When I was very little I loved reading and re-reading The Prince and the Pauper. It pains me that I now don’t remember the name of the companion with the prince, but it’s been a good … 25 years since I last read it. At least, might be more.
The story is one of a genre. Even as a child, I identified it as part of a tradition like the one where the princess or prince gets taken from the castle and made to perform menial labor. Because it shows the pauper doing better with the duties of a prince than the prince with the pauper’s life, it is — of its kind — a bit of a fantasy. Very American, of course, and hurray for Mark Twain (I was so young when I first read him I pronounced it Mark Tvain, being wholly innocent of English, but having seen German brands where the w was pronounced as v.) for pointing out a pauper can make as good a prince as anyone, thereby pointing out the inherent hollowness of titles and honors, and inherited wealth…. but perhaps not quite realistic. Look, I’ve read enough about the life of a prince at around that time to know how difficult it would be just to keep up with everything you should do, if you hadn’t been trained to it.
And in this case, trained to it is rather the point.
Humans are amazing creatures. If we weren’t we wouldn’t be in every corner of the world, including highly inhospitable regions. And we wouldn’t be able to survive things that logically should kill us. Humans have lived for years in situations that should have killed them or at least made them irrevocably insane and emerged…. well, alive if not well.
The various wolf-children might or might not be an example of this, since I have read recently most of them are not exactly abandoned as infants, but rather deficient or sickly and abandoned by their parents weeks or days before they are found “living with” a wolf pack or whatever. And maybe that’s true. I haven’t done a deep dive, so I can’t tell you — and it’s an area filled with legend, insanity and ideology, so any truth there has been very thoroughly obscured. But let’s presume a deficient child, abandoned, is discovered living with animals: the child still survived. And yes, it might be one in a hundred that survives, but the fact that any do shows how resourceful and …. invincible humans are when it comes to survive.
What most fish out of water stories emphasize is how hard it is to adapt/learn to live in conditions utterly different from your own. In these stories usually the person survives and thrives, but I suspect in reality, though it’s a mark of our species resilience that we survive at all, there are very few people who would survive. And look you, I am talking as someone who did this. Though I could be more akin to the pauper who finds himself a prince, it still wasn’t an easy adjustment to change countries and cultures. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, willingly and forcibly acculturating was much like going insane. You have to let go of parts of you, of parts of what you know is reality. Every single day brings shocks to the system and new things where you realize you were completely and absolutely wrong the day before. And I swear to you it was a good five years before I realized I was treating people all wrong and giving off all the wrong signals. And a good ten before I more or less could pass and behave like a normal American. Honestly, I think most of the reason I avoided giving horrible offense and/or getting in real trouble was that the accent gave warning I was not quite “from around these parts.”
Yeah, okay, so this might or might not have been complicated by the fact that I’m one of those people that have little or no ability to read others. On the spectrum? Um…. I don’t think so. I’m actually fairly empathetic and for an introvert, I like people, though I don’t like them with me ALL THE TIME. I think it’s more that you tend to assume other people are just like you — it’s the default assumption — right? And it took me a while to figure out I was wrong. I mean, I never fit in with Portuguese culture but by 23 I could pass. And then dropped into another one, where I couldn’t pass at all and had to learn all signals anew. I’m not even sure if there is any native impairment or just very weird life circumstances. (I’ll point out my family were all Odds, though I think mom is convinced she passes, which meant that our family culture also didn’t prepare me for the cultural baggage of Portugal. I don’t know if I mentioned before, but going to friends’ houses as a little, I found myself very much a stranger in a strange land. My parents had raised us with a weird mix of freedom and informality and demands and almost ritualistic behavior that had nothing to do with formal manners or the way people expected you to behave. I think I mentioned the family acquaintance (she was a close friend of a close family friend) who used to chase me around and say the most horrible things about me, and how I didn’t care for the feelings of others, and generally try to set me straight, including the infamous “If you were mine.” While her intentions might have been good (I’ve apologized to her memory, because I think they were) she went about it backwards, sideways and with quite a bit of malice born of the fact that she ASSUMED I’d been taught “proper manners” for the culture. I had not. In fact, other than the fact that one used inferior-to-superior language to older people, I hadn’t been taught any manners, starting with table manners and ending with never having been taught the formalities such as “no, thank you” instead of a bald-faced “no.” Since Portugal is almost as formal as Japan and definitely as ritualized, and since — for instance — some bits like not letting the door swing behind you, and hit the next person when walking out of a room, were only taught to me by my host family at 18, I imagine I spent the first 18 years of my life giving offense to everyone I came in contact with. Combined with living too much in my own head and reading way too many strange stories, I suspect I presented at best as “impaired.” Now, why didn’t my parents teach me manners? I don’t know. I suspect partly because they expected me to pick them up out of the air, as they expected everything else, from proper diction, to reading to the ability to do various things. (They must be way more “gifted” than I am, as I am not very good at learning complex skills out of the air, without instruction.) And partly probably because from the peculiar circumstances of my birth, they expected me to — and the doctor had assured them I would — be mentally retarded. And I was very sickly until I was about 12. So I think there was a layer of “let’s enjoy her while we have her” combined with “she might not be able to learn.”
