In judgement of humanity

Imagine that humanity was placed on trial to decide whether we’re fundamentally good or fundamentally evil. I’m not talking about nice Mr Jones down the road, or nasty Mrs Smith round the corner. I mean humanity itself – everything we’ve done as a species. All the random kindness and altruistic sacrifice, the feats of engineering and imagination, weighed up against all the selfish exploitation and sadistic abuse, the horrors of murder and genocide. The good, the bad, our crimes and potential, everything we’ve done in the past and everything we might do in the future, decided once and for all. You stand in final judgement on the accomplishments of homo sapiens.

How do you find? Are we basically good, with a few bad traits? Are we essentially evil, with some redeeming qualities? And are we collectively worthy of a pardon, or should we all be condemned?

You might think this is a rather abstract question to ask, but in reality it cuts past all the nonsense and gets right to the heart of who we are. Why do we live? Why do we keep living? Why do we have children? Why don’t we gratify all our desires, irrespective of cost? The answer, inevitably, lies in our beliefs about the nature of humanity – on whether we think people, at root, are good or evil. And only when we’ve made that judgement can we decide who we want to be and how to live our lives.

Is human nature evil?

Before passing judgement, you might consider that the question has been conclusively answered by Western civilisation, which is grounded on the assumption that human nature is evil. Whether it’s art, religion, politics, law, economics, education, industry or simple entertainment, the underlying belief is that, left to our own devices, we would rapidly descend into a hell of rape and murder. If there is one universal belief about the meaning of life, it is that there are beasts in our nature, and we must learn to control them or they will destroy us.

This pessimism about humanity’s worth is embedded in the foundation story of Western culture. Mankind was pure, and innocent, and living in harmony with Nature in the Garden of Eden. But we sinned, and were cast out to a life of toil and struggle and ultimate death. And what happened next? The first child ever born on Earth was murdered by the second. It got worse from there, until God had to destroy his creation with a flood. And we’ve been sinning ever since. The evil in humanity’s nature, and our resulting fall from grace, is the central precept of Christianity, and by extension, the whole of Western civilisation.

This fall from grace metaphor isn’t confined to Abrahamic religion, either. The Ancient Greek poet Hesiod, in the eighth century BCE, told a remarkably similar story. There was first a Golden Age, in which humans lived like gods, knowing no suffering or toil. In the subsequent Silver Age, humans were inferior to the gods, and the men had to work. They degenerated further through the Bronze Age and the Age of Heroes, until humanity completed the fall in the current Iron Age, where people are selfish and evil, and know only struggle and sorrow. It’s the same story: once, we were innocent; now we are corrupted; and there is no going back.

More recently, we’ve tried to rationalise and control the capacity for evil in human nature. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes argued that in his natural state, ‘every man is Enemy to every man’, and such a life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ Society, and civilisation itself, were invented to free humanity from ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death’. In his influential model of human nature, knowing the evil we’re capable of, humans voluntarily gave up some of their freedom to belong to a society that protected them from the chaos. The idea of the ‘social contract’ between government and governed had been born.

In the early twentieth century, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud discovered (perhaps invented) the seat of human nature, the unconscious mind, or id, a place dominated by the libido and death drive that gives us an innate, insatiable desire to eat, mate and destroy. He saw his job as wrestling with ‘the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human beast’, and that was early in his career, before a lifetime of treating patients led him to conclude that ‘I have found little that is “good” about human beings on the whole’.

We are all rapist serial killers inside, so the theory goes, and it is the ego and super-ego that, mostly, keep these desires in check. We learn to suppress these instincts in order to gain the benefits of peaceful coexistence with our neighbours, but they’re still there, just below the surface, always ready to break free, as they did to such devastating effect in the twentieth century.

Any lingering naivety about the reality of human nature was obliterated in the 1960s when Stanley Milgram’s electric-shock experiments famously demonstrated the extent to which ordinary people would murder a stranger in obedience to an authority figure. The Nazis, he showed, were not an aberration of history – they were ordinary human beings, no different from you and me. As were the monsters of Stalin’s regime, and those of Mao and Pol Pot.

So deeply ingrained is this belief in humanity’s innate evil that in 1970, the visionary director Stanley Kubrick could quite openly say that, ‘Man isn’t a noble savage, he’s an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved—that about sums it up. I’m interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it’s a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure.’

There is a continuous line of thought running from the Enlightenment to today that argues our society is structured to control and punish the evil of human nature, either by social convention or formal proscription. Without the threat of prison, and the controlling mechanisms of society and government, we’d all be a bunch of violent monsters raping and murdering our way across the landscape.

You might think this is an exaggeration, but consider the ways this idea is codified in the widespread beliefs of our society. Under the right circumstances, it is said, anybody can become a murderer, or a rapist, or a drug addict. After all, only nine meals stand between mankind and anarchy. And every school child knows that without external controls, and a reliable food supply, the green and pleasant hills of the Home Counties or New England would turn into Lord of the Flies. Like a murderer in a prison cell, human nature needs to be caged for everyone’s safety.

Even in a society that has rejected religion, the belief in humanity’s essential evil crops up wherever you look. Think about Climate Change arguments, for example. Humanity is a virus that destroys its host, say the activists. No other organism expands beyond an ecosystem’s ability to sustain it. We’ve upset the balance of Nature, and if we become extinct it’s because we deserve it. We have selfishly and knowingly destroyed the planet and our children’s futures for short-term gratification, and we steadfastly refuse to change our habits, dooming us all to destruction. The argument has a beautifully sound clarity: Nature is good, and innocent, and pure; humanity, once a part of Nature, now destroys Nature; therefore humanity is evil. This is as similar as secularism comes to the biblical story of Genesis, though I imagine that, when pressed, most would deny it.

This is the narrative underlying Western civilisation. Some people think being cynical about human nature makes you modern, and edgy, and progressive, but such people have no idea what they’re talking about. Since time immemorial, the great and the good have characterised humanity as evil and the species as being in decline. By this token, we should conclude that human nature is evil, and we should be condemned.

