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Humanity’s true face

Foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead argues that everyone should read science-fiction (or perhaps more accurately, speculative fiction), not because it has the best prose, plots or characters, but because it gives us a chance to see outside of our usual frames of reference, and possibly encounter humanity in a new light.

Taken as a whole, the field of science fiction today is where most of the most interesting thought about human society can be found.  At a time when many academics have become almost willfully obscure, political science is increasingly dominated by arcane and uninspiring theories and in which a fog of political correctness makes some forms of (badly needed) debate and exploration off limits, science fiction has stepped forward to fill the gap.

– Mead, Walter Russell. “Literary Saturday: Science Fiction is a Genre That Everyone Should Read.” Via Meadia/The American Interest, 18 September 2010.

I’m sympathetic to Mr. Mead’s argument on several levels: as a former science-fiction reader who once thoroughly enjoyed the genre; as one who mines the currents of history for patterns that might be applicable today; and as one who holds Mead’s intellect in some esteem. I’m not sure any of these things can overpower the catalyst that drove me away from science fiction, which is a tendency to explore new frontiers of the human condition in exactly the same way.

I refer not to similar plots, characters or superficial elements, but the underlying theme, which usually—when boiled down to its simplest elements—is a novel-length Facebook status update from the author, saying in essence “Wouldn’t it be great if human nature were no longer a limiting factor, and we could dispense with x, which bugs the crap out of me?”

Sure, it would be great. And if your aunt had balls she’d be your uncle.

Why I find much science-fiction/speculative fiction hard to take is that if one has a decent knowledge of history, religion and anthropology, one will understand that humanity actually has hard-coded limits that will be nigh-impossible to transcend. Or more accurately, that our superficial layer of cultural software can be changed relatively easily, but most of what plagues us as a species is the result of our neurological firmware, which has evolved into its present condition over millennia and will take literal millennia to add any new lines of code.

Let us take, for example, emotion. Every human being is going to (at some point) feel love, hate, joy, sadness, anger, relief, pride, shame, et cetera. Much of the time we can decide whether or not we want to embrace or suppress specific feelings in a specific instant, but we don’t have any control over whether emotion itself occurs at all, and sometimes strongly-felt emotion can override our reason. Our collective evolutionary, genetic and neurological heritage thus dictates that the emotion switch is stuck in the “on” position for all of us, with an occasional involuntary “override” capability. On a macro level this means humanity is subject to irrationality, and will be until evolutionary pressures millions of years down the road might decide that we must evolve a “cutoff” capability. Any human civilisation where we still resemble actual homo sapiens is going to have a certain amount of irrationality and illogic built-in by default.

Lots of the firmware that creates annoying problems has a perfectly good, reasonable role. Like all manner of flora and fauna we discriminate (in the objective—not perjorative—sense). The human brain is a generalization machine; it looks for patterns inductively and deductively. It has evolved this mechanism in its firmware to help all humans adapt to our various physical and social environments; it is not merely an inculculated software artefact of one specific culture. Operating at a certain baseline level the ability to identify a pattern, associate it with a predicted outcome, and act to achieve our desired outcome is good. That ability keeps us from eating food that has gone bad, from touching red-hot objects, and so on. But as everyone knows we can easily run into problems by over-utilising this necessary survival skill (or by providing lousy inputs).

An individual can modify his or her software generalisations, if they are self-aware enough to a) know that they are happening and 2) they desire to either embrace or reject the conclusions. What is completely beyond the individual’s control is the firmware, the part of the brain subconsciously assimilating data and making generalisations, every moment of every day. We can and should pass laws to prevent certain kinds of discrimination in public life and commerce, but we can never hope to eliminate the firmware in the brain that inductively and deductively arrives at generalisation-hypotheses. It’s used in too many facets of human (and animal) existence. Ergo prejudice of one kind or another will always be with us, as a species (even if culturally, we conquer the usual racial / gender / orientation kind).

History and religion become useful wells to draw upon because they show us that man’s inner struggle hasn’t changed much over the past few thousand years. We may have newer gear—spacecraft and computers—but in the end we are governed by the same evolutionary programming handed down from our ancestors eons ago. We wonder at the vastness of the cosmos and our small place in it. We wonder how we might best fulfill our potential in a world where the outcomes are uncertain and the stakes so high. Sometimes that striving takes us into conflict with others who have the same (or a different) goal. How we decide on and pursue that goal depends on our cultural software, but our evolutionary firmware is the why. Nobody arrives on the planet and wants to sit still and do absolutely nothing until the day they pass on.

Background knowledge of history will also tell you what utopian experiments have already been tried and found wanting. (Hint: it’s all of them.) The great failing—if not defining feature—of utopian projects of all eras is that they generally try to paper over mankind’s firmware with less-sturdy cultural software. This might last for three or four generations at best, but ultimately our firmware will reassert itself.

