Thoughts for Thursday: Individualism vs. Collectivism (part 3)

…Or, Of Moose and How We Know What We Know

I don’t believe in moose.

That’s right. Let that sit for just a moment. Then, hear me out, please.

I make this claim all the bloody time, and, because I live in the Pacific Northwest, I almost always get the same reaction: “What the hell are you talking about? I saw one just the other day!”

To which I inevitably (because this has become a fun game and intellectual exercise for me) reply, “Well, I saw Bigfoot the other day.”

Without fail, the person to whom I’m talking becomes frustrated and says “Why don’t you believe in moose?”

Just hang on for the ride…

I give the person some version of this response: When I was seventeen, my family and I went on vacation to Canada in an RV. We drove up through British Columbia, and into Banff National Park in Alberta (one of the most stunningly beautiful places you’ll ever see in your life, by the way). While in Banff – Lake Louise, to be exact – I bought a book written in Japanese (I was studying Japanese in high school at the time, and Banff gets a lot of Japanese tourists) about the Canadian Rockies.

While we were driving through the Rockies, headed toward Alberta’s high-desert Red Deer Valley, I read the book (Yes, I could read enough Japanese back then to get through it… ’cause it had a lot of pictures and Katakana rather than Kanji). The book showed a picture of a “moose,” and said that moose should be found throughout the Canadian Rockies. It also said that about a number of other creatures, including grizzly bears, otters, numerous birds of prey, raccoons, porcupines, deer, elk, coyotes, and even wolves. I’ve seen all of those other animals. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest my entire life. I’ve never seen a moose.

Really? Never?

The streak of not seeing a moose continued throughout my life. People have pointed out animals that are supposedly moose to me, but if I saw anything at all, it was merely a glimpse of something that could have been a moose, or a samsquanch for all I know. If you gave me a lie detector test and asked me if I’ve ever seen a moose, I would say no, and I would pass. I’ve never seen what I can say, without a doubt, is a moose.

People have said to me, “Well what about lions? Have you ever seen a lion?” To which I say, “Yes. I’ve been to numerous zoos. I’ve seen lions, leopards, jaguars, tigers, polar bears, black bears, panda bears, grizzly bears, gorillas, chimpanzees, lemurs, meerkats, koalas, kangaroos, alligators, crocodiles, Bactrian camels, Dromedary camels, toucans, cockatoos, pythons, giant tortoises, elephants (Asian and African), rhinos, giraffes, orangutans, sloths, humpback whales, orcas, dolphins, sea turtles, and – at the San Diego Zoo – you know what they have? They have f–ing reindeer. That’s right. You know what they don’t have? Moose. Not one moose in the entire zoo as of August 2017 (the last time I was there).”

Why do I stick with this silly charade year after year? Because it’s such a useful tool to get people to think about the importance of the collective in our daily lives.

Now we get down to the nitty gritty.

What am I really talking about here? I’m talking about direct experience vs. learned facts. If you’re a history person, you might understand the dynamic better as primary vs. secondary sources. If you still have no idea what I’m talking about, then let me put it in Gramma-wisdom terms. My ol’ Gramma Mo-mo would have said something Texan like, “Shit, honey, some people gotta put their hand right on the stove, an’ others are content to just be told.” To put it still another way, it’s the difference between reading a book about Rome and actually going to Rome.

A thought experiment…

I don’t have time to fully research this, so I apologize if I’m misappropriating credit here, but the first time this idea occurred to me, my friend Jason brought it up when we were deep in band-mate conversation one drunken night many years ago. We were talking specifically about music, but the idea applies across the board.

Imagine a terrible tragedy in which there is a shipwreck or a plane crash at sea. A mother and her young toddler (say between 18-24 months) survive the crash and wash ashore on a deserted island, a la Cast Away. Mom is cut badly when they washes ashore, and ends up dying of infection shortly afterward. Survivalist bullshit aside, let’s say this kid survives and grows up alone on this island, with no human contact. Now, presumably, he’s going to have learned how to forage and find shelter and all of the things Maslow calls our basic needs. He’s safe from natural predators. His only real danger is not finding enough food (though there’s plenty, and plenty of variety on the island), and he’s got fresh water inland. He’s built himself a comfortable shelter in a cave, and he lives his life here… alone.

Jason’s question was, what happens when the kid picks up a conch shell for the first time and blows into it? Or if he discovers that different shaped coconut husks make different sounds when you hit them with sticks? Or that a hollowed out bamboo chute can be used as a flute? Essentially, do you think this kid would ever learn to make music?

There’s a lot to consider

Of course, no social scientist in her/his right mind would ever conceive of conducting such an experiment in real life, but the idea is so fascinating to me. Would this kid, find a way to make order out of chaotic sounds in his lifetime? And if so, what would it sound like, having no other conscious memories of human music (forgive me if I’m wrong in my understanding of developmental psych, there)?

The main point is this…

…Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” The sentiment there is, though he’s considered the father of modern physics, the inventor of calculus, and a brilliant philosopher, Isaac Newton understood that without reading the work of Des-Cartes, or Galileo, or Aristotle, he wouldn’t have understood enough about the world around him to form the conclusions he formed.

Furthermore, let’s look back at our old pals the Transcendentalists. Thoreau had the basic needs covered. He didn’t have to buy the land he built on (he was basically a squatter for two years), and he had nothing but time to consider these grand ideas. He’d read Adam Smith, he’d read Aristotle as well. He built his own philosophy off of ideas they’d already built off of the giants before them.

Even the staunchest of individualists must admit that there simply isn’t enough time in a human lifespan to learn all one needs to know by direct experience alone. Sometimes you have to take the book’s word for it. Sometimes, you have to take a person’s word for it; that boils down to trust. How do you trust the facts you’re getting?

People send me pictures of moose all the time. I send them back pictures (usually gifs) of the Patterson footage. My point is that you shouldn’t always believe everything people tell you, but you have to trust some sources sometimes, and it’s up to each of us to evaluate those sources with rigor and decide for ourselves if they are worth trusting.

After all, if Emerson was right, and “to believe your own thought, that what is true for you in your own private heart is true for all men, that is genius,” then moose do not exist. I believe it in my own private heart and therefore it must be true for all men. (Women, it’s okay, you can still claim to have seen moose.)

I digress… for now.

Next week we’re going to come full circle, which is nicely poetic in this circumstance. I’m going to revisit our Chinese friends Confucius and Lao Tzu, and examine them through the lense of the ideas Amy Cuddy presents in her book, Presence. There’s some fascinating stuff there, and I can’t wait to write it.

Alright. It’s technically 11:59pm on Thursday, so I made my deadline. Goodnight. Fearless Friday coming up tomorrow midday.

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