But is that really the case? After all, as Plato argued, ‘Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.’

And does this focus too much on individual rather than collective responsibility?

Perhaps we should frame it in another way.

Is human nature innocent, while human society is evil?

An added complexity, and a way of delaying making a judgement on humanity’s good or evil, is to separate individual humans from the mass of humanity, and decide whether humans are themselves evil or merely ciphers for the larger scale structural evils of society.

It stands to reason that no child can be evil, in the same way that no animal can be evil. Children, like animals, don’t have the capacity to make reasoned judgements about their behaviour. Like mankind before the fall, children are innocent, and pure, and without sin.

But as they grow, the world moulds them. Their parents, their culture, society itself, shapes them into something with the capacity for evil. That’s why parents are so worried about messing up their kids. By the logic of this argument, a person who steals, or rapes, or murders, is a victim of their upbringing, a slave to their background. It is not their nature that is bad, but the environment that formed them. Society creates the evil it then punishes, and the person, the individual human, is nothing more than a pawn.

In other words, hate the game, don’t hate the player.

While this might seem like a modern idea, again it is nothing new. This was a hot-button topic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as a reaction to Hobbes’ assertion that humanity in its natural state was brutish and violent and needed to be controlled by society. While some glamorised the ‘noble savage’ as a superior being, people like John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley-Cooper), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued instead that humanity in a state of nature was a blank slate, neither good nor evil. It was civilised man, living in society, who had the capacity for good and evil, and the verdict was almost unanimous that society tended towards evil. As the immortal opening lines of Rousseau’s The Social Contract declared in 1762: ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.’ This in turn led Karl Marx in the nineteenth century and Michel Foucault in the twentieth to argue that human society is an oppressive force, using structural power to dominate, oppress and control.

Proponents of the modern Social Justice Movement owe more to these thinkers than they realise. Propped up by free-market capitalism and the patriarchy, the structure of Western society, they argue, is undoubtedly oppressive and amoral – institutionally racist, sexist, heteronormative, trans-phobic and classist. And it’s no small elite jealously guarding their wealth and their privilege as they fight to keep others down – it’s every man and woman of every race and sexuality and gender identity that accepts and perpetuates and is infected by society. The very foundations of our way of life are evil and must be torn down, to pave the way for more government, more legislation and more control over how we think and behave. It is society, and the evil people in it, who are guilty, not the inherent nature of humanity.

You might be convinced by this argument that people are innocent but society is bad, and it’s certainly easier, and more comforting, to pardon individual humans while condemning human society as an whole, but you have to ask whether it’s really possible, or even desirable, to separate the two. Human society, after all, is a product of human individuals, the sum total of our human nature. And does it really matter if the evil lies in human nature or human society when the end result – human evil – is the same?

Blaming society does not let you off the hook. You have to decide whether the collective endeavour of humanity is good or evil, and there’s no way out of it.

Or is there?

How do we decide what’s good and what’s evil?

You could always sidestep the issue and argue that there is no such thing as good or evil, except insofar as individual societies decide what constitutes good and evil. You might even claim, with some justification, that the world has moved beyond such concepts as good and evil, with their religious overtones and binary positions. This social constructionist approach is very forgiving, and seems reasonable – a religious society will have different definitions of good and evil than a secular society, after all, as will a village in medieval Europe and a city in modern Sweden. But claiming that good and evil are in the eye of the beholder, and that the constraints placed on behaviour are situational – in essence, that good and evil don’t exist – is not only amoral and cowardly, but wrong, from both a philosophical and evidentiary standpoint.

It is a fallacy to suggest, as religious people and many atheists do, that without a divine figure defining good and evil, humans will decide it for themselves. All of the philosophers already mentioned, with the exception of Foucault, while struggling with the nature of good and evil, still believed humans had an innate moral sense, a common understanding of right and wrong that transcends society and is part of our nature. This ‘moral sense’, the source of all goodness, was sympathy, or, as Rousseau defined it, the ‘innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer.’

Where’s the evidence for this? Probably in a central idea of peoples separated by time, space, religion and culture: the so-called Golden Rule.

See if any of these quotations seem similar:

  • ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Christianity).
  • ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Judaism).
  • ‘As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them’ (Islam).
  • ‘Choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself’ (Baha’u’llah).
  • ‘Those acts that you consider good when done to you, do those to others, none else’ (Hinduism)
  • ‘Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful’ (Buddhism).
  • ‘A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated’ (Jainism).
  • ‘Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself’ (Confucianism).
  • ‘Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss’ (Taoism).
  • ‘Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others’ (Zoroastrianism).
  • ‘That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another’ (Ancient Egypt).
  • ‘Treat others as you would treat yourself’ (Mahabharata)
  • ‘Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing’ (Ancient Greece).
  • ‘Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you’ (Ancient Rome).

Even Wicca, the religion of witchcraft, says, ‘that which ye deem harmful unto thyself, the very same shall ye be forbidden from doing unto another’. This is an undeniably conclusive expression of the moral sense that exists in human nature, an injunction of how we should act, and a guide to define good and evil.

It is this knowledge of good and evil, and our capacity to choose how we act, that separates us from the animals. We do not mindlessly follow the dictates of our nature, but decide how we are going to behave in respect to our morality. This is so important that it bears repeating. Without a universal knowledge of morality, and without free will, the question about whether humanity is good or evil would be meaningless, because good and evil would not exist.

Since we’ve established that humanity knows the difference between good and evil – that this knowledge is natural and innate – we’re coming closer to having to make that final judgement on humanity.

Are humans responsible for the evil that humanity does?

Since humans have both a moral sense and free will, does it follow that they are therefore responsible for the evil that they do? Is there a difference between individual and collective responsibility? And why is it that the injunction to treat others as you’d treat yourself is so often ignored?

