“It’s been incredibly hard to teach them conservation,” The caregiver tells me. “The local people don’t get it. ‘Why should we conserve?’ They ask me. ‘Our ancestors have been living like this for centuries and the jungle always provided.’” And on one level that argument makes sense. The Amazon did provide.
Of course, on another level, the argument doesn’t. Their ancestors didn’t kill half as many animals and so the jungle had the opportungropuity to replenish itself.
That changed. The reason? A mixture of innovation and traditions.
- Technologies like guns and motor boats allow the people of the Amazon to travel farther and kill more effectively.
- Medicine allows more people to survive, even while their ideas about how many children they should have hasn’t changed.
- Tourism and technology offer new ways for people to earn a living. But of course, those people (and the tourists) still need to eat. So hunters – many of who still believe the jungle is infinite – go out more often and kill more animals.
All this is causing an unprecedented strain on the environment. Animals that were common only a little while ago have disappeared. Plenty of guides told us how alligators, sloths, and monkeys used to live on the edge of town only a few years before. The only animals we saw while there were insects and monkeys. And we only saw the latter because we visited a sanctuary (where I met the caregiver who explained all this to me).
Fortunately, things are changing. People are becoming more conscientious. Traditional views of ‘mother nature will provide’ are being replaced by an understanding of ecosystems. Tourism is helping in this regard with the locals realizing that if the animals are gone the tourists (and their money) won’t come.
The thing is, as I listened to him I realized this process is exactly the opposite of the idea of the noble savage. Nor is the Amazon the only place where I found it. It’s repeated time and again in most corners of the word. And yet that idea lives on in western culture.
What is the noble savage?
The concept of the noble savage is that back before modern societies everything was better. We lived in harmony with nature and each other. There was little violence and we were healthier besides. This idea permeates all the layers of our culture. You find it in food, like the paleo diet and gluten free diet (both of which have questionable health benefits). Similarly, based on no scientific evidence, products marked as ‘natural’ are thought to be better. And, of course, it exists in the idea that modern society is unnatural and evil and that we should return to more ‘natural’ ways.
We didn’t always hold this view. For the longest time, Europeans believed there was a hierarchy of humanity. As it was their hierarchy, they put dark skinned ‘savages’ at the bottom and ‘civilized’ white people at the top. Yes, this was at the same time as we committing mass genocide all across the world. I guess they had to justify it somehow.
So where did this idea of the noble savage come from? It was around as a counter-culture for centuries. It can be found mentioned all the way back in the 17th century. It was given extra impetuous, however, by Margaret Mead’s iconic paper Coming of Age in Samoa published in 1928. In an attempt to disprove this hierarchy and end the nature-nurture debate in favor of nurture, she visited Samoa.
There she interviewed several women about their culture. She got back some great stories. People lived in peace and harmony with nature, women and men shared each other without jealousy and murder was nonexistent.
Triumphantly, she took her findings back to the western world. There she published them in high-standing journals. The idea spread through the social sciences and even caught the public imagination. Hunter-gatherers had been rehabilitated. No longer were such cultures only primitives. Instead, they became examples of how we should live. If we go back to living in a more natural way then we too can live in peace and harmony.
There was only one problem.
The culture that Margaret Mead described never existed. Another researcher called Derek Freeman went back and found the women had played a prank on poor Margaret. These societies had plenty of jealousy, murder, and exploitation going on. The women had told their fantastical stories to see if she would believe them. She did. Hook, line, and sinker.
But when he went back and tried to tell the world they didn’t get very far. Anthropology and popular culture had invested too much in their new paradigm. Besides, imagine the harm if people realized tribal people weren’t as morally advanced as they’d been made out to be? The old view of the hierarchy of humanity would reassert itself and all the progress made would be undone.
And so the researchers were made out as liars (something still true today) and the idea of the noble savage lived on.
More evidence about the non-noble savage
Of course, wishful thinking is no substitute for reality. Over the years, extra evidence has been published that undermines the idea of the noble savage.
