A falling. A rising. 50,000 years in the making.
by phil on Wednesday Oct 25, 2006 9:49 PM
One day we will miss amateur evolutionists: those punks wearing black jeans at the cafe, flogging Ayn Rand's Fountain Head, screaming about the benefits of self-service, self-interest. One day, the memory of those party-poopers will be all that's left of individualism.
Evolution immediately gets skewed into an imperative for self-interest. Even in the face of a challenge like altruism, evolutionists can spin anything into a vessel for self-interest. Self-sacrifice, after all, invigorates the gene pool of a tightly-inbred tribe, and so by extension, helps propagate our own genes.
But how do evolutionists explain martyrdom in terms of self-interest? Is martyrdom just special-case altruism? Is it just an exception that can be papered away?
I'd say the existence of martyrs shows how slow natural selection is compared to memetic selection. Martyrdom is self-sacrifice for a cause. A cause is a ghostly organism that thrives in the mind-soup of our culture. It's an emergent will that has nothing to do with the will of individuals.
Years from now, when we try to identify the tipping point between individual humans and their epiphenomena, we will look at what happened 50,000 years ago. Around that period, a mutation happened on the plains of Ethiopia that fanned out into the kaleidoscope of history. History and the craft of writing coincided with the development of things worth writing about, i.e. human achievement. But as much as we cherish achievement, we must realize that achievement requires a context of ideas, -isms, and other superstructures. Achievement is actually an ascetic process, and the hero and the servant are one and the same.
50,000 years ago, we traded self-reliance for transcendence. Our propensity for transcendent experiences is visible in our proportional responses to majesty. The higher the ceiling, the more sublime the experience. The taller the steeple, the more awestruck the believer. Skyscrapers preserve our faith in capitalism as much as cathedrals do for religion.
Our greatest achievement is civilization. And civilization is essentially self-domestication. The writing in the human genome has drifted in the past 50,000 years about as much as the genome of maize, a domesticated vegetable. We have shed the wild within us to create a machine that accelerates the shedding of the wild within us.
World religions sit on top of our pandemic deference; baptism and the elimination of karma submerge our will. What started out millions of years ago as the family unit got freaked into a mass consciousness. Before the tipping point, we just needed our loved ones to perpetuate our genes. Today, we instinctually need the Other in spite of contrary logic.
The asceticism of our modern era runs deep. Our young, having engineered ways out of sexual reproduction during their physical peak, spend the waking hours of their prime paying off student loans. The benefits of a university education are vague and propped up by professorial charisma, when really it only takes about one summer to develop the self-discipline necessary to autodidact for the rest of your life. It's this lax curiosity among the masses that gives birth to institution after institution.
There are still plenty of individualists today. Many still fight for some sort of Romantic return to the wild. Other people take psychedelics as their fix for transcendant experiences. Also, the backlash against high churches is interesting; a lay ceremony can be fun when conducted and shared closely with your "brothers" and "sisters." But physical constraints just may be impossible to break. There is something indelibly charming—just on a physical level—about having six stories high worth of still air, underneath a dizzying geometry, in a dimly lit cathedral, all weighing down our your wee little soul.