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Noble Savages

Today is the day of finding good* novelists writing bad political analysis. I'll direct you to Philosoraptor for a takedown of Orson Scott Card's attempt to become the next Zell Miller. What I'm interested in is this anti-environmentalist screed given by Michael Crichton a few months back and only recently brought to my attention (I forget where I saw it first, so I'll credit this post in The Corner). Crichton, who's apparently an authority on primitive culture because he took anthropology in college, says:

And what about indigenous peoples, living in a state of harmony with the Eden-like environment [one of the chief tenets of the religion of environmentalism that he's identifying and condemning]? Well, they never did. On this continent, the newly arrived people who crossed the land bridge almost immediately set about wiping out hundreds of species of large animals, and they did this several thousand years before the white man showed up, to accelerate the process. And what was the condition of life? Loving, peaceful, harmonious? Hardly: the early peoples of the New World lived in a state of constant warfare. Generations of hatred, tribal hatreds, constant battles. The warlike tribes of this continent are famous: the Comanche, Sioux, Apache, Mohawk, Aztecs, Toltec, Incas. Some of them practiced infanticide, and human sacrifice. And those tribes that were not fiercely warlike were exterminated, or learned to build their villages high in the cliffs to attain some measure of safety.

How about the human condition in the rest of the world? The Maori of New Zealand committed massacres regularly. The dyaks of Borneo were headhunters. The Polynesians, living in an environment as close to paradise as one can imagine, fought constantly, and created a society so hideously restrictive that you could lose your life if you stepped in the footprint of a chief. It was the Polynesians who gave us the very concept of taboo, as well as the word itself. The noble savage is a fantasy, and it was never true. That anyone still believes it, 200 years after Rousseau, shows the tenacity of religious myths, their ability to hang on in the face of centuries of factual contradiction.

Having been an anthropology major myself, I beg to differ. While the idea of the noble savage has been popular, the dominant opinion for the last few hundred years has been the opposite -- that primitive life was just as awful as Crichton claims. The effect of anthropologists' gathering of real facts (the kind of science that he asserts we need instead of environmentalist ideology**) has been to push us away from the Crichton view. Studies of the Ju\hoan'si in the Kalahari Desert have been particularly influential in demonstrating that hunter-gatherers were reasonably healthy and no more violent than modern "civilized" folks. They were certainly better off than most early agricultural societies.

This is not to say that they were noble savages. Both the noble savage and the savage savage views are less about giving a full picture of primitive society and more about proving a point about modern society -- either that we're the pinnacle of human achievement, or that we're ruining everything. They caricature both primitive and modern society in order to show the contrast in the sharpest light. Unfortunately, saying "primitive people had their problems, but they were sometimes different problems or handled in different ways from ours, so perhaps the comparison could help us not take certain aspects of modern society for granted" doesn't have much rhetorical oomph.

*Not great, though. I don't get the love some people have for the Ender series. Sure, it was above-average, but it was no Dune or Asimov. Seventh Son was my favorite of his books, but the sequels made it increasingly clear that he had bitten off way more than he could chew and hadn't planned where it was all going very well. The thing about Card for me, though, is that the stuff he writes sounds like something I could write -- not in the dismissive "even I could write that" way, but in the sense that stylistically I think my best fiction work resembles his more than it resembles any other author I'm familiar with.

**It might be interesting to see Card and Crichton go at it, since Crichton is so intent on denouncing religious ideology whereas Card is a devout Mormon.


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