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Wisdom from Strangers: Daniel Everett (Transcript) 

Here is the full transcript of Daniel Everett’s talk titled “Wisdom from Strangers” at TEDxPenn conference.

Famed linguist Daniel Everett embarked on a mission to convert the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon to Christianity, intending to translate the Bible and teach them about heaven. Upon arrival, he encountered a culture with a unique language and lifestyle, challenging his own beliefs and comfort zone. Everett’s attempts to introduce concepts of Christianity were met with skepticism by the Pirahã, who questioned the veracity of his teachings due to their reliance on empirical evidence.

Through his experiences, Everett learned that the Pirahã’s language lacked numbers and their descriptions of colors were situation-dependent, reflecting their immediate experience principle. His efforts to change the tribe’s beliefs led him to question his own, ultimately resulting in his conversion to atheism. Everett’s journey transformed him from a missionary into a linguist and anthropologist, appreciating the value of understanding and respecting diverse cultures. He advocates for the importance of exposing oneself to different ways of life to foster learning and innovation, underscoring the profound impact of the Pirahã on his life.

Listen to the audio version here:

TRANSCRIPT:

I am a very happy failure. Forty years ago, I took off to the Amazon to convert a tribe of Indians called the Pirahã to Christianity. I was going to translate the Bible for them. I was going to tell them about the fact that they don’t need to fear death, that they’re going to go to heaven after they die, and contribute my life in exchange for their happiness. That was my goal.

So we boarded up this small Cessna single-engine aircraft in December of 1977, and I was going to see these people for the first time. I had some anxiety. I was excited. I didn’t know what I was going to find. And we took off, and two hours later, we landed on this small jungle strip in the middle of the Amazon.

And the first thing that I realized was I was very airsick. And we opened the plane doors, and we were surrounded by dozens of Pirahãs talking to us in a language that I couldn’t make out a single syllable, asking me questions, pulling on me. And I picked up a stick off the ground, and I said, “This is a stick.” And they said, “Eh?” And I dropped it, and they said, “Eh? He miget kalvi.”

Initial Encounters

And I was on my way to learning the language. As they started to show me around the village, one man pulled me by the arm, and he showed me a large rat, a 15-pound rodent, actually, called a paka, roasting on a fire. I could smell the hair. Blood was still coming out of the mouth, and it sort of turned my stomach. This got me outside of my comfort zone very quickly.

My idea of a good meal is white bread and chicken gravy. And eating a rat wasn’t there. In fact, later that day, when I was putting mustard that I had brought from the city on a bologna sandwich, you can see I was adapting very slowly, a woman came up behind me and she said, “Look, Dan’s eating bird shit.”

And I looked at the mustard and listened to the sound, and I could see where she got that impression. But when I turned to talk to her, her hand was full of a roasted rat head, and she was sucking the brains out. So she was grossed out by my food, and I wasn’t terribly pleased by what she was eating.

What I have found over the years is that information is hard to come by. New information is hard to come by. When we surround ourselves by people who look like us and talk like us and eat like us and think like us, there’s very little room for additional learning. When I was surrounded by the Pirahã, every single syllable I heard every day long was new information to me. It was a chance to learn.

Language and Learning

The language turned out to be one of the most unusual languages anyone has ever studied. It was my privilege to go there. I asked the word for skin, and I got awe. And I asked the word for ear, and I got awe. And I asked the word for hand, and I got awe. And I asked the word for Brazil nut shell, and I got awe. And then I asked the word for me, and I got che. And I asked the word for dog excrement, and I got che. I asked the word for enemy, eventually, and they said magiai. And so I said, “How do I say friend?” Magiai. The tones are vital to every vowel in the language.

If you don’t have the right tone, it’s only two, high and low, you don’t get the language. And because it has tones, it can be whistled, it can be hummed. Whenever they wanted to lose me, they just started whistling. And I couldn’t follow what they were saying.

I also learned that the language has a syntax, a grammar, that’s very different from any other grammar that’s been studied. So, for example, I can say in English, “You drink, you paddle your canoe, you may drown.” But in Pirahã, you can only say, “You drink, you paddle your canoe, you may drown.” That sounds like a subtle difference, but it’s caused all sorts of controversy in cognitive science to say that the people choose to talk like that.

And then I started working on numbers. And I thought the number one was the word hui. And I thought the number two was the word hui. And I thought the word for many was bagiso. But it turns out that hui just means a few, hui means a few more, and bagiso means piling stuff on top of each other, a lot of stuff. People without numbers, not even the number one. This was greeted with tremendous skepticism.

Scientists came from Columbia University, Stanford, from MIT, and they did all sorts of experiments to try to prove me wrong. But, in fact, that’s the way the Pirahã are. And the first language ever documented without numbers was found. It showed us a different way of thinking. It showed us how extensive the perimeters of the human experience are and how many lessons there are to learn from people very unlike ourselves.

Cultural Perspectives

And the words for color, you know, my hair used to be red, and they told me that it was ibeasai. So I put that down as red, and then I found something that was black, and they said kopaiai, and something that was white, and they said kobiai. But then I noticed they changed the words very frequently.

