Imagination, above all else, is the facet that makes humans so successful. It exists in other creatures; witness a chimpanzee stripping the leaves from a twig and inserting one end into an ant hill. She slowly withdraws it along with a number of ants who have clung to the twig. Deftly, she wipes the twig across her open mouth and eats the ants. It may be learned behaviour but once upon a time an ancestor sat beside an ant hill and imagined what it would be like to be able to extract ants without having to destroy the colony. She imagined inserting a foreign object into a fiercely defended colony and it being attacked by the ants. She saw a twig and imagined it without leaves, sleek and streamlined, the perfect foreign body. Because she imagined it, she experimented, refined her technique and perfected it.
Prior to this breakthrough, no none imagined it possible to extract ants so easily and with so little destruction to the colony. Yet, now it is common behaviour.
Over centuries, human society has developed many ways to solve problems. As hunter gatherers, we co-operated as a matter of life and death. I have no notion of whether these groups were egalitarian but surviving, so-called primitive societies often have tribal leaders or elders suggesting an inevitability of hierarchy in some form or other. As we became settlers, new ways of organising emerged. Governance became expressions of competing political ideologies. These have become synthesised into relative positions on a sliding scale whose opposing points are Left and Right. We have become wedded to the notion of this linear model of political ideas. So much so, that anything that is not fundamentally Left or Right is Centrist or left or right of centre; not, in effect a new idea but a variation of an existing position on the imagined horizontal,sliding scale. And these positions are often held from varying perspectives of what is or is not fair.
The speed of scientific progress in my lifetime has been breathtaking. But our smartness cannot supplant our imperfect humanness. The Internet and social media have great potential in terms of the democratisation of knowledge. But Umair Haque on his recent blog about abuse on Twitter shines a light on an ugly truth. With all our flashes of brilliance, we are still, fundamentally human…flawed.
I find it ironic that the creature with the largest brain often has the smallest mind.
We snipe and we sneer. We resent and belittle. We abuse and demonise those that are other and not we. Why? Because, despite the randomness of the natural world we inhabit, we cling to the notion of fairness. It is fairness or the apparent lack of it that inspires so much of the vitriol we see and hear.
Fairness makes a poor man resent a rich man and a rich man resent a poor man. Fairness drives a thief to take from those who have what he has not. Fairness inspires a man as rich as Croesus to hide what he cannot spend in vaults rather than see it put to any practical use because he earned it (or perhaps inherited it). Fairness makes an otherwise kindly person seethe with anger when a person fleeing bombs and bullets is carrying something as commonplace as a mobile phone. When we allow our imagination to speculate on fairness, we become less human. So long as we believe in fairness, we cannot progress.
Instead, I would argue that we should apply our imagination to the practical, and most importantly, that governments should.
For example; how much political instability in the world is directly or indirectly attributable to the pursuit and use of non-renewable fuels? Is that practical?
Could we imagine spending ten years perfecting a universally accessible renewable energy infrastructure and in so doing eliminating inequality, ending unnecessary conflicts and addressing the refugee crisis?
It is one example of many I could cite where a focus on the practical can challenge entrenched systems of belief, economics and governance. But that takes imagination.
The chimpanzee that perfected the stick technique clearly didn’t keep it to herself. All chimpanzees benefit and despite a few losses, the ant colonies continue to thrive. Imagine that.
I caught Brian Eno’s recent John Peel Lecture which set me off on this train of thought. I thoroughly recommend it.