While the attempt to trivialize human differences by using cosmic comparisons is largely non sequitur, an attempt to distract from matters close at hand with others far more distant, that does not mean that the motivation for doing so is not a noble one. Returning to Jill Tarter’s quote, there is a clear double entendre in the bolded section:
As Carl Sagan said, we are all made out of stardust. You are actually made out of the remnants of that star that blew up billions of years ago, and the connectedness of life to the Cosmos and the idea of thinking about, maybe, life somewhere else, I think has the opportunity to trivialize the differences among humans on this planet that we find so troublesome.
Taken literally, it seems that she is arguing to trivialize the differing characteristics of humans. Certainly this interpretation makes a good deal of sense, particularly since she emphasizes the fact that “we are all made of stardust”, thus highlighting a shared characteristic. However, at the same time, “differences” can also refer to conflict, and interpretation suggested by the descriptor “that we find so troublesome”. The second interpretation also jibes with the passage of The Pale Blue Dot that I referenced in my last post.
Here is a sample of the collection of facial averages generated by Dragon Horse. The ones below are from left to right: West African, English, and Taiwanese.
The contrasts are stark, not just between different geographic locales but also between the sexes. It is true that all of the individuals whose pictures went into creating these averages consist of roughly the same balance of elements, which were in turn formed in the same collection of stars and supernovae, but it is clear that they are different. Even when the features of any one individual is lost in an average of co-ethnic peers, strong differences remain.
Thanks to modern genetic sequencing techniques, we can begin to roughly map how our differences cluster at the genetic level with visualizations such as this one by Doug McDonald of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, which is a three dimensional PCA plot of the populations cataloged in the Human Genome Diversity Project.
Beyond the biological differences manifested in our appearance and our genetic codes, there is a wide array of cultural differences, which are anything but trivial. This map is a decent representation of world religious distribution:
Likewise, this map provides a decent picture of the distribution of language families throughout the world:
While there’s a good deal of similarity between some of the boundaries of language families and religions, there are often lingual boundaries between co-religionists and religious boundaries between co-linguals.
This of course brings us to the second meaning of “differences”, which is not unconnected to the first. Throughout human history and doubtless long before the first scribe, humans have quarreled among themselves. However, it should be noted that most struggles are between neighbors and end up being fights over relatively small differences, even in the modern globalized world: Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Israelis and Palestinians in the southern Levant, Protestants and Catholics in Ulster, Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Even if looking to the stars did lessen the significance of differences between people, which it manifestly does not, it’s hard to see how that would lead to peace. There is generally little to no conflict between the Hindus of India and the Christians of Europe, between the modern, secular Japan and the hunter-gatherer Bushmen of South Africa, or between the conservative monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the pragmatic Communists of China.
Ultimately, the view expressed by Tarter and Sagan that an eye to the great beyond can serve as a pivot point to reduce social conflict is mistaken. In order to understand the fabric of humanity, we need to take stock of our differences and note how they shape our world. A world with less conflict is a noble goal, but it cannot be achieved by glossing over the divisions arising from biology, history, and geography that shape our species. Peace has come through changing the playing field and encouraging cooperation, something that a glance back at Earth from the great beyond plays little role.