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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘assumptions’

Look into my eyes

A brief digression into heterochromia

Yesterday’s post about applying human assumptions to the rest of the universe set my mind off running down another tangent, about our tendency firstly to oversimplify the world, and secondly to insist on the validity of our oversimplified mental map of the world in the face of all the evidence that it is wrong.

One of my early memories of The Mother, from before I started school, is talking to her about eye colour: what colour my eyes are and what colour hers are. “Mine are different colours,” she said. “One is greeny-brown and the other is browny-green.” It’s a very subtle distinction to make, even when you’re four years old, but nevertheless one you can understand. “Yours are almost blue,” she said. And—as I learned when I looked—my eyes are almost blue. Most of the iris is a very pale blue-grey. The central ring around the pupil isn’t: it’s a greenish-hazel colour.

When I was older, in biology class at school, I found that in class you occasionally discuss things like inheritance and eye colour and so on. The teacher, or someone else in the class, will ask you what colour your eyes are. “Blue on the outside but green in the middle,” is not, it turns out, considered an acceptable answer by most teachers, even less so by most of the other pupils. “That’s impossible,” is the answer you get.* “Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

Similarly, anything along the lines of “My mother says her eyes are slightly different colours” gets the same answer. “That’s impossible. Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

None of these people, as you might imagine, ever seemed to think it might be straightforward to confirm or deny whether I was telling the truth, at least not in my case. Even though they could easily have just looked into my eyes, they didn’t bother. It was relatively recently that I discovered it’s called heterochromia—central heterochromia in my case—and it’s sufficiently common for the Wikipedia page to have a gallery of celebrities who have one form or another of it.

Similarly, one of the things we were taught in school biology class was the now extremely discredited concept that there are only a handful of “races” in the world: Caucasian, African, Oriental and so on. The teacher pointed to someone in the class and said “which of these is he?” “Caucasian,” everyone chorused. But then he pointed to one of the children in the class whose parents were from Pakistan—and almost everyone in the classroom seemed completely stumped. “…African?” someone attempted after a lot of hesitation, before I think I put my hand up and said: “Caucasian is the closest.” What I wish I had said, what somebody should have said, is: clearly this classification scheme is a load of nonsense.

There are so many things in the world where, given a simplistic explanation or a simplistic and naieve classification scheme for something, people will believe in it intensely, hold it tight to their hearts, even when it only takes the slightest amount of evidence, staring them straight in the face, to show that it clearly is wrong. There are so many “facts” in history that are accepted as the truth, even when it’s clear to see that they are a nonsense. “Columbus discovered America” is the most blatant example that springs to mind, but there are many, many more. Why do people do that? It’s easy, I suppose. People believe what they are taught, especially when they are taught it when they are easily impressionable.

As for me: well, I did certainly believe everything my teachers told me, when I was young enough. At quite a young age, though, I started to notice when I was being taught things that clearly weren’t in line with the evidence in front of my eyes. The colour of my eyes for one thing. Maybe it’s a curse, to be able to notice that and have to stand back and go “hang on a moment there…” I prefer to think it’s a benefit. I can’t imagine, whichever, that I will ever stop doing it.

* Unless of course the person in question has already read this blog post via a time machine.

The world of the humans

Or, the things we assume just because we assume they'll be like us

A random thought came to me the other day, about how we frame the world. How we conceive of the world, almost entirely around one particular mental framework: that the world and the universe operate in the same way as humans in general and ourselves in particular.

Take, for example, the mayfly. They’re famous for only living a few hours. They emerge, live, reproduce and die in the space of a single day, in the case of many mayfly species. In the most extreme case, Dolania americana live and die in, at most, half an hour for the males, about five minutes for the females.

Except that: of course they don’t, really. We’re talking here about their “adult lifespan”. Most mayflys live about a year, most of which they spend in a “juvenile” state. It’s only the “adult” stage that is quite so brief. It is, it’s fair to say, by far the most visible stage of the mayfly lifecycle. We call it the adult stage because it’s the stage of sexual maturity and reproduction. Mentally, we privilege that stage because most humans spend most of their lives as adults. But for mayflys that’s not really relevant. It’s a tiny fraction of their lives. They don’t even eat in that stage of their life, nor can they. The primary stage of their life, in the sense of it being the one they spend the most of their time doing, is the water-dwelling flightless “nymph” form.

I distinguished above between male and female Dolania americana mayflys. Even these terms, though, are glued on from the human experience, without really considering how relevant and applicable they are. Yes, there are two sexually distinct forms of the species. One of them mates, lays eggs, and then dies; the other mates as much as it can before dying from exhaustion. Being humans, we have an innate tendency to look for parallels and for binary opposites, so we attach the labels “male” and “female”. We probably then also make a lot more assumptions as to what this actually means for the mayflies.

The Plain People Of The Internet: But isn’t that all down to your chromosomes and whatnot? We all have chromosomes! They all have chromosomes! It’s all very basic and that.

Except…that’s not really the case. We have XY chromosomes, where some people have two matching big chromosomes labelled X and some people have one big X one and one small Y one, and we say the former are female and the latter are male. Birds, by comparison, have what are called “ZW” chromosomes: the animals that have one big chromosome and one little one are the ones that lay eggs so we call them female, and the animals that have two big identical chromosomes don’t lay eggs and are called male. Birds and ourselves both evolved from reptiles, not at all that far back in history compared to, say, us and mayflies. There are other reptiles that also use “the ZW system”, but they have different chromosomes for Z and W, showing that they evolved the ZW system independently from the birds and other dinosaurs. And naturally this is without even considering “unusual” cases such as intersex conditions, which we know occur relatively frequently in humans, so must occur relatively frequently in other animals too whether or not anybody has actually noticed. Incidentally, some mayflys can become intersex as a result of parasitic infection and some mosquitos as a result of changes in temperature; that paper also summarises some of the many different genetic and non-genetic mechanisms which determine sexual development in insects.

My point here isn’t just to say that the world is considerably more complex than you thought; more, that at a very basic level, we assign names and labels and modes of thought to things based on nothing more than how we think humans should operate. This is wrong, but it’s also extremely hard to avoid, particularly as it is so deeply embedded in human behaviour and language. One of the tenets of structuralist anthropology—as posited by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, whose master-work on the subject The Raw And The Cooked later became a Fine Young Cannibals album title—is that this is fundamentally part of the way we as humans think: that binary category distinction is effectively hardwired into our thought processes because it is how our brains function at an extremely low level. This hypothesis is completely unproven and rests on slightly simplistic assumptions, but it is certainly an easy pattern of thought to fall into, reinforced by the structure of much human language.*

As a final aside here: maybe this gives us a way to categorise science fiction works, to categorise them into another sort of binary division. Maybe we can say “good science fiction” is science fiction that tries to be open, speculative and imaginative, and that tries to get away from human-frame assumptions such as “there are male and female sexes” or “the most important stage in the organism’s life cycle is the adult stage, the stage in which reproduction occurs”. “Bad science fiction,” then, is the opposite: works that are closed and imagine that all alien life forms still operate entirely within the human frame of reference, where everyone is another humanoid with differently-coloured skin. It might be stupidly simplistic, but it has to be worth a thought.

* An idle thought: I wonder if Levi-Strauss, as a native French speaker, was innately more likely to come up with the idea that human thought tends always to divide things into binary categories, than someone whose first language was say English or German.