How Much Difference Does a Generation Make?

child in rain
I often read arguments about the ability or inability of humans to change. They generally fall into two categories, depending on their proponent’s worldview:

  1. Humans can change quickly because we are no longer constrained by our bodies and by natural evolution. What makes us ‘us’ now is our cultural evolution, not our biological one. Freed from ‘natural’ restrictions, we can change in a heartbeat. We can accomplish anything. Mind over matter. Imagination trumps mere reality. We can reach the stars, we can live forever. We can create technologies, extensions of our brains, that transcend all ‘real’-world limits. We just need to want to do it, and it will be done.
  2. People don’t change. We’re still living with (and in) hardware, our bodies, that control most of what we are and what we do and which evolve infinitesimally slowly. Only 18 of the 16 million bits of information our bodies process each second are conscious. It doesn’t matter that our brains have allowed us to establish more complex cultures than those of other species. We continue to be preoccupied with the needs of the moment. We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, then we do what’s fun. There is no time left for anything else. We can’t even grasp real complexity, let alone control it.

I’m not sure there’s any reconciling these two views, though there seem to be lots of people determined to try. For years I was a fence-sitter on this issue, unwilling or unable to make up my mind. Recently I’ve come down squarely in the second, less popular camp. That’s not to say I couldn’t be convinced to change my mind. But it jibes better both with my understanding of history and with my instincts.

I remember sitting in a dentist’s waiting room many years ago and watching three generations of a Chinese-Canadian family. The grandparents spoke no English, dressed traditionally, and seemed bewildered and distraught about the world. The grandchildren spoke only English, dressed in definitive Canadian branded clothing, and seemed able to take anything in stride. The parents, caught in the middle, had to translate for their own families. They struck me as simply coping, dealing with the needs of the moment. To the grandparents, their grandchildren were utterly alien, incomprehensible.

I’ve seen this again and again over the years, and I now closely observe my own grand-daughters for evidence of how able new generations are to make leapfrog changes that any one individual, no matter how long her lifetime, could not. I recall in my youth arguing with my father (himself a progressive, all his life) about his generation’s inability to change. I told him I didn’t trust anyone over thirty, and that it was time for ‘the establishment’ to get out of the way of the momentous change we were destined to bring about in a new, loving, peaceful Earth.

Come gather ’round people wherever you roam, And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, For the times they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, And keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’.
For the loser now will be later to win, For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen please heed the call, Don’t stand in the doorway don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled. There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls, For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand, For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn the curse it is cast, The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past. The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last, For the times they are a-changin’.

Dylan wrote that over 40 years ago, and my father’s argument that it had all been said before, generation after generation, yet we kept making the same mistakes over and over, fell on deaf ears. He just didn’t understand, I thought. This is something new. And now, nearly 40 years later, I have become my father. And we are still making the same mistakes, over and over.

My Genius is Imagining What’s Possible. It’s a useful and interesting talent. But I don’t confuse what’s possible with what’s likely. It’s possible that a meteor will hit the Earth tomorrow. It’s possible that some benign alien species will arrive tomorrow and fix all the world’s problems for us. But I’m not counting on it, in deciding what to do next and what to do in the future. It’s possible that humanity and technology will transcend the looming crisis facing us, and it’s interesting to imagine that happening. But it’s science fiction stuff, escapism, denial, a distraction from reality, from the real work facing us here, now.

Back in the 1960s, we did what we had to do. We shook an intolerant, war-mongering, fearful culture to its foundations. We ended the war. We challenged everything. We tried some bold and optimistic experiments.

But in the end, we changed nothing. Our twin religions of humanism and technology, it turned out, were not enough to make us, and our culture, over into something we, and it, were not.

