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.


  1. Thank you for writing this. As an ethnic Chinese person who is Westernised (and grateful for it), I am encouraged by your criticism of cultural relativism and modernity-bashing.

    Yes, the West isn’t perfect. But it angers me when I come across opinions that lay the evils of the world at the door of Western ideas, technology and institutions. It is especially galling when these very critics are beneficiaries of the positive products of Western/modern civilisation, products that they would deny to non-moderns in the name of romantic delusions and veiled condescension.

  2. plover

    If your chief point is simply that a problem like this can not be meaningfully addressed by application of a doctrinaire multi-culturalism, then I agree. However, your post reads as possibly assuming such a motivation behind Brazil’s policy, where the history seems to be a bit more complicated.

    According to Sydney Possuelo (see also here), one of the people tasked with contact prior to the policy, the initial motivation for the “no contact” policy (at least in Brazil) was not a romanticized notion of indigenous peoples, but rather the dismal record of contact even under the assumption that (in his words, emphasis in original) “civilization was a good of mankind. It belonged to everyone, non-Indians and Indians alike. So all parts of mankind have the right to benefit from civilization—provided that they want to.”

    By my reading of Possuelo, the policy came about because “we” were abysmal at connecting isolated peoples with modern civilisation without killing them. This is not to deny that there may now be a romanticized overlay to this in the Brazilian (and/or international) public square, but, in this case, may it not have arisen more to erase the memory of failure than as some consciously pursued cultural relativism?

    Of course, the question is: who is “we”? As far as I am aware, contact with isolated tribes in New Guinea has not had the effect that Possuelo describes as occurring in the Amazon. How often, considered globally, do attempts at contacting isolated peoples fail in that way? Was there something inimical about the earlier Brazilian policies or methods that we know how to avoid now? Is there something particular to the cultural grouping these Amazonian tribes belong to that ensures that contact will be exceptionally traumatic? Will the forces at work in Brazilian politics inevitably generate the sort of corruption Possuelo witnessed for any policy that admits of loopholes?

    It is clear that contact with modernity has, under certain conditions — conditions which have included motives similar to those which appear to animate your post — acted as a sort disease in the sense that it has led to decline and death. It is not necessary to assume that this is something “wrong” with or inherent to modern culture in order to examine the circumstances under which such effects occur.

    In the end, the questions I noted are empirical, and I, at least, have no sense of whether we possess real answers to them, or even whether we possess the means to answer them. It is obviously quite possible that there might be good reasons for Brazil to revisit its policy. I find it doubtful, however, that any answer can be arrived at without detailed knowledge of local circumstances.

    It is possible that Brazil’s policy is neither misplaced nor immoral, but simply the best they can do given the knowledge available — anything else might be no better than playing roulette with human lives — but if that is indeed the case currently, that does not necessarily mean it will forever remain so.

    • Sydney Possuelo is, in fact, far more ambivalent about contact and civilization than you suggest. He believes that ‘even peaceful contact’ is harmful because it ‘destroyed their native culture and self-sufficiency’. All contact, as he puts it, ‘is harmful to [indigenous peoples]. We are scourges on those peoples.’ Hence the Funai policy ‘to demarcate indigenous lands and to guard the borders with armed agents’. Possuelo asks ‘We do it for threatened animal species, why can’t we do it for a unique ethnic group that has been there for thousands of years?’ This is the classic Romantic formulation of the issue: viewing peoples as inhabiting cultural zoos and regarding cultural change as equivalent to physical annihilation.

      I agree that the treatment of indigenous groups by governments, miners, loggers, etc, has often been disastrous, and led to mass killings and forced assimilation. But insisting on a policy of ‘no contact’ is as morally problematic as compelling forced contact and assimilation. Both are decisions made by the outside world and forcibly imposed upon indigenous groups.

  3. plover

    Sydney Possuelo is, in fact, far more ambivalent about contact and civilization than you suggest.

    I am puzzled by this statement. As I read them, the quotes you have chosen seem to illustrate, if anything, a lack of ambivalence, and I am unsure what precisely you stand them in opposition to.

    I cited Possuelo as historical witness to the circumstances which engendered the ‘no contact’ policy, not for his current defense of the policy (which is largely what you quote). He states at least once in the interview that his attitude has changed significantly over the years. I found his remark about endangered animals off-putting, to say the least.

