When is Then?

I am sometimes amazed with the outlook that Age affords. Maybe it was there all along, and I was too busy to give it much attention, or maybe as the years wore thin and the leaves began to fall away, there was a better view of things around me, but whatever the cause, I started to realize just how tiny now really is -how small a space in time I actually occupy. It’s a perspective that didn’t seem terribly applicable until recently. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I wonder how I could not have noticed it’s relative size before.

It’s interesting to think about temporal, as well as spatial awareness in Art, for example. The first known picture to use geometrically fashioned perspective, and its famous ‘vanishing point’ is usually thought of  as being created by an architect from Florence, Fillipo Brunelleschi in 1415. In fact, however, perspective was apparently tried for theatrical scenery around the 5th century B.C.E in Greece, and then much later in various frescoes in Rome and even in a Villa in Pompeii, although with apparently little awareness of the value of a so-called vanishing point. What I’m saying, however, is that once it re-emerged in art all those centuries later, it became an essential ingredient for a realistic portrayal of reality. Something that would be missed if it were absent or done incorrectly.

So can we think of Time as, in a way, analogous to Art? And is there a way of projecting ourselves into the future towards a similar vanishing point to envision how the present should look? I mean, we do it to the Past all the time: we criticize decisions made long ago for problems we now have to try and solve. Think of both the advantages the petrochemical industry offered its citizens and the current problems it has created for us and our climate as the years have unfolded. So we were, in fact, colonized by a past thinking no further ahead than its needs at the time.

As it occasionally happens in the leisure time imposed by retirement, I discovered an essay by the public philosopher Roman Krznaric, apparently a research fellow of the Long Now Foundation, that seemed to address some of my questions. His opening sentence immediately captured my attention: ‘Humankind has colonised the future,’ he writes. ‘We treat it like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste – as if nobody will be there.’ It is a  perspective that invites -no demands– further consideration. https://psyche.co/ideas/future-generations-deserve-good-ancestors-will-you-be-one

Interestingly, he goes on to compare the British colonization of Australia, ‘which was based on a legal doctrine today known as terra nullius or ‘nobody’s land’, in which the continent was treated as if there were no indigenous people there when they arrived,’ with what seems to be the current societal attitude of what he calls ‘tempus nullius’. ‘The future is seen as ‘nobody’s time’, an unclaimed territory that is equally devoid of inhabitants… ours for the taking.’

I have to admit that I hadn’t thought of the future like that, but merely as a ‘then’ where I did not live, and where might never take more than a few hesitant steps. It remained for me more of a terra incognita, free entry into which was forever barred by the present. And yet, as Krznaric points out, ‘our political systems disenfranchise future generations in the same way that slaves and women were disenfranchised in the past… Future generations are granted no political rights or representation. Their interests have no influence at the ballot box or in the marketplace. This leaves them vulnerable to multiple long-term threats, from rising sea levels and AI-controlled lethal autonomous weapons to the next pandemic that lies on the horizon, whether naturally occurring or genetically engineered.’

But, with political systems that concentrate on short-termism, how can we ever hope to convince those in power -not to mention those who put them there- to change? Were they to come up with a plan for the next day -after a fire, say- yes of course we would think that was reasonable; a plan for next year -a new school perhaps- well, that would probably be a good idea, too. But how far ahead are we willing to plan? Most people have trouble saving enough for their retirement a few years away, so how (and why) would they plan for even further afield? Should we be willing to sacrifice anything for unknown generations to come? Things are difficult enough now aren’t they? Let them deal with it, just as we are forced to do now.

Krznaric has come up with ‘three compelling reasons why we should commit ourselves to protecting and promoting the interests of future generations far more than we do now. The first has to do with ‘Scales’ -comparing the number who have ever lived on earth, with the number who will do so over the next 50,000 years: ‘around 100 billion people have lived and died in the past 50,000 years. But they, together with the 7.8 billion people currently alive, are far outweighed by the estimated 6.75 trillion people who will be born over the next 50,000 years… Even in just the next millennium, more than 135 billion people will be born. How could we possibly ignore their wellbeing, and think that our own is of such greater value?’ Something to think about, for sure.

He calls his second argument the ‘Arrow’. If you shot an arrow (or a bullet) into the air and it injured someone far away, are you not still responsible? Think of the same issue with our attempted disposal of radioactive waste…

And then the ‘Baton’ -a rewording of the Golden Rule reminding us that ‘we have a duty not to impose harm or dangerous risks on future people that we wouldn’t be willing to accept ourselves… a Golden Rule passed on from one generation to another – a golden baton.’

