Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

Making Cassava: How Poor Leadership Becomes Poor Culture

Absent the process of cultural evolution, our technology, our principles, and our culture seem to be declining in character. It's time to realize we've made a mistake.

Carving Food
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Manioc, more commonly called cassava, is a highly productive starch-rich tuber native to the Amazonia region of South America and islands of the South Pacific. The plant grows easily even in drought-ridden environments, and once processed, is tasty to eat and rich in nutrients. It is fair to hypothesize that without this one single crop, much of the population in these regions could not have survived.

Oh right, and one more thing: cassava is poisonous. The tubers contain high levels of cyanogenic glucosides, which can be developed into an acute poison I am sure you have heard of--cyanide.

The trick to making cassava safe to eat is preparing it. In his book, “The Secrets of Our Success,” author Joseph Henrich explains just how complicated making Cassava is:

“In the Colombian Amazon, indigenous Tukanoans use a multi-step, multi-day, processing technique that involves scraping, grating and finally washing the roots, in order to separate the fiber, starch and liquid. Once separated, the liquid is boiled into a beverage, but the fiber and starch must then sit for two more days, when it can be baked and eaten.”

Later on, in this same chapter, Henrich estimates that women in this region spend 25% of their daylight hours making Cassava. Can you imagine?

On its face, the most puzzling part of this multi-step process is that only after a couple of these steps, the acute poisoning that Cassava can cause is abated. Simply boiling the tubers removes the most immediate results of poison such as diarrhea and vomiting.

“Chronic poisoning,” Henrich explains, “which emerges only gradually after years of consuming underprepared cassava, is particularly dangerous and has been linked to neurological problems, developmental disorders, paralysis in the legs, thyroid problems (e.g., goiters) and immune suppression.”

So, here’s a question: Andrew, why are you still talking about cassava? Hang with me.

Learning these facts led me to a fascinating question: if a person in these primitive cultures could go years without knowing they were being poisoned, how did they know it was the cassava suddenly causing them problems? Further, how did they know to complicate the process beyond simply boiling the cassava to remove the acute poison?

The answer, as it turns out, is something called “cultural evolution.” Cultural evolution is the process by which best practices are developed, improved, and then handed down to a younger generation who then further develops and improves them. The process of making cassava was not developed by one generation, it was created by several generations. One generation starts boiling it, but after problems persisted, the next generation added a step to the process, then another, then another. Only after generations of developing best practices can a population arrive at a traditional way to prepare their most important food.

So, imagine you are a young person born into a tribe of people who prepare cassava the traditional way. After adopting your people’s traditional way of preparing cassava, an outsider shows up one day and asks an interesting question: why do you do all of this to prepare your food? You might think up a reason or two, but if you are being honest, the answer is simply, “because it is the way I was taught to prepare it.” The only explanation you need is that the wisdom of your people passed down through generations has taught you to prepare it this way. Without the process, you encounter disaster.

During the colonial era, explorers from Europe came to South America and recognized the potential of cassava since it could grow in almost any environment. Thinking it would help feed their empire, these explorers took the plant to other parts of the world. When it was brought to Africa, many tribes received the crop without the accompanying process to detoxify it—leading to disastrous consequences. For hundreds of years now, certain regions of Africa have suffered from the lasting effects of under-prepared cassava. It is still a leading cause of death in some African countries.

For thousands of years, cultural evolution has been one of our most powerful devices for perpetuating healthy practices; and not just with food. The wisdom of our elders can protect us from personal and community heartache and suffering—so long as we listen to it. But what happens when the young perceive that they do not need the wisdom of the old? What happens when the old begin to feel like they do not have much to offer, and stop the process of cultural evolution? I believe this is the phenomenon happening in western cultures today.

Like countries adopting foods they do not understand, our culture operates regularly without generational wisdom. So, what is it about our culture today that is causing us to rely less and less on lessons learned from our elders? I can think of many reasons, but here are a few.

  1. Technology
    The most obvious answer to this question is that our perceptions of the arrival of new technologies lead us to believe that there is no ancient wisdom to be applied. After all, a young person might ask, what wisdom could an elderly person give me about technology that they cannot use as well as I do?
  2. Generational Isolation
    A growing trend since the end of WWII, young people spend less and less time with elders. Societies that embrace cultural evolution are ones in which the young and the old spend regular time together working on shared tasks and projects.
  3. Enlightenment Thinking
    The basic tenant of our thinking today is that knowledge comes from the scientific process. In other words, we evaluate the effectiveness of advice on the scientific method, not tradition.

For these reasons and likely many more, we adults have failed to pass down many of the virtues given to us. Absent the process of cultural evolution, our technology, our principles, and our culture seem to be declining in character. Our under-prepared culture is now showing the deferred effects. Burgeoning signs – like the normalization of consumerism and excess, the celebration of cynicism and gotcha media, and the rewarding of mass outrage via likes, views, and shares – are prime examples. Rather than repackaging universal truths for younger generations, older generations seem obsessed with the methods of times long passed. Rather than creating opportunities for young and old to gather together, we perpetually separate people (especially youth) into groups of their peers. Rather than excavating the generational wisdom available to us, we all seem to have convinced ourselves that the oldest members of our culture have no advice to give to a more "advanced" society.

It may be time we realize these actions were a mistake.

Please hear me say this: no generation is perfect. Every era of humanity is charged to reconcile with its shortcomings. These just happen to be ours.


p.s. If you are subscribed and along for the ride, next week I am going to talk about what we must do to turn this thing around.

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Jamie Larson