And finally, I realized these aren’t even words, these are descriptions. They might say my skin is transparent, or you can see through it, or they might say that my hair looks like blood, or they might say that the color of the river is the color of not being right. They use different ways to describe different things. And I started to link these things to a single principle, which I call the immediacy of experience principle, which is not that they can’t think about the past, or they can’t think about the future, but they prefer not to talk about things in the distant future and the distant past for which there is no evidence.

So, for example, one day I said, “So, who created the world?” This is a good missionary question. They said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You know, there were no trees, somebody made the trees.” “You were there when there were no trees? You’ve seen the jungle without trees? How old are you?” And so it turns out they don’t believe anything was ever created. They don’t have a concept of God. There’s no need for him in their system.

And as a missionary, I was talking to them a lot about Jesus. So one day, a group of men came in, and they said, “Hey, Dan. So Jesus, did he look more like us, or did he look more like you?” I said, “Well, you know, some people said he looked more like me, and other people said he looked more like you.” “Yeah, but you’ve seen him. So what does he look like?” I said, “Well, actually, I’ve never seen him. But your father saw him.” “No, my dad never saw him either.” “Well, who saw him?” I said, “Nobody. He lived a long time ago.”

“Well, if he lived a long time ago and nobody saw him, why are you telling us about him?” And it occurred to me that all the evidence that I had accumulated in Bible school and all my prayers and all my activity as a Christian didn’t hold up to the evidentiary requirements of this group of a few hundred hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. They weren’t convinced by this at all.

Reflections and Realizations

So finally, one day, they came in, and they said, “Hey, Dan, you know, we like you, but we don’t want to know about Jesus. We don’t want to know about this stuff. You know, it’s OK for Americans. They like to believe that stuff, but Pirahã don’t believe that stuff.” And so I had to focus on other things.

And what I had gone there to do was to tell them about no fear of death. But then it turns out they’re not afraid of death. Death is just a natural part of life. So I wanted to help them learn how to be happy. But when I took researchers from MIT there, they said, “These must be the happiest people on earth.” And I said, “Well, how would you study that?” And they said, “Well, we just measure the time they spend smiling and laughing. And I bet it’s more than anybody else.” So I had no happiness to offer them. I had no fear of death. So I tried to talk to them about judgment and how to live.

And the most important commandment among the Pirahã, don’t tell anybody else what to do. Everybody does. Life’s hard enough. Just live your life the best you can. So that didn’t work either. And eventually, I came to the realization, if it doesn’t work for them, it probably shouldn’t be working for me. And I became an atheist. So the only convert I ever got, my only convert, was me. So I’m a failure. There are no Pirahã believers. There’s no church. None of that stuff worked.

But I learned a lot about language. So I decided maybe there was some useful profession I could enter. So I became a linguist and an anthropologist and began trying to understand their culture in even greater detail. And realizing that new information is, again, as I’ve said, hard to come by.

If you sit in a room with people who look just like you, who are your gender, who are your age, your economic background, the chances of getting really new information are minimal because everybody already agrees. It’s like a famous philosopher friend of mine said once, “I don’t read anything because if they disagree with me, they’re wrong, and if they agree with me, I already knew that.” And that’s the way we think until somebody forces us to think differently.

So how can we possibly bring newness to our life? How can we, without going to the Amazon, transform our experience and our relationship to the world in such a way that we open channels of new information? Many computer scientists define learning as changed behavior after exposure to new information. So where do we get this new information?

Well, one suggestion is, especially in a place like Philadelphia, look around you and find people different from yourselves. Make friends of different genders, of different sexual orientations, but especially make friends with families. And one thing I suggest to people, you don’t have to travel outside the United States. Find a family that’s willing to tolerate you for a week and go live with them for a week. And live under their rules. And taste their food. And more than taste their food, learn to like it.

And if they’re from a different religion, learn to respect how they believe and understand how they believe. So you’re not just a tourist in their home. You’re actually living in their home by their rules. I had to do this for the very first time with the Tzeltal Indians of southern Mexico. My family, we went to live with the Tzeltals. We spent several nights with them, sleeping on the dirt floors. We had rats running around. We had all sorts of experiences we hadn’t imagined.

And at the end of the time, we learned to respect them and their beliefs. They learned a little bit more about us. Of course, the food wasn’t a problem with the Tzeltals because they’re descendants of the Mayas and they eat tortillas, black beans, and chilies. And that is my favorite food in the world. So that wasn’t terribly a challenge.

But then when we look around us and think about corporations and governance and how we can bring this kind of newness into our lives, take a look at the typical boardroom. And if everyone around that board table looks the same, you can bet that this is not going to be an innovative company.

If you look at college admissions, if most of the people coming in are young white males, there’s not going to be a lot of innovation there. Diversity is essential to ensure for every one of us new information, a constant flow and a constant challenge. It’s too often we all feel like missionaries. We want to go out and change the world, when in fact we have to begin as students and not only begin as students but spend most of our life as students.

I find that the smartest people I know are among the best listeners, the people who cultivate relations with people unlike themselves. So the Pirahã changed my life. I’m a failure as a missionary. I’m a mediocre scientist. But I have learned a tremendous amount through the eyes of the Pirahã, who call themselves the straight ones. And we are all awe, which means crooked. So they’re ethnocentric.

Thank you very much.

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