Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

How to build a house

Okay, first you hook up the stereo, then you install the toilet, then you build the roof . . .

Well no, you can't do it in that order, although it would be a lot more convenient.

If you ask people what most distinguishes from the other apes, and for that matter the rest of the metazoans, they'll usually answer that language is what really sets us apart, and then maybe they'll go to culture, which pretty much depends on language for its existence. But I'm not so sure there isn't something else that comes first. I'll summarize it as imagination.

In order to build a house as fancy and functional as the one I just got done building, language and culture are certainly essential. Only through millennia of house building have we learned all the methods that I used, from the concrete foundation to the wooden stick framing system and the glass windows; only a complex society could have delivered all the materials to the site; and if I hadn't been able to talk to -- or more important, listen to -- my friend Mark we would have had a much harder time working together and I never would have learned which end of the saw to hold.

But something else had to come first. I had to have a vision that one day, instead of a swampy patch of woods, there would be a house and a barn and orchards in that place; and then I had to imagine, in a complex chain, each of the events that would need to take place for that to happen; and then I had to make my mouth say the words and my hands do the deeds to turn imagination into reality. Without language, and without culture, I might have ended up with a lean-to made of rocks and tree branches, but I still could have made the imaginary real. Other apes, I suppose, can do that in a very limited way. They can see a piece of fruit and envision it in their mouth, and reach out and grab it. But they will never plant fruit trees.

Somehow, a couple of hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors were changed in several ways at once. Yes, they started talking to each other. Their behavior became much more flexible as they based new ways of doing on learning, and passed this learning on from one to another, and from generation to generation. But most important of all, they began to imagine distant goals, and make plans to achieve them.

This imagination is so powerful and so essential to our nature that we don't even need a real goal or an achievable vision. We devote much of our mental energy to imagining things that never can be, never will be, imaginings unrelated to planning and achieving. People whose only talent is manufacturing visions of the unreal are among the most honored in every time, and in all of history. We build real castles, but we care just as much to build castles in the air.

Astonishing, we are.


C. Corax said...

What you describe occurs in a very limited way in various other species. We're animals, so our behaviors are animal behaviors, thus there is always the potential that we will find similar behaviors in other species. However I don't think anyone can argue with the fact that we do it to such a degree that we have a huge survival advantage over other species.

Cervantes said...

I think it's really a difference of kind, not only of degree. A chimp will stack up boxes to reach a hanging banana, but the banana is already there, visibly before it. People imagine worlds that never were, and sometimes make them so.

Whether this is necessarily our principle survival advantage, I'm not sure. Long term, it may not be at all. We shall see.