In fantasy novels, trees walk upon their roots and battle with their limbs. That makes sense to me. If I think about two trees interacting, I consider the branches; the taller tree shades the other, limiting its competitor’s growth.
But my perspective is upside down. Trees are standing on the sky, reaching for one another through the earth. They listen underground. They communicate down there, passing messages to one another, or even meals.
Perhaps their branches grope for sunlight in the unconscious way that my kids’s feet seek warmth like homing missiles while they sleep. I try to roll over only to find somebody’s toes wedged under my back.
Year by year, trees inch their feet toward the sun. And their engaging social lives are hidden from me, buried underground. My reflexive perspective gives me an inverted image of a tree’s world.
I’m surely not alone in this misunderstanding.
We humans hold our heads high as we walk across the ground. A major source of tension in human evolution was arranging our skeletons in such a way that we could walk upright without too many women dying in childbirth – our posture constrains the shape of the pelvis.
Although some species do exhibit dramatically different body morphs between males and females, it’s more common for evolutionary changes in one sex to diffusely alter the other. Club-winged manakins have bones that are more dense than other birds, which makes them worse at flying. All club-winged manakins fly poorly, male and female, even though only the males use their dense bones to produce mate-luring music. Or consider the orgasms and nipples of Homo sapiens, which fulfill important biological purposes in one sex, and serve as a vestigial source of fun for the other.
In prehistoric times, men and women probably hunted together. The evidence is especially compelling for human populations like the Neanderthal in southern Europe, who lived in such small groups that they would be unable to kill large prey without help from everyone in the group. But even if prehistoric men had hunted alone, their upright stance and endurance running would have introduced an evolutionary pressure constricting the width of a human pelvis.
Our ancestors first descended from the trees to scavenge meat from lions’ kills. Eventually, they began to hunt. Their strategy was to exhaust and bewilder their prey, hoping to use the local geography to assist in each kill. Mammoths were more likely to fall to their deaths than be slain by hurled spears; mounds of butchered bones accumulated at the base of particularly useful cliffs.
The high caloric density of cooked meat allowed our brains to expand … but the embrace of hunting also caused more women to die in childbirth.
And, less tragically, our upright posture distorts our understanding of the trees that once harbored our communities. After all, we live in our heads. It seemed sensible to us that the most interesting life of a tree would transpire in its loftiest branches.
Our biology doesn’t force us to view the world a certain way, but it dictates which perspectives are easiest to take.
Because our brains are story-generating organs, human cultures invariably see time as flowing uniformly in a single direction. But for subatomic particles, time appears to be symmetrical; the Feynman diagram of an interaction would appear perfectly plausible progressing either forward or backward.
Only our universe’s progression toward greater entropy, i.e. randomness, seems to introduce a directionality for time’s arrow. But there’s no a priori reason to expect a world to progress toward higher entropy. This directionality seems to exist only because our particular universe happened to be in an unstable, low entropy state shortly after the Big Bang.
Or so say most physicists. From my perspective, I’m content assuming that the past is fixed but the future is mutable. If I didn’t believe in that asymmetry – whether it’s real or not – I’d probably lapse into despair.
But, again, even if we accept that time is flowing, our perspective alters how we feel about that change.
Is the flow of time progress or decline?
Are a tree’s branches its hands or its feet?
In Indian mythology, time is cyclical, but within each cycle it flows toward corruption. Time passes and the world grows worse. Currently we are trapped within a Kali Age, the worst possible world, knowing that all the great heroes have passed. We are just biding our time before the world can be destroyed and made good again.
After the sunder, time will once again cause that new world’s gleam to fade. Nothing can stave off the encroach of rot.
In Judaism, the ancient sages lived longer than we do, and knew more, too. At one point in time, a pair of humans were good: before long, we disobeyed the whims of God and were exiled from paradise.
In The Book of Shem, David Kishik writes that
To be original means to linger by the origin and insist on it. The task is to avoid the progression toward a future or an end, and to stop the narrative before it develops any further. In this sense, and in this sense only, the origin is a worthwhile goal. Hence in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum), just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).
Many humans want to reclaim the imagined glories of the past.
To make America great again, perhaps.
I personally think that many recent technological developments in our world are bad. We’ve designed distracting, addicting telephones, and we’re putting them into the hands of children. Our brains evolved to be extremely plastic, which let our species adapt to a wide variety of circumstances … but this neural plasticity allows exposure to fabulous, drug-like devices to dramatically alter our brains, probably for the worse.
And we’ve designed distracting, addicting advertising platforms – these siphon huge amounts of money away from productive industries, and the perverse economic incentives we’ve constructed allow these companies, alongside equally-unhelpful investment banks, to lure many of the most clever college graduates to their ranks.
But I’m certainly no Luddite, pining for a purer past. The world was a terrible place for so many people. Although I appreciate the thesis that Yuval Noah Harari presents in Sapiens – that the invention of agriculture made people’s lives worse than when all humans were hunters and gatherers – I see those grim millennia as akin to the hump in a chemical reaction, a transition that must be traversed in order to reach the desired products.
For generations, most people scraped out a miserable existence by subsistence farming. Their lives were worse than their ancestors’. But we, now, can feed so many people so easily that we could make our world into a paradise.
We’re not doing it, but we could.
At least we’re making baby steps toward a society in which people aren’t punished for their genetic background, or gender, or religious beliefs. I mean, even in the United States we still treat women shabbily; across the country, racist police departments beleaguer Black citizens; atheists and Muslims are eyed with distrust.
But it used to be worse.
And, sure, even if we were the best of stewards, our planet would eventually be doomed. Even if we don’t exhaust the resources here on Earth, the sun will run out of energy and bloat to engulf our world in a ball of fire. Maybe that’s fine. Death is a part of my life; perhaps I should look upon extinction as a natural part of humanity’s journey through time.
But it’s so cool to image people someday spreading amongst the stars. I dream about the future. And hope against hope – despite overpopulation, climate change, and all – that my children will find a better world than the one I’ve been living in.
From my perspective, time will let us make the world better.
Although it surely won’t happen on its own. We will have to work to make it better. The work might not be that hard. Just live the way you would if the world were already the place it ought to be.