IT IS 204 years since the death of Jean Jacques Rousseau, but the idea of the Noble Savage lives on. It is enshrined in the loose talk about how aboriginal peoples lived in harmony with the land, killing enough animals and harvesting only enough plants to live. Before Europeans befouled the pristine shores of the New World, so the loose talk goes, a kind of ecological paradise prevailed.
From that most paradisiacal of states, Hawaii, now comes evidence that shows how silly such loose talk is. Hawaii provides a nice laboratory, since the first men on the islands -- the Polynesians -- arrived only some 1,200 to 1,400 years ago. The lushness of the islands leads one to suppose the Polynesians lived there in perfect harmony with nature. But fossil evidence, summarized in Science magazine by Storrs L. Olson and Helen F. James of the National Museum of Natural History, suggests the Polynesians destroyed some 39 species of birds -- about half of those originally there -- by overhunting and burning off whole lowland forests. They also accidentally brought rats to the island.
It seems to us a point worth making that preservation of the natural environment is not an activity that comes naturally to human beings. Aboriginal tribes killed off species and, on occasion, each other. The natural balance of resources did not prevent -- instead, caused -- millions of human beings to die of starvation when crops failed or the weather changed. Today many of us are ashamed at the damage advanced civilization has done to the environment. But much more primitive societies did damage as well. Advanced civilization at least generates the resources and perhaps the will to repair some of the damage and prevent more from occurring.
Protecting the environment was not a natural activity for the Noble Savage. It is a luxury only affluent societies can afford. Our society, we think quite rightly, has spent much of its wealth on alleviating pollution, protecting wilderness, preserving worthwhile natural environments, and saving species from extinction. Reasonable people will differ on just how much to spend. But while we argue about that, let us reflect that we may very well be doing as good a job of protecting the environment as anyone ever has.