being human

This past week, N felt like starting to watch a TV series that was sci-fi-y. "Star Trek TNG?," I suggested, which hit the spot. At this point, we've watched the first seven episodes of the first season sequentially--a new experience for both of us. Both our parents were Star Trek fans, but watching them in order never was particularly important; except for the occasional two-episode plot, each one was pretty stand-alone. In what little I've see over this watching, I can pick out elements of character evolution, but nothing that demands a sequential understanding or that pulls a viewer into the need to watch more immediately. While I tend to like shows that have a larger story arch pulling it along (which TNG still has, but it's very, very mild), I'm glad I'm not feeling the compulsion to watch all 178 episodes in rapid succession.

One thing that is a large concept explored in the show is humanity; this theme is much more pronounced that I remembered, my memory being limited to Data's desire to be human. In particular, the attitude of the humans in TNG seems to be very apologetic about the past; they cling to the idea that they have evolved/changed to be a better species. In the pilot, for example, Q tests the the crew of the Enterprise.
PICARD: What? That nonsense is centuries behind us.
Q: But you can't deny that you're still a dangerous, savage child race.
PICARD: Most certainly I deny it. I agree we still were when humans wore costumes like that, four hundred years ago.
Q: At which time you slaughtered millions in silly arguments about how to divide the resources of your little world. And four hundred years before that you were murdering each other in quarrels over tribal god-images. Since there are no indications that humans will ever change.
PICARD: But even when we wore costumes like that we'd already started to make rapid progress.
Then, later:
PICARD: Alright! We agree there is evidence to support the court's contention that humans have been savage. Therefore I say test us. Test whether this is presently true of humans.
Still later...
RIKER: Have you understood any part of what he's tried to tell you? Humanity is no longer a savage race.
But it's not just the first episode.
PULASKI: I'm just glad that humans have progressed beyond the need for barbaric displays. (2.14)

DATA: Judging a being by its physical appearance is the last major human prejudice, Wesley. (2.19)

RIKER: Maybe if we felt any human loss as keenly as we feel one of those close to us, human history would be far less bloody. (3.5)
Data and Q both exist, in part, to tease out the essence of humanity over the course of the show.  Humans are good and they keep getting better is the message we are sent.

Then there's Firefly, where human nature stays more or less the same through time.  This is implicit in the world, but it is also made explicit in Serenity, where improving humanity artificially is villainized and the messiness of humanity and human life is almost glorified.
The Operative: I'm sorry. If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to. You should have taken my offer. Or did you think none of this was your fault?
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: I don't murder children.
The Operative: I do. If I have to.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Why? Do you even know why they sent you?
The Operative: It's not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: So me and mine gotta lay down and die... so you can live in your better world?
The Operative: I'm not going to live there. There's no place for me there... any more than there is for you. Malcolm... I'm a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.
...and then later, referring the discovery of Miranda and how the Alliance both killed people and created monsters while trying to make people better by adding drugs to the air:
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: This record here's about twelve years old. Parliament buried it and it stayed buried until River here dug it up. This is what they were afraid she knew. And they were right to fear. There's a universe of folk who're gonna know it, too. Someone has to speak for these people.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Y'all got on this boat for different reasons, but y'all come to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this - they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin'. I aim to misbehave.
So does humanity evolve?  Social expectations surely do, but those are localized.  Even if they were universal, would our changes be for the better?  How could we even know if we are part of society?  Technology and access to knowledge surely evolves.  Can knowledge and understanding change a person, or are people static machines that change their actions according to their respective situations?  I tend to divide our individual influences into genes and memes, but is that the right model?

No comments: