*we put the "mmm" in communism


This is the personal blog of Tim. Here, Tim writes on anything he has enough inspiration to finish a post on. That usually ends up being matters of science, pop culture, technology, religion, and philosophy.

This blog is around nine years old, which is over a third of Tim's current age. Back in 2003, it was called "Of Tim: Tim's life - or lack thereof", and it was as bad as you might expect the blog of a freshman in high school to be. Tim hopes that his writing is a little better, these days.

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The most recent issue of National Geographic featured an article on animal domestication - in particular, that of foxes. I highly recommend reading it (there's also a great Radiolab episode that discusses this topic), but for the purpose of this post I'm going to quickly summarize some of the most important details so that I can dive into making my point, which I'm hoping will blow your mind. Fingers crossed.

In the 1950's, this guy in Soviet Russia started breeding foxes for domestication by selecting the friendliest ones to breed. Just nine generations of breeding later, he had foxes that were completely in love with humans from birth, without any conditioning. They weren't just friendlier foxes, though; they adopted a whole suite of behaviors and many of their physical characteristics transformed as they became more domestic. Here's a short list of changes that appeared:
- Multicolored/spotted coats
- Floppy ears and raised tails
- Tail-wagging, face-licking, barking, and whining
- Higher intelligence, more able/willing to learn human social cues and commands
- Can breed twice as often

Some of these qualities are present in wild juvenile foxes, but are quickly lost as they reach maturity. In domesticating the fox, researchers essentially ended up making foxes that are, in many ways, permanent adolescents. There's two quotes in the article which I think will help illustrate where I'm going with this:

"'...they remind me a lot of golden retrievers, who are basically not aware that there are good people, bad people, people that they have met before, and those they haven't.' These foxes treat any human as a potential companion..."

"'They didn't select for a smarter fox but for a nice fox,' says Hare. 'But they ended up getting a smart fox.'"

My religious upbringing is with me always, and when I heard about these foxes I remembered a common exhortation from church - that we should be like children. Innocent, trusting, and unassuming. Yes, I'm taking the idea out of its original context (it was usually mentioned in reference to holding faith and trust in God), but it hints at something that I think may be very core to what makes modern society work. If we compare human society to what it was in centuries past, there's a strong argument to be made that we're becoming less wild. To live longer, happier lives in the company of other humans, we've had to tame ourselves out of antisocial behaviors. The process of doing that has resulted in a more childish kind of society - in a wonderful and beautiful way. I see this in a few, specific ways.

#1: Curiosity

Kids love to ask why. They want to know how things work, how they got to be the way they are, where they came from, and where they're going. The answers they get for those questions will determine much about how they perceive and understand the world. Kids ask because they know they don't know, but that someone else might. As we get older, we start to believe we have all the answers that we need, or that the answers can't be found, or perhaps that the answers aren't worth knowing.

I used the word "unassuming" earlier, and I believe it's extremely apt. Age and experience show us lots of shortcuts that we can take to make daily life easier, but these shortcuts mean we have to make a number of assumptions about the nature of the world, the people around us, and the things that make us happy. It's defying this process that leads to innovation and discovery. Science is fundamentally about asking questions and finding enough reliable information to base conclusions off of, rather than operating solely from assumption and anecdotal evidence.

#2: Creativity

Children are the most creative people on the planet. Most of them don't have the capability to express their full creativity (imagine if they did!), but it's amazing the ridiculous and wonky stuff they think up. It's a fact of life that we get less creative as we get older, whether due to biology or to the limiting nature of knowing more about what is possible and impossible. Frighteningly, it appears our education system is literally making kids less creative, less capable of devising multiple solutions to a given problem. Against all this, however, we still manage to be creative as adults, and it's an important and necessary component to modern human society.

The benefits of creativity are countless. Creativity means innovation and invention, new ideas and new ways of thinking. Creativity encourages communication and expression, supporting the dissemination of information and ideas in fun and interesting ways. It gives us an outlet for our emotions that doesn't bring society down. We used to solve our problems through murder, theft, and rape. Now we make documentaries, graffiti, and protest marches. By finding alternate forms of expression, we've found ways to disagree with each other, but still live with each other.

#3: Trust

The world is a huge place, filled with all sorts of dangerous nooks and crannies that a child just can't understand yet. If kids didn't trust adults, I suspect it would be much harder for them to reach adulthood alive. Just imagine what it would be like trying to teach a class of children that didn't believe a word the teacher said. Trust is what allows us to communicate, to cooperate, and to thrive together as a society. Without trust, nothing would work at all.

Money is an easy example. What if we couldn't trust that the money in our wallets was still going to be worth something tomorrow? That's what's happened in Zimbabwe, which is why their inflation rate is so high. What if we couldn't trust that other countries with nuclear capabilities wouldn't just nuke us tomorrow? That's what the Cold War was, and that gave us the Red Scare and Vietnam. What if we couldn't trust that we'd have constant electricity? The Internet wouldn't exist, were it not for stable power sources.

On a more personal level, all of our relationships are predicated on trust. Because of trust, we don't have to set ground rules every time we meet someone just to make sure the other person isn't going to stab us. It might seem ridiculous, but that wasn't always the case. We take a great number of benefits of modern society for granted because we've never had to experience the way life once was.

It seems that as we get older, we trust less. Part of that is just wisdom, learning that we can't assume other people are being straightforward or genuine. That's just a sad fact of life. Idealistic as I am, I've been forced to recognize that most people, given the choice between admitting their failures or insecurities and lying, will choose the latter. That said, I feel determined to continue placing trust before suspicion, also known as the ideological basis of our system of law: innocent until proven guilty. While this might not be true in practice, it nevertheless points to an important pillar of support for our society.

Children, I believe, aren't just the future - they're a model for the future. They have a lot to teach us, if we're willing to learn. If we want to learn, though, we have to get down to their level. Personally, I'm cool with that. They're more fun anyways.
posted by MC Froehlich at
Anonymous danielreid said...
I plan to have some. It'll be a real kick ;)

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