A reply to Charles Kenny’s ‘Out of Eden’

Posted on April 28, 2011

I was busy doing other things, but this has been stewing with me all day and I have to respond:

Out of Eden – By Charles Kenny | Foreign Policy

I take issue with this article for two reasons: (1) the way the argument is presented, and (2) what it’s really arguing for.

The central argument of Kenny’s article is that “Pre-modern lifestyles were fraught with violence, disease, and uncertainty. We should be happy that indigenous societies are increasingly leaving them behind.”  An excerpt:

Elsewhere in the world, Survival International has played a similarly important role, highlighting the suffering of tribal peoples from the Amazon to Siberia and spotlighting (as it says on its website) “uncontacted peoples” who “offer today’s world alternative values and ways of successful living.”

But therein lies the problem. The glorification of the Jarawa and in general of tribal life, with its supposed freedom from violence, poverty, drugs, crime, and overpopulation, is part of a dangerous denial of the huge benefits that modernity has brought to the vast mass of humanity. It is easy to get emotional about a supposedly idyllic Stone Age existence when we’re staring at elegant photographs on a computer screen while sipping our Starbucks chai latte. But if we decided to actually return to the lifestyle of uncontacted peoples, the vast majority of the planet would die off from starvation, and those who remained would face nasty, brutish, and short lives. Romanticizing that lifestyle provides no insights into how we can better run a planet of 7 billion people on a sustainable basis — and does little to illuminate the challenges and needs of tribal people themselves.

It is true that advocacy groups have heavily invested in the “Noble Savage” stereotype, portraying an idyllic existence in harmony with nature, etc.  It is true that hunter-gatherer lifestyles (I am substituting Kenny’s “pre-modern lifestyles” here) are by no means free of violence or hunger.  The extent of conflict and adversity faced probably depends heavily on which cultural group you’re talking about and the environment they live in.  But Kenny’s arguments play off of other stereotypical representations of indigenous peoples as “pre-modern”, “Stone Age”, and living “nasty, brutish and short” lives with “gruesome traditions”.

What is this “pre-modern”?  Unless you are talking about archaeological remains, we are all modern peoples.  Describing currently living peoples as having ancient lifestyles, and suggesting that they haven’t achieved modernity, is buying into the idea that there is some grand scale of civilization.  That somehow “contacted” (read “Western”) peoples are more evolved, advanced, or better.  These ancient peoples are supposed to have frozen in time, their culture unchanged for centuries.

There’s a very relevant post about this on anthropologi.info: Anthropologists condemn the use of terms of “stone age” and “primitive”.  The post includes statements from Survival International and the British Association of Social Anthropologists in support of campaign against racism in the media in 2007:

Terms like ‘stone age’ and ‘primitive’ have been used to describe tribal people since the colonial era, reinforcing the idea that they have not changed over time and that they are backward. This idea is both incorrect and very dangerous. It is incorrect because all societies adapt and change, and it is dangerous because it is often used to justify the persecution or forced ‘development’ of tribal peoples. The results are almost always catastrophic: poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, disease and death. – Survival International

‘All anthropologists would agree that the negative use of the terms ‘primitive’ and ‘Stone Age’ to describe [tribal peoples] has serious implications for their welfare. Governments and other social groups. . . have long used these ideas as a pretext for depriving such peoples of land and other resources.’ – ASA

I am not in the Survival International camp.  They do good work, but I am sometimes wary of their approach to indigenous rights issues.  In fact, I agree with Kenny that the ‘Noble Savage’ romanticism should die off.  But I think Survival International, anthropologists, and everyone else are very right to decry the use of words which promote racism and discriminatory ‘development’ policies.  I don’t know why Kenny would throw off one stereotype to pick up another, more harmful one.

He grabs onto violent deaths and infanticide as “gruesome traditions” which are “needed because of the incredible inefficiency of Stone Age methods of acquiring food”.  Yet violent deaths and infanticide still occur in this ‘modern’ world of ours, this is not a unique feature of uncontacted peoples.

The quip “…nasty, brutish and short” derives from a famous passage by Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In short, this passage implies that uncontacted peoples have no knowledge, no culture.  Not true.  Hunter-gatherers have complex sociocultural systems, like any other human group.  The problem is that Westerners don’t value that knowledge.

Kenny writes:  “… their current limbo of semi-engagement may be the worst possible place to be. It exposes them to disease and violence without proximity to vaccines, hospitals, or real security.”  In these lines Kenny is privileging the Western ways of dealing with things.  Every culture has their own traditional medical and judicial systems, their own ways of doing things.  Many ‘traditional’ remedies have been incorporated into biomedicine.  Is it really so easy to introduce people to the biomedical way of doing things?  (If so, hundreds of medical anthropologists are about to lose their jobs.)

The assumption that these newly contacted peoples will have instant access to the benefits of ‘modernity’ is ridiculous.  A visit to almost any reservation in the world will tell you that.  People who have been ‘contacted’ for over a hundred years are still without access to the vaccines, hospitals, and security that Kenny prescribes for them.  They still live with the violence and hunger that these uncontacted peoples can supposedly escape by integrating with the rest of the world.

What is important here is that they be given a choice, and their fate as ‘uncontacted’ or ‘contacted’ peoples not be decided by paternalistic outsiders.  And I have to wonder at the motives of these paternalistic outsiders who want to force contact.  Kenny twice muses about “how we are going to sustain the huge benefits brought by modernity to the 99.99 percent of the world’s population that would rather remain ‘contacted’.”  The sustainability of the 99.99% is somehow endangered by the isolation of the 0.01%?  Oh, you want their rainforests.

If Charles Kenny is reading this: Normally I enjoy your column, ‘The Optimist‘.  I was shocked by how much of a miss this was.

Other posts by anthropologists on ‘primitivism’ (from a cursory search):

Anthropologists condemn the use of terms of “stone age” and “primitive”.

Primitive Racism: Reuters about “the world’s most primitive tribes”.

“Stone Age Tribes”, tsunami and racist evolutionism.

Our obsession with the notion of the primitive society.

Ancient People: We are All Modern Now | Savage Minds.