Monday, February 4, 2013

Destroying the Fourth Dimension

The human species is unique in having the ability to store knowledge than any one brain can contain, and the ability to pass this knowledge on from one generation to the next, especially in the form of writing. This is one of our greatest evolutionary adaptations. It allows a fourth dimension of adaptation: time.

When religious extremists, of whatever variety, wish to brainwash people into following them, one of the things they sometimes do is to attempt to erase the knowledge of the past. Their message is clear: God’s work begins right now, with them, and whatever has gone before is irrelevant. The extremists present themselves as the sole and unprecedented source of God’s words and will.

This is nothing new. According to Edward Gibbon, Christian zealots destroyed the Library of Alexandria, the last and greatest collection of ancient writings. During the Reformation, Catholics destroyed Protestant books, Protestants destroyed Catholic books, and everybody destroyed Jewish books, along with the persons who read them. Nazis burned Jewish books. But we sometimes think that, in modern times, we no longer do this. But do you remember when, in 2009, the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, NC, planned to burn Bibles? They failed to get the necessary fire permit so they just tore them up instead. They wanted to destroy all versions of the Bible except the King James Version.

Just this past week, religious extremists struck again at the fourth dimension. Before fleeing Timbuktu, in Mali, Islamist militants set fire to as many as twenty thousand ancient manuscripts. The manuscripts were Muslim books and writings, but the militants were passionately convinced that nobody before them really knew what Allah wanted people to believe. They tried to erase the past and make people think that they have the one true interpretation of Islam, and that everyone who went before them is irrelevant. They claim to venerate Mohammed, but to them Mohammed is just a stick figure that they use to justify their own blasphemy.

Perhaps the main reason that no group of zealots has ever been able to wipe out all of the knowledge that preceded them is that this knowledge was widely distributed. Especially after the invention of the printing press, lots of copies of books were spread everywhere, and no one could track all of them down. I wonder if this might be changing. If all of our books are eventually released only online; and if the books themselves are not sold, but only the temporary right to read them; is it not possible that a centralized, religiously-crazy government could use the internet to destroy all copies of a book that they oppose? This sounds like a weird story for a dystopian future, but it may be closer to reality than we like to think. I have no doubt that, if they had this ability, the Islamist extremists in Mali would have destroyed all writings except their own interpretation of the Koran.

One of our main evolutionary adaptations is the distributed network of brains and books—interconnected, but independent.

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