For example, in times gone by we were terrible at conserving nature. Wherever humanity arrived, other species quickly went extinct. There are even papers that show we are responsible for this happening to the mammoth, saber tooth tigers, and wooly rhino.
We weren’t that nice to each other, either. In Steven Pinker’s book Better Angels of Our Nature he spends hundreds of pages demonstrating that. The whole book is a refutation of the Noble Savage and the idea that society today is more violent than before. For example, he shows how in prehistoric tribes murder rate went as high as 1 per 20. In comparison, the most dangerous country around today, El Salvador, has a rate of a little over 1 per 1000. In the same way, theft, rape, and other such crimes were rife (and have been dropping since).
Note that theft, murder and such didn’t happen much in the group or tribe. These people were relatives and part of their empathic circle (discussed in the video above). They also had governing bodies that could punish such crimes.
Instead, they were far more common between groups. That makes sense. For many societies, if one group reneged on an agreement or stole from them there was nobody, like a government, who could step in. That meant violence was often the only answer. Even worse, if group A steals from group B and group B does nothing about it, then group C might be tempted to try the same. By that logic, group B has to retaliate.
There are even theories that this is why many frontier cultures have such a strong sense of honor. In the short-term, it might seem nonsensical to get into a fight over trivial things like bumping into you. In the long term, though, if people know you are no pushover, they’re less likely to try and take advantage of you. This offers protection in a situation where law enforcement is weak or non-existent.
But if everybody reacts severely to slights, then that can lead to feuds. And as we feel protective of our families, sometimes these things grow into generation-spanning affairs. Perhaps we shouldn’t have taken Bob’s cow, but now he’s taken three of our sheep. And everybody knows three sheep are more than a cow. So let’s take Bob’s wife.
Or they think of something more proportionate, but Bob is there. A fight breaks out and they end up hurting or killing him. Now, Bob’s children will have something to say about that.
Eventually, nobody remembers how things got started, but nobody’s forgotten the most recent slights that need to be avenged. There is plenty of evidence that such feuds occurred with depressing frequency.
But even now the myth of the noble savage lives on
Many anarchist movements have based their belief system on the myth of the noble savage. They believe that we’ll all be better people if we do away with laws and cities and go live in smaller groups. Libertarians also believe that societies can self-regulate if the government would get out of the way. Even though we don’t have any evidence that this is true.
Even in the mainstream, you’ll see similar beliefs, with people holding up tribal peoples as examples that we should all strive to be like. How we only need to be more natural and it will all be okay.
‘”Look,” they say, “These people can live on fruit and berries and don’t watch TV.”
Of course, if traditional societies do get some money, one of the first things they’ll try to buy is a TV. You’ll see driftwood shacks, with dirt floors, no beds, and big ass TVs. Modern peoples see this as us corrupting them. Traditional societies don’t see it that way. Of course, in this regard, their opinions are (hypocritically) ignored.
As for the fruits and berries, when we were in the Amazon my girlfriend was forced to abandon her vegetarianism. There weren’t any non-meat or non-fish dishes on offer. I’m sure they’ll eat berries, but only if they didn’t manage to kill anything. And they won’t be happy doing it. They too need their protein, after all. And their local shops don’t offer that in powder form.
Yet the realities on the ground don’t influence this western-held fantasy or the dangerous delusions that result.
“Whoa,” I hear you saying, “Okay, so the idea of the noble savage is a little inaccurate. But dangerous? That’s going a bit far!” I don’t think so. I’ll explain why further down. But first, let’s talk about that other myth I mentioned in the title.
The relentless march of progress
Levin Professor of History at Yale University Timothy Snyder in his book On Tyranny calls it the politics of inevitability. I prefer the myth of the relentless march of progress. In some ways, it is the opposite of what we’ve been discussing so far. Here, we didn’t start off living some idyllic life where we’re in tune with nature and each other. Instead, we’ve been building towards it.
