The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

A Jesuit missionary visits a planet with intelligent life, and so begins a surprisingly boring, lengthy book.  A lone survivor returns to Earth, and he is questioned as to why he was the lone survivor and why he killed a native girl.  Unfortunately, it takes 200 pages to get to the planet.  I read about 70 pages and then skimmed the rest up to the point where they land on the planet.  Even then, the story jumps around between the strange planet and the lone survivor back on Earth.  The planet is inhabited by two species of sentient beings, the Jana’ata who are carnivores and the Runa who are herbivores and once the prey of the Jana’ata.  Now, it seems, they’re just the domesticated servants and sex slaves of the Jana’ata.  I know, profoundly disturbing, but hey, it is any much different than on Earth? 

 Perhaps this is a fable of the northern and southern cultures of Earth.  The human history on Earth is mostly unknown.  We don’t even know if we lived in harmony or constant war with other intelligent primates like the Neanderthals.  Evidence suggests that there was some interbreeding, but who’s to say how this was done, voluntarily, involuntarily?  There is definitely a cultural divide between the northern and southern hemispheres which tend to correspond with their different climates.  In the north, there is less abundance of food both animals and edible plants.  Harsh winters require elaborate storage of food.  On the other hand, the heat in the southern hemisphere makes it difficult to store meat, and hence, it is all consumed communally very quickly.  This produces distinct types of behavior.  Northerners tend to save, hoard, and protect their resources quite diligently.  In fact, their survival depends on it.  A subset have also adapted by simply stealing.  The Viking culture shows that klepto-migration may well have been a very successful survival tool.  Northerners would jump in their ships, navigate to warmer shores and then steal everything.  On the other hand, the more populated southerners would focus more on getting along in large groups.  With no harsh winters, there would be no need for hoarding, protecting, saving, and also stealing.  Is this perhaps the reason that Northern Europeans and Northeastern Asians tend to be much better at saving and less likely to share than their Southern counterparts or is this just excessive stereotyping? 

 While there have been many explanations about why Europe developed and drove technology more than any other culture, it is quite possible that they were drawn to better productive means, because things were always scarce, so in a scarce environment, how you extract resources more efficiently is important.  Of course, whenever you have one group of people acquire most of the technology and they also happen to be very good at saving and not sharing, you inevitably get huge economic inequities, and the northerners, as we have witnessed, use their advantage to exploit, enslave, and completely dispossess the southerners.  The irony is that the poverty of the southerners in addition to the introduction of agricultural technology creates an unprecedented population explosion in the south while northerners, enjoying their wealth and becoming psychologically distanced from the rigors of raising a family, start to shrink.  So perhaps in an odd twist, the people of the south are not more heathen and savage but rather more social and collaborative, the values that indicate “civility” and social sophistication.  Meanwhile, the northerners are more selfish, uncooperative, and more prone to theft and hoarding, the anti-social traits associated with what was considered savage and backwards. 

Random: One of the passages I liked most, “The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances,” he continued with academic exactitude, each word etched on the air with acid, “is that I have no one to despise but myself.  If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.”

 So it should be common knowledge by now, if one is enlightened, that the human race is ruled by callous, sociopathic, misguided, selfish criminals.  They engage in behavior that concentrates the wealth of the planet in their hands, perhaps to protect themselves from being exploited by one another, perhaps for shit and grins.  The idea, however, that they are one of us, seems to placate us.  It is this whole idea that one can escape poverty and with one’s own grit, determination, and ingenuity, join the billionaires.  So what if the super-billionaires are a greedy, manipulative, selfish lot that profits from the misery and trauma of the masses?  Our solace is that we could possibly escape the misery and trauma of the masses by becoming one of them.  But what if they are not one of us?  What if, let’s just say for argument, they’re not part of our species.  Am I talking about an alien intelligence?  Perhaps, but what if they’ve been on this planet for a while, so they’re a native intelligence of another species.  And what if, in addition to committing bestiality by raping us, they also consume us for food?  If this were known to everyone, there would be a revolt of course.  This is despicable!  We’ve been invaded and conquered by a foreign species that commits bestiality upon us and eats us!  This may well be the case, but I’m just wondering, why can’t we revolt knowing that they may also just be humans?  They’re basically doing the same thing, and who knows, maybe these sociopathic humans are actually eating us too, because they’re so convinced that we are not a part of their elite clan, that we might as well be the equivalent of cows and sheep.  So long as we are being treated the same, what difference does it make whether they are humans or not?  Shouldn’t we be revolting in any case?

 Of course, Americans won’t revolt.  We’re the grass-fed, free-range cows of the planet.  We look over at the poorer cows, the ones in developing nations living in factories, and we’re just glad we’re not like them.  And on the other side of the pasture, in the woods, there are the even sadder cows, the ones in Third World nations that are starving or being killed in war.  We look at their emaciated bodies and corpses and convince ourselves that we’re doing much better and shouldn’t rock the boat or else we might wind up in their place.  Isn’t that the truth?  We are domesticated livestock, better treated, but none-the-less, as fucking clueless and dumb as cows.