    As I read it, the argument in your post addresses, in abstract terms, whether or not it makes sense to enshrine a “Prime Directive”-like policy as a fundamental guiding principle for how a technologically advanced society ought to deal with one with little technology. I agree that such a policy is unsupportable as a fundamental principle. However, what your abstract argument can not provide, as it stands, is any way to decide when, given a set of concrete circumstances, a ‘no contact’ policy such as the one that Brazil has adopted is a morally responsible approach.

    Condemning the Prime Directive as a universal principle is not the same thing as condemning a particular, historically contingent policy, but it is difficult to find the distinction in your argument, which examines, not the effects of the policy itself, but one (common) rhetorical defense of such a policy. Whether or not it was your intention (and I doubt it was), your argument obscures the tangible, concrete situation that needs to be examined in order to determine whether or not Brazil’s policy is wise at the current time.

    As I said above, perhaps Brazil’s policy is neither misplaced nor immoral, but simply the best they can do given the knowledge available, the current alternatives being no better than gambling with human lives (do you think this impossible?).

    I can not defend (nor attack) the policy as it stands. I haven’t the knowledge. If the policy is unnecessary now, then it should be abolished; if it is necessary, the day it is not so is much to be desired. And in any case, arguments that put human lives at the mercy of an ideological Romanticism deserve no mercy themselves. My plea here is that moral argumentation be conducted with due respect to the untidy and contingent material world.

    • Thanks for your comments. However, I am as puzzled by your response as you seem to have been by mine.

      You say that you cited Possuelo as a ‘historical witness to the circumstances that which engendered the “no contact” policy, not for his current defence of the policy’. But it is precisely his defence of the policy that is of importance. It was after all, Possuelo who transformed Funai policy and was the architect of the ‘no contact’ strategy. I cannot work out why you seem to believe that Possuelo’s reasons for embarking on the project are irrelevant.

      You suggest that the ‘no contact’ policy may be a response to the ‘tangible, concrete situation’ of the devastating treatment of indigenous groups by outsiders. To Possuello it is clearly far, far more than that. He objects even to ‘peaceful contact’ because such contact would undermine their culture and way of life. Hence his demand that such cultures be protected as we protect endangered species. What Possuelo’s argument reveals is that Funai’s current strategy is driven not simply by a desire to protect indigenous peoples but also by a Romantic view of culture and of human differences.

      None of this is to deny, of course, the devastation that has been wrought upon indigenous groups by non-indigenous groups from sixteenth century Conquistadors to current-day loggers. To criticise a solution is not to deny the problem. What I do deny is that a blanket ‘no contact’ policy is a means of dealing with this problem, not least because indigenous groups themselves have had no say in such a policy.

      One final point. You suggest that ‘the current alternatives’ to the ‘no contact’ policy are ‘no better than gambling with peoples’ lives’. Is not forcibly denying people the benefits of, say, modern medicine, also not ‘gambling with peoples’ lives’?

  4. Richard Evans

    Sorry for the late reply, but I had to point out that one of this essay’s underlying assumptions – that uncontacted tribal peoples are unaware of the outside world and have no option to make contact with mainstream society on their own – lacks any evidence at all.

    All the evidence we do have, from testimony of tribal peoples post-contact and uncontacted people’s behaviour when confronted with outsiders, is that they are expressing a desire to remain ‘uncontacted.’ There are certainly no peoples in the world today who are unaware of the outside world.

    Brazil’s policy is much more about respecting the right for isolated tribes to make that decision themselves than it is to prevent *them* making contact (which would, of course, be impossible to stop in any case; many uncontacted tribes live within a few days’ walk of major settlements).

    And as you point out, disasters have nearly always accompanied forced contact by others. So if forced contact is a bad idea, and if uncontacted tribes are quite able to make contact on their own should they so choose, where does that leave criticism of a ‘no contact’ policy?

    I also can’t help but feel that the idea that tribal people are in some way ‘pre-modern’ is infected with an unwitting racism. A confidence in the brilliance of Western culture wouldn’t require us to deny that others might choose different paths and still be ‘modern’ people.

    • My apologies, too, for talking a while to reply. I’m sure you’re right that there are very few peoples who are unaware of the outside world. But that only strengthens my point: that it should be up to them to decide how they wish to relate to outsiders. You say that ‘Brazil’s policy is… about respecting the right for isolated tribes to make that decision themselves.’ So why does Sydney Possuelo insist that ‘We should avoid contact by all means’ between such groups and the outside world. Why does he object even to ‘peaceful contact’ on the grounds that any contact will ‘destroy their native culture and self-sufficiency’. My point is that it’s not up to Possuelo, the Brazilian government or anyone else to decide whether or not that should happen.

