What is life? By Félix de Azúa

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We know that, biologically, we evolved from an ape. But we don’t know at all what that evolution represents from a mental point of view. We see the drawing, because basically what we understand is the movie, we see the Darwinian drawing, the monkey which progressively becomes more upright and which ends up with a tie and a Samsonite. And we understand the movie. A movies which is very convincing. But what does it mean, exactly? If you stop to think for a while and say “I’m going to forget the symbol, I’m going to forget the artistic representation” and ask “what on Earth does that mean?” In my book Autobiografía sin vida I start there. I start saying: let’s see, here’s something that hasn’t been explained well enough. The first signs of humanity we have are the little drawings on deer bones and the prehistoric paintings on caves. They’re 30,000 years old, which is the age of what we consider more or less human. There’s a kind of previous humanity, an anthropological one, the humanization dating 500,000 years. Atapuerca goes further back, but we don’t know anything in the sense that these humans may be in the pure bios state. For example, recently it’s been discovered they were cannibals, which has puzzled the whole community. Let’s say that, from the appearance of certain signs on, we can tell for sure there’s humanity: when there’s symbolism, burials, a certain care for the body, in the mind’s sense. Body and mind have an exchange which allows humans to say that the first hasn’t died completely, that it’s in transit or whatever. We don’t know what it is, but just in case we keep it. In that moment, of course, there’s representation. Problem: the horses in the cave of Chouveux, which is where the book starts, are perfect. Perfect means that not only their technical realization is perfect, which is a mystery in itself, because there’s no preparation, we don’t have the slightest piece of documentation on people who are learning to draw horses. Technically they’re already perfect. But that wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is they’re perfect from the representational point of view. You look at those horses and they’re alive, they’re real, there’s absolutely no difference with, let’s say, Velázquez’s horses, they may even be better. How do we explain the fact that those evolved primates who lived in the cave produced that? Which mind do we have to assign to that primate which looks like an ape, when we look at those horses? This is a difficult problem which, to my understanding, has been buried by the revolutionary bourgeois progressive thinking. The idea of progress, which Darwin’s movie represents perfectly: there’s a progress, because the idea of progress emanates from the bourgeois, which have replaced aristocracy up until today. That is, even today, even though they constantly speak ill of the bourgeois, unfortunately, all the progressive people are nothing but bourgeois. They cannot be anything else. The idea of progress is the bourgeois idea par excellence. There would be no bourgeois without progress, no progress without bourgeois. No notion of progress. And that notion has destroyed the possibility to seriously think about things like that. We cannot think cavemen may have been exactly the same or even better than us. And that their life could be perfectly livable, even more livable than others. That’s forbidden. It’s forbidden by that about which we talked before: shared knowledge. And if you say: “what a wonderful society the Lords and Peasants of the XII century had!” people will jump on you. Because they’ve never thought about that possibility, it’s forbidden to do so. Only some voices have sometimes said: “look, be careful, because they may actually have lived better than us.”

Better but less.

One of the typical notions derived from the idea of progress is that people live longer. About that we should make some corrections straight away. First: we are not sure about that. Age measures are extremely interesting. One of the people in charge of Atapuerca has a book about the Neanderthals living there with a chapter entirely devoted to that. He is a scientist, not an ideologist. And, with the data we have, their age pyramid wasn’t so different from ours. What happens is they were less. Many, many less. It’s something which surprises you when you read the classics. The Greeks, for example. When they speak about an elderly person, they really are old. That is, people made it perfectly to 80 years old. You say, how is that possible, if their life expectancy was 40? There should be a jump from 40 to 80 but no, there’s normal elderly people. The Roman Senate. But, even supposing our life is longer compared to, let’s say, our grandparents, which would already be a lot, the questions are: first, in exchange for what? Penicillin. Penicillin, indeed, makes the newborn survive and the elder live longer. Which causes, on one hand, in our societies, huge structural and economical problems; but in others, such as the African one, pure and simple destruction. African societies, this has been well researched, before colonization, that is, before the arrival of penicillin, quinine and all that, had an organic growth. An ecological, biological growth. They died and were born in a balanced way, without any need for intervention. Resources had the last word on who had to live or die. And, from the arrival of those elements, growth has been gigantic and hunger started. And we’re not talking about hunger where some thousands of people die: we’re talking about the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people. That is, we have risen the life expectancy of some and lowered that of others. This, looking at it from the quantitative side. On the other, the qualitative side, I always remember Javier Echevarría’s perplexity, when he was working on Leibniz, on the mathematical works of Leibniz (he’s a member of the Leibniz research society of Hamburg) and there he has a library with all of Leibniz’s writings. The real ones, written by hand. And that’s where they work, to see what they can rescue. And he told me: “only writing what’s in there, we would spend three lives. A team of 50 people are working only on mathematical manuscripts, which are but an eighth of the whole, we’ve been working for 10 years and we still haven’t finished half.” We can see this kind of effect in almost the whole of the XVIII century. How was it possible to create such a huge production in medieval abbeys, in humanistic renaissance groups, in the Baroque science, in the XVIII century science? In Oxford I used to work in Voltaire’s room, where you can find the whole of Voltaire’s works, and I thought the same: “I would never have time to write all this. If I was now seven and started writing, I would finish by the time I was 130.” So I don’t think age registries and age increase are significant. A bit like height. It’s true we’re a bit taller, a bit more than our grandparents. Does that really give us an advantage, is it really progress?

<a href=”http://www.philosophytogo.org/wordpress/?page_id=719″>See more papers from this author.</a>

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