Ed Driscoll

The Myth Of The Noble Savage

On her blog, Amy Alkon quotes from a couple of paragraphs of her recent book, I See Rude People:

People don’t just blame technology for social problems, they idealize living without it. The more high-tech and complex our world gets, the more people tend to romanticize “the simple life.” Now, maybe you’re a better person if you live in a cabin in the woods with no TV, electricity, or running water — or maybe you’re Ted Kaczynski. Kacynzski, a.k.a. “The Unabomber,” now lives in more modern surroundings — a federal prison where he’s serving a life sentence for maiming and murdering numerous people to sound the alarm about the “tyranny” of a high-tech society.

We have a tendency to get all misty-eyed about early men and women, painting them as “noble savages,” living in Bambi-like harmony with nature while selflessly looking out for each other. The reality? They had the same genetically programmed tendencies to lie, sneak, steal, cheat and behave like thoughtless buttwads that we do today. But, back then, being seen as greedy or narcissistic or being caught scamming another member of your band could get you voted out of the cave and forced to go it alone — very likely a death sentence in an environment not exactly rife with Motel 6’s and 7-Elevens.

Amy links to a video of Steven Pinker at the TED conference discussing this point further. It’s also worth flashing back to “Dances With Myths” a 1997 article at Reason that reminds us that the American Indians’ historically less-than-perfect environmentalism. And at PJTV Andrew Klavan explores how Hollywood — an industry that’s constantly pushing the technological envelope simultaneously perpetuates the myth of the primitive noble savage as part of its “Liberal Fantasies v. Reality.”