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Our part in the play

| Friday, October 28, 2016

As human beings, it is natural for us to be curious. At some point in our evolutionary history, we crossed an intellectual Rubicon, forever fating ourselves to perceive more than just what we needed for survival and reproduction. The result was endless confusion about the many mysteries of the world, and equally as many attempts at solving them.

We have a hard time finding absolute answers, however, so we use our gigantic brains and logical thinking to come up with relative ones; and then we use reason to constantly re-evaluate these answers and stick with the one that makes the most sense to us at that time. It is in this way that we develop the cumulative knowledge which allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants and consistently move closer to the truth.

Of the many answers we wrestle with, one of the most critical is that of our own story: the “where did we come from?” and “how did we get here?” questions. For a very long time, we answered these questions religiously, by qualifying ourselves as the “chosen people” who had received “dominion over” the rest of God’s earthly creations; and for most of human existence, this has been the most logical, and reasonable, answer available to us.

That’s because, for a very long time, nothing else other than religion could provide a legitimate answer. We had no Newton or Darwin to explain an alternative narrative to our existence. But now we know more, and science is consistently providing additional information to further our understanding of ourselves. We must try to keep up.

The question to be re-evaluated then becomes “what is our part in the play?” In the production put on by Earth’s natural laws and the existence of matter at our address in the galaxy, what role were we humans cast into? We are certainly different than every other form of life that has existed on planet Earth, but does that make us any more important?

Maybe we aren’t better, just different. We are certainly more perceptive to existential questions than many other species. This is why we often cite not seeing any dolphin philosophers or elephant scientists trying to understand what it means to be a dolphin or elephant, respectively, as a reason and explanation of our difference. But why does our existential awareness and attempted avoidance of existential dread make us any better?

Human vision works with three types of photoreceptors. Mantis shrimp use twelve to view the world. Humans can hardly go a day without eating. Giant tortoises can go without food and water for at least a year. Humans can fly and dive after much training and technology, but sea-bird juveniles don’t need any help or equipment to figure it out. So whose defining of “better” have we been using to evaluate our differences?

The point is that as science teaches us more about other species, we should simultaneously be learning more about ourselves, and where we fit into the big picture. Allowing our view of what it means to be human to change is mandatory if we want the giant shoulders we stand on to continue getting taller. Our answers to where we came from and how we got here should evolve to explain our existence as a phenomenon equally as exceptional as that of a mantis shrimp or giant tortoise.

We don’t find it difficult to update our understanding of health, education and even biology as we learn more on our way to the truth, but when questions and answers about our own existence come up, we “wish to be created at once by special act,” and find it quite difficult to accept anything else as a meaningful explanation. What if there’s more to it than that? If we are ever going to find out, we need to start asking ourselves, “What is our part in the play?”

Matthew Williams


Oct. 26

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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