Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Noble Savage

The doctrine of the Noble Savage was first popularised in Rousseau's Emile (1762), . It's the idea that in our natural state, unsullied by technology, people were peaceful hunter-gatherers, with a deep respect for nature and all living things, living in harmony with our environment. Children, too, are naturally good, kind and innocent, until corrupted by their contact with the adult world.

In my opinion it is arrant nonsense and the cause of many of societies current ills :- Green Fundamentalism, Anti-intellectualism, and the Paedophile Panic, to name a few. It's the mirror image of the doctrine of Original Sin, which is just as silly.

In Edge magazine, Steven Pinker dismantles one of the planks upon which the idea of the Noble Savage rests upon; the idea that society is more violent today than in the past. Despite all the wars and genocides* of the last century, he makes the point that if modern society was as violent as historical society, our death toll in the 20th century would have been 2 billion rather than the comparatively meagre 100 million we actually killed.

He isn't sure exactly why we've got so much nicer and less violent, although he lists a few possibilities. One possibility he doesn't list explicitly is the possibility that is is the fact that we are getting more prosperous as time goes on. It does seem that rich people are actually nicer to each other, presumably because they don't need to squabble over scarce resources, and aren't so anxious and aggressive because they're less scared of dying.

* I hate the way genocide has been redefined to mean attempting to kill people of an ethnic group, rather than actually annihilating a particular ethic group, (e.g. the Tasmanian aborigines). Likewise with decimate, which means to kill 1 in10, not to kill nearly everyone in a group.

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