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First Contact

February 14, 2011

Recently the BBC documentary series Human Planet broadcast fascinating footage of an uncontacted tribe in the rainforest of Brazil. Brazilian authorities are trying to ensure such peoples remain undisturbed by the outside world. Communities like this are under threat from illegal logging operations and in the opinion of the government official who features in the programme would probably be killed if ‘discovered’ by the wrong people. Thousands of species (many unknown to science) are wiped out every year by deforestation and it seems quite likely that entire tribes (with their own unique cultures, languages, etc) could perish just as silently. I do not, however, intend to write about the crime of rainforest destruction, the enormity of which is self-evident. I am more interested in the assumption that they should be protected from contact with anyone and the ethical issues raised. I want to make clear that I am using the idea of an uncontacted tribe somewhat in the manner of a thought experiment rather than making any points about real instances.

The history of first contact between peoples is not a happy one. Genocide is the rule rather than the exception in most cases and we are all familiar with the fates of indigenous Americans and Australians. Epidemics of introduced diseases (to which the native people have not developed immunity) can destroy populations within a few years. Slavery, enforced removal and destruction of habitat are also common. Missionaries follow in order to destroy native (i.e. heathen) art and culture. Even if these things are avoided it would seem that such people are entitled to live in their own way without nosy anthropologists, television crews and fast food chains. They should be allowed to retain their innocence and freedom is the common attitude.

‘Innocence and freedom’? We seem to be back to the ‘noble savage’. Why should we assume that these people are innocent? It seems to me that this is simply a projection of certain anxieties we have about our own way of life. What if this tribe practises child-sacrifice? We also believe in universal human rights. Are the rights of these children to be denied for the sake of allowing a community to remain innocent of the wider world? If an observer such as the one featured on the BBC saw such an act taking place would the moral imperative to prevent child-murder override the principle of non-interference? This does not seem an easy problem but is it not conceivable that a tribe might benefit from the protection of human rights? If we are prepared to accept humanitarian intervention in countries we know, it seems rather arbitrary not to allow it simply because we have not yet been in communication with the recipients.

It seems that whether we contact a people or not we are still the ones making this decision. The people themselves have no knowledge that such an option exists. We either force contact on them or we deny it to them. There are very real benefits we can bring. Steel axes are undoubtedly better than stone ones. We have medicine. Why should we assume that they would not want these things? Most evidence suggests the contrary. Imagine an advanced alien civilisation orbiting a nearby star. They have cures for cancer and AIDS, have worked out a way to cheaply produce almost limitless energy from anti-matter and have the technology to cross interstellar space. Would we be pleased if they refused to visit us because they thought our way of life delightfully naive? To wilfully refuse uncontacted tribes such help is an action the morality of which should be considered. Do not for a moment feel that these technologies are ‘ours’ and that they are perfectly free to develop their own medicine, aeroplanes, etc. The most crucial ingredient for technological advance is contact between peoples. It is precisely because we have for a long time (i.e. several thousand years) been part of an international community, that we have developed steel, science and human rights. Are we now to say that they should be refused the same opportunities?

This leads to the other side of the equation which is what they have to offer us. Not only would they provide plenty of work for anthropologists, linguists and geneticists but their culture, beliefs, music and art would add to the richness of humanity’s. So many unique cultures have been thoughtlessly destroyed that it might be wise to carefully gather as much as we can from those which remain unspoilt. How many great poets or mathematicians might be living in isolation with no chance for their talents to be seen by the world? I realise this is becoming a little whimsical but I find that my predominant feeling on considering this issue is one of sadness. These people are part of the human family but have no place within it. They do not know that other people have walked on the moon or seen inside the atom: they are not part of our journey. Why should we not invite them to come with us?


From → Ethics, Philosophy

  1. sonixpookah permalink

    I could not help wondering what the “un-contacted tribe” thought as they gazed at a UFO circling above.

  2. Yes. And it was curious to be, as the viewer, inside the UFO, as it were.

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