Koko (top photo)
As I’ve mentioned several times before, I’m a huge fan of out of print books, and especially the out of fashion scientific and cultural insights they so often contain. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the ‘myth of progress’ is our faddish discarding of those answers which were found and forgotten, before they were most needed – Marshall McLuhan comes instantly to mind, Gregory Bateson and Buckminster Fuller even more so – and poor Carl Jung, just what we need for the necessary hard-look ahead of us, has been almost erased, by mechanistic approaches to psychology, based more upon worker productivity, than profound humane insight.
But for today, I’d like to riff a bit on an idea I got from Lorne Eisley, one of the most poetic and insightful writers about the natural world who ever lived (Think Bradbury in the forest). An evolutionary biologist, he spent decades doing scientific field research, and also trying to share his awe and wonder with a wide readership, to inspire others to join his quest and add to human knowledge. The fact that he (like Einstein) maintained clear scientific vision without ever losing his sense of awe, is quite precious.
In several of his books (“the immense journey” in particular) he talks about some of the ways in which we are related to other primates, and some of our remarkable differences – of these, the greatest is our outstanding neoteny.
Oxford defines Neoteny as “The retention of juvenile features in the adult animal” and indeed, the adult state of successively evolved early humans, represents a younger and younger state of primate development, extended into full adulthood. This means longer brain growing time, and much much longer periods of comparative helplessness for our young, during which they are specialized almost entirely for learning, rather than survival foraging.
The question of the evolutionary driver for our large brains is still controversial – his answer, that our original natural habitat in the African Savannah was so hot, that we needed a great deal of extra capacity, so as to be able to function, even with considerable heat-damage impairment, actually fits quite nicely with our more modern insights about brain plasticity – it is indeed re-wirable and adaptable to a remarkable degree – even mature brains can create workaround systems, to make up for damaged capacities.
The larger brains and ever extended childhood phase in our species, means we get an unprecedented amount of time to learn, and have an unusual capacity to store what we’ve learned. We’ve even seen clear progress come from broadly available education – a social version of neoteny which has proven benefits for the entire species – since the elder have forever required the more energetic, to do some of their foraging for them.
However – it seems to me that about fifty years ago we took social neoteny a step too far, and ever since then, we’ve been struggling in frustration, because we discarded the tools we need to make serious progress together.
At this point, I find it utterly impossible not to challenge the culture war, as central narrative. I have already mentioned it’s starting error – grotesque narcissism – the idea that the world doesn’t count, just our good-guy team and the jerks across the street that we love to despise. Everything else? Props! Who cares?
But the error is greater still, and though this can’t possibly win me any favours, I have to say it – both sides are not only wrong by vanity, but are grossly irresponsible, in advancing their partial arguments as comprehensive.
Humans ask – nature answers
I’ve mentioned before that I worked for years as a technician, solving tricky and practical problems (it works or it doesn’t – no BS can ever change that). I’ve also spent years as a creative artist, exchanging great currents of inspiration and energy with many others – the majority, from the left.
As some of my friends have pointed out, there really is a distinct and measurable difference in charity, between those who declare themselves religious and those who do not (and it’s a rebuke which the left ignores, to their great discredit) but I must note, the charity of true open-hearted leftists, with old wobbly ‘everyone together’ spirit has also saved many – me included.
Here’s the (to me, painfully obvious) thing – both sides have half of the recipe, and instead of cooperating and making an edible meal for everyone, they keep insisting that the reason it doesn’t ever taste good or satisfy, is because the other guy is evil, and is sabotaging them! (admittedly, a very good excuse for a chef to have, when your recipe is incomplete – and thus, defective)
There is a point reached in many discussions with leftists that makes my tech brain hurt, because it becomes impossible to escape from pure hopeful delusion. First on the level of mistaking intentions for effects (one of many common varieties of vain subjective foolishness that science is designed to help us escape together, without ever having to fight about it – because we can all get the same experimental results).
Politically speaking, the idea that there is some grand unified overlord force oppressing everyone is very seductive – but the idea that we could ever solve such a condition (were it even so) by begging them to stop-it, is disgraceful. Why sacrifice the last scraps of our dignity for a plan that is doomed (by misunderstanding), in it’s very design?
When I’m speaking with successful friends from the right, I often find their smiling easy lack of compassion for people who are unlike them shocking, especially coupled with professions of faith and/or good taxpayership. This isn’t an observation about race or birthplace, social class is quite enough – their disdain for unfortunates sidelined by capitalism – and the smug idea that they are proven sinners, simply by virtue of their fallen state, is ingratitude and hypocrisy most foul. Victorian in character (another rebuke ignored, which imperils the soul).
Where we are AT (I know, but language really is irresistible)
Are any of us really satisfied with a party of wishing, versus a party of sneering? Are you well-represented by a plot along axes of delusion and psychopathy? Is anyone? We can’t keep pretending that this is a reasonable way to organize things. Not for sane adults, certainly.
My friends, the evil conspiracy which actually is defeating all of us at once, is our own misunderstanding of what it means to be an adult – our shrug of ‘who cares’ that says ‘let someone else clean up my mess’ – like a self-centred brat, or the coworker that everyone else (who are stuck cleaning it up) definitely hates.
The power of the faceless and relentless forces that we can point to, was all given to them by us, and is renewed by us, continually. With our willful denial of adult responsibility as CITIZENS, rather than consumers, we hand them a proxy to act for us – doing great harm around the world, to sate our unhealthy appetites.
This whole idea that what we really are is ‘consumers’ has been a lie and a con job, this whole time – not just an insult to the range of human potential, but also infantalizing – making our natural emotional priority indignation about how well our whims are being satisfied by suppliers, rather than extending our concern outward and paying responsbile attention (like any farmer or engaged craftsperson would) to where the materials were coming from, and where the results were ending up.
We want what we want. We cannot even imagine that we shouldn’t just get it, simply because we want it!
Now I apologize for saying this, but – there has never in human history been so large a group of people who believed they were the centre of the universe, and should, like a prince or princess, be spoiled by the world. (Want to find a tantrum? Just look for a cash register!)
Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not talking about millennials at all, this toxic neoteny goes all the way back to the obliteratingly self-important boomers – and because it has been established as normal for so long, the clear and absolute majority of westerners (citizens, consumers or voters) are now outright brats. Even the experienced elders who the young should be able to look toward for models of respect, honour and self-sacrifice, are grasping and petty – predictably (incalculably depressingly) infantile.
If this was kindergarten, and there were adults in the other room, and all we had to do was cry loud enough for them to come and solve our problems, that might be an adequate model of individual development for social purposes – perhaps even fun, to some – who enjoy a whole lot of unnecessary drama.
But this is not kindergarten – there are no adults in the other room. We can’t use consumerist thinking to solve the problems we face. We also can’t beg the meanies to just stop it already. Tried and failed. Nor can we just ‘believe’ our way into a solution with good intentions, because we aren’t very good at sharing our good intentions with others – and connecting with others is required, if we are to solve the big problems we all have in common.
What we need is some serious principle and ability to sacrifice with a smile – something our sincere religious friends can still show us a lot about.
Some big-thinking compassionate understanding of the world as an organism – which it absolutely is – and also about a wider range of personality types and modes of happiness than some religious people are willing to accept. The left has made some useful progress here.
Some of the most incredible applied engineering thinking ever seen by humanity – I mean it – both the left and the right have been dumping on rigour and science for generations, but there is no other way out for us, but working this problem with every tool of objective insight we have, all cooperating.
A jolt of serious inspiration – a galvanizing force, in fact. To drive each one of us individuals to new determination, and a more realistic, helpful, meaningful and mature awareness of our place in a bigger story. (Yes, some extra weight to carry, but also alienation-busting, big-time! Purpose – yowza!)
We do NOT all need to use the same language for all of these things – but we DO all need to try this entire recipe – no matter how much we deny it. The future will keep tasting like ashes until we finally understand this.
On the other hand, having tried bites of these partial recipes many times, over the years – let me tell you – the potential, should we smarten up again, stop labouring to divide the kitchen, and unite both useful halves, really is utterly delicious!
Or have we all become too used to tasting bitterness and pouting, to even want to try the good stuff?