Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Defining Moment of Mankind

I recently sat down to dinner with three close friends.  After some time, the conversation entered into some intriguing domain.  The following question was posed: “What moment in history best defines mankind?”  There are so many instances where man has done something of great significance.  How could one choose just one defining moment?  It would need to be an event of upmost importance – one that changed the course of history in a major way.  It should also reflect the nature of our species and set us apart from other ones.  After some pondering, each of us expressed our respective view on the matter.

The first opinion came quickly, and it was a bit of a gut reaction.  My friend said that man’s defining moment was when the internet entered into the public domain.  Certainly, this drastically altered the course of history.  In a couple of decades, the event led to a global village here on Earth.  It is already difficult today to imagine life without the worldwide web.  The advent of the internet also reflects man’s desire to connect, communicate, and express oneself.  The internet has allowed billions of individuals to communicate instantaneously.  Finally, this suggestion is a valid one because it sets us apart from all other creatures on Earth; the ingenuity required for such a tool is simply beyond the capability of any other animal from these parts.

Friend number two rang in, stating that perhaps the moment that audiovisual equipment was invented was the defining one.  At first glance, this suggestion seems like an odd choice.  Let’s take a closer look before brushing it off.  When images and sound could be stored in a memory outside one’s own brain, the ultimate method of recording history had arrived.  We sometimes forget that the concept of time loses its significance without memory.  Indeed, the passage of time could now be documented for future generations or even civilizations.  The information would not lose accuracy with time, so in a sense, time could be encapsulated with this device.  Film is also perhaps the most versatile art form, and art is most certainly a defining feature of man.

At this point, I expressed my opinion.  I said that man is defined by its desire to explore and discover, and therefore the lunar landing represents man’s crowning achievement thus far.  If man wanted a claim to fame, this was it.  Columbus discovering a new part of land on Earth was very important, but man’s ability to leave the celestial body on which it evolved to set foot on another, despite all of the hurdles involved in doing so, represented a valid nomination for man’s defining moment.  It was the first step towards an endless realm of possibilities, and a wonderful illustration of our ingenuity, perseverance, and insatiable curiosity.  The moment also represents the end of a space race, which implies man’s underlying competitive nature.

The fourth member at the table had patiently considered our points of view.  Thus far, three engineering feats had been presented by three men.  The sole woman at the table gathered her thoughts, and expressed her view, which upon reflection, is probably the best of the lot.

She stated that the moment that defines man is not really an engineering feat at all, but rather a biological one.  The moment that defines man is the moment where man became defined, ie, the final evolutionary step that brought us into this current adaptation of hominid, Homo sapiens.  Perhaps it was the moment when man discovered it could use bones as weapons to fight off other animals, as suggested in the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  She argued that all of the engineering feats that followed this quintessential moment of evolution were inevitable consequences of our coming into existence as a species.

This notion implies another.  Are we all best defined as individuals the moment we are born?  I could not argue against the defining moment of the Universe being the big bang.  In the end, is it our roots that best define us?  Are the initial conditions of greater significance than the governing equations?

The point of view that man’s step into Homo sapiens was its defining moment proved extremely compelling that evening, and none of the three men could muster much argument against it.  And besides, on this night, the woman who provided this incredible insight was also the woman who prepared a delicious dinner for the four of us to enjoy.  If a competitive spirit is a part of man’s definition, then score one for the lady.           

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