The branch of a larger tree

An acquaintance of mine once told me that he believed that Americans today were smarter and maybe even wiser than the American founders. I didn’t find that credible at the time and I don’t now, if for no other reason than that I don’t think we could recreate the sort of American self-governance that the founders created if we had to start over.

Few generations are revolutionary, some are evolutionary, and most are conservative—in the sense of conserving the best of whatever they’ve inherited. Jason Szegedi writes on these themes in a recent Twitter thread, which I’m recreating here in case those tweets are deleted at some point:

When I was probably about 10 years old, I remember saying something to my Dad along the lines of “We sure are lucky to live at a time when people are so much smarter than people were in the past.”

He looked at me, not unkindly, and said “I don’t think that is true at all. There is a good possibility that people in the past were smarter and wiser than we are today, and they most certainly knew more than we do about many every day things that we never even think about.”

Although I was surprised by his response, and somewhat skeptical, I tended to believe him, because I knew that he was smarter and wiser than I was. It was many years later before I realized how right he actually was.

We forget that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We (often unintentionally) take at least a measure of personal credit for all of the scientific and technological advances that we enjoy, when in nearly all cases, we’re simply living in the right place at the right time.

I have no idea how my smartphone really works. And even if I vaguely understood the applied physics and chemistry that it took to create it (and the complex systems that it relies upon), I would never be able to build one, or explain to someone else in detail how it works.

The average person (myself included) has no real practical understanding of far more basic, but even more fundamental technologies and systems – electrical generation and transmission, water distribution and sewage disposal, natural gas distribution, etc.

The basic machines and appliances that we rely upon daily – automobiles, refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, microwave ovens, etc. are all things that even the more knowledgeable among us still have mostly vague notions as to how they actually work.

And, in many ways, this is as it should be. We are all part of a highly-specialized and highly-organized system of industrial capitalism, and most of us benefit greatly from it. We don’t need to know about these things, because there are specialists who know about them for us.

But we should never mistake the complexity and specialization of our globalized industrial system of production and consumption, as something that we deserve credit for creating or building. At best, we get credit for maintaining it (for now).

Ours is a society of many individuals possessing specialized and fragmented knowledge, and few individuals possessing general and integrated knowledge. Previous societies tended to be the exact opposite – few specialists and many generalists.

The scientific and technological advances that we enjoy (and sometimes take undue personal credit for) are the end result of decades, centuries, and even millennia of painstaking, trial-and-error development.

Even the most halting and rudimentary of these advances (and even some of the abject failures) were the work of brilliant geniuses, particularly when one considers the means (both in terms of existing technologies and the store of human knowledge) available at the time.

We modern people often tend to exhibit a lack of appreciation, or even ingratitude, for the hard-won knowledge and innovations of previous generations. Some of this is simply a lack of historical perspective.

And some of it is our modern American notion of progress, where it is near-axiomatic that the present is superior to the past.

But as C.S. Lewis observed: “our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

We’re far too quick to point out the shortcomings of (and demonstrate arrogant superiority toward) those who came before us – increasingly, even toward those who imperfectly but extraordinarily built the entire framework for the civilization from which we all greatly benefit.

The civilization is imperfect, and those who built it were even more imperfect. But so are we – and it will remain to be seen whether we are even up to the task of preserving what they built – let alone improving upon it.

Our civilization is the branch of a larger tree that was planted by people who came long before us, and we ourselves are sitting on that branch. If the branch is starting to get rotten, the solution is to heal the tree, not to saw off the branch that we are sitting on.