The Noble Savage

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The late Joseph Campbell maintained that civilizations are not based on science, but on myth. “Aspiration,” Campbell explained, “is the motivator, builder, and transformer of civilization.” Our technological society has been built on Francis Bacon’s myth of the New Atlantis. Bacon was the first person to unambiguously and explicitly advocate the practical application of scientific knowledge to human needs. “The true and lawful goal of the sciences,” he explained, “is that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers.” Writing in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon predicted lasers, genetic engineering, airplanes, and submarines.

Competing with Bacon’s vision of a society based on science is the older and more persistent fable of the Noble Savage. The Noble Savage is not a person, but an idea. It is cultural primitivism, the belief of people living in complex and evolved societies that the simple and primitive life is better. The Noble Savage is the myth that man can live in harmony with nature, that technology is destructive, and that we would all be happier in a more primitive state.

Before Jesus Christ lived, the Noble Savage was known to the Hebrews as the Garden of Eden. The Greek poet Hesiod (c. 700 BC) called it the Golden Age. In the lost Golden Age, people lived in harmony with nature. There was no disease, pain, work, or conflict. Everyone lived in perfect peace. Insects didn’t bite you. There were no extremes of temperature, and you could wander naked through the fields. If you happened to be hungry, all you had to do to satisfy your craving was reach up and pick a sumptuous ripe fruit off a nearby tree.

In all the ages of the world, otherwise intelligent and learned persons have swooned to cultural primitivism. In the sixteenth century, French writer Michel de Montaigne described native Americans as so morally pure they had no words in their languages for lying, treachery, avarice, and envy. Montaigne portrayed the primitive life as so idyllic that American Indians did not have to work but could spend the whole day dancing.

When captain James Cook and other European explorers first encountered the native people of Polynesia in the late eighteenth century, they romanticized the primitive and ignorant state as a happier one, free of cares and anxieties. It was better, one European wrote, to be simple-minded and ignorant. “We must admit,” he explained, “that the child is happier than the man, and that we are losers by the perfection of our nature, the increase of our knowledge, and the enlargement of our views.”

The quintessential exposition of the Noble Savage myth is found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book Discourse on Inequality (1755). Rousseau argued that what appeared to be human progress was in fact decay. The best condition for human beings to live in was the “pure state of nature” in which savages existed. When men lived as hunters and gatherers, they were “free, healthy, honest and happy.” The downfall of man occurred when people started to live in cities, acquire private property, and practice agriculture and metallurgy. The acquisition of private property resulted in inequality, aroused the vice of envy, and led to perpetual conflict and unceasing warfare. According to Rousseau, civilization itself was the scourge of humanity. Rousseau went so far as to make the astonishing claim that the source of all human misery was what he termed our “faculty of improvement,” or the use of our minds to improve the human condition.

Rousseau sent a copy of his book to Voltaire. In a letter acknowledging receipt of the work, Voltaire made a pithy and devastating criticism. “I have received, monsieur, your new book against the human race. I thank you for it…no one has ever employed so much intellect in the attempt to prove us beasts. A desire seizes us to walk on four paws when we read your work. Nevertheless, as it is more than sixty years since I lost the habit, I feel, unfortunately, that it is impossible for me to resume it.”

Voltaire’s insight was immediate and inerrant: opposition to technology is opposition to the human race itself. Man lives by technology. The human race has never existed in a state of harmony with nature. Since Rousseau wrote, more than two hundred and fifty years of archeological and ethnographic research have shown that the imaginative conceptions associated with the Noble Savage are completely wrong. Before the advent of civilization people endured disease, violence, hunger, and profound poverty.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, the common notion was that humans are the only animal that conducts warfare. But research over the past few decades has shown that this is false. In Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson documented observations of chimpanzees in their natural habitat engaging in systematic planned violence. Humans and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor about four to six million years ago. The fact that chimpanzees make war suggests that our human ancestors also did. The roots of human violence thus lay deep in time.

