bootstrap monkey

Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps

We are monkeys, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps…

with 3 comments

“This is how we lift ourselves by our bootstraps out of the morass of our ignorance; how we throw a rope into the air and then swarm up it—if it gets any purchase, however precarious, on any little twig.”

~ Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach

Welcome to my blog.

Over the years, my friends have encouraged me to start one of these, and I’ve tossed the idea around on more than a few occasions. The reasons for my resistance to the concept are varied and not altogether interesting, so I will not bore you, dear reader, with the details. Suffice it to say that the hurdles have been crossed, and you are now witnessing the outcome.

Now for a word about the title, Bootstrap Monkey. Technically we are apes, not monkeys — the latter just has a better ring to it — but what a singular ape are we! Somewhere around 40,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic, our species experienced an explosion of culture manifesting an adaptability unparalleled in the animal kingdom. It marked the beginning of a new kind of evolution. And although anatomically modern tool-making humans arrived on the scene over 100,000 years before, our tools and behavior remained largely static. Until suddenly there appeared a proliferation of novel artifacts, including ornamentation and art, indicating the emergence of a rich inner life of the mind replete with abstraction and symbol. It is the first clear sign that we began to think about the world, our place within it, and to confront that world deliberately, with conscious intent.

For as long as we have written about ourselves, we have had the sense that we stand apart; that we are special, truly unique in the world. There have been several qualities put forth over the course of history as the supposed attribute that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom: our use of tools and construction; consciousness or self-awareness; deferred gratification or self-sacrifice; cultural adaptation and learning; language and complex communication; emotions and empathy; ethics (e.g. – the Golden Rule); even a sense of humor and games or play. Yet each of these has been shown to have analogs in the animal kingdom, indicating that it’s just a matter of degree — that these qualities add up to a remarkably sophisticated ape, but just an ape, after all.

We find this answer unsatisfying. We cannot shake the feeling that there is something about humans that is completely new in evolutionary terms, never before seen. Personally, I think that it is this:

We are the only animal that goes out of its way to prove that it’s more than an animal.

And to me, that makes all the difference.

Everything we do that goes beyond survival and propagation of the species can be seen as an expression of our desire to transcend ourselves and the brutally harsh realities of existence in the natural world. There is a yearning to be sensed running as a common thread through all our social activities and artifacts: our cities, homes, businesses, farms, churches, clubs, sports, novels, films, the arts, universities, politics, science and technology, architecture, cuisine, travel, holidays, games, wars, prisons, drugs and alcohol, porn, family life, rituals, Facebook pages, and blogs. Namely, that it all must count for something; that this… whatever it is… matters somehow beyond the mere plodding, heedless, churn of life and death, growth and decline and renewal, that we witness in the world.

Above all, our insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding goes well beyond simple curiosity. We’re looking for answers to fundamental questions of existence and non-existence. And there is more than a modicum of fear driving us. As soon as the first inkling of consciousness appeared in our species and we began to realize our separateness from our environment — our profound alienation from each other and our world — we have sought to understand what it all means.

But even as we peel off the layers of the onion, delving ever deeper, we suspect that there may be nothing more to us at all but an ape in fancy dress suffering from delusions of grandeur. Astronomy proved that we are not at the center of the universe surrounded by spheres inhabited by angels; evolution proved that we were not a special creation in the visage of deity; and neuroscience is indicating that free will may be little more than a bedtime story our brain tells us to make us sleep better at night. And yet, perhaps this need we have to be special, and all that we do to prove it to ourselves, is the thing that just very well could make it true.

We are self-created. We are meaning-makers. We create meaning — instinctively — the same way that spiders weave webs and beavers build dams[1]. We are apes who are pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and in so doing fashion ourselves into something more than a mere ape. We are homo sapiens sapiens. Human.

So that’s what this blog is about  — everything that I post here will center around some aspect of what it means to be us, an exploration of one or more facets of the human experience, good or bad, sacred or profane, sometimes banal, sometimes reverential, periodically indignant, hopefully thought-provoking.

Because, after all, I’m more than an ape!

[1] I can’t take credit for the spider web/beaver dam reference – I’m paraphrasing something I read years ago, and cannot remember the source.

Written by parkerw

March 8, 2012 at 1:30 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Thoughtful post Parker. My mind wants to continually observe and qualify the nature of the pursuits that we use to derive meaning. While there are some pursuits that strike me as unquestionably beautiful, other pursuits are more curious. Objects of marketing perhaps, that we can subscribe too en masse, engineered for psychic consumption.
    I also feel that many around us cannot distinguish between creative beauty and emulation. interestingly, even the human who expresses their desire for meaning in curious ways, say cookie jar collections or clothing oneself in only Harley Davidson clothing, seem to hold to their pursuit with the same intensity as anyone else. Wild.

    Scott Whittle

    March 13, 2012 at 7:49 am

    • Good points, Scott. I like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s take on the matter, in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It certainly can be curious what pursuits we successfully use to create genuinely meaningful lives. I recall a story of a coal miner who spent his time on an elaborate garden system around his trailer home….

      Are you familiar with his work? I think we’ve talked about him before, but I’m not sure.


      March 14, 2012 at 10:51 am

      • Yeah. great stuff. What I can’t do is pronounce his name.

        Scott Whittle

        March 14, 2012 at 11:01 pm

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