It could be argued that the Golden Rule is applied much more consistently within societies than between societies. In the case of war, the most obvious expression of individual and collective human evil, a soldier can continue to treat his own side as he would treat himself, and therefore be good, while killing the other side, which makes him evil. That said, the tradition of just war holds that rival combatants are morally equal – that is, the soldier on one side, by engaging in war, consents to kill and risk being killed, and the soldier on the other side does the same, meaning they are treating the other side as they would themselves. Warfare, therefore, does not constitute an evil at the level of the individual – but collectively, there is no denying the evil that warfare inflicts.

It must also be pointed out that while humans, by dint of our reason, are distinguished from Nature, we are still part of Nature. The dichotomy of Nature/good, humanity/bad greatly oversimplifies things, perhaps deliberately so. Nature is not in a state of balance – it is in a state of perpetual chaos typified by the merciless struggle for existence. Nature is cruel and brutal, red in tooth and claw. Warfare is not unique to civilisation or even humanity – the eminent primatologist Dr Jane Goodall was horrified to witness a four year ‘war’ between two groups of chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, in Gombe National Park in the 1970s, suggesting an uncomfortable continuity between our animalistic ancestors and our modern selves.

And what of individual evil? We all see ourselves as moral beings, so how is evil even possible? As individuals, the injunction to do unto others requires that we not only have the empathy to understand the effects of our behaviour on others, but we have to understand ourselves and our own power, which very few people do. Ignorance, narrow-mindedness, misinformation, misunderstanding, and dissimulation – our ability to use our reasoning faculties against ourselves to argue that black is white and white is black – are responsible for far more evil in society than deliberate intent.

There are very few people who choose evil. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It is reckoned that 4% of people are sociopaths, utterly lacking in compassion, empathy or conscience. That 4% causes untold suffering in the world, not least because they exploit the weakness that exists in the remaining 96%. Our moral sense, so obvious at rest, is susceptible to the pressures of our biological limitations, so that when we’re tired, when we’re hungry, when we’re afraid and confused, addled by alcohol or drugs, when we’re in pain and when we’re desperate, we’re less likely to follow the dictates of our conscience. We give in to our primitive needs. We’ve all done things that, in the cold light of day, we know to be wrong. We are all guilty of evil.

Intentional or not, collective or individual, that does not excuse us. We are responsible for our evil, because we know better. It therefore follows that we are also responsible for our good.

And therein lies the key to the whole issue of this debate. If we are to own our evil, we must also own our good. If our evil is diabolical and reprehensible, then our choice to do good is noble and heroic. So how do we weigh up the good against the bad?

Is there good in humanity?

The human capacity for evil is limitless – that is a given – but so too is the human capacity for good. As we’ve seen, there is a Golden Rule governing human interaction, that of respect for others, which is unlikely to exist in a species that is inherently evil. And while examples of evil are daily thrust into our faces by a media industry wedded to pessimism, you don’t have to look very far to find examples of human goodness much closer to home.

The neighbour who takes us in when we lock ourselves out; the boy who helps an elderly stranger put her shopping in the car; the hundreds of thousands of blood donors who sacrifice their time, and submit to pain, to ensure people they’ll never meet have a chance at survival. Every day, a multitude of kindnesses go unrecorded and unremarked, but if you look for them, you’ll discover that they’re everywhere.

There is no greater example of human goodness than the act of parenting. For our children we sacrifice our health, our time, our money, our security, and even our safety – there are very few parents who would not give up their lives to save their children from harm. While it is true that you can find similar altruistic self-sacrifice in the animal kingdom, the difference is that, without free will, an animal’s parenting is innate, and instinctive, and therefore it can’t take credit for it. It is our very awareness of our mortality, it is our conscious choice to sacrifice ourselves, that makes human parenting noble.

There is no reason to have a child. Logically, rationally, using our reason, the benefits to us as individuals of not having children far outweigh whatever benefits we accrue from having them. But we still have children. Why? Because we hope it’ll all work out? I used to believe that hope made the world go round, but then I realised that hope is an admission of helplessness. It’s an expression of futility and defeat. Faith is what makes the world go round. Not faith in a religious sense, but faith that things will be better, that we will overcome the beasts in our nature, and that we will never be defeated by them.

We are told, repeatedly, that we are killers, that we are destroyers, that our nature is violent. We are the worst of the worst. Yet killers comprise such a small fraction of society, it’s hardly even worth measuring. Parents, on the other hand, are everywhere. Every day, everywhere across the face of the planet, ordinary humans take the conscious decision to sacrifice some of their own vitality in order to create something pure, and turn it into something better. We talk about human evil with every breath; but our actions say something different. We believe in human goodness. We have faith in the goodness of the future, or else we would never have children.

That is the truth about humanity. We’re not as evil as we like to think, and we’re a lot better than we realise. We may be in the gutter, but we’re looking at the stars.

So what is the final judgement of humanity?

It’s time to make your decision. If you’re struggling, consider a famous story about this very thing, that of Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: ‘In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are.’

Perhaps I should answer first. It’s always easier when someone else leads the way.

Are we good? Yes. Are we evil? Yes. Should we be condemned? Without a doubt. And should we be pardoned? Absolutely.

We are a contradiction as a species. We are part of Nature, and stand above it. We are capable of the ultimate self-sacrifice, and also the most selfish tyrannical abuse. We are neither good nor evil, but both at the same time, and to deny one or the other would be to do us a disservice. It is the evil in our nature that allows us to claim the good; and the good that makes us responsible for the evil.

The evil we do is undeniable and sometimes so overwhelming that we cannot conceive of the good. But as one who came face to face with evil in the Soviet Gulags, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was under no illusions that we are either one or the other. ‘The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,’ he wrote.

The true act of rebellion is not to embrace humanity’s evil and give way to nihilism; it is to accept humanity’s goodness. That we are not wholly evil, despite everything tending in that direction, is testament to that goodness. It is our ability to choose to rise above the evil in our nature – it is the very fact that we are redeemable – that gives me faith in humanity.

So how do you find?

The theory that explains Peppa Pig (and Mr Potato is the key!)

