A reader writes:
You wrote that the new car "is, as history has shown us, an irresistible choice." While this may seem self-evident, it is incorrect. In fact, history is full of examples of people (both individuals and societies) that chose NOT to trade their traditional way of life for the new car. An excellent example of this is to be found in the three Fuegians on The Beagle with Darwin (excerpted from Sex at Dawn):
Looking for an example of the world’s most downtrodden, pathetic, desperately poor “savages,” Malthus cited “the wretched inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego” who had been judged by European travelers to be “at the bottom of the scale of human beings.” Just thirty years later Charles Darwin was in Tierra del Fuego, observing these same people. He agreed with Malthus concerning the Fuegians, writing in his journal, “I believe if the world was searched, no lower grade of man could be found.”
As chance would have it, Captain Robert FitzRoy of the Beagle the ship on which Darwin was sailinghad picked up three young Fuegians on an earlier voyage, and brought them back to England to introduce them to the glories of British life and a proper Christian education. Now, after they’d experienced firsthand the superiority of civilized living, FitzRoy was returning them to their own people to serve as missionaries. The plan was for them to show the Fuegians the folly of their “savage” ways and help them join the civilized world.
But just a year after Jemmy, York, and Fuegia had been returned to their people at Woollya cove, near the base of what is now called Mount Darwin, the Beagle and her crew returned to find the huts and gardens the British sailors had built for the three Fuegians deserted and overgrown. Eventually, Jemmy appeared and explained that he and the other Christianized Fuegians had reverted to their former way of living. Darwin, overcome with sadness, wrote in his journal that he’d never seen “so complete & grievous a change” and that “it was painful to behold him.” They brought Jemmy aboard the ship and dressed him for dinner at the captain’s table, much relieved to see that he at least remembered how to use a knife and fork properly.
Captain FitzRoy offered to bring him back to England, but Jemmy declined, saying he had “not the least wish to return to England” as he was “happy and contented” with “plenty fruits,” “plenty fish,” and “plenty birdies.”
What looks like even extreme poverty “the bottom of the scale of human beings”may contain unrecognizable forms of wealth. Recall the “starving” Australian Aboriginal people, happily roasting low-fat rats and noshing on juicy grubs as revolted Englishmen looked on, certain they were witnessing the last demented spasms of starvation. When we start detribalizingpeeling away the cultural conditioning that distorts our vision“wealth” and “poverty” may reveal themselves where we least expect to find them.