The myth of primitive societies.

April 28, 2007 by aaron

Humans who live in technologically primitive societies aren’t as intelligent as those who live in advanced societies…or so some of histories most influential personalities thought. The reasoning behind their thinking, when it was used as an honest theory and not a egocentric attack on another culture to legitimize their enslavement or destruction, is that primitive societies just harvest what is naturally provided, so while they have to physically work for their resources, there isn’t much innovation in the techniques used to collect and store it, and because there is no innovation the brain doesn’t develop all the skills that it would have if the person was forced to innovate–in short making the person less intelligent.

However, theoretically, in technologically advanced societies, which don’t provide for human needs as readily as harvesting fruits in the rainforest, an individual has to work harder to achieve their goals, so are more prone to innovate just to have the possibility of acquiring even basic things like food, and, as the assumption goes, this must make these people more intelligent and that, over time, they would be also be genetically more intelligent.

While to a point they were correct: a society that innovates would be more advanced and would seem to be more intelligent to some tests. However, if you were to trade a few children and raise them in their new society you would find very little difference intellectually between them and the members of their adopted society.

Although tests were used to prove that individuals from these “primitive” societies were indeed less intelligent, most times these tests were flawed in that they test the wrong things, or were specifically stacked against the taker through cultural biasing.

As a human brain develops, it will develop the parts of it that are needed: for example the brain of a rainforest inhabitant perceives depth differently than someone who lives in open plains, and if you were to have these people switch places, they would both have problems just seeing the environment the same way as an inhabitant would, but over time they would adjust.

Similarly, on tests that resemble IQ tests people from different regions and backgrounds test differently. These test traits such as spacial orientation and problem solving are tested, but on badly designed tests, these are biased towards one way of thinking, and because they are designed to test only one way of thinking, anyone who does differently will fail it. So a person raised in an environment where technological innovation is not needed will use most of their brain-power for different things, so even though they are just as intelligent as other children, they won’t find these tests, as easy.

Modern society has proven that these regionally and societally influenced differences were only in the imaginations of these personalities by allowing people to easily move from one society to another rapidly–individuals of a “primitive” society can easily walk into a “more advanced” society, live for a few years and the return home. Unfortunately, some people like to believe it is still the time of the Conquistadors, and assume that those who are different or less advanced, must be less intelligent, but the assumptions of such differences is more evident of cultural bias than anything else.

Of course, this thinking is nothing that hasn’t been in the mainstream thought for the past half a century, but this post is a direct response to a debate I had with someone recently where they argued that people that live in hot climates were categorically less intelligent than those who live in colder climates because the warmer climates have historically had less technologically advanced civilizations. (For those that care, I won that one.)

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