Sunday, June 22, 2008

Roddenberry vs. Brin in the jungle

Or "rain forest," as we say now. A couple of recent news stories about a tribe in the Brazilian forest reveal that the Brazilian government, through its National Foundation for Indians, has had for years a policy of keeping isolated tribes isolated. FUNAI's official web page is in Portuguese, of course. Here's a page about FUNAI from Virtual-Brazil. Here's another, from the Brazilian Consulate in San Francisco. Just a couple of results from a quick Google. And here's Survival International - The movement for tribal peoples.

They seem to be following the Prime Directive from Star Trek. Briefly, that the star-farers were not to reveal their existence to dwellers on worlds where interstellar travel had not yet been invented. No interference with the primitives, even if they are all going to die in a nuclear war, or something like that. It would damage their authenticity, or something. Something much more precious than their lives. (Don't ask them, though! They might not agree.)

In David Brin's Uplift series, by contrast, every intelligent species strives to raise non-intelligent species to intelligence, about as big an interference as one could imagine. So the bears haven't discovered fire yet? Modify them genetically so that they can hold the matches, and show them how it's done. This often does not work out well for the uplifted, as they tend to become slaves. (Not on Earth, though! Earth people, and dolphins, and chimps, are the good guys in these stories.)

How does all this relate to these isolated tribes? As Freeman Hunt says, "People are not pets." It's one thing for a New Yorker, say, to leave the city and take up a simple life, cutting wood and carrying water. But for more-or-less advanced civilizations to keep people living in the forest isolated, simply to study them, or in the case that was in the news, not even to study them, seems terribly cold.

As we ease our way into the 21st century and closer to the Singularity, paradigms will be changing. When we have our starships, will there still be tribes living in the rain forest because they have been prevented from finding out about what their fellow human beings are doing in the universe? Or will there be tribes living in the rain forest because they want to live there, because they have seen civilization and like my hypothetical New Yorker above, rejected it? The first seems cruel; the second, entirely likely, and unobjectionable.

One thing about that Prime Directive: It was violated frequently. Nearly every week, as I recall.

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