There was a fascinating exchange on yesterday's Today programme, about a planned scientific expedition to Paraguay. Fascinating, because it exemplified some key trends in current debates about 'culture' and 'progress'.
On one side of the argument was Professor Richard Lane, director of science at the Natural History Museum, which is sponsoring the expedition. Lane was measured, thoughtful, weighing up the benefits and risks of the venture, very much the voice of academic, scientific reason. On the other side was Benno Glauser, director of an indigenous people’s protection group, who argued that the expedition should be called off, because of the threat it poses to communities who have never had any contact with the outside world.
Glauser suggested, somewhat melodramatically, that any contact between the expedition and these indigenous groups would be tantamount to 'genocide'. This was primarily due to the risk of exposure to western diseases, a risk that was disputed by Professor Lane. But there was another, deeper layer to Glauser's concern. He was also worried that any meeting between these hitherto isolated communities and the representatives of western modernity would lead to the breakdown of what he called their 'life model'. He proceeded to elaborate on this in glowing terms, claiming that these indigenous people 'live in complete interdependence with nature', that 'they have a principle of life which is a principle of minimal intervention' in which 'the world protects them as long as they protect the world'.
In other words, Glauser painted a picture of life among isolated indigenous communities in Paraguay as some kind of ecological Eden. By implication, he cast the civilisation represented by the expedition - scientific, modern, western - in entirely negative terms, as a threat or pollutant to this paradisal scene. The echoes of James Cameron's Avatar seemed almost deliberate. (Mischievously, I also wondered how Glauser could speak with such certainty about the way of life of these groups, if they have never had any contact with the outside world.)
Listening to the exchange, it struck me that two hundred years ago, the terms of the debate would have been completely reversed. At the height of colonial expansion and missionary zeal, it was the world of the indigenous tribes that would have been viewed negatively - as backward, godless, darkened by ignorance - and western civilisation as advanced, enlightened, in possession of truth. In the last century, secularised versions of this discourse - both capitalist and communist - held sway, with the prevailing wisdom on all sides being that exposure to modern medicine, scientific knowledge, mechanical methods and so forth, would bring enormous benefits to the lives of 'primitive' peoples.
Even half a century ago - in the Sixties - the dominant paradigm for representing the needs of Third World people was 'development', the notion that lives could be infinitely improved by providing access to modern farming methods, industrial production, safer childbirth, etc.
Since then, as Benno Glauser’s argument (and the popularity of films like Avatar) demonstrates, there has been a massive loss of confidence in ‘progress’ and in 'western' ideas and values (the very labelling of them as 'western', rather than as universal and an aspiration for everyone, is symptomatic). Running alongside this has been the rise of a culturalism that reifies the values and way of life of communities (particularly if those communities are non-western and 'other') as static and almost sacred, together with a relativism that tends to see all cultures as equally valid and therefore beyond rational criticism.
Both trends are evident in the fulminations of cultural commentators such as the Guardian's Madeleine Bunting, with her hand-wringing about the shortcomings of modern civilisation - the individualism, the consumerism, the shallowness - and wondering whether, perhaps, the religious fundamentalists might not have a point - and after all, who are we to judge?
Of course, this kind of thing is not new. Alongside a rhetoric of reason and scientific advance, liberal progressivism has always included a romanticising strain, a tendency to idealise the primitive and the 'other'. Indeed - to get pretentious for a moment - maybe what we are seeing in the rise of the new eco-primitivism (not to mention the new pro-faithism) is the revenge of Romanticism on the Enlightenment. But I digress...
Returning to Benno Glauser's glorification of indigenous 'culture': I notice there was no mention of any less desirable features in the lives of these isolated hunter-gatherers. I wonder what their life expectancy is, or what proportion of their offspring survive infancy? How many of them die from unexplained diseases, and how many of their women are worn down by a constant round of childbirth, or their men by a life devoted to the exhausting daily search for sustenance?
Let’s imagine for a moment that the Natural History Museum's expedition goes ahead and that, despite its best efforts, it makes 'accidental' contact with one of these indigenous groups, which leads in turn to an opening-up of that community to the outside world. Now, imagine that in about fifty years' time the grand-daughter of one of those tribesmen, who has had the opportunity to leave her native village to go to school and then university, has become (say) a pioneering medical researcher, or an acclaimed novelist, or a globetrotting politician. Would the likes of Benno Glauser still argue that her life would have been better if the expedition had not happened, if contact had not been made, and she had been compelled to lead the same kind of life as her mother and her grandmother?
To be sure, if contact is made, there will be losses as well as gains. And those responsible need not to repeat the mistakes of previous incursions, ensuring that rapacious developers and mad-eyed missionaries are kept at bay, and that the rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples are respected. But how strange it would have seemed to progressives of earlier times to argue that indigenous people should be forbidden access to the benefits of modernity - and that every effort should be made to deny them the right to choose for themselves the kind of lives they wish to lead.