A dialogue about man, his gene pool and eccentricity
Man: May I be the first to speak?
Man: To avoid a misunderstanding, notably that the author may have deliberately used a logical implication by casting me in the role of man and both of you in that of the scholars. I think that this simply means that the author does not know or to be more polite, cannot use the logical rules of classification. He may have meant to imply that I am merely a man while you are scholarly a men. Now I think the excellent poet and philosopher Attila Jozsef said of this very “merely a man” in one of his poems: “man is not yet great, but fancies he is, and so he is eccentric.”
If you scholars allow me to use such non-scientific terms, my generation, those born between 1933 and 1937 have incorporated in their genes like an overdose of radiation what the eccentricity of imagined greatness meant. But what did Attila Jozsef build his optimism on that made him say: “man is not yet great”? Can we believe him when he also says in another poem: “I have faith, for, unlike our forefathers, we get no longer impaled.?”
If so, those who outlived him by a let alone seven years can no more share his faith, and those who may have seen their trust revived by the historical changes of a later period must have gained new experiences from the terrorism against the background of forced calm in the 70s as well as from the resurrection of certain practices, if not in Europe, in certain parts of the world, which historical memory buried in its deepest layers together with impaling: in Cambodia mountains have been constructed out of human heads, in Iran women have been ordered to veil their faces with black.
My question, then, is whether science has any grounds other than the assurance of changing historical experience to persuade me that man, though not yet great, is going to be one day? That his eccentricities are similar to those of a three year old’s first defiant phase when he is able to do something alone and thus wants to do everything alone in order to learn a lot of things; or to the adolescent who tests himself with his eccentricities to see if he is personally accompanied by Attila Jozsef’s “mind and love”?
Scientist: Attila Jozsef like so many other artists expresses the desires and anxieties of many of us, probably far better than the relevant branch of natural science called psychology ever could. But from the aspect of objective truth art must not be taken seriously. However captivating the poet’s image expressing the lightness of the summer atmosphere may be: “with silver gayness the birch-tree shakes a whiff of wind”. From a scientific viewpoint it is an absurd statement as normally the wind shakes the tree and not vice versa. Well, similar is the case with the poetic image referring to the greatness of man.
Contrary to what Attila Jozsef would suggest if he offered what he does as science and not as poetry, the truth is that, should I presume that “man is great”, I have no reason to add he is “already great” for he has been of the same dimension for over a hundred thousand years; similarly, if my subjective opinion is that “man is not great”, I may not add as an objective prediction that he is “not yet great”, for we have no reason whatever to believe that he will change his dimension for the next hundred thousand years either.
Man: I no longer understand a word of this. Does this mean that natural science has made a new Copernican about-turn discovering that the course man has taken from the stone axe to the cybernetic automaton so that we might believe that he would proceed along the same line, well, that this course is just as much an illusion of our everyday consciousness as is the one that the sun seems to revolve around the earth? Will you enlighten me, please?
Scientist: I am afraid I misunderstood you. For a split second I had the impression that you were talking about the greatness and eccentricity of man and not of technology.
Man: Indeed, does not man create technology?
Scientist: The more I reflect on this puzzling question, the more readily I have to acknowledge that it cannot be otherwise.
Man: Can technology which is developing at such an accelerated rate have been created by man who has remained unchanged for the last hundred thousand years and seems likely to remain so for the next hundred thousand?
Scientist: Look, it is the philosopher you have to ask about the logical links between various things. As for me, I have only put my facts down on this round table. And if you place your facts next to mine on the table, I will acknowledge that there is more than one fact placed on the round table of knowledge. Just as one my assume that there must be more than one thing existing side by side in the sphere of the universe.
Philosopher: If the fact of which your knowledge or belief in has just been revealed to us does exist in the universe.
Scientist: Do you doubt it? That becomes a philosopher. But I can prove what I have posited, notably that man’s most important traits have not changed significantly since the Homo sapiens came into being.
Philosopher: I am curious to hear how you will verify this less weighty part of your former statement.
