PHIL Fitzpatrick's article (‘Assuming cultural superiority: A dangerous temptation’) set me thinking about the role culture has played in history.
Historically speaking, different cultures across the globe have been a reflection of factors such as climate, geography, topography, food, water supply, language, belief systems and technology.
From the diligent efforts of scholars and explorers over the last 200 years or so, we know that the current array of cultures and traditions has mostly developed over a very long time. While human cultures are never static, it seems that the rate of cultural change is best measured in generations, not decades or even centuries.
I recently finished a book by Professor Steven Mithen of Reading University (‘After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC’). Mithen describes how archaeologists have laboriously pieced together a reasonably coherent picture of the development of human societies during what is commonly called the prehistoric era.
At the risk of grossly oversimplifying a complex topic, I think that it is fair to say that, until the invention of agriculture, human societies were culturally very similar.
This was the case because there were severe environmental and technological limitations that dictated how humans could survive in the world. We were just another animal species (albeit a clever one) engaged in a daily struggle for survival with neither the time nor the energy to do much else.
Thus, 15,000 years ago, my Mesolithic ancestors huddling around a fire in a cave somewhere in Europe, or maybe North Africa, would not have lived materially different lives from, say, Sir Michael Somare's ancestors living somewhere in what we now call South East Asia.
It seems probable that they would have shared many common ideas and beliefs about the world and used almost identical stone tools. Certainly, as has been demonstrated by modern genetics, we all have a common ancestry.
No-one knows why or how it occurred to humans that they could grow crops or engage in animal husbandry but the general consensus seems to be that this happened more or less simultaneously at several locations around the globe about 9,000 years ago, give or take a thousand years.
Make no mistake, the invention of agriculture was an absolute game changer for humans. Instead of being hunter gatherers who were obliged to constantly move around in search of food, humans could create long term settlements based upon access to reasonably reliable cultivated sources of food.
This stimulated a cascade of socio-cultural and technological changes that led to the rise of the earliest civilisations, the remains of which are found in Greece, Persia, China, South America, Africa and South East Asia.
The technological change process fed upon itself, especially in Europe and China. Crucially, the discovery of how to smelt and work bronze soon led to the discovery of how to make iron, with profound implications for agriculture and, inevitably, warfare.
It remains unclear if technology drove cultural change or vice versa. However, what is clear is that cultural divergence across the globe began to accelerate rapidly from around 5,000 BC. Technologically advanced and highly organised civilisations appeared first in China with Europe taking much longer to reach roughly the same point of development.
For reasons that still remain unclear (at least to me), human societies in other parts of the world never reached the critical technological takeoff point achieved first in China and then in Europe. It seems that the invention of agriculture alone was not sufficient to initiate the profound cultural changes seen amongst, say, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks or Chinese.
So, in much of Africa, throughout the Americas and in the Pacific islands, people lived their lives within cultures which were not materially different to those which had emerged in the immediate aftermath of the invention of agriculture. These cultures had, for various reasons, failed to make the further technological advances that arose elsewhere.
In the case of Australia's Aboriginal people, it seems that having been entirely cut off from ready contact with other humans, and faced with a very particular set of geographic and environmental circumstances, they never made the transition from an essentially Mesolithic culture.
This undoubtedly exacerbated the level and intensity of the culture shock they suffered when confronted by the first British colonists after 1788.
The technological gap between cultures was hugely magnified by the European Enlightenment which commenced around 1,500 AD. The intellectual, scientific and technological ferment of that era supercharged the economic growth of Britain and much of Europe. This came at the cost of immense human misery, enormous socio-economic upheaval and the creative destruction of many traditional ideas and practices.
Not coincidentally, from around the same time, the European powers began a period of rapid imperial expansion into what they called the New World. I do not think I need to give even a truncated version of this process, other than to note that Papua New Guinea was amongst the very last places in the world to fall under European colonial influence.
This proved to be lucky for Papua New Guineans, because they were not forced to endure some of the truly awful behaviour that accompanied European colonialism at its most destructive and virulent, including slavery, dispossession from traditional lands and systematic economic exploitation.
However, they did have to endure cultural condescension and a good deal of casual racism, although this was somewhat ameliorated by much well intentioned and effective work by the colonial power as it established basic health care, education, legal and transport systems.
This brings me at last to the issue Phil raised, the assumption of cultural superiority by colonial powers.
It is evident from my very brief discussion of human history that the more obvious differences in human cultures that we see today are largely artefacts of the relatively recent past.
They do not reflect marked genetic differences between races or countries: indeed, such differences are negligible. In particular, they tell us nothing about the intelligence or human potential of other humans.
Despite this, the proponents of European imperialism were anxious to justify their conquest and exploitation of the New World in moral terms. Imperialists invented the idea of the nation's civilising mission (epitomised by British author Rudyard Kipling's famous poem ‘The White Man's Burden’) and stressed the importance of bringing the undeniable "truths" of Christian faith to the supposedly ignorant savages who inhabited the newly conquered lands.
Thus, no Spanish conquistadores or Victorian gentlemen suffered the slightest doubt as to their moral right or, indeed, obligation, to impose their cultural values upon those they had resolved to rule.
They were utterly convinced that they represented a superior culture which was destined to replace that of all "inferior" peoples. Even those with an instinctive liking and compassion for those they conquered were driven by such ideas.
In making this observation, I need to stress that such behaviour is not perculiar to Europeans. Every colonial power in history has made the same basic assumption, irrespective of ethnicity, nationality or culture.
In relation to PNG, Australia assumed control of the country mostly for strategic defence reasons not because it was driven by either a profound sense that it had a civilising mission or much appetite to exploit PNG's resources.
This is not to say that the latter were not in evidence, merely that they were subsidiary issues at a political level.
Another stroke of luck for PNG was that the radical egalitarianism that I believe is an underlying feature of Australia's still embryonic but already distinctive culture, tended to ensure that the worst excesses of European colonialism were never able to emerge.
Basically, the average Australian colonial official, in his heart of hearts, didn't believe that he represented a morally superior culture in most respects, merely a technologically more advanced one.
So, I would contend, the pervasive colonial myth of cultural superiority never really took a firm hold within the Australian colonial administration, resulting in a system of governance that, while undeniably authoritarian and patronising, was conspicuously less exploitative or unfair than that found in many, probably most, other parts of the colonised world.
Consequently, PNG's relatively benign colonial experiences allowed it to transition peacefully and smoothly to independence, with its traditional cultures largely intact.
Of course, the persistence of traditional cultural features in PNG has proved to be both a blessing and curse, but at least it is in the position to decide why, how and when cultures should change to better equip them to cope with our very rapidly changing world.