Regrettably, when one reads science-fiction that tries to get around humanity’s firmware limitations, the authors tend to run for all-out transhumanism (whereby humanity’s limiting factors are solved by experimentation, genetic and biological manipulation, et cetera).  But because the author’s also writing the story for humans today—who generally don’t want to read about persons and things they cannot relate to—you get post-humans who are either 1) a little bit too human, which kind of nukes the premise of the story, or 2) are sufficiently un-human to the point of being uninteresting to the human being who has to slog through the story in the here and now.  It’s a hard, virtually impossible balance to strike, and as a result I find myself reaching for histories rather than science/speculative fiction.

And let’s not even get into the facepalm territory of why some authors give spacefaring civilisations with faster-than-light drives ultra-low-tech bullets and projectile weapons.  Tomorrow’s Earth-bound fighters and gunships already have planned directed-energy weapon upgrades.  And we’ll have those operationally deployed before the first manned interplanetary spacecraft sets out for Mars.

Category: Ars Gratia Artis, Historica  Tags: , ,  Comments off

Studying religion with a degree of seriousness

Brian Bethune of Maclean’s magazine conducts a fascinating interview with Dr. Lionel Tiger, the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and one of two Research Directors of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.  Dr. Tiger has spent four decades trying to bridge the gap between the natural and social sciences.  Most recently he has done the religious and irreligious a favour by examining humanity’s adherence to religion in the light of cognitive science, and treating it with a respect and seriousness of purpose that is usually lacking.

Q: From the outside, then, it’s not religion’s strangeness you see, but its naturalness?

A: I’ve been on panels a couple of times with Richard Dawkins and invariably we come to the point where Richard will go on about how terrible religion is, and I’ll say, “Richard, are you a naturalist?” And he says, “Well, of course I am.” And then I say, “Would you agree, as you’ve in fact argued in your books, that over 90 per cent of people have some religion?” and he finally says, “Yes.” “How can you be a naturalist and assume that the great majority of the species is not natural? That doesn’t make any sense.” As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this.

– Bethune, Brian.  “Maclean’s interview: Lionel Tiger.” Maclean’s, 4 March 2010.

I appreciate the doctor’s candour and lack of condescension.  Too many opponents assume that those with religious beliefs were raised into it, or are mentally deficient, and thus have no other framework for understanding the universe (i.e. those poor, ignorant religious dears).  I find that reductionist assumption more than a little simplistic.  As a child I was not raised in any such faith tradition and did not attend church regularly.  I had a general familiarity with the superficial aspects of Christmas and Easter (i.e. presents and chocolates), but we did not attend church on those holidays.

I came to my beliefs partially because of the good and humble example of religious neighbours, and a spur-of-the-moment decision (previously detailed in this space) to find out whether God was really out there.

The frequently-debated aspects of religion (whether the universe was formed according to a literal reading of Genesis, or not) I find a little tiresome.  It is like debating whether all vehicle operating manuals are worth reading because the specific instructions for a 1930 Rolls-Royce Phantom can not be applied with equal validity to a 2010 Aston Martin Vantage.  I do not read Genesis for its astronomy and biology any more than I would read the Guide Star Catalogue for its insights into human interpersonal relations.  It was not compiled for that purpose.

So it is with some relief that I find that a scholar takes the examination of religion (and not just one of them, either) with a high degree of seriousness.  My own perception is that every human is religious about something, whether or not they consciously understand it as a manifestation of that impulse.  There is always an instrument, activity or pursuit to which a person repeatedly devotes their focus, and draws from it a sense of enjoyment, fulfilment and renewed purpose.

Clearly, it is a phenomenon that the species finds useful, and we will continue to find it present wherever humans are.  Imagining this species without its religions is like imagining one without happiness or sadness or love.  Religiosity appears to have a significant physiological component, not merely a social one; we are not likely to evolve beyond it even in many millions of lifetimes.

UPDATE 220239Z MAR 10: I forgot to note that the interview was conducted as part of a book review; the book being God’s Brain, by Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire.

Ardipithecus ramidus

Illustration by J.H. Matternes; graphic by The Washington Post (Oct. 1, 2009)

Illustration by J.H. Matternes; graphic by The Washington Post (Oct. 1, 2009)

Ethiopian paleoanthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie has discovered an interesting biological clue about our hominid ancestors.  They lacked a few of the traits that we associate with modern day ape-ness:

The story of Ardi takes us back 4.4 million years to a corner of northeast Ethiopia that today is a desert where erosion constantly exposes fossils from the dawn of humankind.

