Curiosity Didn’t Kill The Cat
Why curiosity is our most important but woefully under-used attribute
I remember hearing the expression “curiosity killed the cat” when I was very young, perhaps four or five years old. It puzzled me then and it puzzles me now. Curiosity is what has taken us from being merely baboons to being baboons with clever tools. And yet it is so frequently demonized.
This kind of anti-thinking attitude stretches back in history. We see it in the mythologies derived from the Yahweh cult in which proto-humans are told that they must not attempt to acquire knowledge and are subsequently punished for ignoring the admonition.
The equation thinking = bad is deeply rooted in nearly every human culture. The Catholic Inquisition famously suppressed all attempts at thought for several hundred years and in China both knowledge and thought were strongly suppressed for nearly two millennia. As we are all aware, today strict Islamic cultures regard thinking and knowledge as agents of shaitan; all that is required is mindless rote-memorization of the holy book and adherence to a ramshackle collection of medieval moeurs.
In our modern technological world we are by no means immune to the habit of attempting to extirpate independent thought. Cancel culture and political correctness are no less pernicious than the heavy-handed state censorship and blatant propaganda found in North Korea, Russia, and China.
Yet curiosity and the knowledge derived from pursuit of curiosity has given us everything we rely on for our survival, prosperity, and pleasure. From the food on our plates to the houses we live in to the Internet we so blithely take for granted, everything in our lives is the end-product of someone’s curiosity.
So, given the undeniable wealth of material and intellectual advantages we derive from curiosity and thinking, why should so many admonitions be placed as obstacles in their path?
We can begin with evolution. For at least 96% of our evolutionary history we existed in small hunter-gatherer groups living on the margins. Lacking powerful muscles, ripping claws, or bone-crushing jaws, we are, like corvids and rodents and cockroaches, supreme opportunists. We scavenged, we foraged, and occasionally we hunted. All this meant that for the most part we used precious scarce calories to power our muscles. As thinking can consume 30% of the body’s blood glucose it’s obvious that when calories are scarce and uncertain a great strategy for survival is to do as little thinking as possible.
And so, this is what we evolved to do. Even today when calories are superabundant, we remain hardwired to avoid thinking whenever possible. Thanks to pop culture the average person can proceed from cradle to grave without ever once in their lives thinking an original or complex thought. We have the intellectual equivalent of fast food all around us, and we gorge ourselves on it. Why bother to think when there’s a meme to repeat?
Even better when that meme is being repeated by everyone we know so that by repeating it ourselves we confirm our membership of the tribe, group, or clan to which we are affiliated. As a group primate species, demonstrating group affiliation is essential for our individual survival. A lone human outside of a group would for nearly all human history have a survival time measured in hours. Thinking and saying and doing what everyone else is thinking and saying and doing, regardless of how erroneous or harmful it all may be, is an excellent way to cement group membership and thus make us feel like we’re safely fitting in.
Moving on from purely evolutionary considerations, we come to the phenomenon of power. We humans spend 99% of our time competing with other humans for advantage. Whether we’re competing for a larger share of the carcass or an additional handful of berries or whether we’re competing for status or wealth (which lead to improved mating opportunities), we spend our lives consciously and unconsciously in an unceasing battle for social advancement because of the many benefits thereby attained.
Since the dawn of the agricultural revolution that began at the end of the last Ice Age some 11,700 years ago, we humans have developed means to amass and store wealth. Dried grains could be stored in sealed jars and kept in cool dry storage areas. This had several tremendous advantages over our former way of life: calories could be stored up for lean times in the future, and the advantages gained by a particular individual could be passed down to their children, thus giving those children advantages over their peers. Not surprisingly, agriculture led to the emergence of complex social hierarchies within which we still live today.
It’s highly likely that the development of grain storage techniques led directly to a priestly caste that exercised power by means of controlling the storage and distribution of the grain. The very first simple representations of stored items by means of equivalency counting ultimately led to the development of mathematics which could be used to predict eclipses and other natural phenomenon. As this magic was restricted to the priestly caste alone, it ensured they could exercise power unchallenged decade after decade, century after century. Knowledge was quite literally power back then.
This of course comes with its concomitant. If knowledge is power, knowledge must remain restricted. Thus edicts, myths, and various other forms of social coercion must be applied to all the ordinary people outside the priestly caste lest they too become knowledgeable enough to discover that the priests are (quite naturally and predictably) taking advantage of their specialist abilities to siphon off a considerable quantity of grain for their own uses and maintain their lives of relative ease and leisure by means of simple parlor tricks.
And so we come to the invention of “moral” stories that seek to inhibit curiosity and the acquisition of knowledge it impels. This is why craft guilds always seek to exclude outsiders by cloaking their practices in arcane rituals and obscurantist language.
