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The Ignoble Savage

Science reveals humanity’s heart of darkness
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In 1670 English poet John Dryden penned this expression of humans in a state of nature: “I am as free as Nature first made man … /When wild in woods the noble savage ran.” A century later, in 1755, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau canonized the noble savage in Western culture by proclaiming that “nothing can be more gentle than he in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man.”

From the Disneyfication of Pocahontas to Kevin Costner’s eco-pacifist Native Americans in Dances with Wolves and from postmodern accusations of corruptive modernity to modern anthropological theories that indigenous people’s wars are just ritualized games, the noble savage remains one of the last epic creation myths of our time. Science reveals a rather different picture of humanity in its natural state. In a 1996 study University of Michigan ecologist Bobbi S. Low analyzed 186 preindustrial societies and discovered that their relatively low environmental impact is the result of low population density, inefficient technology and lack of profitable markets, not conscious efforts at conservation. Anthropologist Shepard Krech III, in his 1999 book The Ecological Indian, shows that in a number of Native American communities, large-scale irrigation practices led to the collapse of their societies. (continue reading…)

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