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In an interview titled "Climbing Mount Everest is work for Supermen", which appeared in the New York Times of 1923 Mar 18, the interviewer asked George Mallory why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. Mallory replied, "Because it’s there." Those three words are often taken to constitute a statement of some profundity, but, in fact, the statement is simply vapid: it tells us nothing of human motivation.
Contrast that statement with what Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote in Terre des Hommes (translated into English under the title Wind, Sand and Stars). He was describing the ordeal of Guillaumet, who crashed his mail plane in the Andes Mountains in winter. The man needed a week to walk away from the wreck and get himself rescued, a time during which he dared not go to sleep. In the hospital he told St. Exupéry, "I swear that what I went through, no animal would have gone through." St. Exupéry then added, "This sentence, the noblest ever spoken, this sentence that defines man’s place in the universe, that honors him, that re-establishes the true hierarchy, floated back into my thoughts."
Fundamentally, though, we are animals. Six to seven million years ago we had an ancestor who was also the ancestor of the modern chimpanzees. That ancestor and his kin lived spread over much of Africa. Then East Africa dried out and the forests faded into savannah. Adapting to the new conditions, through the interplay of mutation and natural selection, the ape-like creatures living in that area evolved into humans.
Over time those creatures became more than animals. They gained the ability to think, to plan, to imagine. They could envision a world different from the one they were in. They conceived new ways of doing things and expanded their power to exploit Nature. Faintly at first, then more insistently, the call resonated in their minds – What more can we do? Do we have what it takes to do more?
What would make a man trudge miles through snow-filled mountains, going a week without sleep? Guillaumet envisioned a world without him and saw how his family would suffer. Such thoughts drove him to take the next step, and the next, and the next, until he reached people who helped him. He had what it takes to do more, to take the next step.
But look back even further, to the beginnings of Humanity. Some starving soul asked Do we have what it takes to get more food? Are we strong enough to put some of our food back into the ground so that it will grow more food? That soul and others envisioned an abundance of food-bearing plants and they learned the arts of farming. With a surplus of food available to them, those people increased their numbers and built villages, which evolved into civilization.
In some village a craftsman thinks, "I could do so much more if I had harder and sharper tools." There’s a challenge, but we don’t meet it just because it’s there. We need a vision – "I could do so much more...." Do we have what it takes to make better tools? Relying entirely on wood, stone, and bone restricts what we can do. Perhaps we can do better with these new things, these metals, which we work with fire? Copper, bronze, and then iron – each demanded from the smith more knowledge and effort than its predecessor had done. With stronger and sharper tools people could build better.
We revere our Pharaoh and we want to ensure that he will continue to give us his blessings in death as he does in life. Let us, therefore, glorify him. To that end, do we have what it takes to build a bigger pyramid for him?
And thus we shade into abstraction. For all of the wonderful life-enhancing things that it goads us into doing, the challenge calls us to transcend the merely practical. What we do, no animal could do.
Our world and the things in it seem to move with some kind of intent. We infer the existence of spirits that guide those movements. What more can we do? Do we have what it takes to understand the fundamental nature of Reality? As the first hominids evolved larger brains, they developed language. Eventually, using random sounds associated with certain sense impressions, they gained the ability to describe their world to each other. Using that ability, they invented logic as an abstraction of reason and invented mathematics as an abstraction of counting and measurement. Those abstractions enable us to understand Nature, from the sub-microscopic realm to the astronomical. They have brought to us a knowledge and an understanding of phenomena whose behavior defies our intuitions and that process continues.
We have set our feet upon lands far away and strange, some of them inhospitable, from which we, nonetheless, extract a living. What more can we do to take full possession of this world? Do we have what it takes to put our footprints on the South Pole? On the North Pole? On top of the highest mountain? In order to meet those challenges, we must display the technical ability and the endurance to survive extreme cold, an intensity of cold with which our ancestors were not evolved to cope.
By meeting such challenges we enlarge ourselves. What we choose to go through, no animal would go through. Little by little we increase the distance between humans and animals. Now Humanity faces challenges that our ancestors could not have conceived.
What more can we do after conquering our world? Can we touch anything we can see? Can we put our footprints on the dusty plains of the moon? Oh, yes, indeed, we can. Do we have what it takes to go further? To Mars? To the moons of the outer planets? To the stars? We are on our way to find out.
From the beginning of our existence we have confronted Nature as an adversary. We have sought to conquer and tame the forces of Nature and in some ways we have succeeded all too well. We have tattered and frayed the web of life that once covered this planet. Do we have what it takes, both the means and the will, to repair that damage? Can we conceive a vision of a civilization that gives all of its people what they need and want and yet rests lightly on the land and can we muster the will to realize that vision?
Meeting the implicit challenges of our environment made us human. It has also enlarged our environment and thereby extended the challenges. In meeting those growing challenges we grow in knowledge, skill, and determination. We have become like the gods that our ancestors worshiped and gained the power to make our world ever better than it was when we entered it. That’s why we do it.
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