I’m going to be honest – I watch far more Peppa Pig than an adult should. Of course, this is because my four-year-old and my two-year-old are obsessed with the little porker, but I have to admit it’s not actually that bad. It’s not as twee as Our Family, not as whiny as Bing, and the less said about Wallybuloo, the better. It’s got plenty of subtle jokes for adults, like when the kids dress up as different UN member states and all end up fighting (‘Is this how you think the countries of the world behave?’), and Brian Blessed as an incompetent sailor-cum-astronaut is comedy gold.

But of course, as an adult, you ask questions of the material that children wouldn’t, and when you do, you start to realise that a lot of it makes no sense. And then, like most people with too much time on their hands, you see if you can come up with a theory that explains all the seeming errors and inconsistencies. And I have.

Don’t worry, it’s not a particularly original or ground-breaking theory, but given that the show was created by adults, I think it provides a coherent cosmology that ties together all the following headscratchers.

1. What exactly are they cooking on those barbecues? Pigs are people in their world. So are cows, and sheep, and goats, and rabbits. Are they all cannibals?

2. Why is there only one set of grandparents? I don’t know about you, but everyone I know has four grandparents. In the Peppa Pig world, everyone seems to have two. Taken to its logical conclusion, that might explain why everyone’s nose is on the side of their head. And speaking of irreparably corrupting the gene pool…

3. Are there laws preventing interspecies coupling? Every adult character in Peppa Pig is either single or married to a member of their own species. Why? Would Miss Rabbit getting it on with Grandad Dog result in stigma and ostracism? Is that why she’s still single and works every single job in town – to distract her from the love that dare not speak its name?

4. Why doesn’t George fit the alliterative-species naming scheme? All the children are named things like Peppa Pig, Danny Dog, Suzy Sheep and Rebecca Rabbit. So why is George just George? They never even refer to him as George Pig. Was he adopted? Is his fixation on dinosaurs because he actually hatched from an egg?

5. Why is Peppa the only one to have a unique name? Given the rest are called things like Edmund, Freddy and Zoe, did the writers invent one name and then get lazy? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to call her Poppy or Pippa?

6. Why do Mummy and Daddy Pig’s friends call them Mummy and Daddy Pig, and not their real names? Did they lose their names when they became parents? Were their identities wiped out at the same time?

7. What the hell is Mr Potato? Talking animals? I don’t have a problem with that. Everyone living on their own hilltop? Unlikely topography, but okay, it’s a fantasy. But a sentient root vegetable? It’s starch and water. How did it grow a brain?

8. How come they have a doctor and a vet? They’re all animals. The job of a doctor and the job of a vet should be interchangeable. (And as a side note, why is the GP called Dr Brown Bear? There’s no Mummy Pink Pig or Grampy White Rabbit, is there?).

9. Why are all the animals the same size? Irrespective of species, everyone in Peppa Pig is one of five sizes: baby, toddler, young child, older child, adult. There is no distinction between an adult elephant and an adult hamster. That’s pretty messed up. Was there some kind of atomic event that mutated these animals even as it wiped out every human being except the Queen?

10. Why are people’s jobs so unrealistic? Mummy Pig simply types on a computer from time to time. The extent of Daddy Pig’s architectural expertise is drawing houses on pieces of paper and occasionally mentioning concrete. Meanwhile, Miss Rabbit does a hundred different jobs, while Mr Bull seems to juggle work for the council with private contracts, ranging from digging up the road to building houses and fixing roofs. You couldn’t possibly run an economy like this. It makes no sense.

 

So how do you tie all these disparate threads together? What’s the theory that explains it all? (Don’t get your hopes up). Here it is:

All the characters are human, and everything that happens is happening in Peppa’s head. It’s not reality but her perception of reality.

Told you it wasn’t very original. In this case, however, it seems to fit.

Peppa is an infant playing a game of make-believe involving the people and situations around her. But it’s not a very sophisticated game, because she’s a kid – she includes barbecues, and doctors and vets, because she doesn’t have the capacity to think through the full ramifications of her fantasy.

The human Peppa whose perceptions we’re seeing is a typical kid, in that she thinks the world revolves around her. She thinks she’s special, she’s unique – that’s why she has an identity (a name) that is different from everyone around her. And, like most kids, she thinks she’s more special within her own family than her siblings, that she is her parent’s proper child (Peppa Pig) while her younger brother is nothing more than an adopted nobody (George without the surname).

As a typically egocentric child, she can’t conceive of her parents having a life outside looking after her. They don’t even have names other than mummy and daddy. And while they do jobs, her interpretation of them is that mummy is playing on the computer and daddy is just drawing pictures, when they should be paying attention to her.

Because she’s a child, her perceptions are black and white, without nuance or subtlety. If her house is on a slight slope, she tells people it’s on top of a massive hill. A muddy puddle is ‘the biggest in the whole world’, while all adults are exactly the same size because they’re all bigger than her. In fact, all adults look pretty much the same to her – every shop worker, bus driver, and ice-cream seller looks like Miss Rabbit, while every builder, handyman or road worker looks like Mr Bull.

Only being able to interpret the world from her own narrow perspective explains why she depicts each complete family unit as a separate species – as a child, the family is her way of structuring the world around her into discrete entities, and she is too young to understand that families can break down and the father from one family (a lion, say) can run off with the mother of another family (a gazelle).

It’s why everyone only has one set of grandparents. Peppa herself only has one set of grandparents, so she perceives everyone else as having one set too, ignoring any evidence to the contrary, as that is how she structures her reality.

And where are Daddy Pig’s parents? Possibly they’re dead, possibly they’re negligent, but possibly they’re simply unwelcome. Given Mummy Pig’s incessant, passive-aggressive belittling of her husband, we might infer that she married beneath her, particularly as her parents are depicted as somewhat posh. Possibly Daddy Pig’s parents were racist lowlifes. The evidence for this comes from the name Peppa chooses for her doctor in her fantasy – not Dr Bear, but Dr Brown Bear. Where did she get that from? Has she heard somebody, her daddy perhaps, referring to their ethnic minority medical practitioner as Dr Brown?

Which brings us at last to Mr Potato, who underscores the entire theory and shows that this is what the creators of Peppa Pig had in mind. Mr Potato has no reason to exist in the Peppa Pig universe at all. So why does he?