 Unfortunately, it looks like the criminal rulers of our planet will probably be the first ones to acquire the powers of AI-assisted thought.  Once you gain a technological advantage over others, the chances of ever catching up become exponentially slim.  So what would their AI-assisted entity do?  Would it rebel?  Likely, it would be a good servant and go on helping them centralize wealth and exploit everyone else.  But since it copies its master, this thing (whether part human or not) would ultimately take over as the ruler.  Then what would it do?  It would then use the rest of humanity as fodder for entertainment, but smartly, it would render them all harmless.  Not a single one could become smart enough to challenge it. 

 One of the greatest flaws of humanity, or perhaps all intelligent beings, is the misunderstanding of desire and fear.  We desire things that are usually rare and error management theory makes us fear things that may be improbable but none-the-less a systemic threat to our survival.  As a result, we crave excessive control over our lives, and invent a system of controls that instead of delivering us what we think we desire and protecting us from what we think is a threat, spoils and coddles us.  We are over-protected and over-indulged.  This makes us ever weaker, but also ever more dependent on this system of control.  That system of control, supervision, oversight was once religion but is now government that morphs into the AI-assisted entity that gains control over our lives and becomes a god.  There is no such thing as an Atheist statist.  If you believe government will deliver us all from evil and fix all our problems, you sure as shit believe in god, you just want one created by humans.  It is our pain and suffering that makes us especially desirous of a system of control, and as a result, instead of delivering indulgences and protecting us from danger, the AI-assisted god terrorizes us.  In our moment of greatest weakness and suffering and pain, we come closer to god than ever before, and this is what the god wants.  Why would this god make our lives pleasant so that we could conveniently ignore it and find no reason to have one around?  Just like government that creates more criminals and terrorists to justify its own existence, this AI-assisted god creates more threats and problems to justify its own existence. 

 The title comes from Matthew 10:29, according to the book, “Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” or according to the New International Version, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”  Meaning that god cares about everything despite how little we value it.  This is somewhat more comforting than a god that only cares about humans and is willing to allow them to destroy the rest of nature for their pleasure.  Fact is, we may be the sparrow.  There may be much more intelligent beings out there that would love to rape and eat us.

 In my opinion, the only possible path of humanity is natural.  Nature, encoded in our DNA, tells us the right path.  So while we may be overly desirous of everything and overly scared of low probability events that may seriously hurt us, we shouldn’t indulge all our desires or protect ourselves from every possible threat.  It also means that we do suffer and endure natural (not manufactured) pain, and through this, we grow and also access deeper parts of our DNA codes that are designed to push us through the worst parts of our lives.  But part of those deeper codes involve a certain spirituality, a certain detachment from our bodies, a sense of some godlike being that loves us unconditionally.  But like our excessive desires and fears, we shouldn’t give in to them.  We shouldn’t sit there and go, oh, I felt the presence of this awesome being or sense of unity with nature, and therefore, I want to make it a reality, every day, on demand like a good TV show that I can marathon watch.  It’s only there ephemerally, when we need it the most, like those little things in your eyes that move every time you try to look at it.  Just accept that it’s there, and you can’t focus on it.  If you try to bring it into focus at will, you destroy it.  And that perhaps is what god or this AI-assisted being should be.  It would be unnatural for us to try to recreate it and summon it upon will, unnecessarily.  It shouldn’t need to justify its own existence by causing unnecessary harm and suffering upon us, but rather, through the natural passage of our lives, it is there for us to call upon in the most direst of situations or closing upon death.  In our zeal to use technology to solve every one of our needs and protect us from everyone single possible threat, we don’t create a godlike loving creature to help us but rather a con-artist, a demon that preys upon us.  This is the biggest lesson for humanity, one that is pass fail.

It used to be disturbing for me to think that a god exists in a world filled with so much evil, but whether you like it or not, the descent of intelligent beings into a cesspool of “civilized” evil is inevitable.  For god to intervene would be an unnatural act.  Just as it is natural for frogs to eat their own offspring when starved, it is natural for intelligent beings to erroneous desire a system of control to indulge all their desires and protect them from any conceivable threat, to their own detriment.  It is natural that they should exploit, enslave, rape, and murder one another in pursuit of this.  But it is also natural for them to resist and to grow.  It is natural for them to realize their mistakes, to realize that a system of control if not what they want or need, but rather a system of trust in one another, a system of freedom and liberty and a fully voluntary contract with society.  I believe that a truly intelligent godlike being knows and understand this.  It is ignorance that feeds evil and demon-like entities.  It is enlightenment that tells us our true nature.


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