In the Star Trek universe—in case you don’t follow the series—there is a rule called the Prime Directive. It forbids the Federation’s interstellar explorers from interfering with the civilizations they discover, especially the more primitive societies. Visitors to new civilizations are forbidden from offering advanced technologies or, in some cases, even revealing that they come from beyond the stars. The intention is to preserve the unique nature of these developing civilizations and allow them to achieve whatever their native skills, cultural qualities, and particular history will enable them to become. Many of the various Star Trek series include stories where the Prime Directive is tested and ultimately found to be wise and appropriate.
Of course, in the Progressive future world depicted by the series, the Prime Directive is an antidote to and an apology for Western imperialism. This is the world, or the galaxy, done right the first time. This is the situation in which an advanced civilization—the enlightened, gracious, Western European–based explorers of Star Fleet—“boldly go[es] to seek out new worlds and new civilizations” and then carefully and studiously leave them alone. No educating the natives here. And certainly no enslaving them and making off with their trade goods and raw materials.
It’s a pretty picture. An ideal of self-restraint. But is it real?
In the Progressive doctrine, the New World as discovered by 15th- to 19th-century Europeans embodied many such primitive civilizations. The “Native Americans,” the people who were here first—but only after crossing the Bering Sea land bridge at the end of the last Ice Age—were still living a mostly Stone Age existence. The hunter-gatherers of the North American plains needed something on the order of twenty square miles of open land to feed one family throughout the year, several thousand square miles or more to feed a whole tribe. The city-based civilizations of Central and South America practiced slash-and-burn farming and so could feed more people on less land, but they still were primitives compared to European farmers and their tools, and these populations were more vulnerable to climate cycles.
In either case, the North American tribes and civilizations possessed no horses—until, that is, the Spanish came and a few of their herds went feral in the wilderness. The natives had no iron, certainly no gun powder, no simple machines, and not even the wheel. Their spears and arrows were tipped with bits of knapped flint, and the “swords” of Central American warriors were clubs edged with flaked obsidian. The Maya had an advanced form of ideographic writing and sophisticated mathematics, as well as pretty good skills with stone work. The Inca of South America had a flair for hydraulic engineering equal to that of the Romans. But still, these were largely Stone Age peoples.
They also weren’t particularly peaceful or gracious themselves. The Aztecs and the Maya both practiced human sacrifice. The tribes of the plains went to war against each other long before the Europeans showed up. Widows and the aged in the tribe who had no one left to support them would be exiled and exposed. Life was hard. People died.
The modern, Progressive view that the Europeans came into the New World, committed genocide against the peaceful natives, enslaved the survivors, and stole their lands and raw materials is a compelling narrative. But absent a Western culture imbued with some kind of 15th-century Prime Directive, it is not a realistic one.
With the exception of small groups—prospective traders like Christopher Columbus, who was only seeking a passage to the markets of Asia; explorers and cartographers like John Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci, who were commissioned by royalty and functioned not unlike the explorers of Star Trek; and Portuguese and Basque fishermen, who landed in what was to become New England in order to process their catch of the Grand Banks cod fish—most of the Europeans who came to the New World were people seeking a new life, new land, refuge from persecution, and freedom from the religious restrictions, economic repressions, and monarchical wars of Europe. Some also came as transported convicts, who had no choice but indentured servitude until they could escape into the wilderness. These Europeans did not come to observe, study, and make a map. They came to stay and hoped to prosper.
One can imagine such people—the Pilgrims or the Spanish conquistadors—arriving on the eastern shores of the New World and exercising some form of Renaissance Prime Directive. “Oh my! There are already people living here! And they have formed stable hunter-gatherer—or in some places slash-and-burn—cultures capable of their own eventual development. It is not our place to intrude. We must preserve their heritage on their own land. We will now withdraw and not disturb them.” Maybe the Pilgrims could have found an isolated and uninhabited island somewhere else to establish their spiritual sanctuary. Maybe the conquistadors could go and invade some established neighbor who was both culturally and technologically equivalent, like Morocco, and had the ability to fight back.
That is not, however, the way these things work. And it’s not because Europe had experienced its own invasions from the dawn of prehistory: the Dorians, the Ionians, and Sea Peoples coming into Greece; the Romans into the rest of the Mediterranean and Western Europe; the Celts, Huns, Goths, Vandals, and Visigoths into Rome; and the Saxons, Danes, and Normans into England. The history of the world has been that of roving bands moving in on and pressuring their neighbors, when they weren’t carrying out explicit wars of conquest like the Mongols and the Muslim Caliphate. The fact that the New World pitted Stone Age people with flint spears against Iron Age invaders with horses, the wheel, and gun powder is a tragic accident of history, but it was not unforeseen.
When we first meet an intelligent species out among the stars, let us pray that we are the explorers and that our interstellar drives, dense energy sources, potential weaponry, and coherent organization allow us to be at least culturally and technologically equivalent to whomever we find. Then perhaps we can afford to follow our own Prime Directive. But if we meet that extraterrestrial species as it comes here to Earth, where the advantages in energy, weapons, and sophistication lies with them, then we had better prepare to either make friends fast and learn their technology even faster—or, in the words of Homer, “fall on the ground and bite the dust.”
In my opinion, it has never been a good strategy, in the words of Blanche Dubois, to “rely upon the kindness of strangers.” People possessing advanced skills and their own intentions will not wait upon the less developed.