Wednesday, August 12, 2020

You Ain't So special

There is a fascination with a particular type of Sticking It To the Man that has been around for decades and perhaps even more than a century.  I grew up on the formulation that humans had endured the repeated assaults to their arrogance that Copernicus had proved they were not the center of the universe, Darwin had proved they were not the apex of creation, and Freud had proved we are not even master of our own minds, and that modern man is reeling from this, dislocated in the world and unsure of his identity.

That seems a bit thick.

First, medieval man considered the heavens of infinitely greater value than earth in every sense, whatever he thought of relative position.  Ptolemy's Almagest was the mathematical text of the period, which stated in relation to the distance of the fixed stars earth must be treated as a mathematical point without magnitude. Humans before very recent years have regarded earth as so inferior to the heavens that the heresy that matter itself is evil kept arising, to be beaten down in every century. Similarly, while it might be fairly stated that we have regarded ourselves as the most important part of earth's creation - quoting Genesis to do so, I again note that we regarded ourselves as well less than heavenly beings.  Rather the smart kid in the dumb row. Freud is no longer worth even mentioning, but even the base concept, that we do not control our thought, is there throughout Luther, who had it in turn from Augustine, who quoted much Scripture on the topic.

It is a theory that is 10-20% true, but advanced gleefully by...I'm not sure what sort of person, exactly.

We have seen it in the late 20th C about Christianity, then Western Civ in general that these things just aren't that great and there is nothing more important than knocking them down, the arrogant bastards. That there are few other forces of self-criticism in the world - the hard sciences sometimes manage this - is no longer noticed.* The focus has been more specifically on America in the 21st C, that it is not great, has never been great.  No, come to think of it, the 3-part focus on monotheism, Western Civ, and America has been consistent in both centuries. ebb and flow.  It just has more of a racial angle now. America was never great, you know.

I am now hearing this same attitude on my genetics and archaeology podcasts, that the specialness of Homo sapiens is under attack, and what a good thing. Spencer Wells (National Geographic's "Journey of Man") says it with such relish, that it's so much more complicated than "Out of Africa," that there are other homonin species that were out there and contributed a little bit to our genome, and that the Great Leap Forward theory can't be sustained, that there is anything different or better about us than Neandertals, because they had language and art! You aren't special and you are stupid for thinking so.

I actually don't have much inclination to defend the honor of Homo sapiens against Denisovans.  Maybe we weren't smarter than Neandertals, just meaner, and wiped them out that way. I will point out that we are here and they aren't, none off the other homonim species. That seems a little bit special, just like 95% of the story of humans being the "Out of Africa" model being greeted with such disdain.

I understand that it is irritating and even infuriating, depending on the degree and importance, when a lot of people believe something you know is untrue, or when people try to apply simple explanations to things you think are more complicated.  Everyone likes the Mythbusters aspects of learning something.  So yes, very satisfying to point out that colonialisation wasn't all good.  I don't know who was ever claiming more than that it was a considerable net benefit for countries where everyone was poor and wanted to trade with us, but sure, it's great to kick them if there are any. 

The shoe is on the other foot, really.  It is all those people swooning over "Imagine" who believe that their way is no-cost, all goodness. That's what the song says. Hymns and patriotic songs make more modest claims when one takes them apart. The former has some pretty extreme things to say about Jesus and God, but are considerably more measured about what Christians are going to do for us all.  It is the Marxists who believe we will get to the New Soviet Man or some modern, less-sexist equivalent who will eventually live in peace and harmony. 

We haven't invented anything in the west, it all comes from China or Arabs or indigenous tribes it seems.  China invented paper, and you see how rapidly they used it to spread worldwide knowledge. Fireworks, too.  They invented those.  It changed absolutely everything.  The Arabs did a great job or copying Greek texts and preserving medical knowledge that turned out to be mostly wrong, but had some useful bits. 

It's the repetition, the glee, and the refusal to see downsides of the other alternatives that are the giveaway.  It's the failure to ask Compared to what, or who? It's clear that there are folks who just like to think this way, who find it great fun to have disdain for what others like.  Therefore, the phenomenon will continue.

*For all the blather about dialectic from Marxists and Hegelians, that has long since disappeared.  There is no synthesis anymore, simply the destruction of the status quo and new people get to wield tyrannical power now. Almost as if it was never sincere to begin with, but just a parlor game to play.


Sam L. said...

I just ignore those people. They'd angry up my blood if I didn't.