I tended to follow my grandmother around and pay attention to her, but I paid attention to her when she was doing interesting things, like looking after the animals or planting stuff. I don’t know if she ever realized I didn’t have any manners, or even if she tried to teach me some. I could be remarkably oblivious. (Still can thank you ADD.)
By the time I was ten they’d started grousing that I wasn’t very well mannered, but you know… They still never provided instruction. I learned table manners by observation. Other things like the “no, thank you” thing it took a friend’s parent correcting me. I did learn. I did adapt. I still have a tendency to go somewhere inside my head and completely forget there are people even around me, let alone that they’re talking to me, or whatever. And I can’t even tell you that it’s because I’m thinking of something important or riveting. Very often it’s because something visual has caught my eyes and I’m staring and not thinking at all. (Oh, squirrel.)
Anyway, other than the fact that one way or another I — and I suspect a lot of the people here — are in various ways fish out of water, I am tending to considering something important: What is the value of a human. What is an Homo-sapiens (with admixture, natch) individual worth?
This is important. It is at the root of all the important debates in the world right now, and probably throughout the entire history of humanity.
For most of history the answer has been “not much” save for a few, rare individuals who, through birth or through learning or through other characteristics made themselves valuable. (Though note that other than birth, and that only birth as a monarch or nobleman of some sort that value might not even have been perceived by the humans of their time.)
And right now for a faction — possibly a growing faction of mal-informed, mal-educated humanity — of the world population your value depends on how deeply you tan, and the color of your eyes, and maybe — maybe, but not really — where you were born.
That is, we are back to the oldest valuation of all: “those of my tribe are worth much, the others aren’t even human.” This is rooted of course in the fact that tribes — and before them hominid bands — were kinship groups. There is value in promoting your kin. Evolutionary value, since they carry some of the same genes you have.
Now of course, tribe can be something utterly stupid like “we are attracted to the same sort of people” or even “we studied in the same institution.” But ultimately, through it all, it’s still the same instinct.
This is, needless to say, a problem. And if you don’t see where it’s a problem, you’re going to cause me to roll my eyes so hard they’ll go under the sofa.
You see, it’s a problem because most of the shitholes of humanity, the places still mired in Neo-paleolithic or close to poverty and misery are that way because of tribalism. You don’t pick the best person, you pick the one of your tribe. You don’t do the job out of loyalty to those who pay you, you try to do the job so it benefits your family and kin. You don’t invent, innovate and strike out in new directions, because that’s not what your kin would do/has done from time immemorial.
And we see the same corruption starting to hit all our institutions, where people will forswear their soul for the sake of those they view as kin, be they racial kin or sexual kin, or any other grouping they’ve been convinced exists.
Part of this, of course, is that it is apparently forbidden to study humans. Human intelligence, human resourcefulness, any other qualities we consider inestimable, are forbidden from being studied by all civilized countries.
This is, of course, the legacy of WWII and the eugenics movement that, before it, pervaded all of the west.
It’s also fairly mentally impaired, and shows the problem with never taking second order effects into account; the government sticking its nose where it never belonged; and in general our species behaving as it has since the early twentieth century: like utter morons in the grip of a stupid idea.
Yes, eugenics was a bizarrely stupid idea, built on mythology and legend, and pervaded with assumptions of what made the worth of human important. The rot is deeper than that, but abide a while. Let it stand it was a stupid and murderous idea. It came mostly from man-the-animal-breeder, applied to humans. Except humans as animals are a very curious animal, and nothing like what the other humans are, since we run on thought more than instinct, and therefore are more adaptable/curious and, well….. annoying than other animals. (Though nothing is more annoying than cats. And I’m not convinced they run mostly on instinct either.