Male chimps conduct raids with the intent of catching a lone male from another group. If the odds in their favor are greater than three-to-one, they will attack and kill or maim him. The attacks are vicious and merciless, “marked by a gratuitous cruelty.” The preferred procedure is for two chimps to hold a victim on the ground while a third pummels and bites the prey until he is dead or mortally wounded. The aggressors enjoy the violence. After the attack has concluded they exhibit their exuberance by branch-waving, screaming, hooting, and drumming.

Eliminating male rivals bestows a reproductive advantage on the members of the attacking group. Chimpanzee behavior is calculated and organized, not incidental, and reveals a high degree of intelligence. Chimpanzees have been known to rape their own sisters. Other human relatives also share a disposition to violence. Rape is commonplace among orangutans, and about one-seventh of gorilla babies perish from infanticide.

Before the advent of human civilization, conflict between bands of hunter-gatherers was universal and intense. In his book Constant Battles, Harvard archeologist Steven A. Leblanc documented that “warfare in the past was pervasive and deadly.” Cannibalism and infanticide were also common. Ethnographic studies of hunter-gatherer groups surviving in remote areas of the world during the twentieth century have found that about twenty-five percent of adult males perish in war. LeBlanc concluded “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.”

Before the Industrial Revolution, disease and poverty were endemic, even in the most advanced societies. Infectious diseases, including typhus, smallpox, and malaria, were rampant. Intestinal worms and dysentery were common among all classes of people. In eighteenth century Europe, half of all children died before their tenth birthday. Life expectancy at birth was only about twenty-five years, virtually unchanged from the days of the Roman Empire. Filth and dirt were everywhere. In 1741, Samuel Johnson gave a speech in Parliament where he complained that the streets of London were “obstructed by mountains of filth.”

Neither did pre-industrial civilizations live in a state of ecological harmony with their environment. Their exploitation of nature was often destructive. The Mediterranean islands colonized by the ancient Greeks were transformed into barren rock by overgrazing and deforestation. The Bay of Troy, described in Homer’s Iliad, has been filled in by sediment eroded from hillsides destabilized by unsustainable agricultural practices.

Before Europeans arrive, American Indians managed the land aggressively by burning it. And they likely hunted several animals to extinction. The disappearance of the Pleistocene Megafauna in the Americas coincides with the expansion of human settlement about 10,000 years before present. The long list of animals hunted to extinction by American Indians include dire wolves, giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, giant beavers, mastodons, and mammoths.

Even the conception of primitive societies as egalitarian is flawed. In Sick Societies, anthropologist Robert Edgerton documented that all human societies make distinctions based on “sex, age, and ability.” Groups also tend to treat people differently based on distinctions of “wealth, power, or kinship.” It should not be surprising, for example, to find that the chief of a tribe will advance his own interests “at the expense of lower-status people.”

All of this would be of academic interest only, were it not the case that the modern environmental movement and many of our public policies are based implicitly on the myth of the Noble Savage. The fountainhead of modern environmentalism is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The first sentence in Silent Spring invoked the Noble Savage by claiming “there was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” But the town Carson described did not exist, and her polemic, Silent Spring, introduced us to environmental alarmism based on junk science. As the years passed, Rachel Carson was elevated to sainthood and the template laid for endless spasms of hysterical fear-mongering, from the population bomb, to nuclear winter, the Alar scare, and global warming.

Human beings have not, can not, and never will live in harmony with nature. Our prosperity and health depend on technology driven by energy. We exercise our intelligence to command nature, and were admonished by Francis Bacon to exercise our dominion with “sound reason and true religion.” When we are told that our primary energy source, oil, is “making us sick,” or that we are “addicted” to oil, these are only the latest examples of otherwise rational persons descending into gibberish after swooning to the lure of the Noble Savage. This ignorant exultation of the primitive can only lead us back to the Stone Age.