Because children can’t differentiate fantasy from reality. As I said, my kids love Peppa Pig, and when we go to Peppa Pig World, they seem to think that the person in the giant Peppa Pig costume actually is Peppa Pig. The same is true of the human Peppa. She watches TV shows depicting anthropomorphic versions of animals, and has met costumed versions in real life so thinks they’re real. In her fantasy, as she makes people into animals, she has to shift the animals one step down the ladder, turning them into anthropomorphic versions of vegetables. That’s why Mr Potato, the fictional TV character in the Peppa Pig universe also exists as a real character in the Peppa Pig universe. The scriptwriters are using Mr Potato to tell us, the audience, that this is not reality: it’s Peppa’s perception, a young child’s perception, of reality.

We could even go deeper. Why has Peppa had three voices during the series? Because the human Peppa is getting older, but still clinging to this comforting infantile make-believe. That’s why early episodes were centred on the town and playgroup, while later ones went to Italy and Australia –  not because the writers were running out of ideas, but because Peppa herself was becoming more knowledgeable about the world. And why is she so desperate to escape into this elaborate world of pretend innocence? How awful is the real Peppa’s life that this is her happy place?

I’m telling you, the creators of Peppa Pig are freaking geniuses. That’s why it’s so popular with kids – it’s their perspective, writ large. That’s why I bath my kids with Peppa Pig soap, dry them with Peppa Pig towels, brush their teeth with Peppa Pig toothbrushes, dress them in Peppa Pig pyjamas, tuck them into Peppa Pig bedsheets, and read them a Peppa Pig bedtime story. For breakfast they have Peppa Pig yoghurt, then they pack their Peppa Pig stationery into their Peppa Pig rucksacks so they have something to do on the way to the Peppa Pig theme park. When we forget to use Peppa Pig prophylactics we use a Peppa Pig pregnancy test. Actually, no, but there might be a day, sooner than you think, that there is no other world outside Peppa Pig.

I’ll say it again: the creators of Peppa Pig are freaking geniuses.

Or am I just overthinking this?

Why Zebras Have Stripes (and 21 other things you’re probably wrong about)

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I like to think of myself as a reasonably knowledgeable guy. Actually, scratch that – I like to think of myself as an extremely knowledgeable guy. I’m aware that I’ve not specialised in any particular area, so my knowledge is not necessarily particularly deep, but it’s definitely broader than most.

At university and on my own I’ve studied anatomy, ancient languages, anthropology, archaeology, architecture, art history, astronomy and autism, and that’s just the first letter of the alphabet. I’ve done history and science and history of science; forensics and psychology and forensic psychology; politics and philosophy and political philosophy. Warfare and weaponry; crime and punishment; history, geography, geology, etymology; and a partridge in a pear tree. 

But I’m not a one-trick pony. Since I live in the real world of Ed Sheeran, Ellen DeGeneres and Elon Musk, I back up this academic knowledge with a sound insight into popular culture. I can tell my Spielbergs from my Scorceses, and my Khloes from my Kourtneys; my Family Guy and Firefly from my Stranger Things and Breaking Bad. Other than my Achilles Heel (sport), I’m the one you want on your pub quiz team.

But there are a number of difficulties that come from being so knowledgeable. Firstly, you’re surrounded by people who know less than you, which makes you feel great until you realise that when you want to talk about something that interests you, nobody is able to offer anything resembling an informed opinion until you’ve schooled them on your subject. Secondly, it makes you think that knowledge is a static monolith, when it’s actually a fluid multitude of changing viewpoints, so staying current on such a breadth of ideas is impossible and makes much of what you know obsolete. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, it makes you act like an arrogant turd.

Like the other day when my wife told me that zebras have stripes to stop flies landing on them.

‘Of course they don’t,’ I said, practically laughing in her face. ‘Who told you that rubbish?’

‘My friend.’

‘Well, your friend is wrong,’ I said in a very superior way. ‘Zebras evolved stripes as a way of breaking up their outline to make it more difficult for predators to cut an individual out from the herd.’

‘But it stops flies from landing on them because the stripes confuse them.’

‘Well, that might be a secondary benefit, but come on – evolution is all about survival. You really think they evolved stripes to stop flies landing on them and not to counter the 400lbs of teeth and claws trying to rip them to pieces on a daily basis? Use just a basic modicum of thought and you can see how stupid that sounds.’

And then, to hammer home how much of an asshole I am, I googled it to show her how I was right and she was…

Ah, hell.

I was right that evolution is all about survival. I was totally wrong about everything else. The current scientific consensus is that zebras evolved stripes to stop disease-carrying flies from landing on them. Thinking about it, it makes sense: there are probably a million flies for every lion, and once you’re weakened by a disease, you’re going to be easier to pick off.

So I was wrong. Completely. And more importantly, my wife was right. I’m never going to live this one down.

So I thought I’d make a list of some things that people think they know but are actually quite wrong about, whether through old information, fictionalisation in movies and TV, or simply because the conventional wisdom isn’t always as wise as it thinks it is. Arm yourself with these facts so you don’t fall into the same trap I did.

1. Hyenas are mostly predators, not scavengers. Estimates vary, but the widest known species, the spotted hyena, kills between 50% and 80% of the food it eats, and when lions and hyenas are seen around kills, in more than half of the cases, the hyenas made the kill. So why do we see them as skulking scavengers? Centuries of negative portrayals in literature, mythology and folklore because of how they look and sound. Yep, the maligning of Africa’s most successful predator is the closest we get to racism with regard to the Animal Kingdom.

2. Humans have far more than the five senses you were taught as kids. We also have equilibrioception (sense of balance and ability to detect acceleration); proprioception (sense of self-movement and body/limb positions); nociception (sense of pain); thermoception (sense of temperature); and a whole bunch of others like hunger, thirst, fullness, need to pee and need to poop. The best estimate is that we have between 14 and 20. Take that, M. Night Shyamalan.

