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THE TIME FOR “UN-KNOWLEDGE”
HOW MANY NEW HUMBOLDTS DO WE NEED?

© Érika Torres
© Érika Torres

We see death and we begin to feel fear. We create gods to deal with our fear, and beer to forget it. Drowning in a sea of information and misinformation, we have forgotten where extremism had gotten us a few decades ago. For some, the Earth even stopped being round.

What kind of knowledge do we need to live? For species that fit perfectly into their ecological roles, the right instincts and a good mother generally suffice, since they know how to get food and water, how to escape predators, how to identify good mating partners and, when necessary, how to defend their territory by biting, head butting or scratching. No one expects a crocodile to have knowledge of nuclear physics or answers to existential questions; or a lioness to solve differential equations. They already have all the knowledge they need.

Yet we, humans, have completely lost the notion of our ecological function, and our instincts conflict with our current needs. We developed speech to transmit discoveries, domesticated animals, developed agriculture, established territories, invented writing, learned to navigate, and proliferated like the plague. Our territories are no longer hunting grounds spanning a few square kilometers that the most determined animals mark with urine and defend with their teeth. They extend throughout the world, and on them we have developed complex cultural webs that unite and divide us.
 
We created art and have expressed ourselves through it. We saw death and began to feel fear. We created gods to deal with fear, and beer to forget it. We needed to prevail over our neighbors, acquire more resources, impose our culture, conquer more territories, accumulate wealth. We invented weapons that are no longer used for hunting, but for war. We needed to know more, understand the world, pose questions and find answers. For at least 12 thousand years, knowledge has been power. The race for knowledge intensified and forever determined the speed of civilizations.

SCIENCE AND RELIGION

In 1522, more than 1700 years after Eratosthenes had precisely measured the Earth’s circumference, Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet completed the first circumnavigation of the planet. Knowledge began spreading even more rapidly, the Earth became irremediably small and, so it was believed, definitively round. And that is how we proceeded, taking greater and greater leaps towards whatever it may be, despite occasional setbacks because of disputes between science and religion – because if there is something capable of impeding supposed religious knowledge from being the most efficient path to power, that thing is scientific knowledge.

Then came the illuminati, and knowledge became more sophisticated. We started to question everything more intensely and methodically, to break down dogmas and overthrow absolute monarchies, and to override religion with science. The search for knowledge diversified and the ramifications moved us toward a deeper understanding of the economy and social dynamics, chemistry and medicine, anatomy and physics, mathematics and the arts. We began to try to understand what, exactly, we want, or at least to search for a higher meaning regarding the atrocities that we frequently commit.

HUMBOLDT’S BINDING LOGIC

With the world renown scholar Alexander von Humboldt we understood the dynamics of nature and of our interaction with her better than ever before: and if we did not correct our ways based on such an incredibly complete portrait, it was because we did not yet know what to do with that portrait. Geography, oceanography, botany, anthropology, minerology and geology, together in Humboldt’s unprecedented binding logic, showed us a world that was much more complete than what we had until then been capable of imagining. At almost the same time Darwin came, and with him the great theoretical basis we still needed – in order to understand our role in nature from which we were distancing ourselves – was completed.

And so we have been reeling, over the last few centuries, much more than the knowledge that we already possess should allow, and treating nature as if we could scorn her. We did not create a harmonious economic model; we did not harmonize ourselves with nature; we did not learn to avoid conflicts (not even personal ones); but in some way the unexpected dissemination of previously restricted knowledge made it possible for us to take incredible leaps. The problem is that we still do not really know where we should leap to. We are still unaware of species; in many territories we still have no awareness of nation; in many territories we are still unaware of class; and in almost all territories and nations we still do not see ourselves as part of nature.

MISINFORMATION AS CURRENCY

We are, probably, at the greatest political, economic, social, philosophical and environmental crossroads of our brief history, and this is creating a major paradox: if, on the one hand, we have the means to verify, like never before, what is true or not, on the other hand, passion has begun to obscure rationality. If today the analytical methods and the computational capacity allow us to fill the voids of knowledge with remarkable speed, on the other hand this knowledge is often questioned in an irrational way, or misused, or misguided.

We are drowning in a sea where information and misinformation, reality and passion are mixed with the same colors. Religion is once again confronting science in search of political power; we fear those who think differently; we tore down civilizing pillars and, after almost 500 years, the Earth has ceased being round for some. We forgot Bertrand Russel’s advice, to always look at the facts and leave our passions aside, with the exception of love. We have forgotten where extremism had gotten us a few decades ago. We never learned to set priorities.

FINAL SPASM BEFORE THE LEAP FORWARD?

We consider self-sufficient human societies who have lived integrated with nature for thousands of years to be primitive, and we still kill them. We passively repeat formulas and models that we know do not work, and at the same time we do not use our knowledge to correct their mistakes. The love of knowledge often times is diluted or lost in the service of economic or political purposes, and at the same time irrational primitive instincts that are no longer of any use to us gain strength.

We hope that the convulsive nature of these strange times is the final spasm before the giant leap forward – giant leaps are scary. We hope that Darwin’s theory reaches us and that we embrace evolution and that we find nature again. We hope that Humboldt’s lesson will – finally – be fully understood, not with respect to geology, minerology, botany, oceanography and anthropology, but with respect to humanism. One need not be a genius to be a humanist, and at this point nothing seems more important than us seeing all of us as humans, than discovering our purpose and our limits. The giant leap is only going to be possible when many new Humboldts have more of a voice than the few Orbáns, Trumps and Bolsonaros.
 

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