The Prime Directive

In 1971 the world was introduced to the Tasaday, a group living in the rainforests of Mindanau in the Philippines. At the time the small group was presented as a stone-age tribe, subsisting nearly naked in caves in a hunter-gatherer style and possessing a unique language. Subsequent studies have caused some to doubt whether these people were “real,” or a hoax manufactured for political purposes by the Marcos government. Clearly they were widely publicized in a day when people were looking for unspoiled, peaceful people living in harmony with nature against the backdrop of war in Vietnam. Some believe their reality was falsely discredited when political conditions turned against Marcos and it became “necessary” to claim that everything Marcos touched was corrupt.

This tribe may have been real or a hoax. Some even believe the truth lay somewhere in between, that  they were in fact “corrupted” by their contact with the outside world and their pristine culture “spoiled” by metal tools and tee shirts. What matters is that an important philosophy came out of the incident, something akin to the TV series Star Trek’s “Prime Directive,” the order not to interfere with a developing culture or species. When the BBC denounced the Tasaday as a hoax, at the close of the
article was included this statement.

“The Tasaday Hoax led many anthropologists to reconsider how they deal with indigenous tribes. It is a situation full of dilemmas. Anthropologists are often faced with situations where members of the tribe they are studying die on a regular basis from easily curable diseases. But administering medicine may be the first step toward the loss of a culture. Many tribes actually express desire to become more technological. Anthropologists usually pressure them not to do so. One Brazilian indigenous tribal chief,
after hearing such a recommendation, is quoted saying, ‘Do they think we like not having any clothes? It may be the way of our ancestors, but the bugs bother us…’ Should tribes like these be exposed to the modern world? There are no easy answers.”

It seems as if “civilized” man has not changed much from Darwin’s day. He prefers to stand back and stare in awe at primitive man, whether to be horrified or to be mesmerized, rather than realize primitive man is just man, not a link with a simpler species or a better culture. People used to think the Australian Aborigines or African blacks were a link in the evolutionary chain and used this to justify outrageous bigotry. Now they just believe “primitive” is better. Perhaps it is better, if these “savages” know enough to want to learn about medicines to help them live and to wear clothes to protect them. How is it civilized to deny lifesaving technology and basic comfort for the sake of preserving what the people themselves don’t like and don’t want to preserve? And even more reprehensible, this philosophy justifies denying people the right to hear of Christ and the Scriptures.

Our civilized modern culture has grasped this lesson very clearly and seeks to impart it to those of us who might not yet have understood it. One episode of Star Trek the Next Generation shows the “correct” handling of such a situation. Scientists had a technological “duck blind” enabling them to study a “Proto-Vulcan” race without being seen. The “cloaking” device failed and in such a way that a native man not only saw the scientists but also was critically injured. The Enterprise crew saved his life and
tried to erase his memories of the incidents to avoid “contamination.” The memory wipe failed and he conceived from his fragmented recollections that a god called “The Picard” (The captain of the Next Generation Enterprise is named Picard) had brought him back from the dead and needed to be worshiped. He led some of his people into a fanatical, violent cult based on this belief.

The catch was that these people had already “evolved” beyond belief in gods, according to the people studying them. The point of the episode was that this belief in a god had to be disproved, because it was based on a misunderstanding of the “fact” that miracles were only the acts of ordinary mortal beings with greater skills and technology. Once this was made clear to the Proto-Vulcans they were able to go back to their atheism with the warm glow of knowing that they could become just like the people they
had been foolish enough to mistake for gods.

The message is unmistakable. The woman who leads the tribe has already stated all the steps in the process of her people’s “evolution” from primitive to civilized, cave dwelling to hut-dwelling, pagan to atheist. She is the one chosen as “advanced” enough to understand the message and she gets it right away. We get it too. Man evolves from primitive to advanced and part of being advanced is giving up the “need” for gods which must be fictitious anyway. Anyone who believes in gods is a wild-eyed,
fanatic who has to shoot somebody with a bow and arrow before he can be straightened out.

3 thoughts on “The Prime Directive

  1. Good post. Star Trek’s Prime Directive (or its politically correct real-world counterpart) has never sat easy in my mind. Denying a less technologically advanced culture the opportunity to choose which way of life it wants to follow is no better than the forced assimilation perpetrated by the Borg in “Star Trek Next Generation”. Either way, it denies the people being contacted with the exercise of their God-given free will.

    Not to mention how arrogant it is, saying, “We know what you need and want better than you do. After all, you’re just a simple, primitive group of people. How can you possibly know what you want or need?” What hubris!

    I believe that just as the Lord does, we are called to show the way, offer the open door, and then allow those we minister to the opportunity to decide for themselves. If we don’t do that, we’re trying to usurp God’s role in their lives. I tremble at the thought I might ever be that arrogant.

    1. Thank you so much for a great comment, Traci! We were struck by Darwin’s arrogance when encountering the people of Tierra del Fuego in the same way. This is what Secular Humanism and false science depends on — the :I’m better than you are” philosophy.

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