I wrote these eight observations, or eight lessons in humility as I sometimes call them, as a Facebook "Note" around this time last year. I think about this sort of stuff a lot - our place in society, our place in the universe, and so on, and I hope it makes you think as well.
No, he didn't win because he wanted it more.
I am a sceptic with regards to positive thinking. There is nothing wrong with being motivated and having determination, but whenever star athletes are interviewed, the reason that invariably comes up for his success is because he "wanted it more." It's utter rubbish. Does that mean that a silver or bronze medalist didn't want it as much as a gold medalist? People neglect to consider the fact that the gold medalist was simply faster.
50% of people are below average.
Most of us aren't gold medalists, though. Or even silver or bronze medalists. In fact, when it comes to intelligence, size, speed, strength, stamina, et al. half the human race is below average, while the other half is above average. That's just the reality of a normal bell-curve distribution. The next time you two people walking down the street odds are that one of them is below average in height or intelligence or some other measure of physiology, while the other is above average in the same measure. If you think you're below average in any measure, it could very well be true, but with 3.3 billion people* also being below average, you can take comfort in the fact that you're not alone.
But you're probably close to average.
Also take comfort in the fact that even if you're below average in height or intelligence or whatever, you're probably not that far from average. This is another reality of a normal bell-curve distribution. Regardless of whether people are below or above average, most people are going to right around it.
Everyone descends from kings and slaves.
There are some people who are proud of the fact that they are descendents of a great king, while others are humiliated by the fact that their forefathers were slaves. Our ancestries, however, are so vast and intertwined that everyone has had a king as well as a slave somewhere along their ancestry whether they realise it or not. So, you needn't be too proud of your ancestry, but you needn't feel ashamed either.
Either way, you're better off than your ancestors.
Regardless of whether your ancestors were slaves or kings, you're still better off because things get better with time. Such is the nature of scientific and technological progress. I may be a pauper compared to my royal ancestors - whoever they may be. I may not have a palace or 400 servants, yet I have amenities that they never dreamed of: I have refrigeration, airconditioning, a television, and a computer with access to the Internet; I have access to medicine and vaccines; I have the privilege of being able to drive a horseless carriage at 70 miles per hour or to fly over the oceans and go to Europe in less than a day. Of course, to our descendants 200 or 300 years from now even all these amenities will seem unsatisfactory and primitive, and they will be better off than we are.
We are so small that we are practically invisible.
The universe may not be infinite, but it's still big. Very very very big. At the risk of sounding like Douglas Adams, I don't think most people understand just how big the universe really is, but this may give you some idea: The Earth can fit 1,000,000 times into the Sun, the Sun is one of 200 billion stars that occupy the 100,000 lightyear-wide structure that we call the Milky Way galaxy, and the Milky Way is one of 170 billion known galaxies in the universe. It is also worth mentioning that these numbers are conservative estimates. (A lightyear, by the way, is approximately 5.6 trillion miles).
Chances are that we are not alone.
In 1543 the Italian astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus published his hypothesis suggesting that sun did not revolve around the Earth, but that the Earth revolved around it. Until then, the Earth had been considered the center of the universe. Four and half centuries later we realise that the Earth really isn't the center of anything. Astronomers discovered how big the universe really is and speculated that there must be life out there. The problem remained, however, that the sun was only star known to have planets around it. 1992 that changed with the discovery of three planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12. As of today (September 14, 2010) there are nearly 500 known extra-solar planets**, and most of those are within a 300 lightyear radius of space, which is quite small when set against the galaxy. That is, if the galaxy was the size of a dinner plate, a circle with a 300 lightyear radius would be roughly the size of a penny. Yet, even with the best technology currently available, it would take nearly 18,000 years to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, which is a mere 4.2 lightyears away. So we may not discover extra-terrestrial life any time soon, but we can be fairly confident that it's out there.
Our only superiority is intelligence, if even that.
We have a smug sense of superiority over other animals, so much that many of us don't even believe that humans are related to other species. However, we are not the fastest. Cheetahs can run up to 70 miles per hour. We are not the largest. Blue whales can grow up to 85 feet and weight up to 100 tons. We are not the strongest. Rhinocerous beetles can lift 850 times their own weight. We don't have the best eyesight. Most birds of prey can spot a rabbit from several miles away. We don't live the longest. The Bowhead whale can live up 200 years, and the turritopsis jellyfish may not even have a limit of longevity - it's practically immortal. We can't fly, swim, or see in near darkness. Our only superiority is our intelligence, and given the possibility of sentient life existing elsewhere in the universe, even that probably isn't true.
Since I wrote this one year ago, some of the numbers are outdated:
*World population is currently closer to 7 billion
**There are currently 687 known extrasolar planets
Written by Evolution, Tuesday, September 14, 2010.