Politics Magazine

Savages ‘R’ Us

Posted on the 23 April 2015 by Calvinthedog

It has often been attempted to exhibit the mental life of savage peoples as profoundly different from our own; to assert that they act from motives, and reach conclusions by means of mental processes, so utterly different from our own motives and processes that we cannot hope to interpret or understand their behavior unless we can first, by some impossible or at least by some hitherto undiscovered method, learn the nature of these mysterious motives and processes.

These attempts have recently been renewed in influential quarters. If these views were applied to the savage peoples of the interior of Borneo, we should characterize them as fanciful delusions natural to the anthropologist who has spent all the days of his life in a stiff collar and a black coat upon the well-paved ways of civilized society. We have no hesitation in saying that, the more intimately one becomes acquainted with these pagan tribes, the more fully one realizes the close similarity of their mental processes to one’s own.

Their primary impulses and emotions seem to be in all respects like our own. It is true that they are very unlike the typical civilized man of some of the older philosophers, whose every action proceeded from a nice and logical calculation of the algebraic sum of pleasures and pains to be derived from alternative lines of conduct; but we ourselves are equally unlike that purely mythical personage.

The Kayan or the Iban often acts impulsively in ways which by no means conduce to further his best interests or deeper purposes; but so do we also. He often reaches conclusions by processes that cannot be logically justified; but so do we also. He often holds, and upon successive occasions acts upon, beliefs that are logically inconsistent with one another; but so do we also.

– Hose and McDougall, The Pagan Tribes of Borneo (1912).

That’s about it. We think we are so different from these people but in so many ways, they are just like us. You never really realize this until you spend some time with some backwards, primitive Third World people. At the end of the day, we are all just Homo sapiens, and that thin veneer of what we call civilization can be stripped away in heartbeat, and we revert to savagery once again. Savagery after all is probably our basic nature.


Hose, Charles and McDougall, W. The Pagan Tribes of Borneo. 1912. London.

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