Thursday 27 September 2012

Geographical sensitivities

At the start of the British Museum's temporary exhibition, Ritual and revelry: the art of drinking in Asia, there is a map of a large part of Asia. At the bottom of the map, there is the following statement: "The names and designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the British Museum". The intention is presumably not to upset anyone who might think that the map implied territorial claims that they rejected, or who rejected certain place names because of their historical or political associations.

This strikes me as silly over-sensitivity. No boundary lines are drawn on the map. The only remotely contentious labels on the map are "Tibetan Plateau" (instead of "Tibet"), "Korea" (not distinguishing North from South), and "Burma" (instead of "Myanmar"). Taiwan is not labelled at all. I cannot see any reason why anyone could reasonably take offence at what is on the map. And if someone took offence at the absence of names for some countries, or at the absence of boundary lines, that would be equally unreasonable. It is not just Taiwan and Tibet that are not labelled. Several countries are not labelled, simply because there is no need for the map to show that much detail.

It is not, however, simply a matter of over-sensitivity to people's political and geographical sensibilities. There is a second-order issue. By adding the statement, the British Museum has conceded that it is reasonable for people to make a fuss about maps which are published by bodies that have nothing to do with any governments or aspiring governments, and where the bodies clearly do not have any intention to make political waves in the regions mapped.

I am concerned at a possible consequence of making that concession, a consequence that is by no means certain to ensue, but that would nonetheless be serious. It is this. Such a concession would put us on the road to allowing scholarship to be constrained by political, cultural and religious sensitivities: "Don't present that result, or that theory, it would upset such and such a group". Over the past few centuries, we have gradually shed such constraints, although we have not got rid of them completely. Their return would be an intellectual disaster.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Are satyrs human?

The star of the excellent exhibition of bronze sculptures that has just opened at the Royal Academy in London is the truly spectacular Dancing Satyr:

There are other, smaller, early modern satyrs and satyresses too. These reflect the merger of the ideas of the satyr and the faun, in that the legs are distinctively goat-like.

Now suppose that satyrs and satyresses with such distinctive goat-like features really existed. Would we regard them as human?

It is tempting to make the answer depend entirely on genetics. If they were a separate line, with any common ancestor with us being very remote, and if they did not interbreed with human beings, we would be inclined to say no. If, on the other hand, they were born of human beings by a strange mutation, that prevented interbreeding with non-mutated human beings and that was generally passed on to their offspring, we might well say they were human. We would be particularly likely to do so if a few children of satyrs and satyresses did not have the mutation and could merge back into the main line of human beings, interbreed with non-mutated human beings, and have children who did not have the mutation.

Even if we decided to rely solely on genetics, this would not answer every question. Suppose that some satyrs and satyresses had been born of human beings five thousand years ago, and no-one from their line had ever merged back into the main line of human beings. Would we still say that they were human beings? One thing that might hold us back from saying that they were not human, would be the possibility of their having children without the mutation, who could merge back into the main line of human beings.

If, however, that possibility would carry weight, how strong would the possibility need to be? If a remote possibility would carry weight, we might have to say that chimps were human because at some time in the future, they could evolve into alternative versions of homo sapiens sapiens who could merge into the human line. We would probably rule out attaching weight to that possibility in relation to chimps, on the ground that even if it might happen, it would certainly not happen for many thousands of years, whereas with the satyrs and satyresses, we envisage that it might happen at any moment. That is, remoteness in likelihood and undoubted remoteness in time can have different effects on our attitudes.

Alternatively, we could take a view that was not purely genetic. We could say that social interaction mattered too. The more we interacted with satyrs and satyresses, in the same ways that we interact with human beings, both at work and at play, the more likely we would be to regard them as human. But we could not let that become the only criterion. If it did, then those with whom we cannot interact, either because they are inhuman in their conduct or because of their restricted faculties, would not count as human, and that would be quite wrong.

I have repeatedly referred to satyrs and satyresses together. When we see them as male and female, as they are portrayed in some of the sculptures at the exhibition, and not just as male, that makes it much easier to see them as human beings. And so I would, were they to move in next door.