Monday, December 28, 2009

What is the Romance of the Noble Savage

The term Noble Savage first came into use back in the 1800s. It was applied to the "Gentleman of Nature", the tribal fellow, living in non-western and non-eastern societies, who knew the ways of the wilderness. Charles Dickens once wrote a satirical screed titled "The Noble Savage". The term is now associated with the Sentamentalist movement of the time.

Cultural Anthropologists go to the field to perform ethnographies on non-western civilizations. The greater their differences from our society, the better. CAs like non-western groups, who speak unknown languages, living in small, low-population societies, practicing hunting and gathering, and perhaps a bit of horticulture. If they have a wildly different religion, and different manner of reckoning kinship, so much the better.

There aren't many hunting and gathering societies left in the world. Neither are there many horticultural societies. Populations have grown. Natural resource bases have been depleted. These older, low-intensity, low-integration, human powered systems are largely untenable now. You need machines and fertilizers to feed massive populations. Population growth triggers an unavoidable process of economic intensification, political integration, and social stratification.

Still, Anthropologists try to find groups like these for study to this very day. When they do, they all-to frequently flip out and loose their minds. Frequently, they fall in love with their host/subject society. They go native in a big way. Along the path, they have a near religious conversion experience, realizing that then entire way mass-urban industrial society lives is just plain damn wrong. This is what we call the Anthropological Romance of the Noble Savage.

Holding such an opinion would be fine, if it didn't interfere with your research. All to often, this fever correlates with a very strong tendency to ignore serious problems in tribal societies. All to often, ethnographers gloss over issues because they are in love. When confronted with some of these problems, romantic ethnographers are quick to blame the incursion of Western Civ for these problems. Being in love means hyper-exaggerating the good qualities of your loved one, and being blinded to the bad.

Napoleon Chagnon tripped off a ferocious debate back in 1960s and 1970s when he suggested that the Yanomamo warriors killed each other over women. Many anthropologists could not believe that there could be any such thing as murders over sexual jealousy in The Garden of Eden. Perish the thought. Certainly, no such thing was possible. It had to be because of Western incursion on their territory, creating protien scarcity, or something like that. No, it turns out that the Yanomano, like other people around the world, also share in humanity's best reason for killing: Sexual Jealousy. As Chagnon observed, Yanomamo warriors like to optimize their inclusive fitness. This can be accomplished by killing your sexual rivals and taking their women for yourself.

My own professor at UCLA idealized the hell out of the Machiginga people of South America, an Amazonian Group he spent considerable time with. He felt that Western Civ was plain damn wrong. He said that, if he could, he would reduce population down to a few hundred thousand human beings to see if we could undo the complexity of human society, and get back to nature. When pressed, he would admit that the Machiginga had a diet low in protein, that they lived very short lives, a small scratch could turn sceptic and kill them in a short matter of days. Simple bacterial infections, that kill no one in our society, are major causes of death among the Machiginga. He would admit this, saying he did not want to idealize their lifestyle, but anyone could see that he did.

You wouldn't like to see what happens when a good drought or scarcity cycle happens in these societies. During a hard down-cycle, the Inuit Eskimo people used to send their old folks out of the camp to squat on the ice, and await the coming of the polar bears. The same was true for the Navajo, although it wasn't polar bears in their case. Nearly all of these groups practice infanticide as the Spartans did. All deformed or imperfect children are discarded in the wilderness. If you want to romanticize these societies, you better like infanticide and euthanasia.

It is irrational and anti-factual to say that (a) because they live in a state similar to the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, (b) tribal peoples, living in small, tribal, subsistence economies have a perfect way of life. Still, Hippies around the world try to claim this every day.

It is equally irrational and counter-factual to say that (a) because we live in advanced technological industrial societies, (b) we are living life in an entirely wrong manner. Still, Hippies around the world try to claim this every day.

James Cameron just added his voice to this collection. If you weren't struck by how Hippy the heart of Avatar is, you just weren't paying any attention to the story. Mr. Cameron presents you with a super-idealized group called the Navi. I doubt the !Kung/San, Yanomamo, the Inuit, or the Machiginga would measure up to this lofty ideal if you saw them clearly. Nevertheless, Cameron presents them this way, because he is making the case for rejecting established society.

The best and the most reputable authorities in the field of Cultural Anthropology guard against the Romance. It is a form of insanity and/or religious fever. A balanced view of the empirical facts will show that Western Civ isn't all bad, and hunting and gathering isn't all good. Another one of my Profs, Robert Edgerton, enraged the anthropological world when he published his magnum opus: Sick Societies. In his opening shot, he fired this line "All societies are sick, but some are sicker than others." This line blew up cultural relativism as we knew it.