With the advent of consciousness humans started to ask the apparently unanswerable questions, questions that take us to the supreme heights of human achievement, and into the depths of despair. Not for us the unreflective life of a dog, or even possibly a chimpanzee; we humans try to solve the riddle of existence by posing the ultimate question, ‘What is life?’. We have bitten so deeply into the apple of the tree of knowledge that we drive ourselves crazy in trying to find the ‘correct’ answers ─ and then attempt to force them onto other people.
The French painter, Paul Gaugin, seeking to recover from deep depression, poured out all his artistic tension into a massive, enigmatic mural of creation over which he scrawled three questions, “Where do we come from?”, “What are we?” and “Where are we going?”1. Like Gauguin we each in our own idiosyncratic ways try to make sense of ourselves and our surroundings. Searching for meaning is what our early cave-dwelling ancestors did thirty thousand years ago ─ they revealed themselves through their paintings, “the symbolic expression of yearnings and values of a culture… that reflected the doubtless rich body of myth, belief and tradition which they represented”. In every generation people have found themselves going away to a mountain top, or sitting watching rain drops run down a window pane, and pondering the ever-present question, ‘just what are we all about?’. The ‘Hows and Whys of life’ questions. How is it that we are as we are, and why are we here in the first place? However ‘rational’ we may think ourselves to be, such questions just don’t go away.
Until very recently most people didn’t try to separate out the hows from the whys. There still remains in Tanzania a tiny tribe of less than a thousand people living in Stone Age conditions ─ they own no land, no animals and plant no crops. They are the Hadza. They have their own ‘click’ language and a rich body of oral tradition, that is all about such questions. “In the beginning”, the elders tell their children, “God (described as female which would suggest this story goes back even further than that of the male God in the Book of Genesis) created the Hadza”2. She was pleased and one day, being thirsty, she went and asked the Hadza to fetch her some water. The young people rushed off to the river with their calabashes, but instead of taking the water back to God they had great fun throwing water at each other. Sometime later God, being ever thirstier and by this time bad tempered, went down to see what was going on. Furious at the disobedience of the young people God cursed the whole Hadza people saying that from henceforth half of them would be the baboons and the others would remain Hadza… and the baboons would cause chaos to the Hadza forever. A simple joined-up story that linked an explanation of creation, and life itself, with the concept of ethical behaviour. An explanation that could well have been passed down, parent to child, through more than five hundred generations, and gave them a sense of who they are.
Questioning the way in which life was shaped by inheritance George Eliot recorded a fictitious conversation in theEnglandof the 1860s between two farmers about the unpredictable characteristics of their children. “It seems a bit of a pity, though”, said Mr. Tulliver, the miller, “as the lad should take after the mother’s side instead of o’ the little wench. That’s the worst on’t. Wi’ the crossing of breeds, you can never justly calkilate what’ll come on’t. The little’un takes after my side, now, she’s twice as cute as Tom. Too cute for a woman I’m afraid”.
“But you see, when a man’s got brains himself”, concluded Mr. Tulliver, proudly, “there’s no knowing where they’ll run to; an’ pleasant sort o’ soft women go on breeding you stupid lads and cute wenches, until it’s like as if the world was turned to topsy-turvy. It’s an uncommon puzzling thing!”3
The meaning of existence, and the nature of humankind are the beliefs that societies have gradually formed in order to make sense of who they are, why they’re here, and how such thoughts should influence the way they, and other people, should treat each other. These are the oldest of mankind’s questions.
The extent of our technical knowledge compels our generation to go many a step further than our forebears and, with all the wisdom and knowledge available to us, develop a philosophy that honours both our scientific as well as our spiritual natures. Old stories were reassuring, but we want to argue with them. It’s simple really. The better we use our brains, the more we want to challenge the boundaries of an earlier generation’s knowledge. The very sciences that are helping us to understand ourselves better are becoming a source of inspiration for the re-configuration of narratives that combine with the sense of our commonality and mutual purpose.
Thesis 13: 24th August 2006