Category Archives: Achievement

History’s Greatest Wrong Turn

This coming Monday (8 October 2012) is officially Columbus Day. That, even though the Admiral, whose origins are obscure, landed on San Salvador, an island of uncertain identification, on the 12th. At some point in the future, I intend to take on the question of which is the actual point of discovery, but for now, here are some thoughts related to the event.

I went sailing on the 500th anniversary of the landing. I was in college at the time and was required to take a P.E. class. Since I’ve long been fascinated by the sea and since golf strikes me as a funny way to waste time (and a good rifle range, as others have observed), I signed up for a basic sailing course. The teacher wanted to be on the water on the big day and invited any of the students to go with him who wanted–I being the only one, it turned out. We took to the whale road–well, it was Chickamauga Lake, near Chattanooga, but we went with what we could get–and celebrated a noted explorer.

Yes, I know the history of what happened since the 12th of October 1492. The man was an incompetent administrator, and he opened the Western Hemisphere to European colonization. But because of him, we also have the United States of America, a nation that needed a new world to be created. We should also note that in the cases of the Aztec and Incan Empires, the change was in many ways merely a lateral move, not a decline.

He was also something of a charlatan. He took the largest estimate for the distance from China to the west coast of Europe. He took the smallest estimate for the circumference of the Earth. He then inflated the former and shrunk the latter. The scholars at the University of Salamanca said that the voyage would be a failure, and they were right.

Except that they were also wrong. Columbus is one of history’s luckiest persons, too. That is also in question, since it’s at least possible that he travelled to Iceland in 1477. He certainly sailed to Bristol, England and to Ireland in that year. He could have met people with knowledge of lands to the west–perhaps even some who had seen Greenland, Markland, and Vinland. He would have heard accounts of islands across the water. To be sure, the Norse people had little notion of what they’d actually discovered. See this for more on that subject.

The point here is that Columbus had a vision. It makes no difference that he was wrong in his facts. The story that he spun in his mind was the right one. And that’s the message of this article. It’s the essence of humanity to look out at an open expanse and want to cross it, to find what’s on the other side. It’s human nature to attempt to do the impossible. As with anything that we do, there has been a mixture of good and ill, but we celebrate Columbus because he did something that changed the world. The net effect remains to be seen. That’s true about any significant action. We, the descendants of his act, are here to carry it into the future.

And so it is with hope that I say, Happy Columbus Day.

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Hurry Up and Grow

The recent incident at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin raises once again the question of race. To me, few things are more tedious than this subject, but it remains one for heated argument, given America’s history.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s clarify two terms: race and culture.

Race: A sub-group within a species that shares a particular characteristic or set of characteristics not held by others in the same species.

Culture: The art, language, religion, philosophy, behavior, technology, and other achievements of a group of people.

We’ve been told by well-meaning agents of government, schools, and churches that racism–the belief that one racial group is superior to another–is wrong. I’m going to go further than that. Racism is stupid. Human beings are nearly identical, in terms of genetics, no matter who their ancestors were. We all ultimately come from the same stock, a group living in the Great Rift Valley in central Africa. The human genome project used the DNA of four or five humans to sequence what we all have. It is true to say that skin color, eye color, certain bone structures, and so forth are genetically determined. So is susceptibility to some diseases.

That being said, a basic scientific principle needs to be remembered here: There is more variation with a group than between groups. Who is taller, a man or a woman? Obviously, the question is nonsense. Any one reading this has known tall women and short men. One can say that on average, men tend to be taller, but there’s a huge area of overlap in heights. The same kind of thing applies to all manner of physical characteristics.

Consider especially one absurdity of the neo-Nazi killer in Wisconsin. Now the motives of that man will likely always be obscure to rational people, but we’re left to presume that he did what he did because the people attending the Sikh temple were not “white.” As Weer’d Beard points out, many Indians are the descendants of the original and genuine Aryans. I suppose that it comes down to this: Knucklehead didn’t like how they looked. Or perhaps it was their turbans.

Whatever the reason, it was crazy. Speaking rationally and scientifically, all races are equal. That statement is true, but it’s also trivial. I say that because arguing over a person’s genetic heritage is a waste of time. My ancestors come from various parts of northwestern Europe, and I like to joke that this is what gave me my intolerance for hot weather, but realistically, it’s meaningless. Yes, I get sunburns easier than people from the equatorial regions, but no matter how much I want to dodge responsibility, my urges to listen to Wagner and go on rampages is all mine and not the fault of my Norse ancestors.

So what does matter? Are there any valid measures for ranking groups of people?

To answer that, consider culture. What must a group of people do to be considered successful?

1. The basic requirement is that a group can secure its own needs–food, housing, health, and so forth.

2. Then the group has to pass on its way of doing things to the next generation.

Lots of groups achieve this much. Those that fail the first two don’t last long enough to be remembered.

3. Having succeeded in mere survival, the group must add some distinct and new thing to the totality of human achievement.

Yes, that one is vague. We can argue all day about whether a particular thing–statue, language, farm implement, etc.–is worthy, but I hope that my readers can see the general idea here.

Finally, there’s this last item:

4. The achievements of the group have lasting influence, not only within the group, but on other groups as well.

We can measure the relative worth of a culture according to this yardstick. This is not a call for one culture to dominate another. Groups of people have the right to choose whatever mode of living that they wish without having to seek the approval of others. What it is intended to do is to provide a measure that will encourage each group to do better.

Culture is affected by many things–geography and climate, history, and so forth–but the choices made by the persons in that culture also matter. But being human is fundamentally about rising above where we started. We are not forced to be merely the expression of our genes, and going on about one’s genetic heritage only holds all of us back. I don’t care who your parents were. I care what you do.