[culture] The ethics of contact

I had the radio on briefly during my lunch break, and learned the startling (to me) information that there may be as many as 60 different “uncontacted tribes” in the upper Amazon Basin. Apparently about 45 are in Brazil, and 15 in Peru. The discussion was that Peru is more interested in opening resource exploitation than in cultural protection, while Brazil has an active, long-term policy to keep their “uncontacted tribes” safely isolated. Many of these tribes are thought to be the descendants of refugees and tribal elements fleeing violent contact in prior centuries, and virtually all of them discourage outsiders by violent and even fatal means. Some of them are referred to as “The People of the Arrow.”

The past 500 years of European history have drawn some stark lessons in the ethics of contact. At least part of the Brazilian policy is based on the abysmal healthcare consequences of contact — past tribal contacts have lead to epidemic deaths within weeks of first encounter not unlike the general decimation of tribes in the Americas in the early 16th century. (See 1491 by Charles C. Mann [ Amazon ] for more on this.)

I began turning over the ethics of contact in my head. European, and specifically Anglophone, history on this topic is staggeringly ugly, more so than most of us are willing to admit. Yet at the same time, I am bothered by the notion of leaving people without the opportunity to choose sanitation, healthcare, reduced infant mortality, education access, increased life expectancy, and the whole array of life choices attendant on modern culture when it is functioning correctly.

It is very hard for me to see what is right here. The question is essentially moot for me personally — I am highly unlikely to ever need to make a choice regarding an uncontacted tribe. At the same time, I can argue a number of sides of this question with equal passion. And I do appreciate the value of an extremely conservative, preservationist approach to the uncontacted tribes. Some mistakes can never be undone.

I believe I shall explore this in fiction. Your thoughts?

Bonus question: Would differing immune system requirements be one of the greatest dangers to a time traveller?

7 thoughts on “[culture] The ethics of contact

  1. tetar says:

    I believe I shall explore this in fiction. Your thoughts?

    –You already did, in Escapement.

  2. Kosmo says:

    This had occured to me also for a story I was writing. I think a person going back in time would be fine, because they’d be descended from only the survivors of whatever pathogens that the ancients had to deal with. The fact that the person from the future was born at all meant that their particular immunity haplotype had already come up a winner, again and again, in the roulette wheel of disease. So they’d actually be safer in the past than the people already living then.

    But a person going forward in time would be in deep doo-doo. They’d be from a population that hadn’t yet experienced selective pressure from future diseases. This person’s particular mix of immunity genes would be drawn from a pre-selection gene pool, instead of a post-selection gene pool. The chances are high that this person would have a number of immunity genes which would later be culled by natural selection from future populations. Hence this person would likely be screwed.

  3. carlos says:

    Hi! Writing from Brazil, I may say that I’m also “bothered by the notion of leaving people without the opportunity to choose sanitation, healthcare, reduced infant mortality, education access, increased life expectancy, and the whole array of life choices attendant on modern culture when it is functioning correctly”. The main problem, as yet unsolved, is how to offer this to people in a paleolithic culture without destroying, not the culture — I couldn’t care less about culture survival — but the psychological frame that keeps the people mentaly healthy. Suicide, for instance, is a real problem in contacted tribes.

  4. Fábio says:

    I more or less agree with Carlos. Being also a Brazilian (but living in São Paulo, very far from these uncontacted tribes), I´ve seen other things happen near here. We have an Indian reservation in São Paulo, and until recently I worked as a teacher in an university that studied their culture (more specifically, their pottery and basket-weaving techniques) while helping them financially at the same time.

    But, aside from the suicide question (that´s a dire reality with our Indians in Alto Xingú (upper Amazon basin), I regret to tell you that none of our governments so far managed to deal with their inclusion to Brazilian society. Most of white or black folks here don´t give a rat´s ass about it – not because we´re a bad, unconsidered people, but because Indians for us are an alien people entirely. We can´t see them as belonging to our society.

    An example: when Ben Bova wrote MARS, I was astonished as how he could think that we see Indians (even accultured ones) on the streets every single day. That doesn´t happen at all in the major Brazilian cities. We don´t see Indians here, unless we go to a reservation or to Amazon.

