Archive for February, 2014

Not-so-hot Terminology

Two terms about people in North America, one coined recently and one that’s been around for a while, have caught my eye and ear over the years and I’ve come to the conclusion that they aren’t all that accurate.  In both cases they don’t adequately or properly describe the groups they represent and should be changed.  Take a look at the terms below and make up your own mind.

The first is “The Greatest Generation.”  This term was the title of a book by Tom Brokaw (now retired from NBC News) about men and women who fought in World War II.  He was impressed by the commitment of these people and the “effect members of the World War II generation had on…the world we occupy today.” [From the Acknowledgments section in the book.]  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to belittle or run down what those men and women did during the war.  Not at all.  Their contribution was immense, no doubt about it.  My only concern is that the term, by inflating the impact of those who fought in WWII, reduces the impact of those who fought in wars after WWII, such as Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, and those who are presently fighting in Afghanistan.  They’re just as good as anyone in WWII.  Their commitment to what they did and they’re now doing and to what the US is trying to do in those countries is as intense as that of anyone in WWII.  Like many who fought in WWII, they came from all over the US to fight in a foreign war, knowing little about what they were getting into.  Yet they went anyway, either because they were drafted or voluntarily signed up.  My father fought in WWII and while I can’t speak for him, I suspect he might be similarly inclined to tone down his contributions and those of his colleagues.  In my opinion, the men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan are making as substantial a commitment to their effort as anyone in WWII.  Certainly the WWII generation was a great bunch of people, but so are the ones who lived and died in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and all the other places around the world where the US has seen fit to send troops.

The second term I’m concerned about is “Native American.”  This term (apparently first used in 1925 according to my dictionary) refers to those who trace their heritage back to the indigenous peoples who lived in North, Central, and South America before Columbus, and even before the Vikings.  I question the term because the name “America” wasn’t applied to this continent until the 16th century.  But if these people were here before then, how can they be “American?”  This is a term that reflects the arrogance of us of Anglo-Saxon heritage forcing our terms (and our lifestyle) on the indigenous people.  They certainly aren’t “American” in the broadest of definitions, though they may be American in legal terms, especially citizenship.  What we need is a term from the ancient language of the indigenous people which reflects their ultimate heritage.  I don’t speak any of their languages well enough to suggest a word.  Anybody got any ideas?

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This blog post may be a little different from the ones I usually write.  Mostly I write about science or writing or the environment.  This time I want to get somewhat more philosophical than I usually do, and not about science or writing.  This time I want to write about something that has been on my mind for many years: history.

This time I want to ask a few questions about history.  Questions to which I don’t have the answers, though maybe you as a reader of this blog do have.  Questions I’ve wanted to ask, but never found the proper venue.  (Actually, this blog isn’t really the proper venue, but it’s all I’ve got.)  Here goes.

What is history anyway?  The dictionary defines it as a record, frequently in chronological order, of significant events that have occurred in the past, and that are important to us in the present, and sometimes with a description of the causes of those events.  While that’s strictly true, that’s merely a description of what we see when we look at history.  We see the people, places and events; we see the historical record; and we see the particulars that constitute history.  What we don’t see is the underlying concept of history.

For example, does history exist automatically, or does it exist only if someone writes it down?  That is to say, would there ever be history if someone didn’t write down all the events that have happened that make up history?

When did history begin?  At the big bang?  Or a millisecond after?  Since history is a record of past events, then it certainly couldn’t exist from the beginning.  But how soon after the beginning did history begin?  A millisecond?  A microsecond?  A nanosecond?  A year?  Two years, three months and four days?

Will history ever stop?  If it does, what happens then?

Is there a history of events that took place before the big bang?

Will there ever be a history of the universe after the universe is gone?  All those stars and planets and galaxies and comets and asteroids and all the other stuff out there have their own history, but what happens to that history when they are all gone?

Will there ever be a history of history?

Do historians make history?  Or do they simply record it?  Is there a difference?

As I say, I don’t have the answers, but I can ask the questions.  It’s interesting to cogitate on the questions, though, even without the answers.

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Who’s Really Human Anyway?

About a month and a half ago I finished reading the Star Wars book, Kenobi, by John Jackson Miller.  This book, part of the long-running Star Wars saga, tells the story of what happened to Obi-Wan Kenobi after he went to Tatooine to watch over Luke Skywalker.  It sits between the third and fourth episodes of the Star Wars movies.  But my reason for bringing up this book is not to write a review of it, but to critique one particular aspect of the book.  As an aside, I certainly do recommend the book if you are a fan of Star Wars.  It’s basically a western in science-fiction clothing.

What bothered me about the book was it’s use of the term “human” to refer to certain characters.  I assume “human” characters were like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Han Solo.  (The last three never actually appear in the book, I’m using them here only as examples.)  These characters were played by human-looking actors in the movies, in contrast to others who were in costumes of alien characters.  Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO, Grodo, those in the cantina scene, and so forth.  The term “human” was apparently used in the book to distinguish one from another.

The real problem I have with using “human” in this way is that it is basically incorrect.  Keep in mind that all Star Wars episodes take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.  There are no humans in that galaxy.  Granted, as I noted in a blog post on January 12, 2014, there are a huge number of worlds out there that could contain intelligent life forms that look and act just like humans.  There may even be many of them.  But even though they may look and act like humans, they aren’t human.  They can’t be.  Humans exist only on Earth.

With the tremendous increase in new planets being discovered over the past several years, life, including intelligent life forms, will almost certainly be identified on one or more of them.  Eventually (though not within my lifetime or yours) we will discover some that look like us.  They may be “human-like,” or “humanoid,” or “pseudo-human,” but they won’t be human.  Not at all.  Not even if they look like us, talk like us, see like us, smell like us, hear like us, and have exactly the same physiologic and anatomic features.  Not even if they have DNA that can recombine with human DNA.  (Now, there’s a sci-fi story.)

I propose that the term “human” should be reserved for those of us on this planet, the one we call “Earth,” in the Milky Way galaxy.  To use it for other races on other planets diminishes its value.  It dehumanizes us as a race of unique biological entities.  Let’s leave “human” for us, and us alone.

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