Chapter 6: From Uniqueness to the Unknown

 

In the last chapter (Snowflakes and Fingerprints), I marveled at the uniqueness of our species and each of us as individuals. Also, in an earlier chapter, I wrote about “Beliefs and Words”. This morning after I awoke I sat and reviewed some of my notes collected over the years. I came across a page containing a string of words that had occurred to me in the past: curiosity, creativity, competition, acquisitiveness. As words they likely have shown up in other chapters but in a form different from what I will express here.

Over time, words have evolved in different forms across all geographies and among all peoples, no matter how small their collective beginnings. Words were ways that people communicated for a myriad of purposes. Words describe the reality we construct. At the core is and was the need to express something important. Imagine the small group in the caves or forest homes expressing pain or joy or amusement or confusion. At first all of the “words” may have been non-verbal sounds or facial and bodily motions: the howl of anguish; the smile and bright-eyed look upon holding a newborn; the involuntary laughter from watching the play of monkeys; or the furrowed brow and drawn face of a hunter hearing a strange noise in the forest. These “words” communicated something to others and as that something was repeated over and over, it took on meaning that lasted and continued to be conveyed over the ages.

John Locke wrote that the use of words “is to be sensible marks of ideas”, though they are chosen “not by any natural connexion that there is between particular articulate sounds and certain ideas, for then there would be but one language amongst all men; but by a voluntary imposition, whereby such a word is made arbitrarily the mark of such an idea”.[

In late Neo-lithic time, shaman, priests and priestesses found ways to communicate their beliefs and predictions through drawings, carvings, arrangement of bones or stones before language was common, we now know. Skilled community members found ways to pass on their knowledge and skill to others who likely watched how they did things.

Whether a spiritual leader or a skilled craftsman, whatever you did or said took hold because it proved to be useful to others in the community. It served a purpose as perceived and judged by the observers and members of the community.

I assume that words then language followed those repeated actions and continue with us to this day albeit in much more complex constructions. Amazingly, today we don’t have to reside in the same village but create, convey, apply, adopt, and adapt skills and knowledge across time and space using electronics to send “word waves” around the globe.

Having leaped the millennia and oversimplified our uniqueness as a species by focusing on words and language, let me continue the leap and mention some words that seem to drive where we are going and why they have pushed and pulled us from the past as we grapple with their impact on us and our world in the present.

Why these words? They keep popping up on my palate of paints as I reflect on my life – beliefs, opinions, knowledge – as the mosaic I have created so far. Words have power which we give them as individuals and collectively. These seemed sufficiently and broadly understood by most readers and easily translate into other languages. They hold my attention, thus they have power for me. I also believe that they capture behavior common to our species. So concepts and definitions, combined with observable actions, give them wide acceptance and believability.

Curiosity. If you have continued to read this and, perhaps, have read other chapters, you likely are demonstrating an act of curiosity. Something caught your attention. As I angled for appealing to potential readers, what you were reading “hooked” you. Another demonstration of the power of words and our language.

If you have been to a zoo, you know how our “curiosity” about those unfamiliar creatures captures our vision, our hearing, our sense of smell and our imagination.

Going into an art gallery with friends and standing quietly in front of an abstract or impressionist painting to observe the image conjures very personal reactions that, when expressed, can show how our “reading” of the artist’s work can mean very different things to you and your friends. These images evoke all manner of contrivances. And when you hear them, you have likely thought “isn’t that a curious” interpretation, you may then have asked, “how did you see that?”

You can recall your high school English teacher, or college literature professor, asking what you thought of a poem written by an iconic poet. More likely, he/she asked what you interpreted the writer’s message to be. The teacher was curious partly because he/she knows how differently we each can and will interpret the same words. If the writer’s message is known by scholars or told by the writer, there may be a more “correct” interpretation.

As with art and poetry, meaning or beauty is “in the eye of the beholder”. A curious statement on its own. Once “words”, as expressed verbally or graphically, have caught on and are used commonly they come to have an accepted “intended” meaning. Seems simple, but not so simple. Once directed at another person, the word can be misunderstood from its intended meaning. The “eye of the beholder” always enters the process. When the process works – intended meaning is generally the perceived meaning – we have the beginning of language. Thus language comes to define and communicate life as we know it at that point in time.

I remember an expression, or adage, told me as I was growing up and invoked when my parents thought I was being a bit too “exploratory” or “questioning” of rules, as they intended them to be understood, as my need for discovery or rebellion. I was reminded that too much “curiosity kills the cat”. In fact, we took in a stray cat and one of its repeated behaviors was, while wandering the house, its apparent curiosity. We noticed that early and my Mom asked what we should call the cat. Probably recalling unconsciously a recent warning about my behavior, I said loudly “SNOOPY”!

