George Walford: The Natural and the Nasty

In the early Nineteenth Century the Polynesians were fighting among themselves and Europeans were setting up power-bases in the area, both directly and by way of Australia. In his History of the Pacific Glen Barclay describes the position as “fraught with peril for the independence and natural development of the Polynesian people.” (p.83).

In saying that he falls below the clear-headed perceptiveness informing the rest of his book. (That means, of course, that there we agree with him but here we don’t). It is clear enough that the advent of Europeans, with their ships, weapons, discipline, pursuit of profit and, not least, their diseases, altered the course of Polynesian history, and that none of the things they brought (except perhaps the diseases) were “natural.” But by what warrant does Barclay hold that the previous condition of the Polynesians was entitled to this term?

When the Europeans arrived the Polynesians already possessed a complex speech, a system of government, military organisation, weapons, outrigger canoes, horticulture, social organisation and elaborate ceremonial. None of these things is to be found in nature, but they all played a great part in Polynesian life. Used as Barclay uses it here, “natural” does no more than show where the writer’s sympathies lie.

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HOPING TO help their young children develop mentally, some mothers make a practice of questioning them, even several times a day: Where is your nose? Your ears? Your eyes? and so on. Watching this, you can pretty well see what the child is thinking: “Coo, we’ve got a right stupid one here. A hundred times I’ve told her where my nose is, and she still doesn’t know.”

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ARTIFICIAL intelligence? Add artificial emotion and they will have re-invented people. It seems a bit pointless; if there’s one thing not scarce, people is it.

from Ideological Commentary 30, November 1987.