Human beings are born radically incomplete. Our bodies start out tiny, frail, and devoid of self control. For years, we literally poop all over ourselves, multiple times a day.
Even the halest, heartiest, and luckiest among us take months to first stand up, years to walk without toppling over, and decades to fully mature. And that’s just on the physical side. We start out even less complete mentally.
When we’re born, we live entirely in the present. We can’t remember beyond the immediate past or envision possible futures. We have some sense of touch and tone and tension, but we can’t even name “Mama” or “Dada,” much less the myriad things that make up our worlds.
We’re not born blank slates. We come wired to develop in certain directions, according to plans that are mapped broadly in the human genome and more specifically in our own genes. But if we’re lucky enough to be born with the typical range of human potentials, we’re built with a great deal of flexibility in our designs.
Any Tribe Will Work for Any Child
Perhaps most importantly, we’re each born with the potential to upload and run the cultural operating system of any tribe in the world—to learn to use its language to think our most intimate thoughts; to absorb its mythologies, mores, and morals so fully that they come to feel entirely natural; to internalize its practices and presumptions to the extent that they become automatic.
This is a point worth lingering over: We’re not born with particular languages, social norms, or belief systems. We learn these from our parents, teachers, preachers, etc. And a clone of any of us who grew up in a different place and time, with different parents, teachers, and preachers, would come to think, behave, and believe differently. A clone of you raised in Paris by a French Catholic family would become a French Catholic you. A clone of you raised in Tehran by an imam and his wife would become a Shiite Muslim you.
Our cultures provide essential tools through which we move out of both literal and figurative infancy. They empower us to think and speak and begin to manipulate our worlds—to reinvent reality in ways that other creatures can’t even begin to imagine. Through them, we become more completely human, even as we become the particular, more complete humans we become.
And therein lies both immense opportunity and a unique sort of danger. The opportunity stems from the potential our cultural tools provide to keep exploring further and seeing deeper. The danger comes from the temptation to believe that, in making us more completely human, our particular cultures give us the complete picture.
Any Child Can Transcend Any Tribe
We’re all prone to believing that the ways we’ve already been taught to think are always the right ways to do so. We’re also prone to mistaking our familiar cultural tools for the underlying realities they enable us to grapple with. We mistake the words of our languages for the facts they attempt to represent. We mistake our preferred collections of artifacts for the All-Time, Universal Masterpieces. We mistake the historical stories we’ve been taught for the past as it really was in its full complexity and depth. We mistake received wisdom for Absolute Truth.
When we do, we stop seeking new ways to see and think and connect. We stop being like the incomplete children we once were—who marveled at the unexplained wonders all around us and reimagined the world every day (and sometimes every hour). We become altogether too complete.
We thus close ourselves off from other potential windows on the world, not to mention from other people—including the French Catholic you, the Shiite Muslim you, and all the many yous who you could yet decide to be.
We forget that we’re born with the potential to understand every language in the world—and that the languages we already speak can, with time and effort and translation, still unlock all of that potential and more. We forget that being at least a little incomplete is the price of continuing to learn and change and grow. We forget that we’re born to be poets not dusty old dictionaries, scientists not walking encyclopedias, creators not finished creations.