April 17, 2009

Getting Better

Filed under: Science — Katrina @ 12:17 pm

There are times back in college I thought that I would major in history. It’s always fascinating and my grades in it were somewhat good. Higher than my science grades anyway, even though I was of course a science major! Then again, it is because I went with biology that I’m currently sitting here at my desk in my lab and not behind a convenience store counter some place. Hehe.

But who says history needs to be a profession? Who says learning always must involve a formal school with the goal of some sort of employment? Lots of people get bottlenecked there and it’s very sad.

Anyway, to get to my point, and it’s a point I’ve made before so I may be repeating myself a bit, there is one thing that becomes very clear the more to delve into what different societies have been like over the millennia… The world is getting better.

I reject the idea that the societies and technology we’ve built around us over the time our species has occupied this planet is somehow “unnatural”. What’s so unnatural about it? Is a beaver dam unnatural? Is a bird’s nest unnatural? Are the veritable social systems you find among monkeys, lions, ants, and countless other various creatures unnatural? Not a lot of people would say so. Why are humans different? What is so unnatural about our sapience that all fruits of it must be seen as foreign?

That’s the trouble with sapience, though. It carries a huge responsibility. We need to ensure we progress responsibly, that we don’t harm others, or more realistically, do so as absolutely little harm as possible.

While there are a million things I could go on to say from this that I’ve been thinking about lately (and I’ll try to post more if I can get them articulated well enough), I’ll just stick to where I began with the value of learning history. What can we learn from history? The world is getting better. We humans are getting better.

We do have a very long way to go, of course. Thousands of years ago, things were crude, though varying depending on which societies you look at specifically. Short life span. Primitive “technology”. They tried to cure migraines by drilling a hole in your skull. Killing people wasn’t that big of a deal. What we know as love and tolerance and intellect were seriously lost on those ancestors of yore. Over time, things changed, though whether for better or worse again depends on particular time period and society.

Flash forward to today in the United States. We can generally expect to live at least until our 70’s, since we’ve advanced to the point of medicine that can treat and prevent the random crap that killed people left and right in older societies, making it unusual to live past 30. We have climate controlled buildings and plenty of clean water free of dangerous microbes. We have electricity, enabling us to do things at night, watch TV, and use the internet to talk to each other despite distance. We have cars and airplanes to get us to other places within the same day. The vast majority of us can read, write, and do basic math. We’ve replaced trepanning with taking an Excedrin with a caffeinated drink and lying down in a dark quiet room for a while. And we’ve gotten it into our heads that bigotry and murder and rape and all sorts of other violence are WRONG.

Yes, yes, shut up, of course every one of those things is far from perfect. That’s my point. This isn’t a “great, we’re done” but more of a “we’re making great progress, let’s keep going and see what other cool shit we can do!” And considering how many of these are from just the past century or so, that’s amazing.

Okay, forgive me, I know this is totally “we present day people are liek sooo much better than ancient people”. But… yeah, that is exactly what I’m saying! But it’s not out of arrogance. It’s out of amazement at how far we’ve come. I mean, do you look back at your 5-year-old self and think you were so stupid and brainless back then and your adult self now is so much better? Well, actually, you probably do, most adults do, and it’s perhaps a significant underlying belief in anti-youth bigotry. You may have a lot more life experience now and know more things, but that does not mean you are in any way “finished”. Trust me, you are definitely doing things now that you’ll look back on in ten years or twenty years like “WTF?!” That’s why age dualism (the belief that your child self and your adult self should be looked at separately and somehow not considered to be part of the same individual’s life) is such a horrible counterproductive concept, and it is similar to forget that we are descendants of the ancient populations whose primitive ways we cringe at now. We forget we are part of an ever-changing system, that improvement is not only allowed but expected and mandatory. Instead, when we think we must be perfect now, whether in our individual lives or as a society, we minimize the importance (and joy!) of learning new things and bettering ourselves, and we lament our many imperfections as being an eternal curse rather than just another challenge to overcome.

It annoys me when older people talk about how they are too old to change or refer to a time decades earlier as “their day”. Please, if you’re still alive, you can change and it’s still your day. What a waste of the gift of life to think otherwise! What’s the point of living long if you’re going to chuck away most of life as being so inert?

There’s also that discouragement of when I watch Futurama. It’s supposed to be a thousand years from now, and while that society has very clearly advanced to the point of interaction with other planets, space travel, sapient robots, much longer life span, etc., socially, they aren’t much different from today. Sexism, racism, and ageism are all still rampant. Leela and Amy still get treated dismissively for being women. In one episode, the drinking age is mentioned and is still 21. And even though they interact with all sorts of aliens, mutants are forced to live in the sewer. Now, knowing Matt Groening, a lot of this certainly must be intentional social commentary, though which direction I suppose is up for question. (Maybe Ken will read this and let me know if he heard anything about this in the DVD set commentaries!)

Of course, it’s phenomenally impossible to predict what the world will be like in 1,000 years and there’s a concern of what you’re portraying would be different. The Jetsons had the same issue, being set in the future with robots and faster travel and spiffy technology (for the time), but women were still subjugated, being only mindless housewives and weren’t supposed to drive. At the time the show came out, of course, sending the message of a future without this would be quite radical, so it’s safer to stick with technology advances and soothe people by pretending their social status quo will go untouched many years from now.

This unwillingness to accept a socially different future comes, of course, from the belief that we’re already all we’ll ever be, that improvement is not a requirement or even a good idea or even possible.

No worries. We’ll grow out of it.


  1. Yeah, it’s interesting how a series that -does- take a more optimistic view of the future, e.g. Star Trek, deals with, say, alcohol consumption by youth.

    As I recall, Picard’s nephew was served wine during dinner in the episode where he went home to the family vineyards in France, although they actually didn’t show the child actor drinking it. And in an episode of DS9, Sisko let his son drink a little champagne (or an alien equivalent) before taking the glass away from him.

    The guess the closest thing to YR in Star Trek is Wesley Crusher, inasmuch as he was able to serve on the crew based on his abilities rather than his age. And early on (e.g. the first episode with Lore) they’d ignore his concerns or ideas based on his age and get totally screwed by doing so.

    Comment by Anduwaithe — April 18, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

  2. But Wesley Crusher was a complete dickhole. :doitnow:

    Comment by Lord Galen — April 26, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

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