Primitive is Relative

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Matt Geiger

Primitive is relative

I somehow failed to rinse all the shampoo out of my hair the other day. When I noticed it later, my daughter ran her little finger through it and exclaimed: “It feels like dry wetness!”

A few days earlier, when I told her she had to wait 30 days to get something she wanted, she lamented: “Thirty days?! But 30 days is 100 days!!!”

It’s easy to think ‘No, 30 isn’t 100,’ but to do so is to miss the point. Because when she said those words, when she told me that little story, she wasn’t showing me the world; she was showing me herself. She gave me a glimpse into her inner emotional life. It was only 30 days, scientifically speaking, but there is so more to life than cold, hard facts.

Each moment is incredibly complex. Things are things, and we are us, but the way it all mixes together is endlessly complicated. I think that’s part of the reason the past becomes so alluring as we age. Because many of the unknowns of past eras fade away, and what we are left with is the idea that life was simple, and the decisions and ideas that ruled people’s lives were simple too. Of course, they were not. They never were. We can look at historical records and see that something took 30 days to occur, but that tells us nothing of what it was to be human in that time. The human mind has been the same for 200,000 years. We like to think we are special now, but we are only part of something special; we are only the culmination of our species for a brief moment, like all who came before us, and we will quickly become just another predecessor when we age and die off.

People make all kinds of silly assumptions about the past. They think people “used to” be religious. What they forget is that people still are–although the pantheon of gods to which they pray has been widening over the past century. And people were never blindly religious anyway, because most holy books are full of stories of people grappling with their faith, gnashing their teeth, bickering with god and wondering how and why such evil could come from such good. Entire world religions were built simply by asking: “Why do we suffer?”

The answer, of course, is that good and evil didn’t exist until human beings invented them. They are merely ideas, and they wouldn’t be here with us unless people had dreamed them up. Things that are, just are. Things that happen, happen. It is only in our minds that those things are good or evil; only inside us that they inspire hope or dread. But things don’t have to exist to matter. We live in a time when millions of people proudly call themselves “social justice warriors,” despite the fact that justice doesn’t exist, either. Justice, which is one of the gods people currently worship, is merely a human invention. Because in nature, what works, works. What is, is. Nothing is good, nothing is bad, nothing is beautiful, and nothing is ugly.

I was recently watching a nature video in which a lion, for no apparent reason, pounced on another lion, sinking its teeth into her spine. With her back broken, she crawled around, her hind legs dragging behind her. The lion who had attacked her sat down nearby, his face devoid of any remorse or pleasure. He was a thing that had done a thing to another thing. It was only in me, a guy watching it on my phone five years and 3,000 miles way, that the incident had moral and emotional implications. A painting is merely canvas, oil and powder. The person who views it is the one changed. It is in the viewer that the painting has meaning.

It is only in us that these things matter. A kitchen faucet exists. A lion’s damaged spine exists. But the other things we live with–justice and good and evil–have no material matter, no weight, no shape, no form, and yet we all know, to varying degrees, that they are real, whether or not we can see them. 

When we look back on our ancestors, we tend to think of people who had an overly simplistic view of the world and their place in it. But that distinction, too, lives only inside us. For cave people had the same minds we have, and they made their own distinctions, ascribed their own meaning, invented their own justice and their own beauty and truth.

My modern friends often think anyone who lived before 2014 was ridiculous. “People used to believe such silly things,” they say. “People used to be so primitive.” But primitive is relative, and 500 years from now we will be primitive too. It is merely a rank you earn in your death.

People buy millions of books about laughable medieval medical cures, and they scoff at anyone who thought thunderbolts were thrown by gods, or that goddesses sometimes streaked through the sky in a chariot pulled by cats, or that eating a frog would cure a cold.

What they fail to see is that science tells us everything we need to know about what the world is made of. But it tells us nothing about what to do with our lives. It tells us what things are, but it does not tell us what they mean. In order to know the earth beneath our feet, the sky above our heads, and even the mushy inner workings of our own bodies, we need hard science. But to know how to treat the earth, where to fly in the sky, and what to do with our bodies is for art, romance, philosophy and faith to decide. I have been far more instructed by a painting than a periodic table, because I believe some things exist, and some things don’t, but the stories we tell (about what is real and what is not real) are the most important things we have.