Scientist: Well, then. The clearest way for the traits of the human species to change during the course of history and for these changes to accumulate in a given direction is to have each individual hand down to their offspring the qualities they have acquired during their individual existence. This would mean that one generation could grow up standing on the shoulders of the previous one, so to speak, and man would keep growing visibly greater as regards many of his valuable traits. We know now, however, that acquired qualities are not inherited. Another way to accumulate the valuable qualities of the representatives of the human species at the expense of the worthless ones would be through the mechanism of selection. What the selection would need to be able to ensure this bias towards valuable qualities is that during the subsequent millennia the conditions of existence should consistently allow /or should allow more and more/ that the chance to reproduce for specimens with worthless qualities it should be optimum. Now, if you look at history from this aspect you will find that it fails to create the conditions for selection of this kind, and fails increasingly to do so. Firstly, it levels off the differences between the conditions of existence by organizing on a social scale protection from natural catastrophes /e.g. epidemics/ or other dangers which are harmful to man, which would more likely hit those individuals who lack the valuable qualities necessary for survival. Secondly, should there be some unequal distribution of the conditions of existence within the levelling-off tendency, the value judgement concerning this differentiation would still change from one historical period to the next, and beside, the historical periods with their relatively constant system of values prevail for an every shortening length of time, whereas, artificial selection needs more time to accumulate the highly evaluated qualities in man’s genes than a mere lifetime which is given in the most recent age, or the 150-200 years that was the duration of the bourgeois value system or for that matter, the one and a half millennia of the feudal system of values.
Philosopher: Is it wrong for man to be able to enforce the values of equality and freedom he has chosen himself? For example, that of equality in levelling off the conditions of existence, and that of freedom of refusing to tolerate for an ever shorter time that the system of values chosen by his forefather should dominate him?
Scientist: If I exercise the right of the onlooker to applaud or boo the “performance” staged by nature on the basis of nature’s “script”, then I must say that quite the contrary, I do rather like that things are happening to man as they are. All I wanted to point out is that the price to pay for this is that man who undergoing these things is born today with exactly the same qualities as, say, a hundred thousand years ago.
Man: And in a hundred thousand years’ time? Or a thousand? Or at least a hundred? To be quite frank the latter dimension interests me far more.
Philosopher: Indeed, the weightier part of your statement – that man won’t be greater in the future either – is still to be explained.
Scientist: I think it follows logically from what we said of his history so far. Yet there is something we have overlooked: mutation. Mutation is a sudden durable change in the genetic material in response to an external stimulus? When it occurs at random, in a natural way, it is nearly always an adverse modification and thee low viability of the mutant luckily kills it before it can reproduce itself. Very rarely, however, a modification may take place resulting in a mutant that is more viable under the altered conditions of existence than the normal specimens of the species. In this case, the mutant begins to multiply, thereby laying the foundations of the evolution of a new species. As a matter of fact, it was mutation among the primates that produced man himself with his new specific properties: his faculties of thinking, speaking, social organization and work. Subsequent mutations in man have mostly been determinal with a very few that have worked. I only left these unmentioned because they made man simply more various but not “greater”.
But if in future – and as things stand today it will be in the foreseeable future – man has to bring about pre-planned mutations in an artificial way, he will have an instrument to develop such traits for himself that will really make him “greater”.
Man: This explanation does not lack spirit, and may also require love /after all, the new qualities have to be reproduced/, yet I don’t think this is what Attila Jozsef had in mind when he declared that “man is not yet great”.
Scientist: That’s right. This is why I said that man as Attila Jozsef explains him won’t change his dimension for another hundred thousand years either.
Philosopher: It was the logical consistency of your whole train of thought that fascinated me most, /while you modestly denied being competent in the question of the logical connection of phenomena/. For a man who has been begotten by natural chance and delivered to life by natural necessity will also in future be forced to copy the accidentally produced patterns of the mutant faculties of thinking, speaking, socialization and work – this logical.
Scientist: Not at all. In future, just as he did in the past, man will also act out the reproduced and reproducible patterns, that is, he will think, speak organize society and, last but not least, work.
Man: Through which everything under the sun may change, mayn’t it, except man himself.
