On the Genius of Mankind

On the Genius of Mankind

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! —Hamlet

Could it be that a by-product in the evolution of human intelligence, of sentience, is not only the ability to discern patterns in nature, but forever to need to find patterns as a method of explaining everything puzzling to the mind?

It was Sigmund Freud who once remarked that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I have often noted that there is a deep need among people to find reasons for something existing in nature that goes beyond processes that lead to the existence of a flower, bacteria, or highly complex creatures like us mammals. For many of us, our first exposure to this is religion, in whose various forms and myths we have attempts at explaining the existence and causes of things that are not apparent: the pain of childbirth, or why man must work for his food. Of course, scientific explanations of the universe rely more on what is observable and testable, but the result is still the same: how to explain those patterns in nature.

This ability to see patterns has done us humans very well throughout our long history: we can determine the passage of time and the seasons, understand which plants are good to eat and which ones to avoid. All across the world, we have even constructed temples and other buildings based on what we perceive to be in the heavens, often using techniques or materials that in this modern age, astonish us with their precision and methods.

Now, instead of finding something awe-inspiring about the commonality that disparate cultures have had throughout time, there are many who seek to explain away the intelligence of man by insisting that patterns across civilizations are really about an external source. Whether it is a supreme being or extraterrestrials, the conclusion is the same: there must be a reason why pyramids are found in Egypt and Mesoamerica, and it certainly cannot be because the people in these ancient cultures arrived at proximate conclusions regarding certain shapes (a pyramid better than an oval, for example) or functions independently. No, the real reason for this pattern isn't ancient man, but either God or the aliens from Zeta Reticuli.

It is disheartening to see people dedicating their entire lives in disparaging the progress and mystery of mankind's evolving intelligence and resorting to the tried and true formula of (literally) deus ex machina. There is an entire genre of books (a profitable cottage industry) devoted to explaining the hidden, secret and true reasons for the existence of the pyramids or why stories of ancient battles between divinities are actual descriptions of battles fought with nuclear weapons. In so many of these alternate histories, mankind is nothing more than a plaything of the gods, doing what he is instructed rather than learning how to make cities, temples and astronomical observations on his own.

What do we really gain by disparaging the genius of man? Why must everything be some dark mystery that consistently removes the achievements of man from the story and relies on some external power? Is it too much to believe that the ancient Egyptians really did construct the pyramids with techniques that were quite advanced for their time (sometimes even ours) that doesn't rely on extraterrestrials? That the beliefs of the Hindus or the inhabitants of Mesoamerica have been the accumulation of myths and legends that grew into more complicated ritual systems and turned into religions?

We know that Prometheus is said to have given fire to mankind, an act for which he was punished by the gods. Or that Pandora’s insatiable curiosity is the reason why sorrow and evil exists. We have derived simple but powerful lessons from the plaintive question of Cain: am I my brother's keeper? These stories were created to explain tangible (fire) and intangible (morality) realities in our world. Some of these stories were reworked to reflect a particular point of view: in the biblical story of the flood, it is no longer the gods who destroy the earth, but the single Hebrew deity. Along that line, on a less depressing note, the creation myths of the Babylonian or Sumerian gods fighting Leviathan or the dragons of the deep is completely replaced by the priestly writers of the Hebrew Bible into a compact, elegant narrative of one divine being creating the cosmos by pure fiat: let there be light.

In these cases, we have a refashioning of the familiar (the flood story in the epic of Gilgamesh) into the particular. Ancient writers took existing stories and explanations of the world and absorbed, changed or ignored them. The Romans often identified Greek gods with their own divinities; Hera became Juno, and even Zeus was connected to Ammon in Egypt. Yet in our day, the cultural syncretism of the ancients has given way to seeking out conspiracies and removing the knowledge of man from his fertile mind. It seems that the ancients looked for patterns of commonality in the impossible; for us, we look to the impossible as the reason for what we have in common.

All that is unfortunate, of course, because it demonstrates that scientific explanations of the world and its bounty remains too boring for most people. Rather than positing how Imhotep came up with the idea of a pyramid for his pharaoh, Djozer, as a tomb, esoteric magic or alien interference is invoked to replace the genius of this man. Why bother explain that Kallikrates used optical illusions in the construction of the Parthenon when you can boldly state the sheer impossibility that ancient man had the wherewithal to create these sophisticated buildings on his own without the benefit of computers? It is an ironic thing: we no longer possess the imagination to recognize our own imagination at work.

“Man delights me not,” says Hamlet, near the end of the famous passage that opened this essay. It would appear that he is not alone; neither godlike apprehension nor the power of intelligence is enough for some to appreciate the genius of mankind.