Thursday, April 12, 2012

We are history!

I haven’t been able to write the blog for a good while now, research and other things keep getting in the way even when I think about topics I’d like to discuss and write about. But, I have something I don’t really think needs a lot of up-front writing or analysis from me, just maybe some prompting to muse and think.

I have been listening (for the 3rd time or so) to the audiobook of Terry Pratchett’s book A Hat Full of Sky, the second book in the Tiffany Aching series. These may be my favorite books that he’s written and I love them every time I hear/read them. I have been thinking about the excerpt below quite a bit lately. I’ve been teaching a vertebrate zoology lab this semester, so I have been thinking about phylogeny and evolution more than usual, so I’m sure that’s one reason. But also I was just thinking about how beautifully this section describes what is means to be human in a greater biological context, considering the remarkable history of life on earth and the ways that humans are different from other animals. And while we are always being reminded about how much trouble and damage humans cause the world and the other organisms we share the earth with (as being something that really does set humans apart from other living things), this is one of those passages that reminds me of the why humans are special, in spite of how extremely similar we are to other living things, there are some vastly important differences that have led to us being who we are.

So, take a minute to read this passage and see what it makes you think about. After Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, writing about Bach being the music of the world and the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” this is one of my favorite excerpts about the wonder of the natural world. Let me know what your thoughts are, I would love to hear them! And pick up one, or I would recommend many, of Terry Pratchett’s books if you haven’t already done so!

(a bit of context: Tiffany is talking to a “hiver,” which is an entity that takes over the bodies of animals or people, and then “becomes” everything its ever taken over, and almost always kills whatever it is embodying. So, the hiver has all the memories and experiences of every animal or person it has ever been. It cannot think of itself as “I” or one living thing, because it is everything all at once. It cannot figure out how to die, to stop killing things, because it doesn’t know what it is.)

“Here is a story to believe,” she said. “Once we were blobs in the sea, and then fishes, and then lizards and rats, and then monkeys, and hundreds of things in between. This hand was once a fin, this hand once had claws! In my human mouth I have the pointy teeth of a wolf and the chisel teeth of a rabbit and the grinding teeth of a cow! Our blood is as salty as the sea we used to live in! When we’re frightened, the hair on our skins stands up, just like when we had fur. We are history! Everything we’ve ever been on the way to becoming us, we still are…I’m made up of the memories of my parents and grandparents, all my ancestors. They’re in the way I look, in the color of my hair. And I’m made up of everyone I’ve ever met who’s chanced the way I think. So who is ‘me’?”
“The piece that just told us that story,” said the hiver. “The piece that’s truly you.”
“Well…yes. But you must have that too. You know you say you’re ‘us’—who is saying that? Who is saying you’re not you? You’re not different from us, we’re just much better at forgetting. And we know when not to listen to the monkey.”
“You just puzzled us,” said the hiver.
“The old bit of our brains that wants to be head monkey, and attacks when its surprised,” said Tiffany. “It reacts. It doesn’t think. Being human is know when not to be the monkey or the lizard or any of those other old echoes. But when you take people over, you silence the human part. You listen to the monkey. The monkey doesn’t know what it needs, only what it wants.”

-Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky, p. 240-241