Monday, 28 January 2013

Musings on Penguins and Thomas Edison

I watched a documentary on penguins that noted something I hadn't known before. Every so often, you get one penguin that heads off into the hills away from the sea. It can't be diverted back to its safe place. If you return it home, it heads out again, trudging determinedly along away from the rest of the flock. It means certain death for the penguin.

But maybe it was programmed with that adventurous, suicidal spirit - it's by leaving the flock that it runs the chance of discovering new territory, new feeding grounds, and spreading the genes for the whole group. Otherwise, how would penguins extend themselves? New infusions are needed every so often, and if one adventurous penguin makes that discovery, it benefits the whole flock. Even if it means many die in the attempt.

I think humans are sort of the same. Every so often, the population produces an explorer, a free spirit who takes off alone. He or she may find a new habitat or food source or technology for the whole group. Someone had to be the first to head north into Europe from Africa. Someone had to decide to move with the changing ice shields or to dig in the earth instead of following migrating animal herds. Someone had to take that first flight, that first step into space. Someone had to discover that snails are edible (I dread to think what extremes drove them to that discovery).

The explorers among us aren't always recognized as such during their lifetimes. Sometimes we just see them as mentally ill or social misfits, recluses or absent-minded professors. Sometimes we categorize and label people without looking beyond the obvious to what their potential contribution may be. Van Gogh would have been written off as just another nutcase if it hadn't been for his persistent sister-in-law who recognized his genius and promoted his work after his death. So yes, the world needs explorers who step to their own drummers - but it also needs sensitive observers who look deeper, below the surface, and value what the explorers have to offer.

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