Neolithic hunters aiming arrows at a rescue chopper stand out among the terrible images of the December tsunami (Early warning? Ask Nicobar’s stone-agers, January 9). For the aborigines of the Sentinel Islands, the last stone-age people to resist contact with the world, an Indian Coast Guard helicopter landing on their shores seemed a direr threat than the tsunami. It is not known whether more than 40 of them survived the events of December 26 out of an estimated population of 100, the remnant of 10,000 at the turn of the 18th century.

Because we often have seen the dreadful fate of primitive peoples thrust into the modern world, their hostility surprises us not at all. They would rather die on their own terms than live as our wards. Like Friedrich von Schiller’s William Tell, the Sentinelese will cry, “Better by the hand of God than the hand of man.” To refuse disaster aid would seem an irrational choice for a Swedish tour group, but not for aborigines, for whom the approaching chopper resembles an exterminating angel.

“Send not to know for whom the chopper lands: it lands for thee,” a modern John Donne might have written. [1] Who is less rational, the aboriginals of the Andaman Sea or today’s Europeans? The former are fighting to keep their culture, while the latter are liquidating theirs, first of all by failing to reproduce (Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8, 2003). Our actions seem more rational than those of the Sentinelese because we live at a greater distance from the existential boundary. The Sentinelese live in wariness of the next anthropologist to step out of the bush. Remote by contrast seems the day in which other people will inhabit the hills and valleys of our land, and our language will be preserved only in libraries, in Franz Rosenzweig’s memorable phrase.

Thousands of ethnicities face extinction. “The world’s languages are disappearing at the rate of one a fortnight,” the London Economist began a December 29 necrology for the world’s 6,800 languages. That is a cautious estimate; other sources put the rate of disappearance at two per week (Live and let die, April 13, 2002). “Already well over 400 of the total of 6,800 languages are close to extinction, with only a few elderly speakers left. The list makes melancholy reading … Worse, probably 3,000 or so others are also endangered.” These for the most part are the tongues of South American native tribes, lesser African peoples or Pacific aboriginals. There is a morbid fascination in perusing the complete list at

“Pessimists reckon that in 100 years’ time 90% of the world’s languages will be gone, and that a couple of centuries from now the world may be left with only 200 tongues,” observed The Economist, in a plaidoyer for funding to preserve the grammar and vocabulary of doomed idioms. French and German may not be among them; 200 years from now, at current rates of population decline, they will be spoken only in hell (see Why Europe chooses extinction, link above).

Of innumerable civilizations that once flourished, the vast majority vanished without trace; most of those whose existence is known left behind nothing but a sandal strap or a shard of pottery. A tiny proportion of this remnant left us fragments of a dead tongue’s vocabulary and grammar, e.g. Etruscan. We can count on the fingers of both hands the number of ancient languages whose first speakers would recognize a phrase or two in modern major languages (e.g. Chinese, Latin, Sanskrit, Western Semitic, Gothic). Only Hebrew among modern languages would still be understood by its first speakers of 3,500 years ago.

Why should we care whether a graduate student in linguistics arrives in Costa Rica to record the last five speakers of Boruca, to pick a random example, before Boruca is taken by eternal silence? We care because the chopper also lands for us; our language one day will exist only in a dusty tome, awaiting the desultory interest of a linguistics student desperate for a dissertation topic.

The standoff between the Sentinelese aboriginals and the Indian Coast Guard is a special case of the defining conflict among civilizations today. Samuel Huntington’s celebrated thesis does not explain why some civilizations should clash but others not. There is no particular reason for Chinese civilization to clash with the West, for example, given the Chinese genius for absorbing Western ideas and the symbiotic relationship of the American and Chinese economies (Santa Clausewitz, a minor Chinese god, December 21, 2004).

Some civilizations simply will give up and wave in the chopper. Hispanic civilization may go quietly, as Latin America adopts North American ways in religion (encroaching Protestantism), economics, and culture, as well as the United States itself, through immigration. Few of the inhabitants of Latin America benefited from the shotgun marriage of Spanish and pre-Columbian cultures, and many are abandoning their culture without a trace of sentimentality. In a recent volume, Professor Huntington warned that Hispanic immigration might pollute America’s “Anglo-Protestant” character (review, The crusade for monoculture, December 25, 2004). The US has less to fear from the Hispanics than Huntington believes; on the contrary, the second generation of Hispanic immigrants typically rejects the parental language. The original Anglo-Protestant impulse in the United States’ founding had dissipated by the turn of the 19th century (Is ‘Americanism’ a religion?, January 4), and its Protestant character reawakened through subsequent revivals among people other than the descendants of the Puritans. Why should this not happen among the Hispanics, who offer fertile territory for evangelical missionaries?

Arab civilization is a different matter. Not much distinguishes a stone-tipped arrow pointed at a rescue craft in South Asia from a rocket-propelled grenade aimed at a military helicopter in Baghdad. Islam has profound roots in traditional culture (Why Islam baffles America, April 16, 2004), and seeks to defend traditional culture by remaking the world in its own image (Islam: Religion or political ideology?, August 10, 2004).

Arab culture cannot easily adapt to global change, as the 2002 Arab Human Development Report made clear. The pace of global change, I believe, has reached a point of no return such that China’s emergence as a world export power closes the door for other prospective competitors.

For more than a year, I have predicted that the Iraqi resistance will fight until its numbers are too depleted to continue (Will Iraq survive the Iraqi resistance?, December 23, 2003). US policymakers will wait in vain for Iraqis to act in what Washington considers their rational self-interest. Life does not lend itself to rationality, because inevitably it is a failure, due to death. Given the certainty of death, it is perfectly rational to enjoy what one can in the meantime, as do the Europeans, without the trouble of yowling progeny.

Today’s European nations may die out, but their present inhabitants will attempt to maximize their pleasure in the meantime. To work hard, save one’s income, and hope that the next generation makes it all worthwhile is an act not of rationality but of faith. “Culture is the stuff out of which we weave the illusion of immortality,” I wrote on August 31, 2001 (Internet stocks and the failure of youth culture). “Frequently, ethnic groups will die rather than abandon their ‘way of life’ … Historic tragedy occurs on the grand scale when economic or strategic circumstances undercut the material conditions of life of a people, which nonetheless cannot accept assimilation into another culture. That is when entire peoples fight to the death.”

The Sentinelese, for the time being, have kept the chopper at bay. But the chopper has landed for the Iraqis, with tragic consequences.

[1] No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

– from Meditation XVII, John Donne

Leave a comment