In all, scientists have discovered fossilized bones and teeth in the area representing three dozen individual Ardipithecus specimens, including much of Ardi’s skull, pelvis, lower arms and feet. Until now, Haile-Selassie says, much of what we knew about our ancient past derived from comparisons with the other apes, and especially chimps, and from Ardi’s younger ‘sister’ — Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old specimen of another hominid species, Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in 1974, also in Ethiopia. Lucy’s discovery showed that human forebears walked upright that long ago.

But Ardi, Haile-Selassie says, shows our first erect steps took place more than a million years earlier and that is much closer to the last common ancestor (or LCA) that the human line shares with the ape line after the two split some six million years ago.

Until now, it has been assumed chimps and gorillas have retained many of the supposed traits of that last common ancestor, among them knuckle-walking and climbing ability.

Now, Haile-Selassie says, we know that isn’t true.

Ardi shows that unlike modern apes, which are knuckle-walkers, her species — and by extension all the ancestors of all apes and humans — descended from a common ancestor that in turn was not a knuckle-walker, he says.

…The researchers say the surprising findings mean chimps and gorillas have specialized greatly since then and are poor models for a common ancestor and for understanding human abilities such as walking.

– Meaney, Ken.  “Evolution: Discovery may change the way we think about evolution, ourselves.” Canwest News Service, 3 October 2009.  [Emphasis mine]

This further underlines the somewhat little-understood distinction that humanity is not descended from “monkeys”, but that apes and humans shared a common ancestor. It’s a big difference, and it’s important to remember that a lot of the ape traits that we see today actually evolved long after our developmental paths began to diverge.  So while we can learn something from our modern simian relatives, they offer limited utility in understanding how we developed the unique capabilities that make us Homo sapiens.  For that we have to go to the fossil record and continue to mine our own history.

Shorter Logan Levkoff

Facebook perpetuates the patriarchy, making teenage girls date.

It has absolutely nothing to do with humans being social animals, whose millennia of evolution have crafted us to desire long-term interaction, communication and living with other human beings.

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Friday anthropology lesson

There are, apparently, more than 100 uncontacted tribes on Planet Earth.  People who are living a pre-modern, hell, pre-Bronze Age existence way out beyond the Red Line of human civilisation on this globe.

This is one of them:

brazil_tribe(Image courtesy AP / BBC News)

They were spotted by a Brazilian government aircraft yesterday.  The BBC has plenty of pictures and some armchair analysis (thankfully free of preachiness) by a representative of Survival International, an NGO that wants us to take a Prime Directive-like approach to dealing with pre-contact societies.

UPDATE: More from the Associated Press:

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) — One of Brazil’s last uncontacted Indian tribes has been spotted in the far western Amazon jungle near the Peruvian border, the National Indian Foundation said Thursday.

The Indians were sighted in an Ethno-Environmental Protected Area along the Envira River in flights over remote Acre state, said the government foundation, known as Funai.

Funai said it photographed “strong and healthy” warriors, six huts and a large planted area. But it was not known to which tribe they belonged, the group said.

“Four distinct isolated peoples exist in this region, whom we have accompanied for 20 years,” Funai expert Jose Carlos Meirelles Junior said in a statement.

Funai does not make contact with the Indians and prevents invasions of their land, to ensure total autonomy for the isolated tribes, the foundation said.

Survival International said the Indians are in danger from illegal logging in Peru, which is driving uncontacted tribes over the border and could lead to conflict with the estimated 500 uncontacted Indians now living on the Brazilian side.

I admit I am on the fence here.  On the one hand you don’t want to blow their minds with the advances of human civilisation in the past few thousand years.  On the other hand, assuming we protect their title to the land, is there really a good solid reason to let fellow men and women live and die with diseases, ailments and conditions modern science and medicine have long since mastered?

SORTA RELATED: If you play the Royal Woodbine Golf Club out by Pearson Airport, there’s a hole or two where, if the planes are landing on the 24L/R runways, you can try to smack an airplane with a golf ball.  I am sure the planes are moving too fast and are actually too far away (in altitude) to be hit with the average guy’s 270-300yd drive, but it’s tempting as hell (and yes, I’ve tried).  Sometimes the aircraft seem close enough to reach out and touch.

Which is a long way of saying you can take the guy out of the jungle, give him a few thousand years of accumulated education and wisdom, and he’ll still try and hit a moving target with whatever’s handy.  Human nature really is immutable.

231709Z JUNE 2008 UPDATE: Sharp-eyed Darcey spots an interesting update in News.com.au, revealing that this particular tribe (still uncontacted) has been known about since 1910.  The researcher took aerial photos and made a big splash in the media specifically to prevent loggers from encroaching on the tribe’s turf.