The Prime Directive. As any self-respecting Trekkie knows, it is Star Trek‘s most important ethical rule. And possibly the most stupid. ‘Thou shalt not interfere with the natural evolution of another culture by giving primitive peoples technology or knowledge beyond their years.’ Or as Starfleet Regulations put it:
As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely.
In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive has particular force in the case of ‘pre-warp’ civilizations – societies, that is, that have not yet developed warp drive and hence are incapable of interstellar travel. Such peoples are to be denied not only advanced technology but also any knowledge of extraplanetary civilizations or of the possibility of interplanetary travel. In the words of James T Kirk prior to a mission to a ‘primitive’ planet, which the Enterprise crew were about to visit by disguising themselves as locals, ‘No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.’
I was reminded of the Prime Directive on hearing of the news that in Brazil a new Amazonian tribe has been discovered. Or rather, that it hasn’t been. Satellite images have uncovered the existence of a previously unknown indigenous group in the remote western part of the Amazon forest known as the Javari Valley. The satellite pictures were confirmed by flyovers that revealed three clearings and four large communal dwellings. Around 200 people are thought to live in this tribe. The aerial images show fields of corn, banana and possibly peanuts and cassava.
That is all, however, that we will most likely know about these people. And the closest they will come to finding out about the outside world are through the glimpses of the aerial reconnaissance planes that buzzed overhead and took the photos. Funai, the Brazilian agency that looks after the interests of indigenous peoples, has a policy of no contact with uncontacted groups. There are thought to be more than two dozen uncontacted tribes in Brazil, of which at least eight are in Javari region alone. Brazil’s Department of Isolated Indians operates the Javari Valley Ethno-Environmental Protection Front whose remit is to keep outsiders away from the region. To that end it has built control posts on the main rivers leading to the area.
But for whose benefit is the policy of No Contact? There are, of course, good reasons to be wary of making contact with peoples who have never interacted with the outside world before. Diseases brought by outsiders can devastate communities that lack immunological protection against such infections. Smallpox and flu were among the most potent weapons possessed by the Conquistadors when they arrived in the Americas at the end of the fifteenth century. Disease as much as the brutality of the invaders ripped through the local populations. Underlying the Brazilian decision appears, however, to be a concern that goes much deeper than simply worries about the consequences of new diseases, a concern that contact with modernity is itself a form of disease against which indigenous tribes need protecting. The Funai policy is the real life version of the Prime Directive.
The No Contact policy raises two major questions. Is it really a moral good that indigenous groups should be shielded from modernity? And who is it that makes the decision that there should be no contact?
On the first question, Norman Geras has expressed the problem well:
Suppose there is a site of extraterrestrial life somewhere very far off and that the life in question is not only intelligent but also – miraculously – human. These are human beings, what is more, who are technologically much further ‘ahead’ than we are. They have the means to detect us and they have detected us, and they have the means to travel across the vast spaces they need to in order to come and shake our hands Do they owe it to us to forbear – to leave us alone? Do they owe it to us on the grounds that so culturally different are they that making contact could have effects on us of a very disruptive kind that we might well find unwelcome?
Or might it be the other way round? Might it be that the moral duty of the technologically advanced aliens is to help open our eyes to new possibilities, to aid us to reach their levels of development if we so desire? Similarly, is it really moral for us to deny the Amazonian groups the benefits, say, of modern medicine, or agriculture, or education? This is not an imperialist assertion of moral superiority, as some defenders of indigenous groups suggest. It is rather a recognition that the people of the Amazon have similar needs and desires to other humans and that cultural engagement, borrowing and mixing is the basis of human social development. It is true that contact with the outside world might cause devastating epidemics. It is also true, however, that modern medical technologies could help protect Amazonian peoples not just from the diseases of outsiders but also from the diseases and disorders from which they already suffer. The No Contact policy does not seem to recognize that there are benefits as well as costs in engaging with the wider world, and that the benefits may, and usually do, outweigh the costs.
All of which brings us to the second question: who makes the call as to what is morally right? The policy of No Contact means that the Amazonian tribes are excluded from making that decision. The Brazilian government – and more broadly ‘modern society’ – makes it on their behalf. It decides what is good for the tribes and imposes that decision upon them. And it does so because it believes that it is the morally noble stance to take. The No Contact policy, in other words, is as much about the moral needs of contemporary modern society as it is about the social, cultural and medical needs of Amazonian tribes. There is a certain moral smugness about the policy: ‘We are morally superior because we accept that our way of life may not be good for you’.
The Prime Directive and the No Contact policy both draw upon an anthropological tradition that goes back to Herder at the end of the eighteenth century. It is a tradition that embodies a Romantic view of culture and difference, an organic notion of societies and their development and a belief in the natural evolution of human groups. I have written much about the baleful influence of this tradition on modern modes of thinking about race, culture, difference and agency. It came to shape both biological ideas of race and cultural ideas of difference.
The modern anthropological idea of culture emerged at the end of the nineteenth century in part out of a desire to challenge the horrors of racial science and the bigotry that many thinkers of that time expressed towards non-Western people. It came to appropriate, however, many of the same Romantic concepts that animated racial theory. The anthropological idea of culture, as the historian of science George Stocking has observed in his book Race, Culture and Evolution, ‘provided a functionally equivalent substitute for the older idea of “race temperament”.’ Cultural anthropologists may have wanted to liberate people from the bigotry of racial science. They ended up by enchaining them in the notion of cultural tradition. ‘The idea of culture’, Stocking observes, ‘which once connoted all that freed men from the blind weight of tradition, was now identified with that very tradition, and that burden was seen as functional to the continuing daily existence of individuals in any culture and at every level of civilization.’
Western liberals were often shocked by the extent to which non-Western peoples adopted what they considered to be tainted notions. Enlightenment concepts of universalism and social progress, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observed in his book Structural Anthropology, found ‘unexpected support from peoples who desire nothing more than to share in the benefits of industrialization; peoples who prefer to look upon themselves as temporarily backward than permanently different.’ Elsewhere he noted that the doctrine of cultural relativism ‘was challenged by the very people for whose moral benefit the anthropologists had established it in the first place.’ Were Amazonian tribes given the chance they might well decide to do the same.
There are important and difficult issues raised by the question of how to engage with peoples who have never before engaged with the outside world. We should remember, however, as many seemingly fail to do, that we are not talking here about bug-eyed aliens but about fellow human beings, not that different from you and me. The appalling history of the Western treatment of indigenous peoples should certainly give us cause to reflect and to think through the issues. But a blanket ‘No Contact’ policy seems at best misplaced, at worst downright immoral.