Good Stories Make Good Lectures

Wade Davis is hands-down one of the great storytellers of our time. Holder of the oxymoronic position of ‘explorer-in-residence’ at the National Geographic Society, Davis is best known for his controversial work in the 1980s on Haitian zombies. Since then, he has traveled the reaches of the globe, thoughtfully documenting the world’s diverse spiritual traditions.

For a bullet-train introduction to Davis’s repertoire, I recommend his 2010 lecture, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. This is part of a series of Seminars About Long-term Thinking (SALT) hosted by the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco.

This is a lecture, not a story. But it’s a great lecture precisely because it’s full of great stories.

Part of what makes it so much fun to listen to is that Davis stays close to that old radio adage, ‘Show. Don’t tell.’ A particularly captivating story starts at 16:39, in which he details a modern reenactment of an ancient Polynesian voyage across the Pacific. Davis describes the Polynesian wayfinders as:

sailors who can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching and studying the reverberations of waves across the hull of the vessel, knowing full well that every group of islands in the Pacific has its own unique refractive pattern that can be read with the same perspicacity with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint.

Many of his sentences are this long and this dense, which usually doesn’t feel good to the ear, but Davis, with his scrupulous attention to detail, and his voice lunging into each story, manages to keep us engaged in spite of his very writerly, academic diction. He is also good at summarizing his ideas with poignant analogies: “Take all the genius it required to put a man on the moon, apply it to the study of the ocean, and what you would get is Polynesia.”

Davis hits the ground running and wastes no time in driving home this central tenet: that the world into which we are born does not exist in some absolute sense, but is just a model of reality. Four or five times he asks the question, “What does it mean to be human and alive?” and each time it feels more relevant than the last. I don’t know about you, but I love that fundamental question, and am fascinated by its many, many answers.

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World [1hr 20min] SALT lecture at the Long Now Foundation, 13 January 2010
58 minutes