Specialized Civilization (and Clowns)

Let me become suddenly, emphatically clear on something: the pervasive specialization of human skills frightens me. Our civilization is endangered. Empirical knowledge compels me to think we have a fascinating, frightening condition called “Whole-Picture Anemia.”

In academia, one can major in increasingly specific subjects. The still-infectious ideal of scientific reductionism makes believe we can split things into smaller and smaller units. Until what? Until they all fit together and we understand how the watch was made. Hey, organizing into more complex forms worked for single-celled organisms, right? I read Future Shock. I’m not so sure it’ll work for us.

Doctors are a great example. Allow me to give an awful example of this example. Say you’re a dermatologist, and discover an unusual skin condition. It seems your patient’s top layer of skin is eroding, producing a mottled pattern over their body. While it doesn’t seem like it’s getting worse (and there’s no apparent bodily irritation), it’s interfering with his work as a children’s party entertainer a.k.a. clown. Let’s call this patient “the Mystery Clown.” Now I’m not a doctor, and I hate clowns. Clowns are scary old men who play with children (most clowns). But—bound by the hippocratic—you’ll treat him anyways. While it could be a lot of things, the only thing that works is having him wear gloves at night. Big polka-dotted clown gloves, let’s say. Problem solved (freaky excema and clown-shame aside, right?). On to the next doctor, his shrink, to whom he reports that he can no longer sleep at night. Hormones? They’re ok. Personal life? Same. No increased stress on the job? Nope, still a clown. Well, here’s some nappy-time pills. That works.sorrk..wko..rkr.wrso….s.k.rokrwossss… What’s this? My fingers are stuck to the keyboard? Hmm, that’s unusual. Seems this whole time the Mystery Clown had been handling children his hands had gotten so perilously and annoyingly sticky that he had to remove the child-goo by unconsciously scraping his skin off in the dead of night. That is one devoted clown—he loves at his work; it’s all he knows. He’d never admit his disgust by washing away all the friendly child-smells. Whoa, Mr. Shrink, you totally should have caught that “reverse OCD” thing. That and all the makeup still caked on, too. And wouldn’t he smell? As I said, this is the worst great example written. Take that, House.

I’ve lost my point. Clowns are still very disconcerting for me. Ah yes… I’d like to express my dislike for the idea of becoming a liver cell by age 30. Wait—lemme try again. The prospect of human beings becoming separated by unbridgeable esoteric chasms of knowledge is an alarming one. It seems to me that this thing called “the internet” could just be serving as a prosthetic to bridge the great divide.

Homo sapiens grew up in tribal groups, divvying roles out to who could do them. And we thrived! But can we really take biology meant for groups of about 200 (maybe) and use it in societies of, say, 300 million plus? It worries me that it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s job to oversee “the Big Picture,” and invigorate this damned anemia. I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to be something greater than the sum of my part.