“A People Orientation” (A View from Anthropology and Astronomy)

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’ ”

— astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell

earth rise

“Earthrise,” 1968 (Source: NASA)


Sometimes, a simple shift of perspective can make all the difference in the world. Whenever I have to drive somewhere new, I always look at a map. Sometimes, it’s an old hard-copy version, though the majority of time I’ll use an online one. That view from above is very helpful, but sometimes at ground level there are nuances which I may have overlooked (an unexpected left-lane exit), or road changes, or construction that may have altered since the map was created. Both perspectives – on the ground, and from the sky – are correct; they just give us different views of the same thing. 


Shifting perspectives. Source.

In the Edgar Mitchell quote above, a dramatic change in perspective – in this case a view of earth from the moon – created a sense of the unity of humanity, as well as a frustration that people back home frequently fail to rise above their parochial squabbles on the ground. That notion seems to recur among astronomers, astronauts, and astrophysicists. Perhaps it is an inherent benefit of their big-picture view. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” is the standard bearer for this sentiment:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

NASA’s Marissa Rosenberg expressed something similar, going beyond humanity, and extending it to all of life:

“Astronomy constantly reminds people of two seemingly contradictory things. First that the universe is infinite and we are of but the tiniest fraction of importance. And Second that life is rare and precious. A home as beautiful and unique as earth does not come often. We must protect it.”

Neil de Grasse Tyson went one step further, emphasizing connection to life, chemistry, and rest of the universe, which he called a “cosmic perspective.”

“The cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.”

I would guess that most anthropologists have developed sentiments similar to Mitchell’s and other cosmically-inclined people. A common refrain is that one of the purposes of anthropology is “to make the familiar seem strange and the strange seem familiar.” In other words, anthropologist often try to shift their perspective in order to see things in a new way and to find hidden patterns lurking under the surface. For example, we know from paleoanthropology and genetics that all people form a single species and are connected by their shared evolutionary heritage.

As the son of an anthropologist, former President Obama expressed something along these lines during a 2015 visit to Ethiopia upon viewing the fossil remains of three famous human ancestors. These included two individuals belonging to the 3 to 3.8 million-year old hominin species Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy” and “Selam”), as well as “Ardi” from an older species known as Ardipithecus ramidus. After seeing the fossils, Obama reflected on how they made him think about the unity of humanity:

“When you see our ancestor, 3.5 million years old, we are reminded that Ethiopians, Americans, all the people of the world are part of the same human family, the same chain… And as one of the professors (Zeresenay Alemseged) who was describing the artifacts correctly pointed out, so much of the hardship and conflict and sadness and violence that occurs around the world is because we forget that fact.  We look at superficial differences as opposed to seeing the fundamental connection that we all share.”

It doesn’t take an astronomer or the child of an anthropologist to see things this way. Gandhi made a religious argument that because our international borders were human-made constructions, rather than natural or divine, we shouldn’t view them as impermeable obstacles to helping our neighbors.  

“There is no limit to extending our services to our neighbors across State-made frontiers. God never made those frontiers.” M.K. Gandhi, Young India Dec 31, 1931

In essence, people have arrived at a similar idea from different starting points — that all people are connected. While I am often disappointed by events around the globe, I like to imagine that we have some Star Trek-ian future in store for us, that people will be able to unite around the idea that we all share ancestry and a home planet. Too often, we can’t seem to get out of our own way, falling victim to the most harmful aspects of “us and them” thinking. Perhaps we’re still in a messy, angst-filled adolescent period of humanity, slowly realizing our place in the universe.

While disagreements and conflicts are inescapable, I think it’s possible that we’ll be able to minimize them someday, perhaps through a shifting of perspectives, and by taking into account the interests of all people, going beyond our local surroundings. It’s possible. The psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff recently reminded us that “People do not react to the world as it is; they react to the world as they interpret it.” What if an inclusive, cosmic perspective became more commonly adopted over time? How would we react to that? I’d like to think that at the very least, it would make us reflect more on the connectivity we all share.  

6 thoughts on ““A People Orientation” (A View from Anthropology and Astronomy)

  1. Pingback: “A People Orientation” (A View from Anthropology and Astronomy) – Mind Blown

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