Creativity. One dimension of our curious nature is our quest to know, to learn, to explore, and to discover. Generally, the more curious we are, it may happen that we’ll enquire within a range of thinking within our normal boundaries, may wander outside those boundaries and become challenged to expand them, because of our “curiosity”, and seek to stretch ourselves.

I’ll assert that our capacity to be creative is increased if we are more rather than less curious. I’ll also assert that every human is “creative” and has the capacity to be more so if they choose to be.

Children are, it seems, naturally creative and, certainly, curious. How early did your children or grandchildren start inventing games or fantasizing creatures, playmates, and stories? About 3 or 4 years old? Then as they get into primary grades and begin to work with the plastic arts, drawing, painting and finger painting you are joyfully impressed with their expression of art. I remember fired clay pieces that our daughter brought home. We still have some. Faces, mask-like, impressionistic objects. Colorful and playful. The drawings and paintings sometimes told stories which were not always pleasant and happy. That ability is permanently there but diminishes with later adolescence and beyond the teens for most children. Have you ever asked yourselves, “why”? There are good, reasonable answers but some are troubling.

I mentioned in the chapter on our Snowflakes and Fingerprints, the story of a composer friend and his now life-long commitment to post-modern classical music. He came through a rough adolescent and teen period that, for a host of cultural and institutional reasons, could have destroyed his creativity. But he persisted and found his true self. His creativity seems boundless.

The good news is that creativity, while diminished widely during our early years, is never suppressed totally and has benefitted all of us in the past, is currently afoot and, rest assured, will bring us value, beauty, health, and abundance in the future. More creativity would be expressed were it not for societal norms, rules, structures and processes that discourage creative acts. Those may be appropriate in all collective human groups to ensure group unity, order, and sufficient group conformity. But they have their “downside”.

Competition. When and how did competition begin? We’ll probably never be able to put a “time” to it. For many who read this, the word is a pejorative so it may trigger the negatives associated with it. I have to remind myself that it is not a “good/bad” concept or set of behaviors but just “is” and has been with us from the beginning of human interaction. Let’s take a journey back in time, however briefly, to support my answer.

In the Chapter 3, Beliefs and Words, I referred to the role that women “spirit guides”, priests, and shaman played in China 5000 years ago. They created the beginning of belief systems and found symbolic ways (“words”) to convey that meaning. Their curiosity and creativity led them in a direction that produced ideas, thoughts and conclusions that they felt compelled to share. The results of their process as a group member became valued. It answered questions. It explained observable and experienced phenomenon for people. It was often accurately predictive. It made sense and became adopted for the continued use of others and group cohesion.

I can imagine that there were a number of “spirit guides” that emerged in the group with time and size growth. I further imagine that there were divergent ideas presented and communicated through symbolic representations (carving, hand and facial signs, laying of bones or stones). This mix of ideas could be seen as competition for, example, the attention and support of others. Ideas would rise or fall as acceptable if the people found them valuable and helpful. So, in this way, competition was demonstrated.

Move over in your mind’s eye to the more mundane, practical flow of daily life. We don’t know exactly when “tools” were created or invented that helped with the struggles of survival. Archeologists have been discovering and revealing answers over the last few hundred years. We know that we were largely hunters and gatherers for millennia. When the tribe’s hunters killed an animal that initiated a process, however primitive, of striping the hides to get to the meat. Eaten raw at first, and likely directly from the bones, you can imagine lots of waste. There was always plenty left for the scavenger creatures.

Somewhere along this survival journey, someone realized you could use a sharp piece of wood, of bone, or a rock to strip the bones and supply more meat to the tribe. Others observed this and copied. Perhaps, the innovator was good at discovering other practical, useful tools or techniques. Let’s assume that the person’s stature rose in the eyes of the tribal members. Eventually, it became apparent that “inventing” tools or techniques was a good thing for many others but also for the inventor. Esteem and envy probably grew. And with those so may have competition.

This organic process of curiosity, creativity and competition strongly affected our cultural evolution over the eons and continues today in many forms.

On the pejorative side of the word, we all know that an extreme form of competition is warfare. While many of us would like to imagine “the noble savage” as our ancestors, truth is that intergroup competition between families and small tribes was likely created in or near the beginning also. That form of competition shouldn’t be dismissed as all bad. Many scholars argue and provide reasonable evidence of the “good” to come out of warfare.

A simple modern-day example from recent history illustrates that contention. Think of the portrayal of “good guys” and “bad guys” in movies. Pictorially that is but a manifestation of classic portrayals written since BCE. I think we can agree that throughout time the “bad” challenged the “good” to all forms of combat to become rulers of the day. Which could last for centuries. Inarguably, the “good” have, so far, continued to ascend to and reclaim “rule”.

