Darwin vs. Car Commercials

It’s interesting sometimes to reflect on the evolution of a concept or field from a defined entity to a symbol or slogan. The advertising industry’s been specializing in this for years, taking something like a car and transforming it into a symbol which is meant to have immediate associations. It is meant simply to provoke, not to stimulate, the result being a connection between the thing mentioned and a subconscious cache of emotion. In China the same thing has been done with science. Countless propaganda signs across the country invoke “scientific development”, with no intent for anyone to actually contemplate what that might mean. For many Chinese people, as with many westerners, the simple word “science,” like an SUV or a cheeseburger, provokes an automatic response, in this case usually one of confidence.

What’s intriguing to me is that in China, western science was used originally with reference, not to value, but to space, specifically space for the human individual to exist and thrive. There is little reference in classical Chinese philosophy, at least as it’s been popularly interpreted by those in power, for an individual and his or her right to think and judge. Early modern Chinese writers, especially such essayists and political activists as Lu Xun and Zhou Zuoren, appropriated science less as an applicable methodology than an inspirational tool. Where European writers spent the better part of the 19th century grappling with modern science’s newfound insistence that the human individual was nothing more than a biological entity, Zhou for one took the same idea and found nobility in it. In “People’s Literature,” Zhou defines humanity as an evolved animal, and uses this definition to insist, in other essays, on equality and the absolute place of the individual in society. If each human being is an animal, then there can be no question of social status among humans, and because of this, each human creature has an equal right to exist and make his or her own choices. It isn’t hard to imagine why this would have appealed to early writers tired of the rigid class structure imposed at the hands of Confucianism and other classical systems. Evolution provoked European writers to bemoan the loss of man’s God-given dignity, but in China it created a new-found sense of definition. It was not a question of meaning, but of space.

The reason I find this intriguing is that this same individual space has been largely co-opted in the modern era. There’s no question that even at an early stage science was used primarily as a symbol, but at the hands of Zhou Zuoren and Lu Xun it was a symbol of individuality in the face of a harshly conformist social reality. Today, though, it’s a symbol of conformity. When placed in identical propaganda slogans and spread all over the country, the goal is not for ??to provoke people to thought, which as individual creatures (defined by Zhou Zuoren) surely they should, but to provoke them to make an immediate emotional connection between science and the state. From individual space to corporate space in just a few decades. Darwin is either rolling in his grave or laughing. I don’t know which.

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