Friday, December 6, 2013

Our peculiar arrogance

As I've shared on this blog before, my family and I are definitely a Disneyworld family: we have taken trips to Disney four years in a row. It is our annual vacation--we save up for it all year, plan it months in advance, and just truly love it. (And in an unexpected, but nice, side-benefit of homeschooling we are able to go during the lightest week of the year, so that we don't have hardly any lines...)

One of my youngest son's favorite rides is Spaceship Earth, aka the giant golf ball of Epcot. This is a ride which--if we're being honest--is super-lame. You get in this "ride" and it takes you through a tour of history. As you move along, Dame Judi Dench describes each of the major steps of human advancement, from painting on cave walls through inventing the personal computer. At the end of the "ride" you use a touch-screen to plan your future, where you hoverboard down ski slopes on vacation, or live in outer space, or under the sea, etc.

Now I am a huge history buff/geek, so I do enjoy the idea of using a ride to inspire and teach history. However, as a history buff, I always find myself scoffing at the ride for its oh-so-common cultural myopia.

The Phoenicians in Spaceship Earth
The overarching theme of Spaceship Earth is that technological breakthroughs in communication are the key thread which ties together all of human history and advancement. Cavemen learned to talk to become better hunters; then they learned to draw on walls; then Egyptians invented paper so information could be stored; then Phoenicians invented a common alphabet; then Rome connected everyone with roads; then Gutenberg invented movable type; later came Bill Gates and the computer revolution. A series of technological breakthroughs are seen as the primary mode of transition between the barbaric times of the past and our modern advanced civilization.

Others make similar arguments using non-information technology sources. Scientists, for example, may say that people used to be stupid fools who cowered before eclipses and relied on leeches for medicine, but today we are advanced and understand the universe. Philosophers may say that people cowered in fear, naming gods after anything they didn't understand, but today reason dominates us. Homosexuals say that we used to live in unenlightened times of oppression, but now we are beginning to enter the dawn of an era of civilized tolerance. Civics professors would say that people's barbarism was due to their basic nature and only the growth of democracy, republics, and eventually America led us to freedom and enlightenment. Capitalists would say that the world improved when people were able to rise out of abject poverty due to the capitalistic system and its ability to reward hard work and inventiveness instead of inherited "old money" based systems.

Now none of the above is wrong, per se...but the underlying belief is very wrong. There is a common belief that our time is enlightened and advanced, while all of those other people in the past (or outside of my society) are fools, barbaric, and uninformed. I might could even believe it...except that this is what every civilization always thinks of itself. Indeed, there is probably no more consistent definition of "barbarians" throughout history than, "not us"--that is, people always define the barbarians as others and the civilized as us. The fact that the other guys call us the barbarians and them the civilized seems to mean little to us.

This is why Spaceship Earth annoys me so much. The reality is that the human brain has gained very little capacity for intelligence in all of recorded history. Archaeology indicates that human skulls capacity and neurology has been unchanged since at least the time of the Egyptians and probably much longer. People are no more intelligent now than they were then. We have more accumulated knowledge, but not necessarily more intelligence.

This is a peculiar arrogance--not peculiar because it is rare or limited to us, but peculiar because it is so illogical. We somehow hold in our minds the knowledge that we are not perfect and not all-knowing, and yet discount anything historical.

Engineers who study history have no such illusions: we cannot really explain the presence of the pyramids or Stonehenge or other ancient buildings; consider the Coliseum in Rome, which is still standing after 2000 years! Indeed, we still cannot produce concrete structures which last as long as the ancient Romans did.

Beware of this peculiar arrogance, this temporal myopia which tricks you into believing that YOU are different from THEM, that you are smarter or more knowledgeable than Paul or Peter or Jesus, simply by virtue of being born in this century. You aren't smarter than them. You have more information available, but (a) not all of that is true, and (b) you don't think any more clearly than they do, so more information does not equal better knowledge.

Have humility when you read ancient sources, and you very well may learn something.

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