Monday, December 11, 2006

Why I Blog

Throughout the course of human history, there have been many breakthrough moments in culture and thought. Through the last 10,000 years, most of us have gone from primitive agricultural and pastoral lives to the modern world we see around us. We have developed tools to probe the universe with, technology to travel interplanetary distances, communication to interconnect the globe, and the knowledge and accumulated wisdom of millennia.

In times past, technological breakthroughs were slow in development, and diffused at a glacial pace. The means of communication that we've grown so accustomed with were virtually unheard 150 years prior to our current generation. Communication by horse lead to communication by train, then telegraph, telephone, internet, etc. These rapid communication advancements have allowed for a great deal of shared information and development. With the world literally at our fingertips, we have built a complex interconnected web of information and knowledge. Prior to this vast information basin, advancement often met a brick wall and resulted in numerous dead ends. During the Chalcolithic (Copper) Age, human beings had begun to smelt copper, out of the minerals that had been present in surface rocks. The discovery, eventually heralding the Bronze age, although rapid by geological standards, was slow compared to the power of communication in the present day. It took well over a thousand years for the process of smelting copper and then bronze to spread from Anatolia and the Near East, to Greece, Central and Western Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia. The process developed over time to involve various techniques and methods to achieve the temperatures needed to melt metallic minerals into their purer forms.

The greatest amount of accumulated knowledge occurred during the advent of the Written Age. Writing has to be one of the most important tools in the human arsenal for communication. As more of the general public began to become literate, a larger amount of people were able to contribute to the pool of ideas and technology. Advancements began to proceed at paces only dreamt of centuries earlier. Before literacy crept upon the general populace, many ideas now proven correct took a back seat to wild theories. The microscopic structure of the world was initially defined by many theories and ideas, yet, the most applicable was that of Democritus, who was one of the first to theorize about the existence of the atom (over 2000 years prior). It's specifically because of the written knowledge passed down to us that we're aware of Democritus' near prophetic theories. The possibility that other philosophers and theorists had explained the existence of the atom before Democritus cannot be eliminated. Chances are, others may have had similar ideas, but because of the difficulty in transmitting the information (even through writing), those records have not survived to the present day. Even with the idea of the atom, it was Aristotle's view of the four elements that stalled many aspects of science and technology for well over 1500 years. Another applicable example, involving the theoretical and influential world of Greeks, and that of our own Modern Age, was Medicine. Although highly advanced during the Greek Era, it wasn't until Galen's written texts (Roman Era) of human anatomy that the Zenith of Medicine was thought to have reached. He was so convinced of his theory’s superiority, that he said any further work in the area would be an insult to all of humanity. Galen wrote texts with pictures and anatomical features that he thought described human beings. The studies he used was that of other animals, since dissecting a human being was considered forbidden. Modern Anatomical Medicine didn't really advance again until Andreas Vesalius (mid 1500's), a headstrong and anti-authoritarian anatomist began to challenge Galen's work. Due to the religious restrictions on the treatment of corpses, the Middle Ages saw very little breakthroughs in human anatomy. Thanks to the partial liberalization of religious restriction and the allowance of executed criminals to serve as cadavers, Vesalius was able to determine anatomical features missing from Galen's written accounts. With the pace of Medicine advancing again, we were finally able to delay, and to some extent control, the greatest force of nature. Death, having been a foe that seemed inescapable was suddenly becoming less of a concern. Although unavoidable, we were finally able to diagnose, heal, treat and cure diseases, and the agents (parasites, bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc.) which often brought about an "untimely" demise.

However, through fires and various other catastrophes, many ancient written records, that could have provided us with a greater amount of historical data and knowledge, perished. Even with the possibility of written information being destroyed, the chances for technological advancement were greater then if those records had never been produced. Some that were destroyed found audience in other languages, the translation having come down to us, even with the original having been eliminated. Written information for most of its inception was also heavily biased. Often times, the records that reach us have been those of the victor, and our attempts at consolidating history can be marred by inaccuracies. Yet, even with biased historical records, a lot of context could be revealed, and a greater objective understanding of the forces involved could become apparent.

Compared to the geological time frame of Modern Homo Sapien evolution (about 200,000 years), the lives of individual humans is but a mere blink of the eye. Billions of human beings have come and gone, variations in climate has existed, new species have evolved and become extinct, and yet, our experiences with time allow for more of the same to happen. Just as the fossil record is written in the very ground (land and sea bed) that once occupied all the animals that ever existed on Earth, the record of human achievement is written in the books and knowledge that has also accumulated chronologically. Even our genes don't really matter, because over the course of a few generations, they are diluted to some random genetic consistency very different from our exact sequences. What survives past one's lifetime are thoughts and ideas. Naturalist, and one of the leaders of modern day Evolutionary theory, Richard Dawkins has explained this cultural trait, similar to genetic code in evolution, as a "meme". A meme, just like a gene, is a snippet of information that is able to replicate and transfer its information to the next generation. In terms of a gene, it's the gene's ability to generally out compete other genes and transfer it's information to the next generation. Meme's function very similarly, but the replicating information is not nucleic acids (like DNA and RNA in genes), but thoughts and ideas. Those thoughts and ideas that out compete others to remain in circulation are the successful ones; not unlike survival of the fittest under Darwinian Natural Selection. A great tool to help perpetuate those memes that are truly beneficial is science. Through critical thinking and the scientific theory, scientifically relevant memes can be tested against others, until one that is superior to others can be produced and replicated. Eventually, further additions will help focus the meme into more and more specific information. It's as though a beneficial mutation in DNA will result in advantages that can be focused to near perfection. The Eye is an example of a structure, that through a half billion years has evolved from a disk of light sensitive cells, to the variation we see in all the creatures today.

Having digressed far from the title heading, if it hasn't become apparent already, I must explain my humble reasons for blogging. Long after we're all dead and gone, few of us will have any individual impact on the future of the world. Although we're all contributing to greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, and our massive ecological footprints, taken together, contributes in exhausting the raw materials of the Earth, our individual achievements will become just a passing whisper in time. Our atoms will eventually disperse back into the universe, and our individual being will have vanished. As bleak as all this sounds, it may be that only the information and knowledge we leave behind will survive in some form into the future. It is our duty and obligation, having come this far, through countless near misses with fate (extinction events such as asteroid collisions that paved the way for us, or minor climatic changes that resulted in our enlarged brains and eventual cultural growth and sentience, even personal brushes with fate such as car accidents, stupid juvenile snowboard tricks to impress the girls, that trampoline accident when you nearly severed your head, etc), to further our knowledge base and expand beyond individual capacity. If all the information that human beings had collected was somehow preserved, then life would not be in vain. How many people lived through life, with all the information spinning in their heads, died having left nothing for other's to feed off? No matter how much one writes, or attempts to present collected and gathered information in various perspectives (some perhaps never thought of before), there will always be a residual amount lost. Even with this loss, the possibility that some of these theories, thoughts, and ideas will help to perpetuate certain necessary meme's (whether to create new ones or strengthen and elaborate upon existing ones), remains a prime reason for attempting to pass on as much accumulated knowledge as possible. After all, attempting to quench one's thirst for knowledge can never be fully satisfying, unless it's processed and released.

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