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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

question of the weekend: How much should we protect uncontacted tribes?

It’s hard to imagine that there are some people living so remotely on planet Earth that they’ve still had no contact with the rest of the world. But the BBC recently released this clip from an episode of its series Human Planet featuring footage — shot from a distance with a zoom lens — of what is supposedly the last uncontacted community of people, in the Amazon:

Now, clearly, these people do have some awareness of the outside world: if they didn’t before, they do now that they’ve seen the airplane from which this footage was shot. (We can clearly see in them in the footage looking toward the plane and the camera.)

But even if they had remained in ignorance of the plane, I’m still of two minds about this. Obviously, the history of more advanced socities contacting less advanced ones is almost, perhaps entirely, bad for the less advanced ones. (And I use the word advanced only in the sense of “scientific advancement.” There is of course an enormous argument to be had over what constitutes cultural advancement, but I’m not looking to have that here.) On the other hand, however, who is to say that with an introduction to the larger world that respects the ways and beliefs of these people, some of them wouldn’t choose to leave, at least for a while, to see the larger world and decide whether it was something they wanted to join. What if one boy who lives there is really frustrated because all his skills and talents would make him the greatest computer programmer ever, and he’d much more fulfilled doing that sort of job? What if one girl has the potential to be the scientist who discovers a cure for cancer, and would find more meaning in her life doing so than she is know, but can never have the opportunity to do that?

Is there an element of paternalism in wanting to “protect” people like this tribe? Who are we to decide what’s best for them? Whatever things it is that make these people unique would, indeed, probably be lost or changed were they assimilated into the larger world, but isn’t there a way to welcome them while minimizing that damage, and giving them to same choices the rest of us have?

Or am I completely wrong about that?

How much should we protect uncontacted tribes?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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