Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

12. His genes are a record of what has worked, what has survived. Institutions are themselves a similar record. Institutions might be thought of as the genetic material of a society (see Veblen).

16. Institutions are the conditions, habits and rules of group life. His parents, through the genetic material they provide him and their care for him in his early development, enable him to engage and live within certain institutions.

22. Human life is group life. Man could not exist without some group. The family group, a particular lineage, is in his genes and he exists as an extension of it. In infancy he could not survive without the attention of his parents, attending to his nourishment and protection. In infancy and youth his parents introduce him to the institutions that will shape him. His parents are society, they are the others, and they bring to him a particular institutional life (language, social customs, art, economics, technology, etc.). From the start man cannot exist without other men, his parents and the others. (The nourishment and protection the helpless infant receives are themselves a form of institutional life.)

30. Genes work in tandem with institutions. There is not one without the other. Together they blur any distinction between “inner and outer” as conceived by the philosophers. They influence each other and develop together. Man is both himself and the others. He exists through the cooperation of his parents and the social cooperation that created the institutions within which he will come to understand his life.

34. He has the genetic makeup to learn to speak because a language already exists for him to learn.

35. The shape of his face changes according to the language he speaks; his body develops according to the food he puts inside it; his posture develops as a result of the number of hours per day he sits at a cubicle before a computer; etc.

45. His instinct is a genetic disposition for something. That something is defined by institutions, by other men. Without a particular institution an instinct would remain unexpressed.

58. Man’s destiny includes other men. It is a fact of his species. He is a descendant of other men and he is their record.

76. A man can only act with regard to his genes and his particular perspective on the institutions around him. His acts are his own, specific to him and his understanding. In this freedom consists: that his action is his own and cannot be any other’s. He cannot be anything other than free.

80. If you alter the institutions you alter man, though the effects are unpredictable.

92. In prior times nature, the wild, the unknown and dangerous world of other animals, was a significant element in man’s genetic and institutional development. Technology has allowed man to eliminate much of “the wild” from his daily life. Only rarely does nature affect his development (e.g. an earthquake or a bear attack), and then it is only for a moment. It is his institutions and technologies that compose his daily life.

109. Certain men will be drawn to other, different institutions to express themselves. An uneasiness within the institutional world they inhabit may push them towards other institutions. Some men may attempt to transform a particular institution, while others will depart for a new society altogether.


  1. Anonymous6.9.11

    Re: 92 - Man would not have described the things that have been eliminated as "wild" at the time. The Beaver Trapper had run-ins with bears, mosquitos, and swollen rivers and the Mongolian had run-ins with ninjas, hunger, cold weather and vast distances. His skill set would be based on these circumstances. These things would not be described as wild. It is the lens we now peer through that makes these things seem wild.

    We have evolved in some ways, including our understanding of nature and our surroundings, and this evolution has caused the formation of this regard for nature, i.e. nature and physical surroundings that are out of our collective control as humans as being "the wild." I don't disagree with the idea that life has indeed changed for man, but I suggest that this change is less dramatic than 92) suggests. In our daily lives we encounter situations that make us feel as though we are crossing the mongolian wilderness or have come accross a swollen river. Our skills today would be useless in either of these particular predicaments, much as the Beaver-trapper would be unable to change the tube of a bicycle wheel or even adequately diagnose the problem of having a flat tire (air pressure?).

    I suggest that we are physically weaker than we were, but I suggest that our experience of the problems we face has not changed significantly. I am not proud of where we are relatively, but here and now is a decent place to be. Constantly battling swolen rivers may seem more noble than building a bridge, but colelctively we are better off with the bridge, despite the ease with which it allows us to cross over the river.

  2. What has changed is specialization. I intend to write of this later. Men of previous times had a broader knowledge by necessity. Does the small group of 30 require a heart specialist? No, they need a generalist physician.

    It seems you are reading some judgement into #92. There is none. I do not mean to say that generalists are better than specialists, or the physical skills for fighting a swollen river are superior to those needed for building bridges. I am in no way rejecting technology, or even the specialization upon which it is based. Technology, where it comes from and what it means for man, is a big topic. Perhaps #92 has no place here among these other aphorisms.

  3. Anonymous7.9.11

    #92 is a hell of an aphorism. The comment above is not meant to imply otherwise. A good aphorism might be an aphorism that causes a reaction or further ideas.

    Sometimes I think that our collective range of experience, accross the ages, is narrower than #92 implies. Other times, I think that my personal range of experience from one day to the next must be as great as the difference between the beaver trapper's life and an astronaut's. Neither is true, and neither is untrue.

    Sometimes I struggle to believe what I think, and sometimes I struggle to communicate what I believe.


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