From autocracies, monarchies, and dictatorships we’ve been climbing towards liberty and enfranchisement. And – most importantly – this is not only true of the past but of the future as well. It is, as Professor Snyder says, “[T]he sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy.”
The problem is that the actually weigh the historic evidence you realize that our past was not like that. The rise of democracy is neither relentless nor inevitable.
Ancient empires did not slowly progress to become more democratic. The first Chinese empire was founded in 2700 BC and has existed in some form till the 20th century. It never became more democratic.
Nor is an established democracy invincible. Two of the most famous democracies in the world – Ancient Athens and Rome – both failed. Athens when it was conquered by Macedonia and Rome when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and established a dictatorship.
It gets worse. As Daron Acemogu and James Robinson detail in ‘Why Nations Fail’ rebuilding democracies afterward was not a sure thing. In truth, it was a very fortunate series of events led to more and more people being enfranchised (or given the vote).
If the state would have been any more powerful, like in Spain, Austria-Hungary, and China, the rulers wouldn’t have had to surrender their power. If it would have been any weaker, like in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or in many failed states today, then the state crumbles.
You think that these examples are from too long ago? Did we learn our lessons since then?
Then let’s consider the 20th century. Democracy was far from assured during the first half. Dictatorships, autocracies and strong men very much the dominant force. Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Belgium, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Japan – to give you a few examples – were non-democratic or controlled by non-democratic regimes.
And, what most people don’t realize, they might well have stayed that way. After Germany blitzed France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium in six weeks they sent Churchill a peace offer. As both of England’s allies – France and Hungary – had already been crushed and as England was alone many prime ministers would have taken it. (The US wouldn’t officially enter the war till 1 and 1/2 years later). That would have left Germany fighting a one-front war against Russia. They could have won that.
How different the world would have been.
To us, the result of the Second World War and the victory of liberal democracy seems inevitable. But that’s only because that is what happened. It’s hard to imagine a different course of events. And yet, a few different choices and German could have become the dominant world language. Democracy would in all likelihood not have marched in lock-step with its spread.
Similarly, if you shift where you view the world from – say the Middle East, Russia or China – you might not think democracy half as strong as we believe it to be. In fact, after the last elections, you might well think it is drawing its last shuddering breath.
A move through time instead of space would leave you just as unconvinced about this democratic supremacy. A few hundred years ago feudalism would have seemed to be the natural state of affairs. It was the go-to governmental form in Europe for about 800 years.
The entire myth of the relentless march of progress rests on the presumption that we’re marching towards democracy. As the previous section demonstrates, this is hardly how we should see things. It wasn’t a march. It was more like a tango. There was lots of movement but little progress. Often, there were as many steps back as forward.
And if the past was anything but relentless, then how can we assume the future is inevitable?
So why are these myths so dangerous?
Not bad, right? It’s been an interesting intellectual exercise. Now, back to the series you were binge-watching before you got distracted by the internet.
Okay, hold on! Not so fast. We haven’t gotten to the part where I explain why myths like these are so dangerous yet. And sure, of course, I’m going to implore you to do something, but don’t you want to know what that is before you decide not to do it? I mean, you can always ignore my imploration. You’ve no doubt done so before.
If you have, you’re in good company. I practice all kinds of mental contortionism to ignore my own advice! So what do you say?
Still with me? Good.
So what is it about these myths that are nothing alike that makes them so dangerous? It comes down to one thing. Though it is for different reasons, they both teach us that we don’t need to take action.
The myth of the noble savage lets us believe the institutions that maintain our democracies are unnecessary. We don’t need to protect the freedom of our press, our judiciary and the independence of our different branches of government. Instead, we should dismantle them. Nature will sort us out. It always has in the past.
Though we now know that it hasn’t.
As for the relentless march of progress, it makes us believe that liberal democracies are inevitable. So we have to do nothing to defend them. Why should we? Nothing can stop progress!
But then, we understand now that isn’t true either.
