Tuesday, June 21, 2022

With No Guide We Have Come This Far

The image and quote above are from the 2014 Cosmos series, narrated by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The first anatomically modern humans evolved about 300,000 years ago, long before our species developed writing or any of the other accoutrements of civilization. For 18,000+ generations, human beings faced plagues and famines without any guidance regarding basic hygiene, effective resource management, or really anything else. It was a slow slog of figuring things out, interspersed with setbacks from natural and human-made disasters. Advancement was so slow that over the course of hundreds of years people tended to live much as their ancestors did. All that began to change over the past 200 years.

When I was a child my great aunts talked about seeing the first automobiles when they were girls. Over the course of their lives, TVs and air travel would become commonplace. Then computers. And medical science advanced to the point where maladies that would have killed their grandparents were easily resolved with proper treatment. Hearing them talk about all the change they had seen in their lives, I felt as though every big thing had already happened. Seeing myself in the 'modern' era, I only imagined that the existing technologies would get better, not that they would be transformed.

One afternoon, my first semester of college in 1994, a classmate came to my dorm room and told me that the library computers 'have the internet now.' I replied, 'the internet...I've heard of that.' How life changed after that! Over the course of my life I've seen Walkman, camera, video camera, TV, and more merged together into the smartphones that most of us carry now. The internet has removed the need to ever wonder about most any piece of trivia, and I imagine that many a barroom debate has been put down rapidly with a quick internet search. 

When a child is born we immediately set about socializing it. We establish day/night cycles for the child and interact with it, helping its development along as a distinct person. By age 1 it's probably cooing out its first words, and within just a few years, the child is running around, asking a million questions, and ready to head to school. We pass along to our children what we know, or at least what we think we know. 

Whenever it was that our distant ancestors first looked to the stars and wondered, or contemplated that death will eventually come for each one of us, cognition was sparked to life in us. Unlike a child born to us now, there was no one there to greet the first of our kind, when they were distinct enough to be identifiable as such. Over the course of millennia, humans have struggled to survive but also to learn and gain mastery over ourselves and the world around us. This has led to wars and environmental disaster, to be sure, but also to soaring heights of art, philosophy, mathematics, and scientific discovery. 

Certainly, it would have been easier had someone been around to help us. The truth is, though, that all we have is each other. Thus we need to do our best to cooperate for the betterment of us all. That is what Humanism is about. It's setting aside unproven myths and instead seeking that which can be demonstrated as correct to any reasoning person. The well-being and flourishing of our species, practiced in a sustainable fashion, is our aim. We seek the good of the individual, and of the whole of of humanity. While there was no one there to greet our kind in the beginning, we can be there for new generations, giving them the best of what we have learned, offering them the chance of doing even better.