s knowledge down the generations, without need of an externalized storage method? That they could teach (and pass along) the modern science, if they only happened to know it in the first place?

    – emc

  9. Cris Post author

    Eric — I was responding to Alan’s comment only, and in the limited sense of comparing animist worldviews to the cosmologies or metaphysics of so-called world religions. This comparison is only obliquely related to the main post.

    I will be doing a post in the near future that fully explains my contention, and which vigorously disputes the ideas of uniform progress or advance. We can acknowledge these in certain domains, such as science/technology, without assuming that everything else (i.e., religions) came along for the progressive ride.

  10. Alan

    Up to this point you have neglected to define what you mean by ‘progress’ save to insist that is does not exist. In this last comment you pick complexity as a marker for progress. I’m not a bit sure how you would demarcate complexity of world view in general so will suggest a specific dimension to start: How to behave, and more specific still, code of laws. Probably the best known from the oral tradition are the Homeric Epics which detail the various transgressions that will earn you divine retribution (for example, killing your parents, abusing your guest or host), earn you personal retribution (for example, it is identified as the duty of a child to kill anyone who kills one of their parents), or earn you a curse (anyone has the right to purchase a curse from a local priest/witch doctor to be placed on one who offended you). Contrast that with the Napoleonic Code, or almost any other written law code and I think the written code would be held as more complex and to represent significant progress towards domestic tranquility. Admittedly, to pay our due to Peter Gay, written law codes and their accompanying court and jurist systems put a far heavier burden on the direct resources of the realm, but reap their rewards by minimizing the indirect costs of what is essentially vigilante justice that resulted in the all too common multi-generational blood feuds (as reported by Lawrence H. Keeley in ‘War Before Civilization’)
    If complexity alone is to be the guide, I would argue the philosophy of Aristotle or Aquinas far exceeds any oral tradition. That, of course, is just being silly.
    99% of the population could care nothing about the complexity or profundity of a world view if it means they get to live a day (or several decades) longer. The average among animist communities is 30% violent deaths. My estimate for the twentieth century developed world with its purges, revolutions and world wars is about 3% violent deaths – and it would be far lower for anyone fortunate to live away from the wars and purges.
    Natural deaths would come at a later age as well for those under organized religion who slept in houses rather than the tents or huts of the animists (weather and predator risks). I argue that not dying young to be the most significant marker for progress. Profound world views are irrelevant to the dead, as is complexity of any stripe.

  11. Thisica

    I don’t think that our animist mentality has ever disappeared–it has changed to suit the times. I have no problem with having both scientific and animist sentiments together, it’s just that our current social environment isn’t well suited to that kind of synthesis. It’s kinda a false dichotomy to consider such belief structures to sit separately. That may well be a reflection of our historical tendency to separate out human and non-human actions in the Western world.

  12. Cris Post author

    I agree and my position is that ever since humans became behaviorally or cognitively “modern” (perhaps 75,000 years ago), we’ve all had brains-minds that default to animist worldviews. It requires intense education and effort to move away from animist worldviews toward scientific ones. They are intimately linked, given that the same kind of brains-minds underwrite both.

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