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June 05, 2006

Comments

Scott

Seriously? I mean, it's an amusing story (most all Darwin Awards are!), but I hardly think there's a big issue of people jumping into lion cages, out of which we need to "progress." What lesson are we grasping? Don't tempt lions or God? Those were, I think, established a good long time ago for those willing to heed history. This kind of aberration is much more likely to be the result of mental illness than any underdeveloped, unenlightened evolutionary holdovers from "thank-God-they're-bygone" days

Strictly speaking, as a species our "progress" (a misnomer) in an evolutionary sense has probably been hampered by the fact that the weakest human beings no longer die off young and are thus able to breed, disease isn't regularly purging the genetically vulnerable (at least in the West), there's abundant food and little in the way of environmental stress factors... "progress" is unlikely in terms of actual fitness as a species. Actually, as I said above, "progress" is a misnomer; in evolutionary terms there is no such thing as progress or better, only change or different. What's well suited for one environment quickly dies in another.

I know I'm not the only person who reads your blog to pick up on this idea of "progress" and the glorious triumph of humanity you seem to envision sometimes. For all of its many strengths, the Enlightenment project's fatal weakness is a too-optimistic evaluation of humans' ability to perfect themselves and the world (in rough terms). I'm reminded of two cultural pictures of this hubristic tendency: Mahler's 2nd Symphony, the text of which ends with "Rise again, my heart, in a trice! Your pulsation will carry you to God!" Good old Mahler, maybe a Romantic but still thoroughly lacking in humility. The other is that old, old story of the wax-winged Icharus. Those primitive, under-developed, unenlightened ancients knew a thing or two about human nature. It would seem that our memories and understandings are flawed if that tale has been around for thousands of years and we still haven't learned to heed it.

D. C.

Scott writes:

What lesson are we grasping? Don't tempt lions or God? Those were, I think, established a good long time ago for those willing to heed history. This kind of aberration is much more likely to be the result of mental illness ....

"Don't tempt lions" is certainly one of the superficial lessons of this unfortunate episode. Another one is that we don't understand very much about why people do the things they do, as you imply in your comment about mental illness.

You're right that most of these lessons were established a good long time ago. But they don't have a lot of value in a vacuum. Lessons can't influence the behavior of specific individuals — like our kids — unless we can pass them along to those individuals, not just once but repeatedly — fallible beings that we are, we often don't "get it" the first time, and need periodic reinforcement. Fresh stories are an invaluable reinforcement tool.

My point is that our ability to transmit lessons — to learn from experience and to serve others by helping them acquire the same learning — strikes me as just a bit miraculous.

Scott writes:

Strictly speaking, as a species our "progress" (a misnomer) in an evolutionary sense has probably been hampered by the fact that the weakest human beings no longer die off young and are thus able to breed, disease isn't regularly purging the genetically vulnerable (at least in the West), there's abundant food and little in the way of environmental stress factors... "progress" is unlikely in terms of actual fitness as a species.

Scott, you may be forgetting that "fitness" includes one's memberships in groups. Sociologist Rodney Stark explores some aspects of this in his book The Rise of Christianity. Stark theorizes that in the early days of the church, Christians were more likely to survive epidemics, natural disasters, invasions, etc., because their love-thy-neighbor group ethic inspired them to help each other out. This in turn made the group itself more attractive to potential converts. (In a more brutal context, group fitness is one of the reasons prison gangs thrive.)

Scott writes:

Actually, as I said above, "progress" is a misnomer; in evolutionary terms there is no such thing as progress or better, only change or different. What's well suited for one environment quickly dies in another.

Of course "better" has a subjective component to it. But humans seem to share many, many subjective opinions about what constitutes "better." That's not an insignificant fact.

I doubt you'd be willing to trade places with one of your ancestors who lived 10,000 years ago, or even 100 years ago. So I don't think we can say that there's no such thing as "progress" in an an evolutionary sense. Sure, we call it progress because of our subjective preferences. But that doesn't alter the facts.

Scott writes:

For all of its many strengths, the Enlightenment project's fatal weakness is a too-optimistic evaluation of humans' ability to perfect themselves and the world (in rough terms).

You seem to be setting up a strawman here. I make no claim that we humans can perfect either ourselves or the world.

I do claim something else: When we cautiously pursue our individual desires; when we exercise our gifts of memory, reason, and skill; when we seek the best for everyone, not just ourselves — when we do these things, we serve as part of a cosmic construction crew, workers laboring in the continuing creation of the universe. I also claim that the continuing creation is a God project, whose purposes we don't really know but can hope to learn someday.

* * *

Thanks for stopping by and leaving the thought-provoking comments.

Scott

Thanks for such a quick and thoughtful reply! I think we have different starting points in approaching these things, and I like your ends even if they're not exactly the same as mine.

Your comments on group fitness are interesting. This has caused some confusion in scientific circles, I think, primarily because it's hard to understand why an animal would begin acting "selflessly," risking itself for another and building up (over time) this group quasi-organism. That's an interesting angle to throw in to the discussion: whence the evolution of love? It would not seem to be in one's best interests to give of oneself, but--lo and behold!--it is in some contexts (I speak here at a purely biological level). Now I'm going to have to check out that book...

Thanks again for your clarifying comments. Take care.

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