Monday, September 5, 2011

Degenerate Cultures, Cave Men, and Civilization

The now-dead script of Palawan

Experience in the Philippines

I recently travelled to the Philippines and found out about the Palawano people. My church in Temecula is hoping to help with the material needs (starting with Malaria). My guide here was a missionary who had spent the past two decades mastering the language and even developing a written language for the people.

When we arrived in Manila, he showed me some of his books. In one of them, I saw a strange lettering and asked him about it. He said that that was the way the Palawano used to write. There were a precious few old people who knew the cuneiform-like script. But none of the middle aged or young people were being taught it like they had been in the past; the culture was becoming illiterate. They forgot how to write. For thousands of years, they could write. But over the course of the past few generations, they forgot. One of the major things that defines human civilization is the ability to accumulate knowledge and communicate by text. It wasn’t just lacking in the Palawano, but it had been present and now was lost.

The tribal leaders I’ve talked to seem convinced that their ancestors are disappointed in the way things were being handled. It’s sort of an ancestor-worship version of the American complaint about, “kids these days.”

I noticed the same thing about the Kurians in Kenya. They remembered being able to make baskets, but only a few presently remembered how. They had memories of original music and dance, but the present is just a shadow of the past; it stands tall on the horizon behind, full of power and authority.

The Ancients
I think back to the wonderful stories of the ancient peoples. This theme comes up in good Fantasy and Sci-Fi books. Atlantis, Chtullu, the Numenorians, the Jedi are all ancient. The message is that the olden days were pretty much better in every way. And then there are these unexplained artifacts in the modern world: the Great Pyramid with its math, ancient cities with indoor hot and cold water, swords with aligned carbon nanotubes. Even the physical feats of old mountaineers, of arctic explorers, of Roman legions and of European knights are hard to believe. We describe the generation that fought WWII as the “Greatest Generation”. We are certain that olden-days people could do stuff that it would be challenging or impossible for us to do today.

I was shocked when this idea was validated by GK Chesterton in his masterful historical apologetic for Christianity, “The Everlasting Man”  (free text). Chesterton argues for the moving of the Sprit of God in pagan man (!) and then His animation of the Church with her power and vitality. The book opens with an account of primitive man. While having no argument with the biological evolution up to humans as humans, he argues that there is no evidence for evolution of human institutions. The idea of a development from rude tribal organization to more civilized ones is utterly without empirical foundation.

(I’m about to quote the 1925 work directly where Chesterton describes tribal or indigenous people as ‘Savages’. Be aware that this is the word used in 1925 from a root meaning ‘woods’ and is not a statement about the people’s humanity or worth. It would be inaccurate at this point to recite the catchy line from the Disney’s Pocahontas song: “Savages, savages, barely even human” ; I’m quite sure that Chesterton has a higher view of their value than any Modern who uses the politically correct ‘indigenous people’.)

If we want to get rid of half the nonsense about nomads and cave-men and the old man of the forest, we need only look steadily at the two solid and stupendous facts called Egypt and Babylon. Of course most of these speculators who are talking about primitive men are thinking about modern savages.
But it has appeared to a good many intelligent and well informed people quite as probable that the experience of the savages has been that of a decline from civilization.
It is therefore absurd to argue that the first pioneers of humanity must have been identical with some of the last and most stagnant leavings of it.

But this is in contrast with the ‘scientific’ account of our past: a gradual climb up from lower life forms. I say ‘scientific’ because the account is eminently not experimental. It’s part of a worldview and valid insomuch as we think inference valid. But as Chesterton points out, we never observed prehistoric people. It is an astounding feat of extrapolation to impute people who lived 5000 years go with the characteristics we observe in tribal peoples presently.

The scattered bits of evidence I’ve observed are that tribal cultures are in a state of decline, not stasis (and yes, I did say ‘decline.’ If you object to the use of the word, please, I invite you to write an argument that one cannot make a value judgment on “illiteracy”. Once you’ve done that, you might begin to appreciate the value of writing). And if we are to extrapolate (always dangerous), we should do it based on the albeit small bit of data we do have. And the data I have directly observed shows a downward slope. If we extrapolate this back a few thousand years, we arrive at something like Numenorians and the Great Pyramid, not cave men.

Before I am accused of being a racist, let me flesh this out a bit. If there was not a decline, then illiterate jungle-dwelling people were always illiterate jungle-dwelling people. If there was, then who can know what civilization was once present. Perhaps dialogues greater than Plato's were written, or art that surpassed the Renaissance, or benevolent governance to rival Athens or Philadelphia. If there was a decline, then these cultures might have been comparable in these fields to our own. But if there was not a decline, then they are only equal when there is no value; if we allow relativism to equate the Mona Lisa with a finger painting or Notre Dame with a mud hut, then these cultures are equal. But if there was a decline, and their history was lost, there really may have been an astonishing culture in the past. If we desire to aid them, we don't have to give them the choice between the Western Way or misery in their present state of poverty. We can re-awaken the memories of their own glorious past, beyond the reach of written history, and have them truly develop without simply mimicking the good and bad in the West.

Perhaps they were in stasis for a long time. But if so, why now? Maybe it’s because of population growth. Maybe it’s because of Western influence. Maybe 5000 years was just too long to write (wouldn’t you get tired after 100 generations?). Or maybe something bigger and more mystical is happening; maybe it’s because 2012 is coming up, or maybe it’s the End Times, or maybe it’s in preparation for the next Hegelian step. Or maybe it has been a constant decline from a glorious civilization that could stand against Babylon and Egypt, and after millenia of the candle burning down, the flame of writing was finally snuffed out.

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