Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Importance of Tradition

Had an interesting conversation over at Feministe regarding tradition, in the specific context of whether people should carry forward the naming conventions of their parents. One comment I wrote, in response to a question, is germane on its own:

Why is it wrong to throw away something with no inherent value just because many people in the past have not done so?

Short version: because we often aren’t smart enough to know whether something has inherent value or not, and because as a species we don’t generally employ a time horizon long enough in our cognition to think intelligently about multigenerational things.

Long version: Societies evolve, just as species do. Things that work reproduce themselves; things that don’t, die off. The experimentation with new things is a necessary part of progress, but it can be a very expensive one. What’s more, we often don’t know what the real function of social traditions are. Our ancestors didn’t know, either. But by being really careful about rejecting the wisdom of past generations - or their stupidities - we can preserve the implicit knowledge and experience passed on by tradition. The Jews didn’t eat pork, and it wasn’t because they knew about bacterial infection in pig crap in Mosaic Egypt. It was because their parents didn’t eat pork, and told them to do the same. And it turns out that, absent modern sanitation, not eating pork is a damn smart thing to do. Someone figures something out empirically - even if they can’t back it up with a peer-reviewed study - and because it is right, it works out, and they have more surviving kids than the idiots across the creek who eat pig every day. And over time “don’t eat pork” becomes a tradition - passed along blindly, with no recognizable “inherent value” to it among people not possessed of epidemiology or the ability to ascertain the reasons for variable death rates among different tribes. The Jews also didn’t wear mixed-fiber clothing, and it turns out that there’s no non-religious reason at all for that one - that we can figure out. It’s a crapshoot. But it doesn’t kill us not to eat pig, and it doesn’t kill us not to do a kicky cotton-nylon blend…so what harm?

To use a different example - your appendix has no inherent value. Why don’t we do surgery on every five year old and just cut the darn things out? Better yet, why not engineer the genome and set it up so that nobody ever has an appendix again? The answer, of course, is that we don’t KNOW. There are known costs to doing surgery on everybody - it would cost a lot of money, and a few kids would die each year - and there are known benefits - no more appendectomies at inconvenient stages of later life, and a few adults would live each year that currently die because of undiagnosed appendicitis. But we don’t know for sure what the long-term consequences would be. Maybe we rejigger the genome, and then the 2000-year life cycle of the Subterranean Face Eating Virus recurs - the virus that the appendix specifically evolved to fight - and we all die, faceless and in agony. Bummer.

A basic respect for tradition, moderated to a degree by reason and science, is, in essence, an acknowledgement of the limits to our knowledge, and a recognition that we don’t have every answer figured out just quite yet.

1 comment:

Sara E Anderson said...

I think your analogy is wrong. We only take an appendix out if it's making trouble. Otherwise, we let it stick around because it's not any trouble, and it's dangerous to do surgery, and damn difficult to genetically engineer people to not have appendices. We know that people are just fine without an appendix - ask anyone who's had an appendectomy. It's just not necessary to take it out if it's there.

And, I guess I feel the same way about names. I kept my name because I like it, but I wouldn't have made a big deal if my husband had wanted me to change it, and while the women-as-chattel baggage bothers me, I've got an egalitarian relationship here - we've changed the institution of marriage to meet our needs and desires, regardless of its past.