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…”