Deevs said...

Wasn't the point of Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" spiel to show just how insignificant we all are in the grand scheme of things? That always struck me as a bit funny as the Bible beat him to the punch by a couple thousand years.

I also get a kick out of people talking about how we're not special because, look! Neanderthals painted on walls, the hobbit people had ritualized burial, and mice are ticklish! Then I think, "Yeah, but have you ever seen two cows discussing existentialism?" Not that I think that implies any kind of inherent importance to the human race, but I find it a bit ridiculous to suggest there isn't something unique about us.

RichardJohnson said...

That there are few other forces of self-criticism in the world - the hard sciences sometimes manage this - is no longer noticed.* The focus has been more specifically on America in the 21st C, that it is not great, has never been great.

I am reminded of an Argentine telling me that one thing he liked about Americans was their penchant for self-criticism. This was four decades ago.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Richard Johnson - yes. Again "Compared to whom?"

David Foster said...

It is not 'self-criticism'...they are not criticizing *themselves*, but rather are criticizing institutions and traditions with which they do not identify, and people of tribes that are not their own.

random observer said...

All excellent points which I need to ponder at more length.

I'm particularly drawn to the "control our own thoughts" notion- when did we ever quite think that? Many have suggested that thought and reason define us as against other creatures, and that they are our paramount and proper tools, but who until recently ever suggested we had absolute control over them, to the exclusion of impulse, desire, will, passion, instinct? Counselled that we should suppress these things, perhaps, maybe even overreached in assuming a few could manage it, but surely no one ever assumed this was anything like a general truth about humanity.

One of my chief objections to Christianity was always the notion that the fleeting thoughts in one's head, unacted, were sufficient to constitute sin. Or, perhaps, even the deeply held and ruminated thought, still unacted, though mileage varies. But even they didn't expect you to control your thoughts, they just called us all sinners. That at least was honest, given the assumption.

random observer said...

The alleged dethronement of man, which you nicely debunk- I think it was not even a true picture of Enlightenment Man, let alone every other version of us- has had a huge negative impact on many aspects of life and society, if a somewhat beneficial one for genre fiction.

I'm not convinced of it though, and not only on your grounds. We shall see.

But consider- the titanic age of the Earth, a shock to most belief systems save perhaps Hinduism, the vast scale of the universe, ditto, the process of evolution, and all these things. The discovery of exoplanets has had less of an impact, because pop culture had started to prime us, but it is a recent example.

And yet one sees scientists and internet science nerds bemoaning not our dethronement but the problems of the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox, all the time. In all that age and vastness, so far we can claim only one planet with biological life has ever existed, and on all that only one "sentient" species that can ask these questions about the universe. That may one day prove to not be true, but for now if one is the type of person inclined to ask "where is everyone", one should at least consider that there might be no one, and that there might never have been anyone else and, even, might never be anyone else in the future.

If that were to hold true, then it far from diminishes Man- it elevates him exponentially and then some. Imagine a future that looks like the Asimovian galaxy. Only humanity in it. We'd still [barring some horrifying to me transhuman nightmare] just be mortal men and women living human stories. But we could hardly not claim to be something special. Even if other galaxies had life and we somehow learned of one another, we'd still be rare.

And even if we do find alien life of some kind, if it's at all like us then we turn out to be part of some impressively common master template, which is pretty special, and if it's not, then we're still unique among the heavens.

At this point, I'm still assuming the discovery of alien life will be a shock to the system overall, but culture has been priming more and more of us for generations to assume it simply must be out there, and smarter than us, and willing to teach us, and there are many millions who'd be shocked to their very cores if there never is.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

A couple of points. I have read a number of Christian teachings that fleeting thoughts are not the problem, only the entertainment of them is. The Southern preacher version was "You can't stop a bird from landing on your head, but you can stop him from making a nest in your hair." CS Lewis expounded on this at length, and in Screwtape even has one of his demons advice his student to torment his "patient" (that is, a human) with such worries.

I don't know how widespread the attitude was among the everyday folk, but the medieval scholars relied on Ptolemy's Almagest, which stated that the earth must be considered but a point in the universe. Lewis also mentioned that whether the universe was full of other species or we are the only one, either was being used as an argument against the truth of Christianity. "We are hard to please," hew chuckled. I think you have absorbed some ideas about Christian belief that are common, but much less than half-true. Lewis is your man for that, fiction or nonfiction.