I like that idea, if only because I know my parents sacrificed for me; they’re my example of why caring for the future should be important to us all. It’s not a distant neighbourhood, just an unoccupied house right next door. And our children, and their children will be living there. The future is not really ‘then’ is it? Its roots are buried here; neither now nor then are empty…

Frailty -Thy Name is Woman?

There seems to be no end in the struggle to differentiate men from women. You’d have thought that by now, we would have settled the boundary disputes, agreed on who owns what, and set up market stalls on anything remaining. It’s all shared territory anyway. Of course, maybe that’s naive. Maybe there are fundamental discrepancies that admit to only superficial comparisons. Relativities…We are, when all is said and done, different from each other not in terms of value, or worth, or intelligence -or anything like that- but physiologically. And there’s the wonder.

That we complement each other seems so adaptive, so perfect… And yet, do others that interact with us -microorganisms, for example- see it the same way? Are infections as unbiased, fair and equal as we are striving for in our societal evolution? Human laws be damned -do they see us as the same, or do their rules change depending on our sex? Do they discriminate?

We’ve all sniggered about the unequal fury of ‘man colds’ and the like, but whatever evidence supported or rejected this contention has always been subject to the confirmation bias of those studying it. An article in the BBC News seems to have uncovered yet another layer of the Matryoshka doll: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38304071

They have reported on a 2016 article in Nature Communications by Ubeda and Jansen which suggests that ‘Viruses can evolve to become more aggressive in men than in women’. This has usually been attributed to hormonal differences, and the effects these might have on the immune response, and no doubt this does play an important role. But suppose one were to examine this from a different perspective?

‘Viruses have ways of spreading that are unique to women – such as to a child in the womb, during birth or breastfeeding.’ From the invading organism’s point of view, this is important. ‘Scientists at Royal Holloway University in London used mathematics to model whether this altered the way viruses behaved. Their findings suggest there may be an advantage to infections being less aggressive in women as reducing the risk of killing the mother increases the chance of infecting the child.’

They’re not meaning to suggest some form of microbial intelligence of course -other than that those who happen upon a better way to survive and more successfully propagate their kind will be able to continue passing on their genes. ‘”Viruses may be evolving to be less dangerous to women, looking to preserve the female population, the virus wants to be passed from mother to child, either through breastfeeding, or just through giving birth.”’ The Selfish Gene kind of thing -survival of the most adaptive.

All this is very interesting, but for me, it also raises the question of the nature of intelligence, and whether we have truly cornered the market. Without becoming unduly tautologically entangled, how should we define intelligence -and therefore decide who, or what, possesses it?

I suspect it is no longer sufficient to equate mentality (to use an obviously autological word) with brain size, and neuronal density… Or maybe even neurons –trees, for example, have interconnecting root systems, often associated with fungal networks, that are able to communicate after a fashion. Trees and plants are also often able to signal to each other about threatening insect infestations, allowing the production of defensive chemicals. But they live in a different Magisterium almost -they cannot run or hide, so another mechanism was required for survival in an ever-changing environment.

Humans, with our recently evolved Weltanschauung, tend to frame the capacity of other organisms in terms of our own, and their intelligence by what we judge they have accomplished in their own environment. The fact that they have been successful at survival has often been seen as irrelevant to the discussion. Whether an organism can reason –if we can ever peel away the inbuilt hubris implied by the word- is surely another way of saying, ‘learns from its mistakes and adapts appropriately’ -even if that is only in terms of the next generation enabled by the survivor. We have adjusted in our fashion, and they in theirs.

Still, I don’t mean to attribute our characteristics to microorganisms who could care less what we think. Sometimes, it is enough to survive and create the next generation; sometimes adaptation-whether over time and generations, or in one lifetime- can be seen as a goal achieved. So, is it too much to believe that there may be an effective strategy that is gender-modifiable? And is it too much to call it a strategy? Is this such stuff as dreams are made on…?

However much we hesitate to anthropomorphize an issue, a change of perspective is often heuristic. It may well lead to a new understanding and hence a novel approach to a hitherto unsolvable problem. Although this is purely speculative at this stage, the researchers in that article suggest ‘that eventually it may be possible to use drugs to trick viruses into thinking they were infecting women in order to make them less aggressive.’

What an exciting prospect that we may no longer feel a need to completely ignore gender in our dealings with the world -that we may finally be able to shed the guilt of being unable to meld the two into a seamless fabric, and feel embarrassed that, like a poorly executed pentimento, traces of the discrepancy continue to persist.

Recognition and concession of difference does not imply censure or stigmatization -rather, it invites a celebration of the unique patterns each can offer. A realization that a recipe with only one ingredient is uninteresting and bland. And, given the conjecture in the Nature and Communication paper, it’s an awareness of something suspected since antiquity: that our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.

Sometimes, like Robert Frost we just have to take the road not taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.