But the idea that because humans were stupid enough to treat humans as cows was wrong, then not studying what makes humans smart, or adaptable or resourceful is the thing to do, is bizarrely stupid, and is causing a lot of the distortions in the world, and turmoil and irrationality in society.
For one, more knowledge is always better than less knowledge. For another, sure, if it were proven that one race is consistently “smarter” than the other or that one type of human is more obedient or more adaptable, there might be a tendency to discriminate on race. Because you know, the stupid theories — and some of them are very stupid indeed, like the idea that the ability to tan makes you empathetic, or that the fact that sub-Saharan tribal populations score worse on IQ tests means they’re dumber, or…. — that humans come up with to explain success or failure at various things are much, much better. Or requiring people to have largely valueless (and increasingly more so) college degrees is better than administering a test to know if they can perform, because if those were different for different races, then the test would be racist.
Humans are going to discriminate and be stupid — is it not written “the dumb shall always be with you?” — but to screw up massively and by the numbers it takes a human government, I guess.
Playing keep away with the knowledge of what humans inherent capacity is doesn’t make us better, or less prejudiced. It just means we tend to confuse culture with genetics to the point that idiots think that having to learn the dominant language of the country is “racist.” As though language were genetic.
It also builds an entire system of philosophy based on “systemic” and largely invisible racism. (Or sexism.) Because the reasoning goes something like this: back when there was real racial discrimination, there were a very few, incredibly successful racial minorities (or women.) Therefore, unaware of survivor bias, people concocted this theory that if everyone were given the ability to succeed then every tanned person/woman/whatever would be a genius, with great success.
Of course, that’s not how any of that works. Humans of any race and sex are mostly…. average. Which means if you remove the barriers most of them are going to perform in an average manner. Combine this with the fact that mostly urban intellectuals tend to think minorities (say black people) are like 40% of the population, and you can see how they would be sure there’s “systemic racism” because 40% of people in positions of power aren’t black. (And btw, if black people in the US perform below the 14% or so of the population they are, the fault CANNOT be of race. Because the technical name for most American “black” people is “Caucasian” as most of them have found out through genetic analysis. So if they underperform the problem is culture, particular the culture foisted on them by the intellectuals and the government, including fatherlessness, a persistent culture of victimhood, and being convinced that “systemic racism” makes it impossible for them to achieve. Any racial or for that matter other group of people treated this way by people in power would underperform and have chips on their shoulder the size of elephants. If we started treating redheads like this country has treated black people since the progressive era dawned, in a hundred years they’d also be underperforming.)
And this in the end is because we don’t know what a human is worth.
If we go by the theory of a human being worth what he/she can do (which we don’t, or we wouldn’t have crazy things like affirmative action, or hiring someone to make sure we have “representation” for some crazy thing or other, including sexual inclination) I’d be damned if I’m worth much.
Since this crisis began, I have told people the problem is that I’m not good for much, which usually makes them indignant. But hell, it’s true. I tested high IQ when young, but I’m still not convinced that IQ tests much but the ability to succeed in Academia, and that spottily. Because of ADD I never had flawless grades. Also I had a tendency to complicate simple tests/questions. Other than that? Well, I can rebuild houses, refinish furniture, I’m not a bad cook, I hate driving, and I can tell stories. That’s about it. And all but cooking (and sometimes even that) and story telling are impaired by the fact I run out of energy far more quickly in my late fifties.
Oh, yeah, and I no longer can get pregnant or have babies, which arguably I was never very good at, and which is a definite value to species survival.
So, as far as survival of the species, and probably my own survival, I’m more of a drag than a help.
If that’s how we measure humans — and it’s how statists tend to measure them, since they view humans as debits against the collective, rather than credits that might achieve something for the collective — I am absolutely no good.
Of course, we can’t measure humans that way, if judged against the history of mankind. Some of the most brilliant humans, who helped propel humanity forward, are not….. well…. I read that Archimedes was so absorbed in solving a mathematical equation that he got killed by a Roman soldier. There’s more to that, but you know, personal survival didn’t seem to be one of Archie’s skills, and all of the Greek Philosophers, at least by repute, were less than useless at passing on their genes.
Or take Leonardo DaVinci, who dreamed the dreams of future mankind…. and who was an erratic genius, who never finished anything. Oh, yeah, and an illegitimate child who at least in theory had dramatically curtailed prospects because of that until he overcame them. And who, in many societies would simply have been killed, and certainly not have been taught anything.
