The thin shadow visible in this Earthscape, taken from orbit, courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, shows what little separates us earthlings from what is beyond. Skin-deep though the atmosphere is, all else depends on this. The same seems to be true of human variation across the continents. According to best estimates of numbers of generations of humans to date and the degree of genetic natural/background level of mutations it is possible to calculate that the 6 billion people currently alive come from a breeding pool of about 1,000 who survived some sort of astronomical catastrophe. As a result, beneath the surface of skin and hair, people are practically identical*. And yet so much of social navigation, aspiration and discrimination hinges on those surface cues of “are you like me; are you from around here, or not.” Similar to this shallow layer of atmosphere and of human phenotypes is the fragile layer of words that people use to characterize their social landscape and life chances, as well as the physical world they inhabit. Figures of speech and painting pictures using metaphoric brushes allows people to transfer a set of relationships and patterns from one field of meaning onto another. In the fleeting lifetime of a spoken string of syllables that evaporate into the surrounding waves of sound, the hearer’s worldview can be reinforced, shaken or altogether be expanded. Yet what could be more fragile and skin-deep that the rhythms and textures coming from mouth, tongue, teeth and vocal chords. Words, bodies, and heavenly bodies all depend so much on such tenuous layers!
*see also the 3-part set of short interviews from people from all walks of life in 60 countries by Yann Arhuis-Bertrand, Human, http://www.human-themovie.org/