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People should be eccentric June 17, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Evolution, Freedom.
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John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was published in 1859, the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species, and there are parallels to be found between Mill’s vision of human individuality (and its role in society) and the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin taught us that there is no inherent purpose in nature, no predetermined goal that life is aimed towards; and Mill rebels against the notion that all people ought to be pursuing a single, predetermined ideal:

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

Mill considers conformity the chief danger which threatens human nature:

In our times… the individual, or the family, do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow…

According to some religious worldviews, Mill notes, this is actually the desirable condition: “man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them.” But Mill argues that the betterment of humanity is achieved when every individual pursues his own goals in his own way:

It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them.

Natural selection produces designs of amazing skill and beauty by the accumulation of many small improvements; but every mutation first appears in a single organism. If the mutation is beneficial, it will survive and proliferate. The same is true of human innovation: it always starts with some individual, who does something different from those who came before. Most new ideas may be failures, but unless we encourage people to try new things, the good ideas will never be found. Just like natural selection, healthy societies require diversity and heterogeneity — the lack of which leads to stagnation:

There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life… without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.

Pluralism is a necessary condition for the emergence of positive change, and that’s why it’s so important to preserve the freedom of individual thought and action, and even to encourage idiosyncrasy — despite the fact that most people’s idiosyncrasies might seem to have no value:

In this age the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric… the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

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