The history of mankind is littered with magnificent bastards, cripples, people who in primitive/tribal societies would never have survived, but who pushed humanity forward, nontheless.
And sure, there is a difference between ethnic groups (this is not even at the race level, btw, but at least in countries not America, where traveling was difficult/onerous until the late twentieth century, by the village/city, etc. Sure strangers came in, or we’d all have eighteen toes and be good at playing banjo, but seriously. Where I came from there was “the village of the crazy people” (more than usual number of mental illnesses) and the “village of cunning builders who are good with math” and yeah, I suspect my village was referred to as “Those very strange people” or at least we sent a lot of people to college at a time when it was very difficult to get in, and was considered a privilege of the rich who could hire tutors (which we certainly couldn’t.)) But do we know what the differences mean?
For instance, leaving race aside, there are a lot of female and male geniuses. There are a lot of male and female morons, too. But the distribution is not equal. There are, relatively speaking more male geniuses — and morons — than female ones. Women’s IQ – whatever the hell that means, because we don’t know — clusters in the middle. Relatively speaking. When meeting a new person, male or female, you should mostly assume they’re average. That’s why we call it average. That’s what “normal” people are. I’m sure it’s not very different for races.
There are weird, hereditary characteristics, but we don’t know what’s hereditary or learned, because we don’t allow ourselves to study that.
For instance, my husband is fond of calling me his “excitable Latina” usually under the heading of “Now look what you’ve done. You’re wound up the excitable Latina.” And my sons are…. louder than normal for their culture and age group. Though I’m not sure that’s true when they’re not with family. With family, though, when we lived in downtown situations I was sometimes sure the neighbors would call the police thinking a crime was being committed,w hen the boys were arguing over superhero origin stories.
What we don’t know and can’t know is “Temperament or upbringing?” I can tell you I’m withdrawn, unusually quiet, and definitely not “interesting” for a female in the area I came from. My kids didn’t believe this, until I was with them at the foot of a monument’s stairs waiting for my husband to do something (I don’t remember. It was 15 years ago, okay? He might have been going to the bathroom. Or perhaps buying tickets) and several family groups and groups of women went by us. At which point my sons said “You are quiet, polite and timid for the region.”
But again, temperament or upbringing? Who knows?
And this is problem because if it’s not temperament, they people could be raised in a way that minimizes issues, right? If there are issues?
Sure in rats excitability can be innate. But it is never a good idea to assume mechanisms are the same between different species, and humans are infinitely adaptable. (Contrary to “ethicists'” beliefs a rat isn’t a human.)
So what is all this about: What is a human worth?
If we studied — say — the genetics of various people, wouldn’t we be tempted to discriminate against those whose genetics show them not to be brilliant. I don’t know. We don’t even really know what our genetics do. For instance, my genetics say I wake up naturally at 7:15 am. BROTHER. They also say some truly strange things, like that I have celliac disease (I don’t.) Or a bunch of other nonsense.
BUT Sarah, suppose we study more and find that say people from a certain city/place are not very smart. Wouldn’t we discriminate against them?
Depends on what “Smart” is. And I suspect we’re going to find real performance is a mix of genetic inheritance, predisposition, upbringing and accident.
Intellectually smart is not the same as smart, and certainly not the same as people smart or cunning. (Witness me and the mathematician trying to sell something, and you’ll think we’re morons. We do sell houses okay, but only because I treat it like telling a story, and because we’re not present when the buyers come through (there’s a reason we always move first) otherwise we’d give the house away and apologize.)
When I was a young, ill-mannered child, one of the things I did was follow — mostly old and crusty — handymen around, looking at what they did.
Most of them weren’t going to pass any IQ test. Hell, most of them barely could read. But they could do things I couldn’t do involving calculations of tensile strength and design. Even if they didn’t know the words for that.
Their “IQ” might be low, but they absolutely were needed to keep the village in roof and walls through the winter.
As for breeding humans as animals, that was always rather stupid. One of the things we don’t know for sure is how “Smarts” are impaired. Or passed on.
One of the “miracles” of the village — a brilliant young man — was the son of the mentally-impaired farmer’s daughter, and (like in the joke) the traveling salesman. Her entire family were tenant farmers and none too bright. Those who interacted with the traveling salesman described him as cunning and unscrupulous but not particularly brilliant (As proven by the fact he barely made it out of the village ahead of the pitchforks.) And yet, the result of this union taught himself to read, outstripped everyone in the village school and went on to outperform practically everyone in a stem degree (I no longer remember which) in college.