Modern people like to create false dichotomies. “I believe in Jesus!” they say, or “I believe in science!” As if those two gods are incompatible. Yet science is not something you can believe in. It is a process for figuring out that which is factual, and in many ways it is the best method we have to slice and dice the world using Ockham’s razor. (Ockam’s razor is essentially the idea that simple answers are good answers.) It tells us so much about ourselves and the things around us. But again, it never tells us what our lives mean, or what we should do with them. Scientific inquiry can tell us that a forest or a species of ungulate is disappearing, but how we respond to that problem is not a purely scientific matter; it is a question of ethics, of romance, of justice. Science can tell us we are dying, but how we live out our remaining days is determined by other factors.

While many people don’t know it, it is philosophy that gave us science in the first place. The first biologists, chemists and mathematicians were all called “Natural Philosophers.” They tinkered with and prodded the earth, dissecting dead creatures, growing molds and fungi, peering at the smallest things they could see in their labs, and gazing through glass at the furthest reaches of the cosmos. It is philosophical and theological inquiry that led them there, not only because those disciplines were considered branches of philosophy, but because philosophy is what told them that an examined life is a good life, and that looking and asking is good, no matter what you find. Even if you find nothing at all.

And I don’t think things were ever simple. I think Neanderthals, Denisovans, and the earliest homo sapiens all thought about themselves and their worlds just as intensely as we do. I think any culture that tells stories, and listens to stories, whether they are painting Odysseus on a vase or etching a raven deity on a pole, is exactly like us in the most important way.

I’m currently reading a book by Steve Rinella. It’s about hunting and conservation and what it means to be a predator on the planet Earth. The earliest stories are hunting stories, he points out in the book’s opening pages. And of course, he is right. All of the earliest cave paintings are of the beasts who hunted and ate us, and beasts we hunted and ate.

There is a very old story, told elsewhere, about a hunter who is mauled by a bear. The human is both hunter and prey, the bear is both hunter and prey, living in the intensity of both ends of existence. The bear uses its nose, its claws, its teeth, its strength and its speed (if you ever want to feel atavistic terror, just look on YouTube for videos of brown bears running at full speed). The human has a weak nose, no claws, small teeth, and very little muscle mass, except for one very important muscle, her brain, which she uses to craft tools that help her hunt and help her avoid those who hunt for her and would dine on her flesh. Yet both survive the encounter, and the bear leaves with just a taste of human meat, while the human leaves with a scar and some broken bones. Many years later, when the bear dies of old age, the hunter, still living with long-healed scars, goes insane with grief. Because to be hunted by something is to be one with it, and to hunt is to be one with the thing you consume. Both literally and metaphorically. Because the experience thrusts you into the same story as another species, where you can experience the many gods that govern the life of another living being.

Those ancient people who lived all across the world - in caves, in tents, in huts, in igloos - they knew something of Ockham’s razor, even if they lived thousands of years before a Franciscan friar named William of Ockham (who in turn, lived nearly 1,000 years before us). But they knew the simplest answer to the biggest question is this: We are all part of an unbroken chain that stretches back to the first moment of life on earth. Every single person who walks around today, from the guy in the grocery store who thinks his t-shirt disproves evolution, to the woman in the parking lot who thinks her bumper sticker will be the thing that spurs people to global peace, is part of it. Every. Single. One. Those cave people who hunted, and were hunted, are not some vague idea. They are not just distant figures. They are part of the chain, too. It goes back to little, single-celled organisms squirming in primordial muck on a planet of sludge and electrical storms, which people would one day understand with a story about Zeus, or Thor, or electrical currents. And it will continue on, until the final day.

There was a first human on earth, long ago. And someday, maybe in 300 years, maybe in 300,000 years, there will be a last human. It is not a good thing, or a bad thing. It is merely a thing that happened and will happen. It is a thing we know.

What we do with that knowledge, how we choose to forge our link in the chain, is up to us. It is enormously liberating to feel so small, to be part of something so big, and to be so free.

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