Saturday, July 29, 2006

Men and Women of Genius Redux

We are perverse creatures and never satisfied. ~Nan Fairbrother

When I wrote the previous piece, it occurred to me that it was far from a complete list of the accomplishments of our ancestors. The more I see how innovation has declined, the greater my admiration grows for those early humans. They had to make leaps from nothing to something, and did it so many times that we're still being amazed by how early some things were discovered.

So, allow me to point out a few more instances of genius from our ancestors.

Baking – Cooking meat was a slam dunk. Drop a haunch in the fire or find that a carcass from a forest fire actually tastes good, and bingo, you're into barbecuing. But, taking little seeds, grinding them up, mixing the powder with water or milk, and tossing that on coals is a rather large leap. Of all the various inventions of those lost eons, this is one of the most difficult for which to imagine a path. In the previous piece, I mentioned farming as one of those miraculous inventions, and I suspect that the ability to cook seeds into something yummy and filling may have pushed the nomads into farming. So, baking is may well be a key to other developments. Betty Crocker would be so proud.

Writing – Perhaps it doesn't sound like such a big deal to go from drawing on cave walls to writing, but it took a long time to get there. As with language, some individual had to codify a system, teach it to others, who in turn had to get still others to buy into this writing business. Moreover, either some people thought they could improve on the systems, or the concept was invented several times, because the writing of, say, the Sumerians bears no resemblance to that of the Egyptians. It's hard to see any similarities between cuneiform and hieroglyphics, yet both get the job done. Of course, in our time, we're trying to bastardize writing, spelling, and grammar to the point no one will be able to understand anything anyone else writes.

Music – Oh, I know, people were banging rocks together since time immemorial. But some early Bach started keeping track of those rock-banging episodes, so they could be used over and over, perhaps as part of rituals or maybe just because one particular session sounded better than others. Beyond the rock-banging, they started plucking bow strings, blowing through animal horns and hollow reeds, and put that all together into a paleolithic symphony. Music probably came before writing and language; it may have been an influence to both.

Puzzles – What, you say, is so freaking phenomenal about puzzles? After all, early homo was solving problems all the time, working out methods to hunt critters bigger than they were, figuring out fire, and so on. But, a puzzle is a more abstract thing. It requires imagination to create a puzzle in the first place and even more imagination for the resolver to come up with the answer. In other words, puzzles are pure brainwork, both in their inception and solution. When people started doing puzzles around the campfire, they started exercising their brains, both their imaginations and their logical thinking. I wonder if they had a pebble-based version of Sudoku?

Religion – I get pretty cranky about religion, as anyone who has read Gog's Blog will attest (which isn't many of you, but if I dwell on that, I'll start crying and never finish this). However, what I'm thinking about here is systems of faith, not ornate cathedrals and money-grubbing tele-evangelists. There is no denying the impact that systems of faith have had on civilization. For millions of years, our ancestors might have regarded the passing of one of their group with some sadness, but they would have left the body to the scavengers. Then, at some point, they started caring a great deal about the departed. They buried them, but more than that, they buried them with possessions and flowers. This not only reflects a greater caring for their fellow beings, but it shows that they thought they might have need of those possessions in some sort of afterlife.

What caused this change of attitude? I believe it was Neanderthals who were the earliest to begin this process of evidently thoughtful preparation of the dead. Such activity indicates a belief in an afterlife, which might be indicative of a value system. After all, if you accept an afterlife, there's normally a reward system associated with it. If you live a good life, hunt well, and support the tribe, for example, you get to go on to a higher level of afterlife. If you don't live like a “moral” life, whatever that may be in this context, you don't get a cushy afterlife. A system of faith is an underpinning to the beginnings of morality, ethics, and law. Unfortunately, it also serves as an underpinning to intolerance of others who views differ from yours. Given that humans were probably suspicious of strangers to begin with, it wouldn't take much to use your value system as an excuse for wiping out the neighbors.

Magic – What I'm talking about here is actually the art of illusion. You may not think this important, but the ability to convince someone you can do the humanly impossible, like making things disappear or appear from behind someone's ear, is going to make you a big man. A little sleight-of-hand or knowing about a powder that would go “foof” when tossed into a fire, and you can convince people you can commune with all those spirits that control the world. I'm inclined to think that the faith came first. The charlatans came later.

Just goes to show some things never change.

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