Is intelligence hereditary? Well, almost surely some components are.
What does that mean? I don’t know and neither do you. Both of Leonardo Da Vinci’s parents had several other kids with other people. None of them were remotely remarkable. Chances are that Italy is littered with their descendants. Most of whom will be perfectly average.
Oh, yeah, the “mentally retarded” girl in my class, whom I’d estimate at a mental age of six but who learned to read, write and count money, after a fashion, was, in the way such things were managed in the village, married to a boy with similar impairments (which would keep her from being taken advantage of and give her two sets of family to watch over her) and they were given an old house to live in. He did odd manual/requiring strength jobs, and she cleaned houses. They had seven kids before (literally. This is not a joke) someone thought to tell them what caused it. And two more after that but more spaced.
I went to school with this girl. She was very sweet but seriously, I can’t even imagine her keeping house or raising kids, though I’ve been assured she did/does both very well, if at a very basic level.
Most of her kids went to college. With no money for tutoring. With no help passing exams. And certainly with no money for private colleges.
Were both of them impaired for reasons having nothing to do with genetics? Maybe. Or maybe it was the combination that made their kids suddenly above average.
I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.
And this is why both refusing to study humans and the idea of breeding humans like cows are industrial grade stupid.
Humans, as the fish out of water stories prove, are not necessarily “Smart” or “good” or “useful” except sometimes, if we’re very lucky, in a particular niche, where we can excel.
If society values individuals and allows us to be good in our niche (Or as Pratchett put it “find out what you’re really good at”) the result is advancement/better life for everyone. If however we treat humans like widgets with certain genetic characteristics, everyone fares poorly and the world sinks into barbarism.
“But Sarah, that means we shouldn’t study people!”
No, that means I should study how to to swear when I get that kind of stupid response. Because humans are tribal, if you don’t study what makes humans “good at x” they’re going to assume. And they’re going to paint with the broadest and stupidest brush imaginable. So we get “Black people are more empathetic” or “Punctuality is white” or other poisonous, pernicious nonsense that’s actively destroying lives.
Used to be we overcame tribalism and didn’t have to worry about crazy eugenicists because the default mode was Judeo-Christian. I.e. the person next to you might be a moron, but his soul was of as much worth as yours, he was made in the image of G-d same as you, and so you had to respect him/her.
When that broke…. we got eugenics, and attempts to “improve” the human breed by killing job lots in the service of the theories of a lunatic who had seized control of a mega state.
Perhaps I might propose that we need to respect other humans because we are human. Perhaps teach kids that no, they’re not perfect either, and that if they try to eliminate the “dumbasses” they’ll end up eliminated. Teach kids to recognize the impulse to tribalism and the darkness in every human soul.
Other than that? Tread carefully. Every human whose right to exist you diminish diminishes your own right to exist. And yes, that extends to the womb — unique DNA — and to convicted criminals, and to the very very old.
If humans aren’t valued only by what they can do, then all of those are human and you must respect them to respect yourself.
It doesn’t mean it’s never right to kill people. For many humans who are murderers or dangerous, it’s the only way to keep other humans safe from clear and present danger. Arguably more human than life-long incarceration. And yeah, sometimes it is the mother or the child. And yes, not killing, but definitely not engaging in heroic measures to save Grandma for another three days (Much less locking down all of society to save grandma for another six months, endangering children and destroying livelihoods int he process.)
But it means it’s never okay to do it cavalierly, because others are inconvenient; because others are in your way; and because you think you’re somehow superior or have that right. Because every time you do that, you destroy a bit of what it is to be human. In others, and in yourself as well, and in society in general. And at the end of that road lie mass graves.
We must restore the idea humans are worth it because they’re human, as we are human. Each of us is a vessel of unending potential. All of us have the possibility of doing something important. Now, it might be a STUPID important thing, like the ability to chop wood when there’s no other way to get warm, or perhaps just knowing that a certain plant is poisonous because someone told you, once.
But it’s on all these small, stupid things that humanity advances. It is this that makes the future better than the past.
A single human is worth the future. Because there’s nothing else that will build that future.
Find out what you’re really good at, then do it as hard as you can.
Be not afraid.