I recently came across a documentary about a native tribe in the Australian desert that first made contact with the outside world in the 1970s. It was a hunter gatherer tribe that was living in the stone age, while the rest of the world was getting computers in their homes.
That got me thinking about the progress of human civilization. There are, to this day, a number of tribes that have not made contact with the outside world (and those that choose to live in isolation). A part of me always thought that humans, left to the elements, would naturally make progress. As intelligent creatures, we create tools, pass on our knowledge to our children, who then pass it in to their children. Along the way, new discoveries are made and added to the corpus of knowledge.
Which brings me to my first observation about uncontacted tribes – they have no written language. Written language was a huge step forward for preserving knowledge. Without writing, the best people could do to pass on knowledge was using songs and poems. Clearly, that has its limitations. Along with written language, humans in many parts of the world also started experimenting with objects around them, and perhaps even started coming up with concepts of basic mathematics and geometry, creating a positive feedback loop for progress to happen.
But thinking, especially about abstract concepts, is an activity that requires leisure. Humans – busy with gathering food, against the odds of nature – wouldn’t have had time to contemplate. Survival would have been the primary focus that would take up most of the time. What made the giant leap from “survival mode” to a bit of leisure? Agriculture!
And there were other major breakthroughs – metal work, domestication, industrialization, medicine, computing and information – and probably a lot of things in between.
What seems curious to me though, is that some chance events and discoveries have a huge impact and propel civilization forward.
I wonder what would be the next such event that would make civilization progress by several leaps? I’m hoping for cheap, clean energy for starters.
But the uncontacted tribes are still living in the stone age. Maybe they never discovered the right tools to create a rudimentary paper for writing. Maybe they environment they live in is so harsh that survival will always be a full-time job. In the amazon rainforest, there is literally no room for agriculture.
At this point, I have a question to pose – is it ethical to leave these tribes as they are? What about the ones that chose to remain in isolation and rejected outside contact, such as the Sentinelese people? Basically, is the Prime Directive ethical?
While watching Star Trek, I felt that the Prime Directive was a pretty good way to go about things. (Of course, they violated it every once in a while to make for good television). But factoring in the angle of remote, uncontacted tribes, I’m beginning to think otherwise. Sure, I would want to preserve the knowledge that these people have about the plants and animals in their environment. Or the languages that they speak. Or the songs and fables they sing. But is it acceptable that that they die of diseases that can be cured? For the ones that rejected contact, is it alright that parents make this choice for their children?
Some of these tribes are so remote or deep in the rainforest, that very little aid can reach them. However, they do have the choice of moving out of their habitat. And I guess that they choose not to. Who would want to abandon their home, after all?
That brings me to the last topic I want to touch on – cultures, beliefs, memes and how they affect progress.
I had read this somewhere (I don’t quite remember where), and I have forgotten whether it is fact or fiction. But for the sake of this argument, it will suffice. There was a village that was facing famine. The soil had become infertile and nothing would grow. Curiously, there was a river flowing not too far from the settlement that had a plenty of fish. However, the people did not consider fish to be a form of food, and continued starving.
You may find that ridiculous, but picture this – most of people in the western world do not consider insects to be food. Yet, insects are a perfectly good and abundant source of protein. Some day, insects may come to our rescue, provided we don’t reject this source of food as ew, gross.
The interesting thing about beliefs is that we don’t even realize what is holding us back. For a long time, people had a hard time accepting that germs cause diseases. Or what about that vaccination BS Americans keep arguing about? And what about organized religion?
Every once in a while, it might be a good idea to take a deep breath and re-examine our beliefs. You never know, it may bring about that leap forward in society.