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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday 18 March 2013

The Myth of the Superhuman Ancestor

Kids these days, eh?

They're not as tough as the previous generation. They're softer, weaker, less focused, etc. It's a common, conservative theme found cross-culturally, around the world.

The implication is pretty clear - the youth of today are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of the real world, challenges that were ever-present in the past. The womb-like protections of society - things like book-learning indoctrination, public safety and over-bearing social institutions are leeching out the tough physical and moral fibre that has allowed our species to endure.  Something has been lost - the future looks less and less certain for humanity.

Today's conservatives add nothing new to this persistent theme.  Feudal Japan bemoaned the loss of fierce, independent warriors as the Tokugawa period came to a close. Ayn Rand feared the damage the imposed illusion of society would wreak on the human condition. Andrew Keen fears the loss of tangible relationships due to the increased use of technological tools of communication.  Part of conservation, I guess, is preservation, so this fits.

Human mythology (formerly an oral tradition, memorized and retold as consistently as possible) is rife with tales of glorious ancestors - longer-lived, stronger, in more direct commune with the God/Gods who were the absentee CEOs of society. The myth of the Noble Savage is the same - we harbour the belief that Native peoples the world over were somehow more pure, more intertwined with nature than they became once tainted by the unnecessary complexities of modern (Western) society.

While there are no giants - no Hercules', Samsons or Hunahpu/Xbalanque anymore, there's no substantial evidence that there ever was. If you look at archaeological records and human remains from everywhere people have settled, they tell gruesome tales of degenerative diseases, crippling wounds and deaths from simple conditions that we take for granted as non-issues today.  Our ancestors were smaller, less well nourished and more prone to illness than we are today.  In fact, it was the lack of the hallmarks of complex society (diversification, adaptation, administrative complexity, domestication and social services) that led to the fall of aboriginal peoples in the Americas and elsewhere to European invaders, their diseases, animals and technology.

Yes, people without medicine and shelter would have had greater exposure to and in some cases, resulting resilience in the face of nature, but that didn't really help them any.  The domestication of animals has done far more to further the development of disease immunity, though inoculation remains one of the greatest tools of human invention.  Life spans and quality of life haven't been decreasing with the spread of the Disease of Civilization, they've been increasing.

The same holds true for communication and social living - child and spousal abuse is more common, not less, in tribal society. The tough, independent streak sets tribes at war, hindering dialogue and increasing the likelihood of wasteful conflict and xenophobia.

If you really want a glimpse at what life among our noble ancestors would have been like, look at the tribal fiefdoms of Northern Afghanistan.

So, what gives?  What purpose could we have for glorifying the past with grandiose notions of a lost perfection that bears no resemblance to actual history?
Another LOTR quote to hammer home the point:
Traditional wisdom - instinct, if you will - tells us people are like sandstone, our essence slowly being leached away by time and foreign elements.  There is a recognition of strength as a concept, but as a thing that gets taken away by change, not enhanced.  Endurance and forcefulness are the virtues that matter.  We are the cure - they are the disease.
Now, take that concept out of Middle Earth and place it in a real-world context.  Don't want your daughter marrying the coloured guy?  Suspicious of foreign intentions, new music, technology?  Fear something immutable is being threatened by change?  Worry that a sea of troubles is eating away at your shores?
Tell me - what are your thoughts on evolution?  What are your thoughts on innovation?
Evolution is essential for survival.  It comes through exposure to the new - new genes in the mix, exposure to new diseases through livestock (allowing for disease resistance to develop), etc. are what allow us to survive.  Evolution - change - is good and necessary; true strength comes through adaptation which requires diversity, not through intransigence.  Unlike Tolkien's Numenoreans, intransigence and the absence of fresh blood leads to weakness.
Yet its intransigence, the absence of mingling genes and the maintenance of purity that traditional wisdom values as a strength.
Reality - stasis is bad, change is good.
Myth - strength is demonstrated by unwavering endurance; change, trickery are evil.

So why is our belief at complete odds with nature, especially when the historical evidence is so perfectly clear?

It's because traditional wisdom and instinct gives us the wrong starting point.
The focus on a mythical state of grace that has been lost over time is a red herring, a confabulated justification for the true heart of the matter - people have an instinctive fear of the unknown, including change.  This fear of change comes first and because it's such a hard-wired instinct, we don't question it.  Instead, we find ourselves needing to rationalize this fear to the detriment of fact. 

Consider the biological impact of change:
Our ancestors would have feared change in the same way - in fact, we know they did, because the traditions they left behind tell us so.  When we fear change and buy in to the notion of a fading perfection, we're actually limiting ourselves to the tools of the past.  Kids today aren't weaker than the generation before - they are, instead, better adapted to the present.  With the right training, tools and exposure, they would be as capable of surviving the same elements our ancestors did.  Soldiers, wilderness campers and even scouts do this all the time.  However, with modern tools, medicine and strategies, these modern-day wildlings are even better able to survive than Otzi would have been.
We need to train ourselves to flip our perspective around - diversification, adaptation and accommodation aren't things that weaken the human condition, but enhance it.  It's counter-intuitive, perhaps, but a conscious exploration of the facts explain why this is.  Besides, if we give in to instinct and fight off change, we are equally condemning ourselves to the annals of myth and legend.
Perfection is not a thing of the past but rather a think of the future.  Truly, the best is yet to come.

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