In effect, both of these ideas have at their heart a belief in magic. In the case of the noble savage, it’s a magical belief that humans are inherently good, peace loving and kind. The thing is, they’re not. They can be taught to be these things. Look at the rising awareness of animal welfare, for example. At the same time, they can as easily learn to be murders and conquerors. Most of our innate impulses are selfish. Morality is, for the most part, a set of learned behavior to control those impulses.
In the case of the relentless march of progress, the magical belief resides in the institutions – that they are and will remain. But that’s not the case either. They were built by men and women and they can as easily be dismantled by men and women. What’s more, when they’re not there, they are hard to put in place.
The truth of that can be found in the Arab Spring. Then, more than half a dozen countries experienced democratic uprisings. Only one of them, Tunisia, really got anywhere. In places like Egypt and Libya, the situation today is much worse.
Similarly, the democracies that came out of the 1989 fall of communism have also had a great deal of trouble. Some of those countries, like Poland and Hungary, the government is attacking the foundations of democracy. In other countries, there is series corruption. And then, of course, there is Ukraine.
In fact, democracies are not all that stable. They only last about 200 years. Generally a strongman takes power. This can happen through invasion or election. They then erode the institutions of democracy.
The reason that often happens is that people come to think of democracy as unimportant or take it for granted. That’s what the myth of the noble savage and the relentless march of progress lead to. This, in turn, makes them no longer think of democratic participation as a duty. That’s something we can already see with people voting in ever decreasing numbers.
When that happens, it becomes easier and easier for motivated groups who do not form the majority to high-jack the democratic process. After all, the fewer people vote, the more powerful each vote becomes. And of course, the leader who they put in control will have the motivation to undermine democracy and disenfranchise voters. That’s the most likely way they get to stay in power.
What we need to do
Chances are that if you’ve read this far you already knew most of this. Sure, the individual facts might be new but the overall picture was something you were well aware of. The thing is, it turns out that’s not true of most people. An article in the Economist reports that 16% of Clinton and 24% of Trump voters can’t tell you which US political party is more conservative. That’s a pretty basic fact.
What’s more, even more people don’t have a decent understanding of how the world works. They have only ever seen their little neck of the woods and their part of the world. If they do visit any other part, they go see it as tourists. And that’s an important difference for, as Gilbert H. Chesterton said, “the tourist sees what he has come to see.” In other words, many people are blind to the very real dangers that hang overhead.
We – and here I’m looking at you, my fellow digital nomads, travelancers, vagabonds, and wanderers – can change that. “Are you crazy?” Some of you now mutter, “The whole point to moving away was that I would get away from all that.”
Sure, I get that. The thing is, you can’t. If you work online, then you’re dependent on keeping the world economies open to keep up your lifestyle. Even if you don’t, the collapse of the democratic order would reverberate to every corner. Even if you avoid the resulting wave of instability, can you be sure that your family, friends and loved ones would be as safe?
We need to take responsibility today because if we don’t, we might not be able to do anything tomorrow. After all, as Professor Timothy Snyder points out, in 1932 most Germans didn’t realize that was the last fair election for decades to come. The same was probably also true for the Russians in 1990. These things aren’t advertised beforehand.
For that reason, we have to become more engaged. Here I don’t mean that you again have that argument with your racist family member or friend who will never change the way they see the world. You don’t change public opinion by trying to sway the extremes. Instead, I mean that you speak to those people who are still open-minded enough to hear what you’ve got to say. And then you tell them about the importance of taking part and participating.
Or that you gather together with other like-minded people and you discuss what you’ve learned and what you can do. Or you sit down with a local people in whatever corner of the world you are and you share what you know. Or you write essays – like I’ve done – and put them online.
Or like Chris Haulmark you run for office.
Even if we all did something small we can make a big difference. After all, people look up to digital nomads. That gives us an outsized voice. Many for some reason look up to us, listen to us, and share what we say. Let’s use that.
Because a bit of talking and sharing today will keep our children from fighting to rescue democracy tomorrow. Or, for that matter, keep many generations from growing up without it. Can’t happen? I’m sure the Romans said the same just before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon.