Thursday, September 24, 2009

What We Take For Granted

I'm sure the vast majority of my readers are pretty up-to-date with technology, since reading my blog typically requires some form of electronic device with a display screen and a connection to other, similar devices. Thankfully, many of my readers are skeptics, which should make writing this post a little bit easier: Skepticism is, after all, a way of thinking that requires an ability to raise your awareness about how you think. (As an aside, don't you think it's kind of funny that woos will make similar claims?)

There's a large bulk of our technology and cultural landscape that is so fundamental to us that it has become invisible. Many people in our society aren't even aware of it and, when it comes up, they often want the benefits that came from those technologies and philosophies without what they perceive to be downsides. The philosophy of science is one of these things that routinely comes up when we face off against Creationists and other woos: They base comforting beliefs and actions on many logical fallacies, and will often lash out against anyone who presents ideas that threaten those beliefs. But they still want easily accessible and nourishing food, convenient methods of transportation and communication, and other products and services we're used to. They also tend to want steady improvement of those things. Unfortunately for them, those improvements require the scientific method to test them for safety and utility. Unlike games like Civilization, you can't simply provide a collection of beakers for scientists to mix colored liquids or specify what you want to result from their research.

It's the historian's fallacy writ large: In science, we don't know all the possibilities for the outcome. If a doctor researches treatments for a new disease, he should know very well that his efforts may very well be in vain: It could be there is no effective treatment. It takes a bit of optimism to be a scientist and hope for answers that might not come. Because scientists don't know the answer in advance, science needs a willingness to put aside presupposition. In short, scientists need the freedom to say "I do not know." That is where many woos draw the line: They often aren't optimistic enough to hope for an answer, so they latch onto an invented answer and attempt to undermine inquiry. I can go on for longer, but I digress from this particular example.

There are many things other than the scientific method that have allowed us to grasp prosperity. Many of them were prerequisites to the development of the philosophy behind science. I'm sure I'll be missing plenty of subtle examples, but I will attempt to lay them out.

Biology: To "rise above" our non-sapient kin and form a civilization, we needed some key details: Fine manipulation so that we could make tools and shape our environment. Methods of detailed communication. A large brain with great plasticity: We need the wonderful ability to learn.

Resources for the first city: Contrary to what many Creationists seem to think, having hands, brains, and a versatile ability to make sounds and gestures isn't enough to invent the village. Humans are omnivores: We can eat an enormous variety of things, whether we hunt, scavenge, or gather from plants. If you think it's safer and easier to just follow the nearby herd of tasty prey animals, you aren't exactly inclined to settle down in one place for a year on the off chance your gatherer friend really is able to grow berry bushes like he theorizes.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and early nomadic humans didn't necessarily see the potential applications of settling down in one place. We are not genetically predisposed towards science fiction. Instead, the invention of villages was more likely a gradual process: They didn't settle down completely, but someone invented tents or similar structures that could be easily made and/or transported to provide protection while still being able to follow game migration. If someone did find that they could turn a local plant into an efficient and palatable crop, then they would be more inclined to a sedentary lifestyle. Of course, that would require the existence of such a plant. We've grown so used to our modern, eugenically modified crops that some Creationists aren't even aware of the wild cousins and ancestors of our "perfect" seedless banana clones.

Resources for thought: The very concept of leisure time is something else we've come to take for granted. Someone who is struggling to survive, who devotes all his time to tracking down food or a safe place to sleep for the night isn't at all likely to become a great thinker: He's too busy using his mental resources on what we now consider trifles. Many of us only have to think about getting some money for a trip to the grocery store or paying the rent. If I recall correctly, Maslow, when describing his well-known hierarchy of needs, essentially said that most people in developed nations never truly experience hunger, only appetite. A hungry man thinks and dreams only of food.

We have a society where a fraction of the population can make enough food for the rest of us. A fraction of our society can provide safe and comfortable shelters. A fraction of our society can keep certain dangers at bay. That leaves a lot of man-hours that can be devoted to loftier goals. If a primitive village achieves enough production of these fundamentals through division of labor, this leaves spare time for the star gazer to look up at the sky and find patterns. If it helps him predict the start of the growing season, that adds even more time and security for the village to use in other pursuits. Many early scientific pursuits formed positive feedback loops: More efficient food production lead to more time people could use to figure out more efficient ways to produce food.

