Avi Loeb’s newest blog post shows how little the cosmologist-turned-ufologist really knows about the subjects he opines about. His piece claims that humans are genetically programmed to care about “local” issues and thus only a few rare geniuses have the courage to think beyond the local. “In fact, such global aspirations are often regarded as a distraction from local politics and the comfort brought about by the immediate environment of a loving partner, a loving family or the local tribe.” Loeb claims that evolution favors cultural myopia, an idea that finds little support in the historical record.
It's certainly true that most people care about their own personal lives, but there is an eminently practical reason for that: We have to live them. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you can’t entertain global or cosmic thoughts until you have secured your own personal needs. Yet Loeb imagines that people live in enclosed “cultural bubbles” resistant to outside influence. “Cultural bubbles are stable as long as they do not come into conflict with each other. Throughout human history, confrontations triggered hatred and war. But even with these dangers in mind, conflicts emerged when local interests clashed.”
Loeb’s view of human history reflects the martial tone of the middle twentieth century, when anthropologists proposed a masculine view of culture based on conflict and war. But that was a long time ago, and those ideas have long fallen out of fashion. We no longer think of cultures as hermetically sealed units sparking against each other in inevitable conflict to stop outside influence. Instead, we can see evidence of widespread trade networks and the movement of people, goods, and ideas as far back as we care to look. People have always sought new lands, new ideas, etc. But not everybody has the resources or the freedom to do so.
For Loeb, though, being locked into a 1960s worldview lets him build toward his real conclusion: that humans are awful and should give up, retreat into primitivism, and let the few geniuses do their science uninhibited by concern for humanity at large. After praising astronomers like himself as the only humans to truly transcend “local” concerns—spaced-out space Buddhas, I suppose—once again, as in the past, he implies his unpleasant views about humanity by projecting onto imaginary space aliens the idealized pastoral life he longs for:
If we ever discover it, we might find a close-knit extraterrestrial culture that cares little about us; just like an isolated tribe on an island, enjoying the local fruits without being concerned about what lies beyond the horizon. It would be inappropriate for us to impose our global scientific interests on them. They may follow wise counsel from their own Henry David Thoreau, advocating the benefits of less is more in living a simple life in cabins near their local Walden pond and never transmitting radio signals or venturing into interstellar space.
He finishes by telling his readers that aliens don’t care about us, we should all just “relax” and stop striving to better ourselves, and just tune in, turn on, and drop out.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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