Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Ignorance and "Progress"

I probably should have titled this “Ignorance and the lack of Progress,” as that is what troubles me at the moment. In the early 1960’s and 70’s I spent almost two years living in intimate contact with natives in the New Guinea Highlands, observing their behavior, talking with them, sharing with them, and trying as best I could to understand them. At that time they would have been considered among the most “primitive” people on earth, a rather misleading term I think, but one widely believed to be true.
I came to believe that although they were incredibly ignorant by our “modern” standards they were not at all stupid. I mean, they had no newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and very little contact with anyone beyond their own tribal boundaries, but they did manage their own affairs fairly well, sometimes fighting with their neighbors and sometimes not, marrying into different groups and establishing kinship and political alliances and so on. Although they were culturally as different from me as I think it was probably possible to be, I got along well with them, I think I understood many of them as individuals and human beings, and for the most part I liked and respected them. I found their relations with each other and with other groups to be perfectly understandable if not always completely rational and in their own best interest. In short, they were, in my opinion, not much different from people anywhere I have lived, apart, of course, from their dress, their diet, their material culture, their houses and their strange (to me) customs, mostly merely an overlay on their basically human nature. That is to say, although their outward appearance was strange, their basic behavior patterns were not. Like all the people I have known during my life they shared the same basic emotions, they were capable of reason, they loved their children, experienced grief, happiness, sadness, jealousy, pain, and even what we think of as romantic love, perhaps not always as intensely as some others, but all of the basic emotions were certainly present, as was the capacity to reason. They were as fully “human” as any other people I have known.
There is something about this that puzzles me about humans. You would think that as ignorance was displaced by more and more knowledge there would be some commensurate change in our basic behavior. This does not seem to me to have happened. The huge gap between their knowledge of the world and ours is staggering. Where they knew nothing much about anything beyond their territorial boundaries, were illiterate, and certainly knew nothing about modern technology, production, science, space travel, and so on, we possess mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, zoology, modern medicine, and so on and on, even space travel (I once tried to explain to them how it was we had shot a chimpanzee in a space capsule into orbit which made them suspect my sanity).   But they did, of course have a great deal of practical knowledge of the animals, birds, and fauna they dealt with on a daily basis).   
I confess that when it comes to the basic facts of human behavior, even interpersonal and international relations, war and peace, basic matters of life and death, marriage and divorce, children, family, and so forth, I can see little if any difference in their behavior and ours, our greater knowledge, our overcoming of ignorance, our mastery of science and space, etc., seems to have made no difference whatsoever in the way we interact with and deal with each other as humans. It is if there is no connection between what we know and how we behave on basic levels. Of course we now kill each other with guns and bombs rather than bows and arrows, and life is far more complex that it was, but we still seem to be, as my great friend Professor Mel Firestone once said, “still infants in increasingly decaying bodies.” We seem to have evolved both physically and culturally but not intellectually and emotionally. Strangely, there seems to be no connection between the physical/material aspects of our lives and the intellectual/emotional components, between what we ought to do and what we do, do, between what is rational and irrational, sensible and foolish, right and wrong, useful and useless.

Albert Einstein

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