Friday, February 5, 2010

Don't Talk to Me

You are actually invited to talk to me, it's just a really appropriate title. This story begins with a death. Boa Sr was an 85 year old woman from an isolated tribe of islanders near India. She was the last member of her tribe having outlived her children. Thus another language and tribe is extinct. The group that she was from is believed to be related to the Sentinelese people. They are the group that survived the 2004 Tsunami and shot arrows at helicopters and generally resist all contact, hostilely I might add. Their estimated population seems to be around 200 plus or minus about 160.

They are one of the few tribes known to exist that remains basically uncontacted. There are also a number of tribes in South America and New Guinea. Most likely over 100 groups and probably 10,000 people total around the world that do not have enough contact with modern society to be classified contacted.

Why is this significant? Several reasons. Often times when tribes are first contacted many of them die from sickness and disease. So by isolating themselves from modern society they don't all get sick and die. Second, language diversity. Now this is a tough one. How many times have we wondered how nice it would be if the world only spoke one language? Spending several months in Costa Rica and Pakistan I wondered this many times. However, I have come to the conclusion that I do not want that to happen. There is a story of a time long ago when everyone spoke the same language and people tried to do the impossible. Perhaps we could accomplish great things with no language barrier but I think we would just dig ourselves in a deeper hole. Third, experience counts. In the world of useful knowledge there is what I would consider three levels. (I'm making this up as I go.) First there is the uninitiated. For example, I am not a qualified surgeon. I know very very little about it. Second there is education. There is the time to learn the basics of a skill. Often times another person teaches the student but inevitably there is only so far that a teacher can take a student. Third there is experience. This is the practicing of a skill without the guidance of a teacher. This is the difference between success and repeated failure. Education is kind of like the failure time for usefulness. Anyone that has done research can attest to that. These uncontacted people have experience that is rare. In the book Born to Run a scientist suggests that one in a billion people know how to persistance
hunt. In fact the author learns and tells about the six people from a tribe in South Africa that still know how to do it. What other experience are we missing?

Elaborating on the uninitiated/education/experience thing I watched Avatar a few weeks ago. Aside from any political message that was being made there was knowledge that the Navi had that humans did not have. Another example was the Oonopidae family of spiders that I studied in Costa Rica. Nobody knew exactly what these things did. They are generally 1-3 mm across so about the size of an ant. There are dozens of species and yet their role in the ecosystem is not known. We know enough about ecosystems to know that all creatures play a role. Unfortunately, we don't always know what role they play. Did you know that dirt is in large part excrement from grubs and small creatures? So by killing the "pests" we are destroying the future soil.

My point is that there is education and experience out there that we don't know about. And as humans we have a pretty bad history of judging the value of things. How many species have we hunted to extinction? How much waste have we dumped into the ground the spread in the air? Taking a tangent for a moment, what is the most valuable physical resource in the world? Answer: air, more specifically the right mixture of oxygen and other stuff to live.

I feel that in the past, thousands of years, technology has increased at a rate that made the world more profitable and able to sustain a larger population. However, I am extremely worried that recently as we build higher and higher technologies we lose some of the foundation. If you want a quick laugh and then a little fear watch the movie Idiocracy. Basically the world goes downhill because people forget the basics. In the movie people start watering plants with an electrolyte (salt) sports drink. Surprise, surprise, the plants don't grow. I am afraid that we have possibly already lost some of that basic knowledge that makes the earth sustainable.

So what is the solution I am going to offer up to get the education and experience from these cultures that is most likely beneficial to the world, without killing them all? Nothing. I have no solution. Like a politician I suggest we just table the issue, don't kill all the uncontacted people, and revisit it when we have better capabilities. Perhaps then they can educate us in the ways we have forgotten.

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