Liberal's Tendency To Laud the Noble Savage Masking Self-Hatred?

-By Warner Todd Huston

In another one of those stories that casts ancient civilizations as somehow just as learned as we are today, the Los Angeles Times has pronounced the Ancient Mayans to be the world’s “first polymer scientists” because they knew how to mix sap from the rubber tree to create rubber balls in Mesoamerica.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it is very interesting (even exciting at some level) to realize that the ancient Mayans knew how to create rubber soled sandals, rubber balls for sports competition, and a type of glue from the sap of the rubber tree. No one can belittle that accomplishment and ingenuity. But this discovery does not make of them “polymer scientists.” It makes them clever, yes, but not scientists. This LATimes article wallows in that ridiculous tendency in western society today to mischaracterize ancient civilizations and ascribe modern characteristics or ideals to peoples from the past, ideals that simply don’t make sense.

As it happens the Mayans found that if they mixed the juice of the morning glory plant with the sap from a rubber tree in varying amounts they could get solid rubber balls, glues, and other rubber products. These formulas were a result of trial and error, certainly, but not science.

In true science, a concept invented after the Mayans disappeared, the nature of things is fully explored to the microscopic level and not solely via trial and error. Today in polymer science we know what is going on at the molecular level when we create plastics and rubbers. Even when Charles Goodyear created his vulcanization process in the mid 1800s he did so with more scientific capabilities at his disposal than did the Mayans and his efforts created a much stronger and more versatile rubber than what the Mayans created.

But here we have the L.A. Times and the researchers it quotes making “polymer scientists” of the Mayans. It is a ridiculous, exaggerated claim making of the Mayans more than they were.

On the other hand, this story also reveals a bit of modern arrogance tweaked. The piece is written as if we should be shocked that ancient peoples could be so cleaver. But we have evidence of the intelligence and ingenuity of humans from as far back as we can find evidence of human habitation. In fact, like the building of the pyramids, we even struggle to answer how certain things were even done by ancient peoples. So, why should we be so shocked that through trial and error the Mayans created usable rubber products?

But, I think the main thing that this piece is an example of is a certain amount of self-loathing. It’s an attempt by these journalists and researchers to say “see we aren’t all that,” as they find evidence that ancient peoples could be smart, too. It’s an effort to tear down our own achievements as also-rans, or late coming as opposed to the culmination of human endeavors built on human experience from the ancient to the modern.

These people point out the ingenuity of the ancients as much to denigrate our own era as to laud the ancients. It is a sort of self-flagellation that only westerners indulge in. It is also a silly way to over emote about an historical find all too typical today. It’s almost like an overboard reaction to earlier times in western history where the accomplishments of the “savage” peoples were so downplayed as to be made inconsequential in order to make our own modern accomplishments more important or more intelligent. Now, instead of saying the ancients were not so much, we’ve gone too far the opposite direction to the point where we inflate the ancient’s world.

The ancient Mayans were not “polymer scientists.” They were ingenious people that made an interesting discovery and found use for that discovery in their daily lives. So, let’s drop this inflation of their efforts and just report the facts, shall we?

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Tags: Education, History, Rubber, Science

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