For much of its existence, the Christian mythology had priests babbling in Latin to congregations who understood not a single word. Most Islamic cultures today still practice the same phenomenon with imams reciting the Arabic Quran to people who don’t speak a word of Arabic. Indeed, even the imam may have no grasp of the meaning of the sounds he’s simply learned by rote. In Western societies, doctors and lawyers (among many other craft guilds) use language in obscure ways intended to ensure that ordinary people can’t easily understand what they are saying so that the doctors and lawyers (i) seem less fallible than they really are, and (ii) maintain their stranglehold on their specialist services.
Curiosity on the part of the layperson is obviously a grave threat to those whose way of life is predicated on maintaining the current hierarchy. It’s hardly surprising that we see all kinds of strategies employed to deter outsiders from attempting to learn the “secrets” of those who earn their living by exploiting the ordinary person’s lack of knowledge.
Unfortunately a predominant anti-thinking culture is a culture intensely vulnerable to even the most minor exogenous shocks. Our baboon-like nature lends itself to mass hysteria and when we’re utterly ignorant of even the most basic facts of life, it’s easy to trigger us into panic-induced stampedes. Even the most risible nonsense can send us rushing over the cliff in an orgy of mindless self-harm.
Despite the Internet making reliable information available at the touch of a fingertip, 99.5% of people remain in a state of complete ignorance about absolutely everything. Most people on Earth still believe in magic pixies that supposedly created everything and control everything; they pray to these magic pixies and get very angry with anyone who challenges the plausibility of these childish fairytales. Millions die in pointless disputes over tiny differences in magic pixie dogma. It would be laughable were the consequences not always so terrible.
Those for whom magic pixies hold less appeal nevertheless believe in equivalent nonsense. People who are spiritual, people who believe in healing crystals or horoscopes or detox foot baths or Meyers-Briggs or enneagrams or conspiracy theories or anything else on the endless list of spurious nonsense are equally detached from any comprehension of reality.
Even people who don’t consciously ascribe to absurdities tend to be profoundly ignorant. What US citizen could hand-sketch even the most simplistic Mercator projection and correctly locate more than half-a-dozen countries at most? How many people have even the most rudimentary knowledge of demographics, economics, physics, molecular biology, evolutionary theory, or cosmology?
The fact is, the average person knows nothing beyond the contents of their nightly entertainment and a few half-understood techniques by means of which they earn their livelihoods. The paradox is that we live in a world of information yet we know nothing at all about anything of importance.
When we know nothing, we’re unable to assess the plausibility of anything.
If we know nothing whatsoever about physiology, we can readily believe some simple-minded story about healing crystals or detox foot baths. If we don’t understand evolutionary theory and economics we can embrace the power of attraction. If we know nothing of history and basic data analysis we can be stampeded into mindless hysteria by a virus that leaves more than 99.9% of the population unharmed. If we don’t understand evolution and basic physics we can dedicate our lives to magic pixies. If we haven’t a clue about cosmology and haven’t any intellectual apparatus to bring to bear on the topic we can readily believe we’re influenced by Orion being occluded by Jupiter which will cause us to meet a tall dark handsome stranger who will bring us unexpected news.
Worse yet, we can’t even make adequate choices about everyday activities. We’re simply dupes, easy prey for spurious marketing messages and subliminal influences. Being unused to attempting to think, we believe that repeating memes and doing what everyone else is doing is “being true to ourselves.”
Of course one can ask, “What does it matter if most people are silly and ignorant? If some absurd belief makes them happy, what’s wrong with that?”
The problem is, when we know nothing and understand nothing, we’re easy to manipulate. Hundreds of millions of people cast their votes while having zero comprehension of the issues (of course, they imagine they are “well informed”). These votes result in mendacious incompetents being elected, who then proceed to create mass economic and political harms and, not infrequently, plunge their nations into war. When we know nothing, our actions are going to be harmful on scales both large and small.
It may not seem to matter if tens of thousands of silly ignorant people are conned out of their dollars by charlatans offering detox foot baths or healing crystals or seminars on how to visualize your dreams so that some invisible Universal Butler will then kindly deliver them to your doorstep. But it does matter when we consistently make foolish decisions in every single area of our lives. Our fragile civilization is coming to its end because hardly anybody can be bothered to be curious enough to search out empirically-confirmed information and attempt to reason coherently therefrom.
Curiosity is what drives us to learn and to understand. With knowledge and the ability to think comes the power to make much better decisions. We’ll still get it wrong quite a bit of the time, but not 100% of the time. And getting it wrong 100% of the time is where 99.5% of us live.
So let’s all try to be a little more curious. It’s all that stands between us and the endless horrors that arise from perpetual ignorance and stupidity.