Scientist: What man actually passes down to the next generation is a loose form that is filled in by a wide variety of contents by the environment. So man as the joint result of these two factors – inheritance and environmental effect – is more readily seen as something highly changeable. If you add that due to recessive inheritance not only the environmentally produced contents of the individual but also the inherited patterns may differ from those of the immediate ancestors’, one can admit that natural science is really hard put to demonstrate from beneath all these secondary components that which has preserved unchanged the essence of Homo sapiens ever since the species began.
Philosopher: Your reasoning has enthralled me with the elegance of its logic itself is only a form, consequently, it applies that it can be filled in with a wide variety of contents: false and true alike. You, for one, have filled it in with false – or erratic – content, to keep to the polite traditions of round table conferences.
Scientist: If you would kindly explain this is detail, I should be only too happy to learn from it.
Philosopher: You have doubled my enthusiasm!
Your reasoning fascinated me first and foremost with the elegance with which you consistently separated man’s essence from what it is manifest in, as well as the qualities of the whole human species from those of individuals. Your consistency in differentiating these twice two things has been so impressive that I would not be surprised to be interrupted by you warning me that it was a single differentiation you made: by pointing out the essence of man in its abstract purity you separated the constant qualities of the human species from the individual variants at the same time, and by demonstrating how the environmental stimuli, recessive inheritance and occasional accidental mutations affect the qualities of man, you marked off the human appearances from the essence that is manifest in man. From the human essence that is, which is then just as identical with the stable qualities of the human species as is its manifestation with the individual variants. These two correspondences are so obvious that mere mention of them makes the text redundant.
Why I have nonetheless brought up this pair of truths is because they belong to the false truisms of everyday consciousness that may totally mislead science.
Man: Totally – if this is not only one of the superlatives that intellectuals are prone to use than it must mean that the right orientation tends towards the diametrical opposite of this pair of correspondences. In other words: man’s essence should be identical with the individual traits, while the stable qualities of the species are mere appearances. It is an odd assumption.
Philosopher: Well, mine, if you like, is even stranger. I am convinced that man’s essence is identical with his individual acts, while the so-called “quality” is none other than the way the individual act appears in his ideological consciousness.
Scientist: In order for us to be able to evaluate this really peculiar statement, let me make sure that I understood it properly: what you say is said, isn’t it, of the qualities of the individual in the spirit of such social psychological theories as cognitive dissonance and attribution theory which claim that personality traits as such do not exist but are the instruments of consciousness for the subsequent evaluation of the individual act with the halo of which consciousness adduces rational causes for an act. If this is so, I can understand your statement even though I can’t accept it. But if you think, which is totally absurd assumption and I only mention it to prevent any subsequent misunderstanding – well, if you should think that even those qualities of Homo sapiens the genetic carriers of which inherent in every normal human being and which are slowly becoming know to us, are also mere products of our consciousness with the help of which we “explain away” as it were our acts, well.
Philosopher: God forbid that I should deny such traits of Homo sapiens as the specific build of the male and female organisms. Neither would I question that X /by which I do not mean a chromosome but a specific though unspecified individual/ does have traits, for example the pattern of the skin on his fingertips by which he can be differentiated from all the other specimens of Homo sapiens and at the same time he can be identified with himself from the time of his birth /or even earlier/ to his death /or later/. Finally I maintain that in addition to such universal and such individual traits man has some other existent traits capable of objective investigation with the help of the instruments of natural science, which characterize many individuals in the same way but differentiate them from other groups of individuals within the species, I mean traits like blood group or skin colour. Now, if I were decide whether any of the above kinds of qualities are essential or superficial, I would be at loss: the assumption that claims that man’s essence is being “a two-legged, featherless animal” appears just as nonsensical to me as the one that claims to find the essence of X’s personality in the curves of his fingerprint. It would be too easy to demonstrate my ideas with theories that operate not with universal or individual traits, but with particular ones such as skin colour.
Basically different is the case with traits in connection with which the question of essence and appearance can be raised adequately. These traits are always the inner disposition of outward behaviour, the formulation of which gives the answer to the question: Why did X do what he did?