Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Us

The first problem we need to be concerned with is our own nature. We must decide what we are, how we matter, and what else matters to us before we can begin to think about exigent problems. Note that all of these questions can only be answered reflexively, that is with reference to the entity which is doing the asking and the answering, which would be us. The hall of mirrors at the very entrance to the Palace of Understanding stymies many.

I smash the mirrors with the rock of evidence. We have found the fossilized skeletons of creatures that appear exactly like ourselves -- what we call anatomically modern humans -- that are somewhere around 150,000 years old, with a margin of error of 20,000 years or so, in Africa. These are unlikely to have been the very earliest such creatures, so maybe animals that look exactly like us have been on earth for 200,000 years, not likely much longer. DNA evidence accords with this time frame, by the way.

However, evidence relating to the behavior of these creatures does not show evidence of the rapid cultural change and technological development characteristic of modern humans until about 100,000 years ago at the earliest, with what seems to be a notable inflection point -- a sudden acceleration -- about 50,000 years ago. This event -- cultural takeoff -- is the most important in our past. It is when we became the sort of being we are today, in a fundamental way.

It gets tricky, though, because the essence of the cultural takeoff event is that we change over time through a novel mechanism, that is the evolution of culture, which happens with extraordinary rapidity compared with the usual time scale of biological evolution. So, in saying that we are fundamentally like those people of 50,000 years ago I create a bit of a paradox, since it follows that we must not be much like them in some ways.

Beginning with these observations, we have a substantial agenda ahead of us, if we are to understand ourselves. For starters, we are obliged to sort out what is essential, and what is subject to cultural distinctiveness. We note, for example, that there are commonalities among cultures about morals, and also differences. How then, are we to decide what constitutes goodness, rectitude, and the proper objects of endeavor? In doing this exercise, we must be very careful not to go from is to ought, or from ought to is -- both kinds of fallacy are extremely common.

For people who do not already accept my factual contentions so far, the agenda will include a demand that I prove them. So, before continuing with the question of what exactly we are, I will have to digress to discuss how we can go about answering questions.

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