What Noble Savage?



I am as free as Nature first made man,

Ere the base laws of servitude began,

When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

            John Dryden, The Conquest of Granada


I forecast that in a civilization growing more and more tired of itself, a civilization turning more to insularity, to Trumpism and xenophobia – a backlash is coming. A backlash that will seek to reject democracy. Not in the way totalitarians deny democracy. No, it will have the scent of the spiritual, mystical. People, young people I suspect, will put aside democracy, damning it as the flawed process that has given us Trump, Brexit and might yet give us a revival of fascism in Europe.

These mostly young people will come to disagree with Churchill (there are, of course, many reasons to disagree with Churchill on many an issue) that democracy is the lesser of the evils. They will, pardon the mixing of quotes, look for a new opium. Not religion, not politics, but something seemingly purer: something more primitive and pristine. They will look, I have no doubt, to the societies on earth still living a lifestyle that binds them to nature. Yes, the rise of Trump will revive another misconception: that of the noble savage.

So I write this as a rational warning, a prescription against well-meaning but blinded wishful thinking.

“The concept of the noble savage was inspired by European colonists’ discovery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and (later) Oceania. It captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization.” Steven Pinker, renowned psychologist at Harvard University, writes eloquently and critically of the noble-savage notion in his vital The Blank Slate. I would highly recommend reading his masterpiece, urgently.

The noble savage is a pacifier for our civilization. It is a consoling bed-time story that tells us; no matter how cruel man appears, in his heart of hearts, he is good and peaceable. His natural state is at harmony with his environment, it is egalitarian and, as most left-wing hippies would hasten to add, were bereft of capitalistic greed as they were free from the ideas of possession and property. And as a corollary phenomenon, a lot of people today are turning to the fad of paleo diets, alternative medicines, treatments and paranormal beliefs. All these are equal, disheartening glimpses into the same untruth. It is a denial, very much child-like, of the good things of our civilization.

Their argument is basically thus: if our civilization gave us Hitler, global warming and Aids, then all the things that make our civilization possible are also bad. I.e. Western science, the enlightenment, democracy, etc. Science which has, through rapid advances in genetics and medicine, wiped out entire diseases, increased our lifespan, offers us an inkling of hope (the only thing that can!) for curing cancer; science that has sent man to the moon, decoded our genome, and, and, and – but wait, hasn’t science also given us eugenics, and nuclear bombs, cloned monstrosities and ruined our atmosphere? Yes, of course, darlings, science is necessarily flawed, because it is still practised by, let’s face it, a species only a few chromosomes away from a chimpanzee. Mistakes have been made and continued to be made: but don’t let’s forget the wonders it has inspired. Besides, what alternatives do you suggest? Marijuana? Acupuncture? Tiger-penis medicine? Voodoo?

The same arguments above can be made for democracy, capitalism and enlightenment philosophy. They are being discarded at our own peril. Whilst none of these things hold a monopoly on truth, nor are they without grave flaws, we still have to accept that the world is designed by nothingness and has been inherited by the imperfect. The best we can hope for is not utopia but the lesser of the many evils. After all, in the shadows of Utopia lurks its terrifying sibling, Dystopia.

Let’s bring ourselves to think rationally about the noble savage. The so-called savage, i.e. he who lives in a state closer to the ancestral model than others, lives a life many generations old, it’s true. But think what this means. Theirs, the ‘savages’, way of life is the first experiment run by humans as to how to live and co-exist. And because it is the first, it logically means it is the most crude and rudimentary, does it not?

The same with medicine. Yes ‘alternative medicine’ has been around for millennia, but it was formulated in a time when people thought ills were a result of curses and possessions, not unconscious microorganisms as we now know.

This is the Romantic fallacy; when we eulogise the past, long for the good-old days, simpler, innocent times. Maybe it’s a way for us to try to re-live our childhood. A warming thought, but regrettably impossible. And, ironically, Romanticism is at the roots of reactionary conservatism. Trump supporters also long for the good-old days when there were less Mexicans and African-Americans in their backwater towns. Brexiteers too; they long for the days when Britannia still ruled the waves, and colonised nations rather than having itself being ‘colonised’.

And when you talk of the noble savage, what tribe, what peoples, can you be referring to?

Maybe the Hamar tribe of southern Ethiopia that ritually kills or abandons disabled children because they are by nature cursed?

The many African tribes that practise female genital mutilation?

The Masai tribes of Kenya, whose boys must prove they are men by hunting and killing lions – talk about being one with nature!

The New Guinean tribes who up until recently regularly beat, raped and killed women and girls because they were seen as witches that poison the tribe?

Or maybe the Australian Aboriginals who have a 40 000 year-old tradition of raping girls before they are married off?

Of course, there are instances and cases were certain tribes live relatively harmoniously, free from such horrors. But they are exceptions that prove the rule.

And I can already hear, through the digital ether, a symphony of voices singing out: racist, imperialist, elitist, snob. And I’m not surprised. Greater men than I have been similarly accused when pointing out facts. Jared Diamond, our era’s greatest historians, wrote a book called The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? A learned, well-researched book looking scientifically at methods and customs used by traditional societies that give us pause for reflection, re-adjustment and yes, doubt, always. But of course he was attacked, by Survivors International, no less, that he was wrong “both factually and morally”, because he came to the conclusion, after analysing all his research and all he had seen, that “tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace.” Which is to be expected even on Darwinian terms. If you have less resources there is more likely to be conflict over scarce resources.

Reading Jared Diamond’s many books on these topics (king amongst them is his Nobel-prize worthy Guns, Germs And Steel) argue eloquently that: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.” His work is the greatest antidote and rebuttal to racialist arguments. All children in America should be made to read Guns, Germs And Steel, in fact!

Human beings are neither innately cruel nor angelic. We are both. What we are is a combination of nature, nurture and the flowing of the two intertwined rivers. We are designed by our genes to be selfish propagators, but selfishness also leads to empathy. If I’m nice to you I’m less likely to be killed by you. And so on. But we are the only animals capable of over-ridding our selfish genes, as Richard Dawkins calls them. We can think, rationalise, live like risen apes, not fallen angels, to paraphrase Desmond Morris. We know that child rape is wrong, female genital mutilation horrid and violent squabbling over resources counter-productive. And we know this not because our instincts tell us so. But because natural selection has endowed us with that greatest of gifts: reason.

So ask yourself this question, where would you prefer to live, with the people who live a life more ancestral like the New Guineans or Aboriginals, or in Trump’s America?

Not a grand choice, I grant you. But think first and foremost of your freedom.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Worthwhile post and very much food for thought! Trump’s America is too much of an unknown quantity so I’d plump for the slow-cooked tribal society, which I accept may be a romantic notion …


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