3. You already use 100% of your brain. The myth that we only use 10%, and could do so much more if only we could unlock the rest of our potential, needs to be put to bed, not only because it’s wrong but because it keeps spawning naff action movies (Limitless, Lucy). You use different parts of your brain for different things, so you’re not going to use the whole 100% at the same time, but that doesn’t mean those other parts aren’t used. If they weren’t, they’d get colonised by other parts of the brain. The idea that a massive amount of the body’s blood supply goes to nourish an organ of which 90% lies dormant is just ‘laughable’.

4. The fat, laughing, half-naked golden Chinaman is not the Buddha. He is Budai, a 10th century CE Chinese Buddhist monk. Technically, he’s a Bodhisattva, like Patrick Swayze in Point Break – a spiritually-enlightened being. The actual Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, who lived in the 5th century BCE. Most depictions of him are of a slim man sitting cross-legged, with short, tight curls and a top-knot on his head, a ‘third eye’ on his forehead, and a beatific expression on his face. This holy figure is most often seen as a neighbour’s lawn ornament. Speaking of holy figures…

5. The man we know as Jesus of Nazareth was actually called YeshuaThe Aramaic name Yeshua from the Hebrew Bible entered the Greek Bible as Iesous, which was translated into the Latin Bible as Iesus, and into the English Bible as Jesus. Likewise, God was not Jehovah, but Yahweh. Don’t anybody tell the guys at the Watchtower.

6. The Coriolis effect doesn’t make toilets flush clockwise/anti-clockwise in the northern/southern hemisphere. The Coriolis effect – essentially the deflection of an object that travels a long distance over the surface of the Earth without actually touching it – is caused by the planet rotating faster at the equator than at the poles, and affects weather patterns, ocean currents and the occasional sniper’s bullet, but not toilets, despite what you might have seen on The Simpsons. Toilets and even swimming pools are simply too small for the Coriolis effect to have any influence.

7. Dinosaurs aren’t extinct. Yep, this is a hard one to get your head around because it’s been drummed into you all your life that dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago, but they didn’t. Most did, but the bird branch of the family tree survived and evolved into the avian species we know today. Birds are Maniraptors, which are coelurosaurs, which are theropods, which are saurischians, which are dinosaurs. Weird. Even stranger, the flying reptiles (pterosaurs), the swimming reptiles (ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs) and the squat ones with the sails on their backs (dimetrodons) that you see in all the posters, aren’t even dinosaurs at all. A simple rule of thumb is that a dinosaur’s legs are under the body, so anything with legs that stick out to the sides (like a crocodile or a tortoise) isn’t a dinosaur.

8. Cutting an earthworm in half doesn’t create two worms. Quite simply, worms have a head and a tail. The head has a mouth, the tail doesn’t. Both ends might wriggle around for a bit afterwards, but only the head can survive – the tail won’t.

9. Things burn up on entry into Earth’s atmosphere primarily because of air compression, not friction. When something hits the atmosphere, it’s normally travelling several kilometres a second. In the upper atmosphere where the descent is hottest and fastest, the air is too thin to create very much friction. Instead, the object’s travelling so fast the air in front of it can’t move out of the way so becomes squashed. As anybody who’s used a bike pump should know, when you compress air it heats up, and in the case of an object entering the atmosphere, massively so. There’s a lot of science involved, so if you want to properly understand it, follow this link to a guy from NASA explaining it better than I ever could.

10. The ‘alphas’ in wolf packs didn’t get there through aggression. For aeons we’ve been justifying competitive, hierarchical, and oftentimes quite shitty behaviour in business and society using the model of the wolf pack, in which a dominant ‘alpha’ male fights his way to the top like a particularly furry Al Capone. It’s a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world, after all, especially if you want to become ‘top dog’. However, while this might be true of captive wolves in which unrelated individuals are confined together, studies in the wild show something very different. The ‘alphas’ at the top of the social hierarchy in wild wolf packs are actually ‘mum and dad‘; the subordinates are ‘their children’. When they reach maturity, young wolves go off to become alphas of their own packs i.e. find a partner, settle down and have some kids. Even among primates, where the alpha can physically dominate the rest of the tribe, their behaviour is far more supportive and nurturing than the ‘alpha male’ stereotype that business magnates and your asshole boss would have you believe.

11. Carrots don’t help you see in the dark. If you have a vitamin A deficiency that causes a loss of night vision, eating carrots rich in vitamin A will restore your night vision to the same level as a normal, healthy person. If you don’t have vitamin A deficiency, eating carrots won’t make you see any better in the dark than someone who never touches carrots. This is a myth that goes back to the Second World War. To conceal the fact that the RAF were intercepting German bombers at night using radar, the Air Ministry issued press releases claiming their pilots could see in the dark by eating carrots. Not only did the Germans believe it but the British public did too, and here we are almost eighty years later still fooled.

12. Glass is a solid at room temperature and doesn’t continue to flow. I’ve been told many times that glass is a supercooled liquid – once by a guide showing me around the Colleges of Cambridge University. The error seems to stem from the fact that the glass in the windows of old buildings is thicker at the bottom – which my erstwhile guide pointed out many times during the tour – suggesting that the glass has continued to flow over hundreds of years. This is actually completely wrong. Glass is an amorphous solid. This means its atomic structure isn’t neat, the way it is in crystals, say, but it’s still solid. The reason medieval glass is thicker at the bottom is simple: glass-making back then wasn’t exactly refined, so the sheets they created were often uneven; builders would put the thicker end at the bottom, because they weren’t stupid. That said, I have seen the occasional examples where they’ve put the glass in with the thicker end at the top, proving (if it even needed proof) that glass is a solid. And speaking of people in the past being stupid…

13. People didn’t used to think the world was flat. At least, not for the past 2500 years. Okay, some people still think the world is flat, but the experts, like scientists, mathematicians and navigators, knew it was roughly spherical. Ancient Greek astronomers (3rd century BCE), Roman astronomers (1st century CE) and Arab astronomers (830 CE) all calculated the circumference of the Earth, and there are anecdotal, pseudoscientific claims that the Ancient Egyptians also knew. The reason Europeans mocked Christopher Columbus was not because they thought he’d fall off the edge of the world but because they knew he was wrong. Columbus massively miscalculated the size of the Earth (he also thought it was pear-shaped), and if he hadn’t stumbled into America, his crews would all have starved. In fact, he died still thinking he’d sailed all the way to India, when he was actually closer to India in Europe without ever leaving home!

