What we can really learn from the Mayans.

EndOfTheWorldI’m revising a short story at the moment, originally intended to be released by Christmas, but I find rewriting a tedious and slow process which is how I ended up reading this piece of outstanding journalism™ on the upcoming apocalypse (as predicted by the Mayans!) The article, for those who never accept URLs from strangers, is a tour of those towering intellects who believe the world will end before Christmas because the Mayans said it was so.

Of course, that isn’t quite true. I’m not going to go in to much depth debunking the 2012 apocalypse theory as many people have already discussed it at length and I am not exactly well educated on the Mayans. Instead, I bow the expertise of genuine archaeologists and historians who will tell you that 2012 represented the end of the Mayan calendar and not the end of the world. But hey, why let the facts get in the way of a good ancient conspiracy theory.

No, what interests me about this end of the world meme isn’t the superstition of it. End of the world claims turn up all the time among fringe religious groups and we laugh them off. The Mayan apocalypse tale seems to be burning on some other fuel, what seems to be the deification of anything you wouldn’t call “western culture.” I say this not to attack multiculturalism or the goal of a diverse society, these are things I am greatly in favour of, but to illustrate people’s tendency to put things outside the mainstream on a pedestal.

There is a very good blog called Native Appropriations that I think everyone should read. It discusses the ongoing racial problems facing Native Americans to this day and was very eye opening for me. (I am, for example, a 25 year old who was born and raised in the United Kingdom and yet I was familiar with the concept of  “cowboys and indians” before I was aware of a country called “India.” That this should still be possible centuries after Europe crossed the Atlantic is ridiculous.) One of the issues discussed on the blog is society’s perception of indigenous people, including the idea that they are somehow closer to nature than everybody else. It sort of ties in to this idea of the noble savage, that Native Americans are somehow free from the shackles of all that troublesome civilisation and are free to hear all those great answers that are Blowin’ in the Wind. Which is ridiculous, of course, but persists because of our romanticisation of the different. I’m not a Native American, I’m a European White Male, and I can’t speak outside of that experience, but I would say the evidence is pretty clear by now. There is no such thing as a positive racial stereotype.

acupunctureneckOne of my personal bugbears is how this trend manifests itself in medicine. First, let me begin with a very important fact. The human race has never done a better job at curing disease, extending life and easing suffering than it does today. Modern medicine is, for the first time in human history, primarily based on evidence, testing and efficacy. No society has ever approached medicine as thoroughly as we do in the 21st century and no society has ever progressed so quickly as we are progressing now. With that in mind, I find it hard to take people seriously when their position is that bronze age herbalists have a better understanding of my body than my doctor. This view would be laughable were it not so dangerous, and the alternative medicine industry makes huge sums every year while claiming a great many lives in the process. In many cases it is this love affair with the spiritual views of distant cultures that supports the industry’s success. What fascinates me the most is the shear number of alternatives treatments that boast proudly of being “ancient.” Acupuncture, a frighteningly popular procedure, is heavily promoted on its antiquated origins, as if medical treatments aged like fine wine. And yet, would acupuncture survive if it were just jamming needles into your body? No, acupuncture is an ancient spiritual technique in which energy (which leaves no evidence of its existence) is diverted to the healthiest positions. It comes from a time when   society wasn’t burdened by all that medical science corrupting us.

MayaArchitectureAnd so we return to the Mayans. I like the Mayans. I like that they studied patterns and created that great calendar that frightens so many people. I like that they looked for evidence and structure to their world, even if they didn’t have the scientific expertise we rely on today. I admire their intellectual accomplishments and their beautiful architecture that is still standing to this day. But even if the Mayans had predicted the end of the world, I would not be quivering in fear with the rest of the true believers, because to do so would be to forget who the Mayans were. A civilisation of people, living hundreds of years ago, who studied the world extensively but knew a lot less about it than most modern ten year olds.

So, what can we really learn from the Mayans? In their time, the Mayans were one of the most advanced civilisations in the world, by the time the Spanish arrived, they were considered to be primitive savages and mercilessly slaughtered to extinction. There are many things to learn from that, but I’m pretty sure that “cling to the past” isn’t one of them. The moral of the story isn’t “keep advancing or be killed by Spaniards either.” The reason we have a Mayan calendar to build foolish superstitions around at all is because human beings strove for a greater understanding of the world they inhabited.

Somewhere at the heart of all this is a fear of modernity that goes beyond a bit of natural technophobia. It resonates with the most harmful of religious concepts, original sin. Too easily we buy into this idea that knowledge, experience and confidence are corrupting us in our very soul. Sorry folks, I just don’t think that’s true.