Incredible as it may seem in 2008, there are indeed some remaining uncontacted human tribes (click that link for the pictures alone). These are people living with no contact with the modern world apart from the occasional airplane sighting, doing things in all likelihood as they have been done for centuries or millennia. While modern civilization has washed across the globe these past few thousand years, it has as of yet failed to spread to the some of the most remote corners of it. I find that absolutely fascinating.
But it also brings to my mind a moral quandary. These are people like you and I; they are not “savages”. It’s not that they were incapable of coming up with civilization on their own, it’s simply that their environment isn’t amenable to it (for more details on this thesis, I refer you to the Pulitzer prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond). Yet civilization is a great thing that uplifts the human experience, right? So don’t they deserve the benefits of civilization, what with the much better medicine, modern agriculture, the Internet, et al? Who the hell are we to not gift all of this to them when it’s perfectly within our abilities to do so, solely because we want to keep them around as a sort of curious sideshow, a museum exhibit on the human condition before the march of progress revolutionized it? Isn’t that at its core more arrogant than not contacting them at all?
Haven’t we reached a point in the evolution of humanity where we should go back to all of the unfortunate folks who missed the rising tide and fill them in on the great news? We’re sending space probes to distant worlds they likely know of as nothing more than wandering objects in the sky, if that! Were I in their position, I would at least want the knowledge of modern times, even if I did not want the style of modern life. And you have to admit, there is some strange lure to living simply, but I draw a distinction between living simply by choice and living simply in ignorance. Don’t they at least deserve a choice in the matter? It’s their lives. There are a couple of people dying from completely curable illnesses at this very moment in the uncontacted tribes. Shouldn’t we at least ask them if they want our modern medicine? If I was dying of a completely curable disease and someone somewhere had a cure, but refused to announce themselves and alleviate my suffering because they preferred that I remain in an “untouched and pure” state, along with all of the unnecessary suffering that entailed, I’d have a few choice words for them.
Unfortunately, if we do not proactively address the issue of our first contact and do it in a responsible manner, it will be handled by unprofessionals in a completely irresponsible manner. Humanity is sweeping across the globe. Already, the territory of the outermost uncontacted tribes is being infringed upon by loggers and poachers. And their first reaction is often simply to murder the uncontacted tribesmembers using firearms; they simply want the trees and the animals, and don’t want any pesky people defending their land shooting arrows at them to get in the way. Don’t we owe them better than that as an introduction to modern civilization? They’re going to experience civilization one way or another, either in the form of an amazing present or in the form of a large boot squishing them beneath it.
And there’s one more issue at play here. The linked article mentions that the uncontacted tribes haven’t built up many immunities to disease owing to their utter state of isolation. Illnesses following first contact can prove fatal to up to one half of their populations. It’s like the American Indian situation all over again, but even worse, because the diseases are more deadly and more global now than they were centuries ago. Yet loggers are increasingly encroaching upon the uncontacted tribes’ territories, so they will eventually get these diseases regardless. Shouldn’t it happen under the auspices of modern medicine instead? Isn’t that the only moral way to do it? With modern immunizations and hospital care, the mortality rate can be brought way down. We owe them their first contact in a conscientious manner, if for no other reason than so they don’t experience waves of deadly illnesses after their first accidental contact with people who don’t care about their wellbeing.
So, I say we invite the remaining uncontacted tribes into the fold of the rest of humanity. They can turn down all of our amazing technology and continue living life exactly as they do now if they want to, but at least give them the simple choice. They’ve already seen our airplanes buzzing above them. I do not think a simple direct introduction will faze them much further. It is to our great disservice that we patronizingly use the rationalization of “they wouldn’t be able to handle it without their society collapsing” in actively avoiding first contacts. If there’s anything we’ve learned in our own many-thousand-year journey through civilization, it’s that humans are infinitely adaptable.
It’s time to stop leaving them in the dark and turn on the light.