Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Noble Savage, Specialization, and the Freedom of Simplicity

LRC posted an interesting article on the myth of the noble savage. The myth itself is ancient and persistent. In the Judeo-Christian culture it is called the Garden of Eden. In ancient Greece it was the Golden Age. In the Hindu-Vedic tradition it was the Satya Yuga. The modern version was crafted by Rousseau in his Discourse On Inequality, and regained popularity more recently through Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

The article itself provides evidence that the myth is just that: a work of fiction. He cites the fact that chimpanzees make war and commit rape, that rape is also common among orangutans, and that gorillas commit infanticide. He quotes Harvard archaeologist Steven Le Blanc and Katherine E. Register's book Constant Battles that "warfare in the past was pervasive and deadly" and also that cannibalism and infanticide were common among early humans. From the article:
Le Blanc 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."
The article has a quote that I had never read before, but I very much enjoyed. Apparently, Rousseau sent a copy of his Discourse On Inequality to Voltaire. Having received the book Voltaire sent Rousseau a letter to acknowledge that he had.
"I have received, monsieur, your new book against the human race. I thank you for 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."
The reason I find this quote so amusing is how it cuts through Rousseau's circular logic. In other words, if humanity followed Rousseau's recommendation to not come down out of the trees then Rousseau would never have had "so much intellect" to make the recommendation.

Besides Voltaire's purely entertaining quote, the article has me thinking. One of my goals in life is simplicity. I want everything in my life to be as uncomplicated as possible. I want to cut out all the crap. The article does a good job of exposing that the noble savage was not the simple blissful idiot that he is romanticized to be because he was never at peace, but what about the other side of the argument that modern life is all hustle and bustle, too complicated to enjoy.

Thinking about it logically, the "noble" savage had to work every minute to survive. He had to hunt and gather food, ward of predators, make shelter and clothing, he couldn't adequately clean and so he was prone to diseases, and suffering an injury like a broken leg almost certainly meant death. Is this what people mean by the simple life?

The "noble" savage had to not only know how these things were done, but had to be proficient at them just to survive. How many people can tell an edible plant from countless poisonous look alikes? In the modern world we can buy food from experts who know the difference between the edible and the poisonous plants. This is called specialization, the division of labor. The system itself is complex, but it allows each individual to focus on their own niche. It gives the individual the freedom of simplicity.

Maybe "the simple life" isn't possible without the complex system of specialization we have in the modern world. Since at least the time of Malthus, possibly even earlier, the fallacy has claimed that a calamity was imminent due to humans' selfish overuse of resources, yet living standards continue to rise. Still as the wealth and comfort of the average person continuously increases, the specter of a Malthusian disaster waiting just around the corner is never questioned.

What will it take to destroy Malthus's prediction? His Essay on the Principle of Population was first published in 1798. If it didn't come true in the 214 years that have passed since then why does the average person believe that it is still imminent? Is it the power of myths? They continue to hold our imaginations even after they are shown to be demonstrably false. What will it take to make a new myth, A truer myth, in which specialization improves our lives by increasing our standard of living. It makes life more comfortable and simpler.

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