Evolution and natives of the Amazon LO73

Mr Crispin Hemson (HEMSON@mtb.und.ac.za)
Sat, 11 Feb 1995 18:16:32 +0200 (SAST)

I was very surprised by the way Ivan Blanco wrote "the natives in the
Amazon are not changing or evolving as the rest of the world is", and then
describes this as a negative process. Perhaps I am so used to hearing old
White justifications of racism in terms of people being "not as evolved as
us" that it immediately strikes me as absurd. What does "evolution" mean?
The most useful sense is that of physical evolution, in that humans and
all other living things are in a constant state of change as species. I
doubt if there is any more than the most marginal evolutionary difference
between Amazonian people and the rest of humanity, and if there was I
cannot think of any reason why they may not be more "highly evolved", if
that is a useful way of understanding it.

If however evolution is being applied to cultural, economic or
technological issues, the concept becomes very blurred and prone to
stereotyping. Does it mean being culturally or economically or
technologically better? Would we say that Amazon Indians are further
forward or further backward in evolutionary terms because they create less
carbon dioxide pollution, or because they have a greater physical impact
on their environment, or because they haven't learnt habits of individual
isolation which characterise the dominant societies in the world? This
forward and backward thinking is just backward. It obscures the true
strengths of people by putting them onto some linear scale. It may well
be, for all I know that Amazonian Indians are better equipped for a
society based on interactive technologies than the people who live in the
societies that produced those technologies.

Certainly in South Africa the people who thought of themselves as "further
evolved" have demonstrated their inability to handle societal change, and
are largely still stuck in the common stereotypes of the 1920's. The
present society requires constant communication and negotiation of
difference; they were trained to find ways around it. Many of the people
who were "less evolved" in the Social Darwinism that we inherited from the
19th Century are demonstrating their abilities in handling modern society
with admirable skill.

Evolution is an exciting and very meaningful way of thinking about
genetic change. When it moves into other areas it becomes a mirror
for some woeful confusion.

Crispin Hemson
Centre for Adult Education, University of Natal,
King George V Ave, Durban, 4001 South Africa
Phone: (31) 260-2010 Fax: (31) 260-1168
e-mail: hemson@mtb.und.ac.za