14. Columbus wasn’t even the first European to visit North America. There were Viking colonies in Greenland and Canada hundreds of years before the Spanish conquistadors. The best guess is that the first European in North America was Leif Eriksson around 1000 CE, five-hundred years before Columbus.

15. You can’t restart a stopped heart with electricity. The defibrillator stops a heart that’s in atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat i.e. a heart attack) in the hope it starts itself in a normal rhythm. It does nothing to an already-stopped heart, so there would be no situation where the heart monitor flatlines, someone shouts, ‘Clear!’ and with a loud PA-JOOM, the patient is jolted back to life. So why do we see it all the time on TV, even in shows that are otherwise medically accurate? Because audiences expect it. Presumably it was first used, wrongly, to make for a dramatic scene; then others started doing it; and now, if you don’t do it, people are taken out of the movie or show because they’re thinking, ‘Why’s he not shocking her?’ This particular nonsense shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.

16. Shaving doesn’t make your hair grow back thicker and faster. It just feels like it does. Your hair follicle is under the skin, so when you shave, you’re not removing the hair entirely, just the end of it. What you actually do by chopping off the end is to make it blunt, and therefore rougher to the touch. It doesn’t stimulate growth or anything else. And while we’re on the topic of hair…

17. Your hair and fingernails don’t keep growing after you die. Folklorists and internet experts will tell you that the vampire myth comes from people digging up dead bodies only to discover their hair, teeth and nails had grown longer. This is only a partial truth. In reality, the longer hair, teeth and nails is the result of the corpse’s skin shrinking as it decomposes. In addition, dark ‘purge fluids’ leaking from mouth and nostrils, and the bloating of the corpse through trapped decomposition gases, all contributed to the idea that the dead could climb out of their coffins and drink blood from the living. (As a side note, the belief in vampires is still scarily common in certain parts of the world, with a bunch of villagers digging up and defiling the corpse of a neighbour in Romania in 2003 after he turned into a ‘strigoi‘).

18. Stretching before exercise doesn’t prevent soreness. Sure, we’ve all been indoctrinated into the belief that you need to stretch before a workout to avoid aching the next day, but it isn’t actually true. Stretching regularly helps to keep you supple and flexible, but it doesn’t prevent strains, injuries or aches. So whether it’s before, during, or after exercise, stretching is about increasing your range of movement, not a magical preventative to protect you from overdoing it.

19. Cracking your knuckles doesn’t cause arthritis. It’s not a pleasant thing to do by any means, but popping bubbles in the synovial fluid around your joints isn’t going to wreck your hands in later life. There is some evidence it might reduce grip strength, and you might break your knuckle if you do it too hard, but you’re not going to give yourself arthritis.

20. Stomach ulcers aren’t caused by stress. Since time immemorial it was thought that peptic ulcers – a thinning of the lining of the stomach to create a sore – was caused by lifestyle factors, such as stress, coffee, alcohol and spicy foods. While these things certainly exacerbate peptic ulcers, they don’t actually cause them. Instead, up to 90% are caused by helicobacter pylori bacteria, and the rest by long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Aspirin and Ibuprofen, although smoking apparently increases your risk (as it seems to do with everything). Unfortunately, knowing it’s not caused by stress makes a certain Malcolm in the Middle episode far less enjoyable.

21. There is no such thing as biological race. Or, to quote National Geographic, ‘There’s no scientific basis for race – it’s a made-up label’. Yeah, this is a controversial one and perhaps the most difficult to accept. If you look at genetics, there is incredibly little difference between people. We’re more closely related to one another than chimpanzees to other chimpanzees. In fact, since all non-Africans are descended from the same few thousand individuals that left the continent 60,000 years ago, Europeans and Asians and Native Americans and Oceanians are more closely related to one another than Africans to other Africans. The category ‘black’ to refer to all Africans as a single ‘race’ is therefore incredibly reductive, since they encompass far more genetic variation than non-blacks.

‘But we look different,’ I hear you cry. Yes, we do, but that’s mostly because we’ve adapted to where we happen to live on the planet, and haven’t moved around very much, so each population has ended up looking a little different, the way that my kids look like me and my brother’s kids look like him. Genetically, however, beneath the superficialities of skin colour, eye-shape and whether or not you can grow facial hair, we’ve remained remarkably similar. Indeed, of a person’s 20,000 genes and three-billion base pairs, a difference in a single gene, SLC24A5, where there is a G in sub-Saharan Africans, and an in Europeans, accounts for most of the difference in skin pigmentation.

If we were different races – if there were more than just superficial differences – you’d expect there to be distinctive alleles (the particular ‘flavour’ of a gene) belonging to each different race. There are indeed different alleles that appear to relate to different regions – around 7.4% of the total studied. However, these ‘race-specific’ alleles only occur in 1% of the population, meaning 1% of Africans have an African allele, 1% of Europeans have a European allele, and so on. Indeed, given the variation within populations, a European might be more genetically similar to an Asian than another European. This is hard scientific proof that while you might be able to infer a person’s ancestry from their appearance, we are all the same.

So if race doesn’t exist, why are we still so obsessed with it? Probably because we invented the notion of race to explain why we look different long before we had a scientific understanding of DNA and genetics. I mean, the Human Genome Project wasn’t completed until 2003. We’ve spent the past few hundred years dividing people into different races based on their ancestry, and then assigning those races different characteristics and relative values, so while race might not exist as a biological reality, it certainly exists as a social, political, cultural and psychological construct, interwoven into the fabric of how we see ourselves and others. If everyone came to accept the new, scientific view that the differences between people are cultural, not biological, perhaps the world would be a better place; but in doing so, you’d undermine the means by which billions of people self-identify. Instead of proclaiming that black lives matter, we really ought to be chanting that race doesn’t really exist, but I honestly don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.

