The Myth of the Noble Savage

Debunking is a delicate process. At least, it should be.

All too often a “myth” (in the modern sense of a false image of something) is debunked in a way that is almost wilfully blind to the baby in the bathwater. Naturally, the encrusted mental habits that this kind of myth embodies, often bonded tightly together with the sticky glue of wishful thinking, need a jolt of force to be loosened up. But it’s often the case that people take this need for a bit of a conceptual shove as a license to instigate some kind of dramatic about-turn.

A recent case in point has been challenges made to the myth of the “noble savage”. Experimental psychologist and neo-Darwinist stalwart Steven Pinker, in ‘A History of Violence‘, sets about demolishing the idea that modernity and industrialism has led us into a mire of violence with the claim that on the larger scales of history, human violence has in fact decreased. Yet his claims, on further examination, seem to rest on quite a selective perception of human history. While the evidence that the past few millennia have seen brutality to rival the 20th century is convincing in important ways, the evidence about the bulk of the human story – the hundreds of millennia prior to the rise of agriculture – is shaky at best. When anthropological evidence from contemporary forager societies is wheeled in to back this evidence up, it is conveniently forgotten that most such evidence is looking at societies that have been very recently decimated by European diseases, conflicts and technologies. It’s like beating someone up and branding them as vicious when they fight back.

I noted in a recent post how Howard Bloom had fudged the terminology of “war” and “violence” when trying to debunk Richard Leakey’s claims about the absence of war among the !Kung in southern Africa. The evidence there involved a similar refusal to look closer at what these statistics of violence among contemporary foragers actually means in context.

I’ll not elaborate any further, because the point of this post is purely to direct people to an essential piece by Jason Godesky over at Anthropik.com. Jason details the history of the “noble savage” myth, drawing partly on a book by Ter Ellingson, but delving deep and wide into his own very capable research. He deals with five broad “sub-types” of the myth: The Ecological Saint, The Gentle People, The Honest Injun, The Super Human, and The Wise Indian. In each case, he maintains a steady grip on any and all harsh realities to be faced about primitive life, but also refuses to see-saw over to the other side. To my mind, this makes for a much more effective debunking of the myth, insofar as it is a myth.

There are crucial realities that we’ve been struggling with for 500 years now in what the European collision with non-agricultural cultures has reminded us about being human. Not all of it’s pretty, which is why the exaggerated Romantic myths about primeval innocence serve us badly. Yet much of it casts grave doubts on the modern project of technological progress – which is why the ill-conceived or disingenuous debunking favoured by otherwise dazzling thinkers such as Pinker and Bloom is to be held as suspect.

Godesky probably doesn’t “solve” all the arguments in the debate, but he’s created a precious reference point for anyone trying to rescue the kernels of truth buried in the myth.

Check it out.