    People who work directly with Indians have the utmost care about their health, and they´ve been trying for almost a century now (first with Major Candido Rondon, who made a peaceful contact for maybe the first time in recorded history of Brazil, and after that with brothers Villas-Boas – they were three, and the last one of them died recently). Their main goal was to establish contact with the tribes, assure them they meant no harm, and them start to build bridges across both cultures. They offered choices to the Indians all right: for decades we had a service called Projeto Rondon, which united young men and women from Brazilian universities to treat diseases in Indian populations, and to teach them prevention techniques. Unfortunately, this project all but disappeared in the past two decades.

  5. Deightine says:

    I am admittedly from a far flung locale compared to other commentators (Canada originally, now the USA), but I found this incredibly interesting.

    In my opinion, I would think the best thing one could do is simply make their presence known but nonthreatening to the secluded tribes. Give them the chance to make contact of their own free will, and if circumstances require it of them, they may overcome their own xenophobia or longtime grudges (say in the case of a tribe that fled persecution only to start anew). In essence prepare for the day when they walk out of the forest and ask for help, study them in the meantime so you are ready to know what they need and set aside project monies for the purpose of assisting them when they want it. Human beings are incredibly versatile creatures, capable of amazing levels of adaptation… But when a situation warrants it, we all learn to overcome it no matter how alien the means is we have to approach (in this case modern society) or we die. In the end, if they are -aware- of outside civilization and they do not approach through need or curiosity, doubtful they will be receptive of any help they could be offered more aggressively.

    As for the bonus question… I don’t think so. I think the biggest danger to a time traveler would be communication and the need to blend in. 100 years difference in a language such as English, Japanese, or even a Romance language is enough to cripple even a native speaker’s ability to accurately discuss anything without heavy pre-education. Immune deficiencies would likely cause mortality, but not to the same degree you would expect. There -have- been diseases present in past eras that nobody has record of, especially in societies that died out without passing genes on to the present era. It is likely one of those diseases would cripple a modern immune system in a very short time due to dissimilar immunities. Many people in our current time can still be killed by Tuberculosis, or even a common Flu strain, but inoculations and vaccines make it more difficult to pick up from virus’ that have had a chance to age in their potency. Imagine contracting Cholera from bad water at a height of it’s virulence, say in the 1860s and you’re from 2008. All of the blood letting in the world isn’t going to help you, your body is just as likely to end up on the fire.

  6. I was talking to my extraterrestrial friend, Smrg, about this the other day when he dropped by to make that new crop circle in the U.K. H/she said that frequently what “should” be done may become moot when population increases, resource depletion, or the need for a good banana cream pie make governments create whatever rationalizations are convenient to exploit the currently protected areas for fun and profit.

    Thus far, we have been lucky in that the aliens have not, in fact, felt the need to bring the Native Earthian Reservation Dimension into their society. H/she assures me that to a human’s perspective, their sanitation processes are extreme (I believe they get licked by giant engineered sani-cats, with proportionally rough tongues), their music sucks (due to their lack of large ears), their food is bland (due to their lack of noses), they banned religion (due to their common sense), and they do not believe in clothes (after their equivalent of the spandex era).

    With their superior tech, they believe they could protect most of us from their own diseases, but until we’ve evolved a bit more we would all have to walk around wearing large fission-powered helmets to protect us from their random psychic energy emanations. He let me try one on, and right away my nose started to itch, and I couldn’t scratch it. Drove me crazy. Not fun.

    As for the time travel question, H/she assured me that whereas disease is not really a big problem, digestion is.

    “Imagine the potentially dire consequences of traveling within your own time to, say, Mexico, and eating the local foods for a week,” H/she said. “Or, for that matter, your local fast food restaurant where human teenagers are oddly trusted to pay attention to the ‘Wash Your Hands Before Leaving the Bathroom’ sign. Now imagine traveling back 500 years before modern plumbing and sanitation. Some innkeeper slaps down a bowl of greasy looking stew, a hunk of cheese with the mold freshly cut off, and a chunk of meat (possibly cow). Dig in.”

    Although, as previously mentioned, the aliens banned religion, Smrg assures me he swore to the toilet god that he would never, ever eat pre-1965 human food again if only the pain, the sweat, and the waves of dizzying nausea would end.

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