the Dangerous “Noble Savage” Myth

Dave Foreman, formerly of Earth First! and now The Rewilding Institute, wrote in the glossary of his timely over-population book, Man Swarm and the Killing of Wildlife, of the “Noble Savage Myth: Jean Jaques Rousseau is the best-known flag-waver for the myth of the noble savage, which holds that man in a natural state was noble, peaceful, and ecologically sweet before being besmirched by civilization. Anthropology, archaeology, paleontology, history, field biology, conservation, and so on have shown this belief to have no ground on which to stand.” Foreman recommends the book, Constant Battles, by archeologist Stephen A. LeBlanc as the current must read on the subject. Having been keenly interested in the subject since reading Jarred Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, Richard Wrangham’s Demonic Males, and even before, I of course ordered Constant Battles to fill in the blanks.

The book arrived in the mail yesterday and I couldn’t wait to get started. From that book’s prologue: “War today and in the last century seems unprecedented in intensity, ferocity, and number of lives claimed. With this ominous could hanging over our heads, it’s easy to believe that humans have somehow abandoned the benign behavior that characterized our earliest history. What happened to those ‘noble savages’ of old who were content to live in peace and harmony and were not out to colonize and exploit the undeveloped world? The ecological catastrophes occurring all around us present another modern maelstrom—and no ecosystem is immune, from the tropical rainforest, from the pristine arctic to the ozone layer. Humankind today seems to have abandoned a reverence for nature and lost long-held abilities to live in ecological balance. Has ‘progress’—that escalating desire to be bigger, better, faster, stronger—totally extinguished our ancestral instincts to grow everything we consume and hunt only what we need to sustain us? Many view the march of civilization not as a blessing but a curse, bringing with it escalating warfare and spiraling environmental destruction unlike anything in our human past.

“Contrary to exceedingly popular opinion, and as bad as our problems may be today, none of this is true. The common notion of humankind’s blissful past, populated with noble savages living in a pristine and peaceful world, is held by those who do not understand our past and who have failed to see the course of human history for what it is.

“…I have spent my entire career attempting to make sense of the past, and I find the world completely at odds with popular misconceptions. Not only is the past I observed not peaceful and pristine, but, cruel and ugly as it may be, it provides great insight into the present. The warfare and ecological destruction we find today fit into patterns of human behavior that have gone on for millions of years. Humans have been destroying their environment for a long time and continue to do so for the same reasons they did in the past… [P]roper grasp of the past has invaluable benefits for humankind today. We are far better off understanding the past than ignoring it, or believing a mythical version of history that bears little to resemblance to what actually took place.

“A myth, due to its very nature, is not grounded in any reality, so it is susceptible to total manipulation. Though we can manipulate reality, it is subject to objective questioning, because we presume there is an objective basis to it. Once we accept a myth as truth without any consideration of its reality, how do we question its implications or manipulations on objective grounds? Myths are dangerous, and we are better off without them…”

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14 thoughts on “the Dangerous “Noble Savage” Myth

  1. I always thought that there were much, much less of us so we did much less damage to our environment. Only now it is much, muich worse – only we have created technology that gives us the ability to destroy the planet at the push of a button (Science! But ask Oppenheimer what he though), and our planet is crawling lousy with us.

    We’ve been steamrolling over other of the planet’s inhabitants since time immemorial. It’s what we do. I found this article interesting the other day, how we seemed to have wiped out another early human species we ‘shared’ the planet with:

    http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/neanderthals

  2. Man is a destructive species as evident now and in our forefathers. It is genetic and clear in our pre-civilization history and since.

  3. An important corollary to the “noble savage” myth is the equally popular “education” myth, that you can put a stop to abominable behavior and transform bad guys into angels of mercy simply by “educating” them. Bad people nowadays are usually bad not because they haven’t been exposed to the facts (about animal sentience, climate change, ecological destruction, vanishing species, etc.) but because they are BAD PEOPLE, fully prepared to ravish and destroy nature if it facilitates any of their own selfish interests. It’s in their genes and only an enlightened few among our species have risen above our common genetic heritage to live on a more benign level. Accepting that fact is key to understanding how our human-dominated world works and abandoning futile strategies for changing it based on the Pollyannaish principles that normally set liberal hearts atwitter. That’s why I personally look upon the human family as consisting of two distinct species based on their observable behavior: one deserving utmost respect and compassion, the other badly in need of repression and extinction. It certainly make life-choices easier if you can simply divide the world into friends and foes.

      • Apparently the Neanderthals were kinder and gentler, and they’ve been maligned throughout history in favor of more modern humans. No surprise there.

      • I would say we are exceptional humans, as in the phrase “the exception proves the rule.” This is my answer when someone argues that there are hundreds of good people. No doubt there are, but what does it say about a species when a few hundred out of 7 billion are decent folk?

      • That’s not a very impressive ratio. A lot of people are good to their family, friends or countrymen, but do not have empathy for life outside their own species, hence the existence of factory farming and the renewed popularity of hunting.

    • Accepting that fact is key to understanding how our human-dominated world works and abandoning futile strategies for changing it based on the Pollyannaish principles that normally set liberal hearts atwitter.

      Wow. I couldn’t have put that better myself. It’s so frustrating, isn’t it? And before someone claims, ‘if you’re not one of us, you must be one of them’ I have no use for either political party. 🙂

    • Some who’ve read my book and blog have accused me of preaching to the choir; they say I should try to educate the hunters and bring them around to our way of thinking. To that I say good luck, the only folks who willingly bought the book are those who already think this way–the 1% who care (about animal sentience, climate change, ecological destruction, vanishing species, etc). Trying to educate people and make them care (if they don’t already) doesn’t seem to be my forte, but hopefully preaching to the choir helps get them more inspired to endure the daily battles for wildlife and the Earth.

      • There are just some who will never care to learn. We are all individual people – equal under the law, but not the same. Some will never care about anything but themselves. Waiting for them to get it will just allow more destruction. They won’t, IMO. And, quite frankly, some are too stupid to get it.

      • People advise “education” when they don’t know what else to say. They have an inflated idea of its effectiveness. Education is especially useless when people already have firm beliefs and values contrary to the education.

        Let’s see–how long have we been educating people about drinking and driving . . . ?

  4. Foreman is right. The myth of the “Noble Savage” is just that–a myth. We know from earliest history that our species has been involved in constant battles–over sex, over territory, over religion and ideology.

    The same can be said of prehistory. Paleopathologists have found osteologicsl evidence of conflict in bones fractured with blunt force trauma, with some containing embedded projectile points.

    Ethologists were surprised to discover the violence of chimpanzees. They hunt and kill other animals for food, and males have been observed forming “gangs” to attack outside groups or even members of their own band.

    Our species didn’t didn’t suddenly go rogue. We got off to a bad start.

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