The wife and I have just returned from a short break away to the Yorkshire Dales. Staying in a wonderful boutique hotel, each day during the trip we ventured out to explore the local sights. One such trip was to Aysgarth Falls. Consisting of three drops, imaginatively named the Upper, Middle and Lower Falls, the site is probably most famous to international visitors as the setting for the fight between Robin Hood and Little John in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Owing to where we had parked our car, it was most convenient for us to walk first to the middle, then lower falls, before heading to the upper falls before leaving. The middle falls are difficult to get to, being only visible from a small viewing platform. The lower falls have a wider rocky embankment to walk along and were a great spot for pictures. The upper falls come after a bend in the river, creating a flat, grassy area dotted with picnic benches.
It was the upper falls which were the most crowded of the three when we visited. Families setting up picnics outnumbered the casual walker, as a handful of dogs paddled in the river. While we could still move around and get a good view of the falls, I would go so far as to say it was busy. This might not be particularly surprising. It is the summer holidays for schools in the UK, and with ongoing restrictions for those wishing to travel aboard, holidaying closer to home has been more popular.
As I walked through the crowd, I was struck by a thought which might seem obvious; all of us visiting the falls had chosen to come and spend time at the same place during our holiday.
Ok, when I say might seem obvious, what I mean is it is bleeding obvious. Save for the odd teenager being dragged along by overly-enthusiastic parents, everyone at the falls appeared happy to be there. The adults I assume chose to be at the falls, while the children had few complaints. That we had all chosen the same destination is obvious, what this might tell us about our own human nature less so.
Uniquely the same
I suspect everyone reading this post will consider themselves unique. Even the most identical of twins will hold their own set of dreams, desires and ideals which differ from their sibling, even if only to small degrees. No two human beings are the same, and in believing so we ascribe special status to each unique individual,
Why then, we may ask, did so many unique individuals choose to congregate at a waterfall in the Dales to spend their free time? Why do historic buildings, sporting venues and places of natural beauty seem to attract us en masse?
The answer might appear obvious. Historic buildings are interesting, sporting venue exciting, natural beauty spots, well beautiful. When a location is interesting, exciting or beautiful, it would appear self-evident it attracts intelligent, inquisitive animals such as ourselves over a muddy bog, empty field or pile of dirt.
But these qualities are not inherent to the building or place. Beauty is not a quality which can be objectively measured and quantified, likewise interest or excitement. These qualities are instead ones we ascribe to the place. A landscape is beautiful because we believe it to be so. What I find remarkable is a species of seven billion unique individuals can so consistently agree what is and is not beautiful, interesting or exciting (and I know, not everyone finds for example football exciting, but enough people certainly do for this argument to hold for now…).
Imagine for a moment everyone on Earth had a truly unique set of values and beliefs. Imagine we all had our own way of understanding what is beautiful or interesting, and we truly did differ from the person stood next to us. In this world, I would argue, beauty spots and points of interest would not exist, as no one would be able to agree what was beautiful or interesting. In this world, it would be just as likely to see someone photographing the carpark near the falls as it would be the waterfall itself (and again I know there are likely to be people who do find the carpark interesting, but they are certainly not the majority. If you would just let me finish generalising…).
Of course we do not see this in our world. We see people on the whole agreeing on areas of beauty, of interest and of excitement. While we might have small disagreements around the edges, fundamentally we as a species hold to a similar set of underlying values. We like to think of ourselves as unique, but I would suggest our behaviours demonstrate almost entirely the opposite.
I don’t think this conclusion is particularly surprising. At a genetic level, the differences between people, even very distantly related, is small. Subtle changes in one gene or the other account for the apparent differences on the surface. At a macro level, and contrary to what the ardent right-wingers will tell you, we all live and are raised in societies. These societies (which again have more in common with each other than differences) sculpt and develop our genetic predispositions into the thinking beings we are. If you take seven billion people with a similar genetic picture, and raise them in societies with similar codes and norms, it is not surprising we find ourselves roughly agreeing with each other on what is beautiful, interesting or exciting.
Far too often, we look at differences between people as defining features. It is nice to consider ourselves unique, but in doing so we risk creating the other, a person or group so seemingly different from ourselves that at the most extreme we risk subjecting them to all manner of abuses. Every person is an individual, with the rights and responsibilities which go with such privilege, something we (individually and as a society) should never forget.
At the same time, we are not so different from each other as to create a gulf between us. Our wants and desires may differ here and there, but fundamentally we are more similar than we are different. Whether standing with a stranger at a beautiful waterfall, or in the more serious discussions of politicians, remembering our similarities while celebrating our differences might just help us all to get along a little better.