Monday, March 31, 2008

The Natural State of the Featherless Biped

The natural state of the featherless biped
Is totally batshit insane,
From the folks who are “tetched”, to the mere “barking mad”
To the ones even Freud can’t explain.
Some talk to themselves, some talk to “the voices”
And others to “god, up above”
Some know there are bugs living under their skin,
And some (pity them) are in love.

A clear diagnosis is hard to obtain
When we’re characteristically odd.
Just look at behaviors most people call normal
Like talking and listening to god;
If you claimed you were talking to Satan himself
They would probably lock you away;
But instead, choose a different invisible friend
And the doctors all think you’re OK.

Some point to religious folks flocking like pigeons,
With atheists more solo fliers—
And say this to friends who have gathered together
With Dawkins, or Randi, or Myers.
Of course, there are differences, none could deny,
But a few similarities, too.
We follow our leaders, a true social species
As nature selects we should do.

When Dennett says memes can take over our heads,
Make us willing to die for some god;
I look at the hooligan soccer-fan riots--
Devotion no longer seems odd.
The vestments and hats of the Orthodox Church
Are a spectacle worthy of mention,
But some secular groups may be equally gaudy—
Just check out a Star Trek convention!

It’s good to examine abnormal behavior
(Whatever “abnormal” might mean)
Just remember, we’re usually seeing ourselves
In the things we’re surprised to have seen.
We like to point fingers at somebody else
For the troubles, today, that we face;
But don’t point at others; the problem is us—
We’re the batshit-insane human race.

This one has been kicking around my skull for a while. The first line (or two) came to me months ago, and I just liked the sound of it. "Featherless biped", of course, refers to Plato's proposed answer to the age-old (even at the time) question "what is man?" Of course, Diogenes famously answered Plato by presenting him with a plucked chicken, which just tells you that philosophers are a lot cooler than we give them credit for. I think many philosophical debates I have observed or taken part in would be much improved by the addition of game fowl.

But only recently did the rest of the poem assert itself. This was inspired, not by a post on pharyngula, but on the comments to a post. In particular, this comment thread, although in truth it could have been any of a number of different discussions I have witnessed over the past years. I noticed, as I have many times before, a number of comments (from a number of different perspectives) which, boiled down, made a point of labeling what they do as aberrant. Of course, this is nothing new--outgroup stereotyping seems part of the human condition. What I wanted to point out was that we often see ourselves as immune from the bizarre behavior we attribute to members of that other group, when by widening our lens just a bit, we can make a pretty decent case for functional similarities with behaviors we see as perfectly normal (i.e., the things we do).

To me, the great value in examining the strange habits of others is the practical benefit of better understanding ourselves. I mean, there is no effect of the phase of the moon on, say, childbirth. But a large portion of our population believes that there is, and a large portion of professional involved in childbirth as well (ob/gyn, midwives, etc.)! If we can understand why it is that people believe this, despite (or merely in the absence of) the evidence, this might tell us why we believe other things as well. If we can see why people will devote time, effort, and income to a cause we see as preposterous, perhaps it can tell us why (or part of why) we devote time, effort and income to our own causes.

Of course, first we have to see that we are not describing "believers" or "christians" or "muslims" or "scientists" or "creationists" or "evolutionary biologists" or "anonymous internet poets"... but a larger, more inclusive population. Featherless bipeds.

Easier said than done.


Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Great stuff! It's important to realise, though, that some people do have bugs living under their skin.

missingpoints said...

You, sir, are a genius.