      The charge of ‘unwitting racism’ is pretty low. I expressed neither ‘confidence in the brilliance of Western culture’, nor denied that those who ‘might choose different paths… [may] still be “modern” people.’ What I did suggest – in fact what I would insist upon – is that certain social forms, cultural mores, institutions and technologies are more modern – indeed superior – to others. In what way is it racist to suggest, for instance, that the peoples of the Amazon would benefit from modern medical advances such as vaccinations and surgical techniques? Or that all peoples – Amazonian and British – best flourish under certain social conditions and forms of governance? The insistence that it should be up to people to choose their way of life is not incompatible with the insistence that certain forms of life are better than others. Belief in social progress, far from being racist, lies at that heart of all progressive politics.

  5. Felix


    Having read your piece it would seem that rather than sparring over the views of a 3rd party on the morality of contact it would be much more interesting to discuss the actual question of whether, in this instance, at this point in time, it would be better to contact this tribe or not.

    (I acknowledge that ethics itself is one of your primary areas of interest.)

    I think Richard Evan’s point that tribes have the ability to initiate contact themselves is a very good one which deserves a response.

    I would certainly agree with you that a blanket no contact policy is not defensible. However, equally, a blanket policy to contact new tribes without regard to the (allegedly) disastrous results of previous contact situations seems equally wrong.

    If, based on previous experience, contact is often disastrous for the tribe and it’s constituents then should we use uncontacted tribes as guinea-pigs to determine whether our new contact protocols have fixed the problems of the old protocols?

  6. Kathryn

    Felix, a blanket no contact policy is in fact entirely defensible. If uncontacted tribes wish to remain uncontacted, these wishes can and must be respected. FUNAI’s no contact policy only prevents other parties from making contact with isolated tribes, it does not prevent those tribes from making contact with the ‘outside’ world, should they so desire. Uncontacted people are fully aware of the existence of settled populations, and deliberately eschew contact. They must be allowed to exercise this right.

    You also suggest an element of doubt that the results of previous contact situations have been disastrous, which seems naive at best and at worst wilfully ignorant. The population of North American Indians was decimated from several million to just a few hundred thousand. In India’s Andaman Islands, there are just 50 Great Andamanese survivors of contact. Six of the ten GA tribes are now extinct. Countless other examples, in the past and the present, prove that there is nothing ‘alleged’ about the disastrous results of contact.

  7. Felix


    I am certainly naive in this subject, but I am aware that the initial ‘discovery’ of the Americas wiped out at least 90% of the population.

    However, what about contact events of small South American tribes in the last 30 years?

    You say that “a blanket no contact policy is in fact entirely defensible” however, I am sure we can come up with many situations in which this rule would be inappropriate, for example, if the area was about to suffer an major volcanic eruption or asteroid impact.

    Perhaps it would be better to say that a presumption of contact is wrong, and that each case should be considered on it’s merits. I am sure that a list of criteria could be agreed as to what is required before contact is appropriate.

  8. Kathryn


    Contact events of small South American tribes are unfortunately also disastrous. To cite just a few examples, in the 80s, 50% of the Nahua (Peru) died following their being contacted by loggers; a similar proportion of Matis (Brazil) died after contact. Also in the 80s, the Zo’é (Brazil) lost a over 25% of their tribe to disease following contact by missionaries.

    Admittedly, perhaps there are, extreme, examples of situations in which contact might be appropriate. However, it is worth pointing out that as these tribal peoples are rather more in tune with nature than most, they are likely to know about a volcanic eruption/landslide/earthquake before us! Take the uncontacted Sentinelese and the isolated Jarawa who survived the 2006 tsunami even though it claimed many other victims on their islands.

  9. Tom

    I realize this conversation is rather old, but I thought I’d chime in with an idea.

    The modern global technological civilization that humanity has today may be our undoing. There’s been no dearth of scenarios proposed: thermonuclear war or environmental catastrophe brought on by pollution and over-consumption of finite resources, for instance. Perhaps the most likely, however, would be a plague. HIV, had it been transmittable through the air, would likely have wiped us out. Ebola has a fatality rate somewhere in the 70% range. There are other diseases out there, and new ones constantly mutating. With the right combination of mortality, incubation period, and transmission vectors, it’s not hard to imagine a disease destroying a highly mobile, social, and genetically non-diverse species such as ours. These uncontacted tribes may be the species best insurance against such a catastrophe.

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