Acquiring New Arts and Losing Old Instincts

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is Christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts.

To some degree, I believe this to be true. In my own life, for example, I have slowly been realizing how much I don’t know how to do. In benefitting from the improvements of my age – the existence of supermarkets and automation and global trade – I have much, but there is also much that I lack. Perhaps I’m less able to survive in the wild than most, but (beyond a few herbs) I don’t know how to grow my own food, or where it really comes from. For instance, I’ve only recently discovered what cashew plants look like ( – mind blowing).

And although I’ve spent years improving my data analytics skills, I can’t sew my own clothes. I can’t build my own furniture. I have spent my days and years a step removed from the tasks that made up the meat and substance of the lives of humans just a few hundred years ago.


In Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe, he states that genetic adaptations take around 25,000 years to appear in humans. What this means is that our bodies today, our DNA, is 25,000 years out of date. Our DNA is programmed for a previous age, one in which we hunted for our food, erected our own dwellings, made our own clothes, travelled by foot or by beast.

We live in a world where others grow our food for us, others make our clothes for us, others build our homes, our furniture. And these ‘others’ are in many cases not people, but companies. And these companies make it either impossible or very difficult for individuals to do these tasks. Individuals that would love to make clothes are priced out of it. Instead big companies, take H&M for example, make clothes. And thousands of people work at H&M, very few of them actually knowledgable of making clothes. Each one is a cog in a giant machine, seeing only a minute part of the process and not the greater picture.

The individual person is multiple steps removed from the very tasks that used to fill the days of humans. And although our societies and ways of living have changed, our DNA hasn’t. What then is the consequence of this ever growing gap between what our bodies are made for, evolved for, and the way in which we live?

I think of the intelligent beast in captivity – the dolphin or the orangutan. Isn’t there a certain sadness to the idea of these creatures, developed so that they are capable of doing so much, ultimately doing so little? As a society of course we accomplish more, far more, than we have ever in the past. But what might the individual lose during this process?

George Orwell in his book The Road to Wigan Pier paints it quite dramatically. He is of course speaking of the challenges of his age (The Road to Wigan Pier was published in 1937), but his observations are strikingly applicable to our times, especially when considering the changes that AI may bring.

Cease to use your hands, and you have lopped off a huge chunk of your consciousness….[Consider the] men who were digging the trench for the water-pipe. A machine has set them free from digging, and they are going to amuse themselves with something else – carpentering, for instance. But whatever they want to do, they will find that another machine has set them free from that. For in a fully mechanised world there would be no more need to carpenter, to cook, to mend motor bicycles, etc., than there would be to dig. There is scarcely anything, from catching a whale to carving a cherry stone, that could not conceivably be done by machinery. The machine would even encroach upon the activities we now class as “art”; it is doing so already, via the camera and the radio. Mechanise the world as fully as it might be mechanised, and whichever way you turn there will be some machine cutting you off from the chance of working – that is, of living.

If efficiency is our only guiding compass, increased mechanization is the way of things. And with this, a growing disconnect between the individual and his life as well as a diminished sense of his personal utility.

But there are other factors beyond efficiency. And those of us who do make efforts to return to more basic activities – such as growing vegetables in our gardens, taking up woodworking, or even supporting a local farmer’s market – are, whether we realize it or not, implicitly valuing factors beyond efficiency. We are valuing the pleasure gained from the task, the sense of control and agency that it may bring, and the sense of connection we build between ourselves, our environment, and our community.

Journey of the Universe: A Lyrical Ode to the Role of Wonder in Human Understanding

Journey of the Universe reads like a poem to the beauty of life. It tells, in breathtaking prose, the creation story of our universe. From detailing the Big Bang to the first signs of life to the evolution of mammals, humans, and the development of human consciousness, Journey of the Universe reads less like a textbook but more like a lyrical celebration of our world and how we got here. It was such a refreshing and moving take on a story we all may think we’re familiar with, but perhaps, as I learned, have never truly stopped to appreciate.


And the difference between Journey of the Universe and many other tellings of the same story, is wonder. While all great science is driven by curiosity and the desire to know, Journey of the Universe feels especially imbued with a sense of wonder and awe.

As a process – say photosynthesis – is described (as below), you cannot help but to feel the authors marvel and to marvel yourself at something you somehow never realized was so splendid.

[On photosynthesis] “After the emergence of life itself, one of the most stunning manifestations of this deepening communion is that of photosynthesis. The key construction, requiring perhaps tens of millions of years, was a molecular assembly capable of an elegant resonance with sunlight. Like tuning forks shaped to vibrate in the presence of certain sorts of music, these special molecules, called chlorophyll, glow with energy when the light from our Sun falls upon them. The photons, when captured, lift electrons to a higher energy state, which immediately sets off a cascade of chemical events leading to the creation of powerhouse molecules within every cell. Life thus found a process of feeding upon the Sun in a direct way, drawing in sunlight and using its energy to synthesize its component parts.”

And being in awe and in appreciation of a concept is what fuels a true desire to understand and to learn. In the same way that Bill Nye’s science experiments aim to ‘wow’ middle grade students in science class, authors Brian Swimme and Mary Tucker seem to aim to awaken us adults to ‘wow’ at our world. Understanding fueled by a sense of wonder is passionate, creative, and driven. Wonder marks the difference between the rote memorization, recitation, and regurgitation of facts versus self-led discovery fueled by one’s one curiosity.

Along similar lines, philosopher Hannah Arendt in The Life of the Mind wrote,

It is wonder that sends the scientist on his course of “dispelling ignorance” and that made Einstein say: “The eternal mystery of the world [i.e., the universe] is its comprehensibility.

Authors Swimme and Tucker are patently aware of the role of wonder. Wonder, in their eyes, is what has made humans unique and is what has led us to seek to understand. They write,

“Wonder is a gateway through which the universe floods in and takes up residence within us. Consider the stars. They shined down on Earth for four and a half billion years. Then these new creatures emerged, these humans. What was different about them is that they were amazed every time they beheld the stars. Their amazement inspired works of art and science. Hundreds of thousands of years later, humans discovered that it was these stars that forged the elements of their bodies.

By dwelling in a world of wonder, humans were led to realize that they were children of the stars – something intuited in early myths and uncovered by modern science.”

On a deeper level, Swimme and Tucker argue that wonder is also what makes us human. And a continuing sense of wonder allows us today to move forward in further understanding exactly what being human in the context of our universe means.

“Wonder is not just another emotion; it is rather an opening into the heart of the universe. Wonder is the pathway into what it means to be human, to taste the lusciousness of sun-ripened fruit, to endure the bleak agonies of heartbreak, to exult over the majesty of existence.

The universe’s energies penetrate us and awaken us. Through each moment of wonder, no matter how small, we participate in the entrance of primal energies into our lives.

However insignificant we may feel with respect to the age and size of the universe, we are, even so, beings in whom the universe shivers in wonder at itself. By following this wonder we have discovered the ongoing story of the universe, a story that we tell, but a story that is also telling us.”

Similarly, I love these simple lines from the Tao Te Ching:

From wonder into wonder

Existence opens.