So now I’m a skeptic about our ability to change. I recognize its imperative. I can imagine and appreciate its possibility. And I think about the leapfrogs that were made, from the generation of my grandfather, an enlightened and conservative depression-era survivor (and, like me, a bird-watcher); to the generation of my father, a progressive and an explorer who is still today generous to a fault; to my generation; to that of my lovely children, utterly caught up, like the middle generation of that Chinese-Canadian family in the dentist’s office, with the immediate needs of the moment, raising their own families in a deeply troubled economy; to the generation of my extraordinary grand-daughters, who are learning, exploring, discovering what their world is about, and who are not yet ready for the terrible lessons I have for them about their future.

My grand-daughters’ culture is as different from mine as mine was from my grandfather’s and from that Chinese-Canadian family’s. Yet somehow, in the ways that are important, these cultures are indistinguishable. Almost as much as ‘we’ are mere servants of our bodies, so too are we co-prisoners of our culture. Noam Chomsky has said that all human languages are so astonishingly similar that an alien ethnographer would have absolutely no doubt that we all came from a single ancestor. Anthropologists are flabbergasted that human groups so utterly separated by time and space have evolved such staggeringly similar cultures, quite independently. Our culture, with its local variations that cause us so much conflict, is becoming more homogeneous and undifferentiated, and hence poorer and less adaptable, less capable of complex change, every day. Rather than liberating us from doing what we must, and enabling us to do what we can and what is imaginable, our culture is instead our bodies’ evolutionary servant. Our bodies evolved our brains to invent culture because without it we would have perished. To see human culture and ‘consciousness’ as anything more than an evolutionary survival mechanism is a colossal, collective conceit, an exercise, like belief in The Rapture, in magical thinking. As Eliot said, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”.

So we go on doing what we must. Rising and groaning and going to work. Sublimating our dreams and intuitions and imaginations. Looking after the needs of the moment. Invading Iraq and tomorrow Iran to feed the inextinguishable hunger for the ‘food’ that nourishes our fragile bodies and keeps us in the evolutionary gene pool. Distracting ourselves to death with useless information and desperate consumption and flimsy entertainments. Exploding in numbers and despoiling and impoverishing the Earth. Generation after generation, being what we are, and doing what we do.

The answer is, ironically, not striving for impossible, collective change, but rather becoming more truly human. Connecting better, more authentically to each other and to nature. Learning everything we can; learning to be useful, to be a part. Becoming more aware, more sensual, more instinctive, more generous, more in touch with ‘our’ bodies and hence ourselves. Taking delight in small pleasures. Living on the Edge. Slowing down and paying attention and living in the moment, undistracted. Refusing to be being everyone else in our culture.

That will not save us, but it will give our lives meaning and purpose. Inthe end, I think, that is all there is, and all that can be asked of us.

Image: From Danish Ministry of the Environment.

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10 Responses to How Much Difference Does a Generation Make?

  1. Wren says:

    Hey…thanks for popping in. A quickie update – the floaters are a bit of eye jelly that broke off. No detachment. And the doc said contacts might even improve what as of right now is pretty bad vision in the left eye, so yay!Huggles, and hope your stomach troubles end soon.

  2. I believe the first is true. With the limitation being that usually one must want to change and that it requires effort as well as relinquishing of beliefs and attitudes we’ve built our emotions around. I think the cause of our unwillingness to change is our business combined with lazy thinking, our unwillingness to think things through for ourselves, and our willingness to instead be led by others who provide packaged beliefs for us to follow. We’re swayed by TV advertising more than by our personal intelligence.

