On the defensive policy of the Sentinelese / by Bryce Hidysmith


< Soundtrack: Bif Naked - Spaceman, a direct inversion of the Sentinelese sentiment.>

The recent death of an American missionary on North Sentinel Island has stirred a few thoughts in me. Firstly, I am now even more convinced that the armed response of the Sentinelese was justified, due to the fact that their initial context with the outside world was through the actions of colonial officer Maurice Vidal Portman. His is Wikipedia page glosses over the majority of the grim details. He was a man who was not only known previously for kidnapping Andaman Islanders and staging them in mock-Greek homoerotic compositions, but who proceeded to abduct six Sentinelese from their homeland, two adults and four children, and returned the four children when the two adults sickened and died from foreign pathogens that they would have no immunity to, dropping the island’s population from perhaps 9000 to only a couple hundred. This thread from @respectablelaw on Twitter is a remarkable download and media stash on the subject and the preceding paragraph is basically just a recap of @respectablelaw’s account, but the most interesting fact is that Portman’s aggression in 1880 is only just now out of living memory. This means that the narrative of alien peoples as sadistic aggressors and bringers of pathogens would be clear to the now-living Sentinelese, with the clear specification that close contact might carry deadly microbes.

I am entirely unsure and largely doubtful that the Sentinelese have a germ theory of disease. In the Western context, germ theories were proposed as far back as Thucydides and Lucritius, and given that the Roman Legions primarily died from wounds in battle rather than disease as Medieval European armies did inclines me to think that the Roman scientific consensus was something equivalent to a germ theory. The fact that the Western medical tradition lost this knowledge, and was so incoherent as to fail to put into practice the undeniable discovery of Leeuwenhoek until Semmelweis instituted hand-washing in his obstetrics clinic at the Vienna General Hospital baffles the mind. However, such a historical trajectory should not be taken as normative, and I am inclined to believe implies a society with substantial barriers to deliberation on scientific subjects, rather than a space of reasonably free discourse.

Given that the Sentinelese were until recently a stone-age people, I doubt that they have a social structure that frees up enough labor to allow the irresponsibility inherent to the profession of the researcher, and I believe that without such a class of person it is implausible that formal theories could be developed. (This is, perhaps, my main vindication of the moral worth of agricultural society.) However, implicit or explicit Sentinalese epidemiological consensus must describe a similar causal mechanic to germ transmission at the relevant level of abstraction to demand the strategic necessity of isolation. This points to the fact that a culture’s level of descriptive materialism must only be sufficient to avoid existential threats, and that as long as existential threats have been accounted for, non-materialist conceptions of the world can still procedurally advance technology by refining heuristics, as the adaptation of iron scavanged from the wreck of the Primrose by the Sentinalese attests directly.

This points to a degree of hope for industrial civilization as well, as it provides a method of specifying policy criteria rather than the fear, uncertainty, and doubt common in environmentalist, foreign policy, and AI risk fields, to say nothing of the potential utter idiocy of our interplanetary communications under the potential of a Dark Forest scenario, something that the late Stephen Hawking noted well when he stated that aliens would be “vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.” Indeed, the behavior of Portman to the Sentinelese suggests that this may be more normative than we would like. Before moving on I must also make note of Douglas Vakoch’s remarks, suggesting that sufficiently advanced aliens would be able to pick up I Love Lucy. This suggests not that we should be attempting to make contact, but that we should be attempting to refine behavior on earth to something that might be deemed respectable by sovereign alien attitudes, and that making pre-emptive contact before developing ourselves into such a state might appear highly threatening, or at the best dull and needy.

Secondly, there are some interesting theological arguments as to the behavior of John Chau, the missionary who recently met his end at the point of a Sentinelese arrow. This was not the first time that Chau had attempted to visit the island, for he had attempted contact previously, shouting “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you,” before the Sentinelese opened fire, one of their arrows piercing his waterproof bible. I am not inclined to believe in acts of god, but if I am to contend with a theistic ontology for a moment, there is something to be said for the idea that the Christian God did in fact save John Chau that once from his foolishness, but in his omnipotence was unwilling to do so a second time as Chau had proven himself entirely beyond reason.

Thirdly, there is something to be said about the nature of sovereignty in the modern context. There was—and I guess still is as the news cycle isn’t over—a potential for this to turn into a truly nasty moment in Indian-American relations. The Sentinelese are, in effect, a sovereign people, but at the same time they are a sovereign people empowered by the Indian government’s ability to declare them an exception to otherwise normative claims of rights of movement. This seems to be a very good illustration of how Schmitt’s definition that “the sovereign is the one who decides the exception” can produce nested sovereignty. It is also interesting to note that the Indian government’s ability to coordinate with the Sentinelese has been dependent on their ability to produce a consistence foreign policy. If the Sentinelese had ever failed to maintain their exclusion policy, it is possible that a narrative of a divided society among them could have materialized, and attempts at contact may have become more aggressive. Given that Evangelical Christianity is based on an assumption that the Christian knows the heathen better than the heathen knows himself, it is able to produce an internally justified cause for contact even if contact means further plagues for the Sentinelese as the living world is seen as temporary and irrelevant in the face of eternity. Such reckless and destructive behavior is unfortunately fit and adaptive, and this case likely provides some set of clues for the criteria a class of ideologies that can justify similar types of consent violation. All ideologies of such a class would terminally produce monocultures, and must be understood to be inherently threatening due to their infinite ambitions.