I have believed for a long time there is some kind of fatal flaw in the human species. I don’t know what it is but I now believe it may have something to do with ethnocentrism and curiosity. Consider, if you will, that prior to the sixteenth century humans typically attacked, raped, and plundered each other at will. Then, beginning with the so-called Age of Exploration (better described as the age of exploitation), when the Portuguese began what was to be the Colonial Period, the same pattern of violence and exploitation was spread around the world, resulting in the most unbelievable period of terrorism, torture, and brutality probably ever to be known in the history of human affairs. Every European nation involved in colonial expansion was involved in this absolutely horrible period that continued for some 500 years, right up to the present time.
What I find almost incredible is that throughout this entire period humans apparently had little or no interest in each other, how different people lived, what they believed, how similar they were to each other, or even whether knowing about them was in any way worthwhile. The much touted Age of Discovery, the growth of science and technology, even the growth of the humanities and arts, seemed to have little influence on human curiosity about each other and different ways of life, different cultures, that is. There was curiosity about whether or not the newly discovered people were human or not, but not about the people themselves or their cultures. The explorers and adventurers reported on what to them were repulsive and disgusting customs but they made no attempt to understand them or the people who embraced them. The first anthropological society, the Societe des Observateurs de l’Homme, was not formed in Paris until 1800, after at least 400 years of contact between Europeans and others. This lasted only until 1804 when Napoleon apparently withdrew his support. Joseph Marie de Gerando offered an outline for studying other peoples, Considerations on the Diverse Methods to Follow in the Observations of Savage People, and another by Georges Cuvier, Note on Researches to be Carried Out Relative to the Anatomical Differences Between the Diverse Races of Man. There is little evidence that either of these ambitious programs were carried out. Degerando’s outline was quite sophisticated and advanced for the time but produced nothing in the way of results. Explorers were either not interested or without the means to conduct such investigations.
It was not until well into the 19th century that interest in knowing something about the various strange people that had been encountered began to grow. For example, William Joseph Snelling, who as a young man had spent seven years living and interacting closely with Indians, and who also wanted to “tell the truth about the Indian,” wrote and published Tales of the Northwest (1830), a collection of ten stories about Plains Indians. He argued, “No, a man must live with the Indians, share their food, and their blankets, for years before he can comprehend their ideas, or enter into their feelings. Whether the Author has so lived or not, the reader must judge from the evidence of the following pages.” (William Joseph Snelling, 1830).
Several writers acknowledged about this time how important it was to have actually spent time with, and carefully observed other people. For example:
“We must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths, for the byways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles, and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought upon our fellow-creatures by accident, hardship, or vice.” (Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 1840).
Serious “scientific” anthropological fieldwork, involving careful first-hand observations (with the remarkable exception of Lewis Henry Morgan), can probably be said to have only begun in the 1880’s and 90’s with the work of Franz Boas in the United States (The Central Eskimo 1888), and Siberia, where under Boas’s supervision three teams of fieldworkers undertook to determine the relationships of people on both sides of the Bering Strait (The Jesup North Pacific Expedition 1897 – 1902), Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen in Australia (The Native Tribes of Central Australia, 1899) and the Torres Straits Expedition of 1898 by Alfred Haddon and W.H.R. Rivers (Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits). Rivers went on to conduct fieldwork in India almost immediately after the Torres Straits work (The Todas 1906). Albert E. Jenks, the first formally trained American observer (his degree was actually in economics) to work overseas, began fieldwork with the Bontoc Igorot in the Philippines in 1902 (The Bontoc Igorot 1905). A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, a student of Haddon and Rivers, conducted fieldwork in the Andaman Islands in 1904 (The Andaman Islanders 1922). These early efforts ushered in what might be considered the “Romantic Period of Anthropology,” that saw Anthropological fieldworkers spread out over the world to basically “salvage” what was left of these diverse ways of life (this is virtually no longer possible). But human cultures were many and anthropologists were few (and not well funded), so the result of all this is that we have fairly detailed information even now on no more than perhaps 350 of the thousands upon thousands of such small-scale cultures that existed at one time.
I do not know how to explain this incredible lack of interest in others. I suppose ethnocentrism played a major role in this neglect. I note that even now there is a remarkable lack of interest on the part of Americans about other cultures. I know from personal experience that many, if not most Americans don’t even know where most other people are located. Most Americans have no knowledge of other languages. When they travel to visit other places they generally get off the cruise ship only long enough to buy souvenirs. We deplore the fact that we send our young troops into countries knowing nothing about their cultures. Indeed, when George W. Bush ordered our attack on Iraq he was apparently unaware there were both Sunnis and Shiites and that that might make a difference. I guess that when others have something you want you just don’t care who they are, whether they are human or not, or what happens to them. They become just “Japs,” or “Huns,” or “Gooks,” “Towel- heads,” or whatever is required to dehumanize them. When you are intent on killing, raping, and pillaging them it doesn’t matter who or what they are. Hey, it’s the human way!
In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.
Edward P. Tryon