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Apr 10 2012

Mesopotamian Park

This is just idle speculation, mind you, but I was wondering the other day about time and tradition. There’s two kinds of tradition, or at least two ends of the spectrum. At the one end you have what you might call the reasonable ideas, the principles and conclusions you arrive at by looking at how things are and thinking about them and then, above all, trying them out to see how well they really work, and adjusting them as necessary to make them work better. These ideas get their strength from their adaptability and increasing accuracy over time.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the principles and conclusions that arise, not out of a search for real-world answers and understanding, just Because I Said So—ideas that get passed from one generation to the next not because they describe how the world really is, but because I’m The Father, That’s Why. These ideas get their strength from authority and constancy.

I suppose that initially, these two types of thinking are fairly close to the middle of the spectrum, and thus to each other. But they evolve in different ways, and thus, over time, they take different shapes. The reasonable traditions, based on observation and incremental improvements, tend to change over time, as new information becomes available. This means that as time goes on and year passes year, the reasonable traditions are less likely to be old, because they keep evolving into new (and better) traditions. Taken to the extreme end of the spectrum, they become less like religion and more like science, sacrificing the authoritative appeal of It Is Written for the power and reliability of learning where you went wrong before.

The unreasonable traditions, by contrast, undergo a different evolution. By their very nature, they’re inflexible, so they can’t evolve into new and better traditions. Their survival depends on developing mechanisms by which prior assumptions can be preserved regardless of new evidence. They do not merely fail to learn from experience, they actively resist doing so, because learning something new implies that you didn’t know it already, or worse, that your previous ideas were wrong.

So they fossilize. Just as minerals creep and replace the bones of the decaying animal, so dogma and social constructs and peer pressure replace the curiosity and adaptibility of the living mind. They become the dinosaurs of the world of ideas, resurrected anew each generation, to continue their life in all its original, unevolved, prehistoric glory.

Thus, the traditions that have the longest histories are those which lie farthest away from the reasonable end of the spectrum. Over time, the reasonable ideas adapt and evolve and are replaced by newer, better traditions. The ones that stay the same are the ones that cannot improve, and that hang on by their power to silence criticism and dominate minds. They’re like a Jurassic Park of ancient misconceptions and superstitions, given life in the expectation that people will be fascinated by them, but without adequate safeguards. And the more time goes by, the wider the gap between the two ends of the spectrum.

So, like I said, idle speculation. But I think there might be some bit of truth there.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    E.A. Blair

    This reminds me of two different comic strips: “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Barney and Clyde”, both of which feature characters who spin fancy and farcical explanations for otherwise simple questions. One strip, for example, had Calvin’s father explaining that old photographs were black and white because the world of the past had no color.

    I speculate that such stories, once given even if in a spirit of levity, then become part and parcel of an authority structure that must be maintained at the cost of eroding that authority. I can think of many examples: Santa, the Easter bunny, thunder being the sound of angels bowling, trickle-down economics, billionaires as job creators and religions of almost every kind. The people who originate and perpetuate these fables may have a point, but their authority becomes so firmly rooted in them that they have no choice but to maintain the fiction or lose power, even if it is harmful to humanity as a whole.

  2. 2
    Janney

    Of course there’s also the Golden Rule—the horseshoe crab of morality. And things of that ilk, that stand the test of time and rational selection.

  3. 3
    rikitiki

    This reminded me of an old Dear Abby column where the young wife always cut the end off a ham, laying it beside the ham in the pan before baking. When the husband asked “Why?”, she shrugged and
    said, “Because mom always did.” Next time he spoke to his
    mother-in-law, he asked and was told: “Because the pan I had
    was too short to hold the ham otherwise.”
    Just an example of how a reasonable idea can become a
    non-reasonable tradition through lack of questioning.

  4. 4
    Tige Gibson

    The world of humans has grown so integrated that the proportion of one group and the unreasonableness of that group can threaten humanity as a whole. In the past, most groups were authoritarian but limited in scope, such that the collapse of any one group was merely an opportunity for another group.

  5. 5
    Anthroslug

    There may be some truth in this, but you have to keep in mind that there are a variety of reasons why practical habits can become tradition even after the practical need has vanished (or even reversed). Also, the traditions of religion, morality, etc. are not necessarily fossilized. Anthropologists studying both Native Americans and Australian Aborigines in the early 20th century often found that their supernatural traditions (folklore, religious concepts, magical practices, etc.) not only changed, but often had mechanisms to allow for change that seemed confusing to people raised in a tradition with an allegedly unchanging “holy book.”

    Many a new-ager likes to claim that “ancient wisdom” has been passed down unchanged by oral tradition. However, ethnographic study shows pretty clearly that oral tradition’s main strength is its propensity to change, meaning that any tradition is fluid.

    Historical and anthropological evidence pretty strongly suggests that the “fossilized” traditions that you write about here likely come after the invention of writing. And the invention of writing comes after the creation of hierarchical social positions with interests in either maintaining or making specific alterations to the status quo. So, and here’s where I get into my idle speculation, I would expect that you will find a tighter correlation between the interests of a politically active group and fossilized tradition than you will between that tradition’s ability to match the real world. For a good example, look at the way that particular political interests in the current world get people to ignore scientific evidence in favor of a political ideology.

  6. 6
    TeAnna

    Great post. It strikes me that as the gods are put in their place, more people are willing to challenge other social constructs. Money is a good example. Since this last collapse people are coming out and asking if a dept based economy is the best we can do to distibute resources to people. A shift is happening in how we view the environment too, what if we become as restorative as we’ve been desructive? Anyway, hope we figure it out in time. Thanks.

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