Assign adjectives to describe the “bad guys”. Now assign adjectives to the “good guys”. What do you come up with? In sum, your “good guys” adjectives paint a comforting picture of “our better angels”. Those will continue to rule unless our acquisitiveness takes us down a road that will play in the hands of the “bad guys” and much more.

Acquisitiveness. What does acquisitiveness have to do with curiosity, creativity and competition? This certainly isn’t the only word that can be associated with the other three. However, it does seem to me to fit the flow, the patterns, the defining colors and brush strokes referenced in Chapter 1, “Timeless Change”, and my introduction to the blog.  Here’s how. And, if that makes sense, so what?

If curiosity spawns questions seeking answers and information. If creativity of thought, expression and action provides answers and ideas and possibilities. And if competition inspires a search for, evidence and proof of a better, more useful result for the group or community as it struggles to survive and adapt to life’s challenges, it seems that the variety of options and choices our ancestors had back then to be successful and continue the journey through time paints a clearer picture for one portion of our species’ mural.

Acquisitiveness is a brush stroke that explains much to me. Its beginning as a force for change, adaptation, and, PERHAPS, our eternal survival, is revealed for all of us to ponder and examine.

This small leap requires you to recall the messages of my chapter “Monkey See, Monkey Do”. Copying may have been in our DNA from “the get go” as they say. And it may have been reinforced in our DNA over a vast swath of time as our species saw the value and result of copying.   Think learning! This force of our nature, or nurture, will explain the emergence of its close blood relative, acquisitiveness.

How so? You don’t have to look far back in time to get the profound origin and implications of the concept and now permanent behavior. It will be easier to work backwards from myriad examples in your and our lives as we look out from our chairs at the touchable, observable environment around us at this moment in time. The evidence won’t disappear in the next fleeting moment because it is about as permanent as it can be in “Timeless Change”. It will move imperceptibly at the fringe of our socially constructed realities. Unfortunately, we can’t see that far and our power of prediction and future vision are woefully limited.

Look at the room around you. Even if it is austerely furnished, it is a mosaic of “things”; furniture, books, artwork, painted walls, adult toys, technology, etc… Amazing variety, no? These were all created because of someone’s curiosity and probably involved competition to get within your sedentary view shed.

Close your eyes for a moment and reflect on the experience of going into a Super Walmart or any super hardware store, or a three story Macy’s in New York City. Everywhere you look or whichever way you turn you are dazzled by a feast of “things” to examine and, perhaps, buy. Overwhelming when you think about it. But, we in the affluent cities and Western world have grown perhaps unimpressed by this visual and auditory (and olfactory) cacophony. Measured Baroque music has given way to contrapuntalism and punk rock long ago. It is our evolved culture, our new “habit world” as comfort zone. We take it for granted and pile it on top of whatever we mean, in our country, as the American Dream.

 

I’ve always been fascinated by pondering a really simple word construct, a phrase, created by sociologists, I believe: “needs versus wants”. Business lingo would say “must haves” versus “nice to have”.   The former is about survival whether life or business. Human life needs: food, water, shelter, clothing, learning, health. Wants: now that is more complicated and requires a lot of multicolored ink. People have probably written books about those terms and the distinctions among them. But really, is it so hard to see that acquisitiveness is a root that sustains the evolving tree above?

I vividly recall a recurring observation during my two years as a Peace Corps volunteer working in Colombia. I was to help workers and families improve their economic lives so that that might be a lift to better provide their basic needs and have discretionary income to buy “things”. Many that I worked with were not the poorest of the poor – a phrase of that era. We might say lower middle class: blue collar workers, artisans, craftsmen, wives doing laundry, a window of their small home selling confections or basic supplies.

When I would go into their homes, I was struck by how little they had spent on acquiring what their growing local economy was increasingly offering that they “should”, and would come to, want. How did I know the direction this was headed?

I also had the privilege of socializing with members of the middle and upper middle class. Their class was characterized by similar “things” in my life and my home in Wisconsin. Not things that we needed but rather wanted. Things our friends and neighbors and the better classes had… Yes, my family and my friends in Colombia were “keeping up with the Joneses”. Or trying to leap ahead. A variation on the theme of “monkey see, monkey do”.

Whether this is a deeper philosophical and neuropsychological, unavoidable impulse is for another chapter perhaps. What I’ve described as result – the acquisition of “things” is hardly disputable. Their motivational source perhaps more so. We are supposedly empowered by “free will”. And the combination of curiosity, creativity, competition and acquisitiveness have achieved an offering of abundance and options and possibilities which probably exhausts our wisdom and use of reason to sort through those options very thoughtfully. So the option of near limitless choices may have the evolved result of cancelling or disempowering our presumed power of free will.

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