Resources for new ideas: A small population of people by themselves can only achieve so much over time. Cooperation with other villages, and eventually other nations can open up new opportunities. If one village had people who knew how to make a better bow, they could share or trade that knowledge with another village if they could communicate with one another. Of course, they would also be able to pass on that knowledge to the next generation, rather than leaving them to work out all the steps from scratch. That is why communication is such a valuable ability: It can lead to cooperation. If all human knowledge is shared, that means there is less time spent researching redundant ideas: One person in one village doesn't have to figure out for himself how another village does something: He can just look it up.

Right now, you are also using another form of communication that is taken for granted, and I don't mean anything as recent as electronics or the internet: The invention of writing. With writing, knowledge can be recorded and shared without the need for a human brain. If someone writes an important new discovery of his, it can be preserved after his death. Lost knowledge can be rediscovered in a library. It could simply be a matter of learning the language it's written in. Writing gave language and, by extension, ideas a new permanence. The internet, to Barbara Streisand's dismay, has extended this ability even further.

Because of writing, many people have a concept taken for granted: The indestructibility of an idea. In ancient times, superstition could maintain a hold many of us can scarcely imagine: Destroying a useful, beneficial meme for scientific development was as easy as killing the person who dreamed it up. After the invention of writing, and especially the printing press, you often had to burn countless copies of a book and hope that you got them all. In a time and place where the internet is easy to access, this is all but impossible. I am quite glad to live in these interesting times. Without these meme-saving technologies, scientific progress could be stopped and even reversed by the word of a superstitious leader.

The simple stamp-collecting of useful ideas alone does not guarantee prosperity and progress: Many ideas themselves have a synergy with others: The ideals of free speech, curiosity for its own sake, that truth is more valuable than stubborn faith, epistemology, and the philosophy of science all work together to make discoveries easier for the people who possess those memes and allow them to be dominant in their minds. Any thought can be brought up, subjected to criticism, and if it meets the necessary standards for its usefulness, accepted until a better one goes through the process.

Without a stable source of food, a feeling of security, the time and freedom to wonder about the world, and open channels of communication with the outside world, a civilization will fall behind. A nation that achieves those basics and embraces all of those force-multiplying memes can go far. I do my best for the latter. The United States is a wonderful nation, but it has been held back by the superstitious, the incurious, and the cynical anti-intellectuals.


Akusai said...

The very concept of leisure time is something else we've come to take for granted. Someone who is struggling to survive, who devotes all his time to tracking down food or a safe place to sleep for the night isn't at all likely to become a great thinker: He's too busy using his mental resources on what we now consider trifles.

If I may be anthropologically pedantic, nomadic and semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers generally have far more leisure time than us. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins referred to hunter-gatherer tribes as "The original affluent society" because, in general, they work only about 20 hours a week to maintain a very high level of subsistence; the rest of their time is spent with their families and communities. Of course, some years are thinner than others, but in general they do quite well.

With the caveat that we can't generalize 100% to the past, it's a fairly safe bet that historical hunter-gatherers faced similar conditions, which is probably why some of those cultures survived even into the modern day with little to no change in their subsistence patterns; like you said, necessity is the mother of invention, and they didn't have the necessity.

One of my favorite stories about the !Kung hunter-gatherers in southern Africa is the time an anthropologist asked them why they never started using trucks, guns, and other modern technology like many of the other tribes in the area. The answer was (referring to the omnipresent legume that was their primary food year-round) "Why would we? We have mongongo nuts."

Yakaru said...

Great post!

I imagine different hunter gatherer societies had different amounts of leisure, but to add to Akusai's point, early accounts from European settlers in Australia also report they had their lifestyle so well developed that they could set up a camp for the night with great ease and in a matter of minutes. Food and water sources were well known. Australians tend to think of "traditional Aborigines" as living in the desert, instead of splashing around happily in the beaches of Sydney.

As well as the militaristic take over of their land, political oppression and systematic destruction of their society, they were also kind of sucked into urban life initially by the availability of things like sugar and flour.

Just like our culture today has evolved to pray on human foibles - taste for sugar and fat, etc, earlier cultures probably faced the same temptations from the trappings of agriculture - as well as just the survival opportunities.

One of the earliest cuneiform tablets was a recipe for beer. I imagine it was at least as great a temptation for them as it is today.

Dunc said...

I believe that the development of beer was actually a key driver in the development of civilisation. There's no real substitute for it available to H-G cultures, and it requires the division of labour in a way that mere agriculture doesn't (at least not to the same extent).