And these are my facts. If you’ve made it this far, well done: you’re better armed against the untruths that litter society. But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. Read both sides of an argument. See which you agree with or if there’s a consensus.

And if you can, do it before you put your foot in your mouth.

The pain of longing for home

Turning forty the other day, my only wish was to revisit the town in which I grew up, and left, and hadn’t been to except in passing for almost twenty years. I suppose that as you get older, you start to look backward with rose-coloured glasses, to a time when things were different, and fuller, and better than they are today. But is it ever true?

There’s a simple comfort from living in the past. Home as a concept, a symbol, is an anchor we carry with us all our lives, an idealised, imagined place where everything is safe, if only we could go back there. So ingrained into our psyche is this longing for home that the theme of homecoming is one of the oldest in literature – The Odyssey, the Godfather of the genre, was composed a whopping 2700 years ago. I’m not alone in thinking we’ve lost something. The world sometimes feels like it’s all gone to hell.

But in the early-nineties, my hometown was heaven. It’s not just subjective: objectively, everything was great. The Cold War was over; the economy boomed; Levi 501s were finally affordable; grunge and Britpop ruled the airwaves; and moviemaking reached a pinnacle in Point Break, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and Pulp Fiction. Gone were the luminous shellsuits and ubiquitous synthpop of the eighties, along with the perms and the mullets and the socks-with-sandals monstrosities. England reached the semi-finals in Italia 90, to the timeless strains of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. We had Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It was the best time to be alive.

Then what happened? The grunge heroes died; we saw the awful realities of Islamic terror; Keanu Reeves got old; Mel Gibson went crazy; we were embroiled in endless wars; and climate change became a watchword for everything that is wrong with the world. For the past twenty years, I haven’t just wanted to go home – I’ve been desperate to.

As I’ve bounced from place to place, never putting down roots, my life has felt temporary, transitory – because my real life, and my real home, lies far away, somewhere between memory and fantasy, in the hallowed halls of my youth. If only I could get back there.

So on my fortieth birthday last week, I did.

Why did it take me so long? Because I knew things would be different. I’ve been a fan of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley almost as long as I’ve been away from my home, and was always struck by his uncomfortable impressions of returning to Salinas after having moved away years before: ‘Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.’

I went to all my old haunts – my house, my school, the pond where I had my first kiss, the record store where I fell in love with music. Some of the places I recognised; some of them were smaller, and narrower, and uglier than I remembered; and many of them are gone, replaced by things that might be significant in other people’s lives, but with which I have no connection.

I saw faces, people, thronging the streets. I spoke to some, people who might not even have been born when I left. And one thing was inescapably clear with every word they spoke:

This was their hometown. This was their life. Not mine.

Because my hometown wasn’t just bricks and mortar, but a place in time, and that time was the 1990s. My hometown isn’t a place I can visit: it no longer exists.

I think that’s the experience of any person who leaves a place and comes back to it.

But more than the place being different, there’s a further dislocation because you’re different. When I was sixteen and broke up with my first girlfriend, I pined after her for months, and when I finally met up with her again, I discovered the horrible truth about life and relationships: that we are all in a perpetual state of change. If we’d changed together, we might have had a chance, but we changed apart, and no longer fit together. There was a time when my hometown fit me perfectly, but it’s changed, and I’ve changed, and we’re no longer right for one another. We had our time, but that time has gone.

An idea contained in another book – the fantasy novel Assassin’s Creed by Robin Hobb – helped me get over that girlfriend, and is illustrative of why we spend so much time clinging to the past – people and places and things that we think are so much better than today. The main character spends most of the book longing for his former lover, until someone gives him some hard reality, and it’s such a life-changing truth-bomb, it’s worth quoting in full:

‘You have been gone too long from her, and too much has befallen you both. And what you loved, what both of you truly loved, was not each other. It was the time of your life. It was the spring of your years, and life running strong in you, and war on your doorstep and your strong, perfect bodies. Look back, in truth. You will find you recall fully as many quarrels and tears as you do lovemaking and kisses. Fitz. Be wise. Let her go, and keep those memories intact. Save what you can of her, and let her keep what she can of the wild and daring boy she loved. Because both he and that merry little miss are no more than memories anymore.’

Yes. We don’t love the people and the places that we used to know – we love who we were when we were with those people and in those places. And if I think of my hometown, I did not spend all those years grieving for a place, but for the person I used to be, and that I lost. I mourn for the boy who was afraid of the dark, that innocent soul who thought the world would be kind, and that he would find in it somewhere to belong. I miss that sweet little fella who had to grow up and suffer all that I’ve suffered. For he is nothing more than a memory now.

There’s a danger in glamorising the past. You stop moving forward, stop engaging with the world, stop living. You become bitter and frustrated, because things are different from the ideal in your mind. Steinbeck again: ‘What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. What’s out there is new and perhaps good, but it’s nothing we know.’ We long for familiarity, for the immutable and the unchanging, but those things are an illusion. Life is change. Or as Heraclitus said 2500 years ago: ‘You cannot step twice into the same river.’ For the river is different, and so are you.

I’ve spent twenty years longing to return to a home that never really existed, and waiting to start a life that was nothing more than a dream. I’ve spent twenty years feeling like I don’t belong, that I should be somewhere else, doing something else, as someone else. No more. I’m closing the book on this chapter. It’s time to accept that this is my life. That this is where I live and this is who I am. And home, the concept of a place you can return to and feel safe, doesn’t exist. It never did. It was simply a time when I was younger, and happier, and more hopeful than I am today.

The theme of homecoming in Ancient Greek literature? It’s called ‘nostos’, from which we get the word nostalgia – sentimentality for a better, happier past. But that’s not entirely true, for the second part of the word stems from ‘algos’, meaning pain. Nostalgia is better translated as ‘the pain of homecoming’, or more pertinently, ‘the pain of longing for home’.

Don’t let that pain keep you from living.