  3. Meant busyness, not business.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    Thanks for the link, Dave. As always, you’ve published a thought-ful post.Mine was about adapting, more than deep fundamental change (as you know, I believe strongly we live in a highly structured manmade social system and so much of our lives for the first 30 years or so are mainly designed to get us to fit in). It’s the rare, relatively poorly socialized man or woman who doesn’t fit in .. you know, the opinionated ones who turn everyone off because they keep pointing out uncomfortable things (like me).We as individuals do have to adapt to new conditions as we encounter them, unless we can insulate ourselves well enough. Over the last two decades, mopney and power have been good insulators .. why change when you don’t need to ?… and as you know another form of adaptation is refusing to adopt new ways. I see more and more of that all the time. And, as long as we are all fooled into believing in scarcity, it suits the powers that be, as they count (I believe) on those who refuse to admit things could or should be different.What I am not certain about is whether individually and as a species the evoution of our cognitive mechanics will accelerate due to visualization and hyperlinks … what i am pretty darned certain about is that our capacity to reflect (co;lectively) will probably deteriorate as our abilities to ÈzapÈ from one thing to the next increases.The combination of many more people, everything electronicized, rapacious capital markets and less common resources means to me a rapidly tightening manmade social system tht will get meaner and leaner for most people, jusr as they get more and more confused by too much choice.I don’t think people change much at all … but then again, you and I have both read “A Short History Of Progress” and know how the author finished it.I keep on writing about this arguably new set of conditions in the hope that it may herald deep change someday down the road …b ut history has shown us time and again that this sort of change is brutal and bloody.

  5. kerry says:

    I think your generation did make a big difference to the world, Dave. I would imagine that it would be a less honest world today if it weren’t for the 60s cultural revolution. We would still have all the same physical challenges with regards ecology, but in the very least we are more psychologically aware and honest about the nature of our problems than we might have been without it. Your generation may not have made the dramatic difference that you envisioned, but I think that it took the necessary step in the path. So, whilst some things never change, in other words, the process of change is the process and has always been, the awareness of it has reached more of a critical mass than ever before, I feel.

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  7. I believe both views. Humans can change and they do all the time but often times this require some sort of motivation. Humans also can’t change many times because they are locked into their choices they made in the past. Sort of like the domino effect. For example I smoked for 10 years and never stopped. I tried breaking out of the cycle and when I was impossible unless the cycle was at what I call it’s low point/weak point and I could jump out of the cycle and stop smoking. Usually the weak point in the cycle happened once a month, not that I quit smoking every month.Then I met my current girlfriend and hadn’t been smoking. For her smoking is just a nasty thing and so my environment was smoke free all the time and I never went back. So I have changed. I think watching my grandmother die in the hospital drowning to death for lack of oxygen because she smoked all her life may have helped as well. I like to believe she helped me from the other side.Changing really helps if you have a group of people who live in the way you want to live. Doing it all on your own is very very difficult.

  8. Mariella says:

    Maybe our life span is to short to really be able to ¿change? I mean that our physical evolution is much slowlier than our thought evolution, but our thinking is anchored by our emotional reactions, lets say : fear to scarcity, instead of respecting our proven capacities to produce a gift economy. Hmmm… maybe.

  9. Martin-Eric says:

    I think it’s a typical catch-22, in that generations do manage to make significant improvements on certain issues, but it only takes one generation down the road to ruin it all, simply because younger generations lack an understanding of what the previous two generations did and, most of all, why they did it.Taking another parallel, one often notices how dominant genetic traits tend to skip one generation; it’s not uncommon for kids to be the spiting image of their grand-parents or their grand-parents’ siblings. What people notice less is how behavioral patterns also skip generations. The sometimes deep friendship and understanding that arises between grand-parents and grand-children is more about history repeating itself over excruciatingly slow cycles than about anything else.Thus, people who grew up about 75 years ago (which, quite often, is the last time circumstances similar to current ones happened) find it much easier to relate to the younger generation than their parents do. Never mind the body piercings and the raunchy music: the day grand-pa realizes that your nipple ring is the same as his World War II draftee’s tatoo and the day grand-ma notices that your struggle to make ends meet (because of a select few that own it all) is exactly what she endured back in the old days, there’s an immediate intergenerationnal connection that skips the parents.To me, the real question is not whether change can or cannot happen; we already know that it can. As the old saying goes, Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Rather, it’s a question of whether intergenerational gaps prevent sustainable change from happening and whether this forces people to revert to adopting the negative patterns of the generation currently in power.

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