The other day I was reading about Johan Huibers, the Dutchman from Dordrecht who has built a full-scale replica of Noah’s ark. It started me thinking about what a simplistic, literal age we inhabit in these first decades of the 21st century and how truly dangerous this trend can be for a species facing our current environmental, population and economic challenges
I once observed a chimpanzee sort a pile of fifteen candies into three piles of five. He was very precise and resolute, for there were two companions sharing his cage and his actions seemed motivated by some innate sense of altruism mediated by fairness. It was the damnest thing I had ever seen.
The empiricist in me sent up all sorts of red flags against anthropomorphizing. This was, after all, a creature of a lower intelligence, apprehending the world around him by an alien sort of perception quite immune from human mechanism of logical thought. Nevertheless, it was disturbing to speculate that our primate cousins understand simple justice in much the same way we do.
That other primates are endowed with a capacity for symbolic thought is beyond dispute. Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Orangutans and Gorillas are all capable of doing simple addition, subtraction and, to a lesser degree, division. Chimps can even learn to understand symbols on a simple keyboard, punching up syntactically correct requests for specific objects with the same precision in which lab techs use chemical formulas to handle materials. It is doubtful that gorillas lie awake at nights contemplating the heavens, but it is far from impossible. The more primatologists study our genetic cousins, the more they uncover about just how unremarkable are some very human qualities which we rather vainly believed in times past were peculiar to our species.
Among all primates there seems to be the rudiments of language hardwired into very complex neural pathways, along with an appreciation for the passage of time and a sense of the self. Where we appear to branch away from our cousins is in our imperative for teaching what we individually have learned to other humans. This may be an adaptation concomitant to the prolonged adolescence of our young and the amount of extra-somatic information they must acquire for survival. The reason why is still somewhat vague, but the answer to how we differ is now obvious.
What humans do best is to extrapolate from symbolic information and adapt it to fit their present circumstances. A chimp will keep inputting the same formula into his keyboard until it ceases to work, When it ceases to work, he will persist in inputting it until he erupts in frustration or anger. A human child will learn the same formula, input it until it ceases to work, then experiment with various permutations of the formula until he hits upon a combination which will work. Chimps are innately curious like us, but they are not experimenters by nature.
Which brings me back to my subject, literalism.
I am now convinced that literalism runs very deep in our race. What we see in the chimpanzees, much as with their neurological hardwiring for spoken language in a physiological apparatus which has not yet caught up, is an atavistic trait we share. We humans are capable of great leaps of imaginative genius, but all things considered we are quite satisfied with inputting the same formula time and again, expecting the same result, erupting in anger and frustration when it ceases to work. To be sure, there have been eras of human history which seemed to nurture the very best of the creative spirit, indulging experimentation and innovation, allowing for calculated risks and encouraging the more intrepid of our number to make the big leaps forward. Many Americans now living can actually remember such a time, when we marshaled our resources and put two men on the moon. Such an enterprise required a bold imaginative spirit coupled with a willingness to risk catastrophe. The old formulas simply would not obtain. Nothing was literal.
And yet we were able to accomplish a specific task through the efforts of imagination and will. No sooner than we had accomplished this glorious mission, however, we devolved into complacency, literalism and our own American incarnation of the Bonfire of the Vanities.
As any “friend of Bill W.” can attest, there is always a group of “screaming deacons” in any human gatherings. These are the people for whom imagination, innovation and experimentation are threats which must be eradicated. Every formula must be preserved and replicated in toto, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. For such people, in the words of the venerable Jorge from Umberto Eco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE, “there is no progress in the history of knowledge…merely a continuous and sublime recapitulation.”
Literalism is the great bane of human society. It manifests itself in various forms: religious fundamentalism, legalistic “strict constructionism”, scientific orthodoxy (which is the bane of engineers as a professional class), and the kind of vapid patriotism which equates dissent with disloyalty and demonizes political opponents. When Antonin Scalia bases his legal interpretation of the Fourth Amendment on whether or not James Madison understood a toolshed to be part of a domicile, he might as well be a silverback gorilla peeling shoots and leaves atop a windswept knoll on the African savanna.
I have no problem with silverback gorillas. They are noble creatures who enjoy some sort of consciousness and who aspire to live in peace and dignity. But for human societies to operate by the same rules as gorilla societies is simply insane and an evolutionary cop out. Humans are unique from all other primates in their genius for experimentation. We were born to push the envelope and test the waters.
When we insist upon confusing symbols for reality, we are diminishing ourselves as a species and denying our destiny as a race. We were born to adapt, to search and to rise above the limitations of time and space. We do not occupy a niche in the biosphere. For better or worse, we have forced Nature to adapt to us, and that makes us custodians, not merely occupiers.
Humans should not spend their lives swallowing camels while gagging on gnats. Literalism solves nothing, aspires to even less. It is atavism. We may dream of a Golden Age when the world was innocent, but we should realize that it is the dreaming which has value, not the dream itself.
It is time for us to once again dream our own dreams. In words of Orson Wells to Ed Wood, “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams? “