Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1106:
A MESSAGE FROM A MUTANT

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1106.

Today, a mutant with a message. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've just read the oddest book, Mutant Message Down Under. You'll find it in the fiction section of the bookstore. The author, Marlo Morgan, is some sort of health professional -- an MD or a chiropractor? I don't know. The book claims to be a documentary with certain facts altered so as to preserve tribal secrets.

The story tells how Morgan, when she takes a public health job in Australia, is drawn to a group of half-breed aborigine youth. She leads them into creating a small manufacturing enterprise.

One day she's called to another city to receive an award from some aborigines. They turn out to be a tribe who call themselves the Real People. They hand her a native wrap-around garment, then burn all she brought with her: clothes, money, credit cards. Next, they take her off on a four-month walkabout in the Australian bush.

It all sounds like a bad dream. But her curiosity is stronger than her terror. As the band travels with almost no possessions, as they eat only what the land offers (leaves, lizards, insects, and one kangaroo), their purpose unfolds. They believe they're the last true aborigines. They concede their world has passed to the white invaders whom they call the Mutants. From now on they'll be celibate. Since Morgan looks like a receptive Mutant, they mean to teach her to be civilized so that knowledge won't die with them. This harsh journey is to be her education in the essential business of being really human. She'll be their last message to us.

As she travels with the Real People she finds intense spirituality. They live in constant contact with The Oneness, their God. Each morning they rise to sing thanks in advance for what they ask the day to bring: food, art, play. They're in tune with everything around them. They find water in the desert, make food from almost anything organic. They live without a shred of meanness or cruelty.

When they come upon the grave of a Mutant, a white man, they stop to repair the broken cross over it. "Why?" asks Morgan. It's to express their grief over this unfinished human. After all, he had to've died because he was so deaf to The Oneness that he couldn't even hear where to find water and food.

Morgan knows enough pharmacology to see their medicine as an uncanny use of natural quinine, aspirin, and antibiotics. And they never let mind and body separate. They're appalled that we Mutants try to treat mind and body as distinct from one another.

So did all this really happen? In the end, it doesn't matter, for it expresses a truth that crops up among African natives, the forest nomads of Brazil, northern Aleuts, and monastic orders.

This is a brief not against technology but against our attachment to technology. It's a brief for openness to ourselves. It's a brief against all that stunts our own humanity -- anger, greed, obsession -- noise and failing to listen. And whether Morgan's story sprang from experience or imagination, it left me with a deep craving to achieve that same healing unity -- within myself.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Morgan, M., Mutant Message Down Under. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

When I read Morgan's book some years back, I regarded it as interesting enough to use as the basis for an episode, even though it was patently fictional. Since then, the Aborigine response has been one of anger since the book so blatantly misrepresents them. In retrospect, I think it was a mistake to use the book as a point of departure in an episode on the general matter of mental and physical health connections.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.