In a recent piece in the New York Review of Books, John Terbogh offers a purportedly humanitarian argument in favor of assimilating uncontacted indigenous peoples. "Do we want," he asks,
to keep people in a 'cultural museum', a time warp as it were? Putting aside the practical questions of how this would be accomplished, is it morally the right thing to do? This is a question of values and some of my anthropologist colleagues would say yes. But the morality of this question has to be considered in the light of our own cultural origins. Once upon a time, the ancestors of each and every one of us lived in a premodern culture. Those cultural origins have now been completely erased from our collective memory. Do any of us regret the loss of this memory? Would any of us prefer to return to our ancestral condition, rather than to live in the modern world? Few, if any, would say yes. To live in isolation is to live a short, hard life in the absence of modern medicine and in complete ignorance of history, geography, science, and art.
Terbogh's heart is in the right place, but he could not be more wrong. He evidently has learned nothing from his anthropologist colleagues. As has been familiar since Lévi-Strauss's La pensée sauvage, indigenous peoples do have science, in fact they have a tremendously complex system of classifying and interpreting salient features of the natural world. This complexity has been borne out in more recent work by Brent Berlin, Scott Atran, and others on what is sometimes called 'ethnotaxonomy'. They also have history, or what we would call, usually dismissively, 'myth'. It may involve different standards of evidence and be underlain by a different epistemology, but it is meaning-giving and valuable to the people who recite it, learn it, and embody it. They certainly have geography: just ask any outsider who needs to find his way around indigenous territory and who seeks the aid of a native guide. And the claim that they do not have art is simply nonsensical.
I do personally regret the loss of many of what we may presume to have been the features of the life-world of our premodern ancestors, particularly the community they appear to have had with the rest of living nature, the socio-natural unity. It is no performative contradiction that I would refuse to go and join an Amazon tribe if given the choice: I am accustomed to the modern world, it's all I know. But that does not mean that there is not something of tremendous value in the way of life of people who live in a premodern setting, and even if you do not personally feel sad at the loss of it, as I do, you can still acknowledge that there is something of value to learn from it (e.g., a different way of relating to nature), and that there is an objective loss if the remaining vestiges of it disappear from the world.
The greatest problem with Bartogh's plea for assimilation, however, does indeed come at the practical rather than the 'philosophical' level. Indigenous people are never assimilated into a larger society anywhere other than at the very lowest rung. From being people who occupy no particular social class, they become, when urbanized or engulfed into a state structure, the occupants of the bottom class, enjoying none of that society's privileges. I don't see how anyone could argue that it is better to be a proletarianized slumdweller than to live out a life in the traditional way, beyond the pale of history, as Kant, for example, would put it in his Enlighenment condescension. Assimilation always means introduction to new hazards: guns, drugs, high-fructose corn syrup, wages guaranteed in advance to maintain the laborer in poverty (for an excellent account of the consequences of absorption of the Sudanese Nuer into a state structure, for example, see Sharon E. Hutchinson's Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War, and the State). Bartogh has absolutely no vision for a program of assimilation that would yield better results.
It's surprising that we still find Enlightenment-style paternalism about the people without history being promoted in 'liberal' venues such as the NYRB. My first thought in reading something like this is that the author simply lacks imagination; my second thought is that the editors haven't done their reading, and have no idea how retrograde, in light of the past several decades of anthropological literature, the author's opinion really is.