Thursday, September 10, 2009

'Kids These Days' - Rambling on About Human Nature

You've read about them, maybe you actually know one: a grumbling old coot who is convinced that society, humanity, and the world is going to Hell in a handbasket because kids just aren't the way they were when he (or she) was young.

Customs, fashions and technology have changed in America, at least, since the days of my youth. My childhood was in the "happy days" of the fifties and I spent my teens in the sixties. I'm still impressed at how many high school kids drive cars today.

On the other hand, I don't know that the basic human model is all that different.

Human Nature and People - Not Necessarily the Same Thing

I just got through reading Poul Anderson's "Harvest of Stars" (1994). Someone called it "ambitious" - and I'll let the literary criticism go at that.

As a sort of sub-plot, Anderson tells what happened to humanity back on Earth. The story is spread across several chapters, in a series of relatively short messages sent from Earth to people who got out of the Solar system while the getting was good.

Over the course of several centuries, with the help of artificial intelligences, humanity developed a Utopian society: rational; ordered; placing few demands on the individual while maximizing opportunities for self-fulfillment.

The last few messages were sent by the artificial intelligences. Earth was doing fine, they said: the ecology was in great shape, now that the human population was tiny and shrinking. Not to worry, though. They'd made sure that a full record of humanity would be preserved, in case the species died on them.

Then they stopped sending messages.

That Just Ain't Human!

In Poul Anderson's story, human nature didn't change. The people who wound up running Earth weren't human - apart from an avatar they built, once, to communicate with the escapees. If they didn't 'act human,' it should be no surprise.

The human people 'back home' were acting in a rather familiar way, though.
Been There, Done That
About 28 centuries ago, Homer1 composed two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Ulysses runs into people whose lifestyle is a whole lot like the contentedly dying remnant of humanity Anderson described:
"...we reached the land of the Lotus-eater, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. ... I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened...."
(The Lotus-Eaters / Book IX of Homer's Odyssey)
It's not all that implausible that, in a rather small, well-managed society, everybody would be like Homer's Lotos-eater.

I don't think it would be a good idea - but it's a plausible.

Certainly good enough for a story.

'Kids These Days'

You've probably already run into these observations about contemporary youth:

"Our youth now love luxury, they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in places of exercise. They no longer rise when others enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble their food and tyrannize their teachers."

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint"

The first is attributed to Socrates, who lived in the 5th Century BC. The second is a translation of words attributed to Hesiod, who lived about three hundred years before that, right around Homer's time.

Over two dozen centuries later, there isn't much left of ancient Greece: But Homer's poems are still known, translated into languages which didn't exist when the blind poet wove the tale of Apollo and Agamemnon, Aphrodite and Helen, Athena and Odysseus.

Quite a lot has changed since Odysseus took the long way home. But I think the underlying drives, desires, strengths and weaknesses of humanity haven't.

Related posts:
1 The ancient Greeks thought Homer composed the Iliad and the Odyssey. More recently, some professors decided that one guy couldn't have put together poems like that - or if he did, it wasn't Homer.

Granted, the ancient Greeks were shaky on just where Homer was born, and other details.

On the other hand, they were a whole lot closer to the origins than the guys with letters after their names.

One of my favorite quips about the 'who really composed the Odyssey' is: ' they decided that Homer didn't make them up: it was another Greek named Homer.'

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