Monday, January 25, 2010

Individuality Is Real

Earlier today, I was reading a a piece which asserted that women are all the same. In the second part of the piece, 11minutes explained how he had come to the realization that no person truly is unique. In his own words:

It was then that my idea of being a unique individual crumbled. If there was anything that I would have used to "prove" that I am different form anyone else around me, it would have been the one way in which I (thought) I expressed my youthful individuality: my eclectic collection of music.
And it had failed.

But accepting that you are just one of the many, replaceable as any other individual that lives and has ever lived is just part of the realization. The even bigger, more shocking insight is gained by realizing the lack of uniqueness by those who surround you
While I do partially agree with 11minutes concerning one point that he is making, namely that people often aren't as unique as they think they are, I strongly disagree with his stance that no person is a unique individual. He points to the similarities between him and others as evidence that there is no ultimate difference between his personality and that of other remarkably similar people. I don't deny that there often is broad overlap in the aesthetic tastes of similar people. I don't deny that there are certain types of people in the world. However, even a 99% correlation between individuals wouldn't deny the existence of unique personality, or the possibility of offering a unique contribution to the world. My argument isn't one that is intuitive, so I will use several examples. A surface analysis would suggest that 1% divergence is a very small thing, and not statistically significant. However, I would suggest that even a seemingly small divergence can lead to a monumental practical difference.

While it was originally suggested that chimpanzee DNA and human DNA have a 98.6% correlation, newer findings suggest that there is actually only a 95% correlation. Yet, that 5% difference makes a world of difference! That 5% difference is the difference between surfing the web and splashing around in streams. It's the difference between enjoying hot fudge sundaes and eating bananas. It's the difference between wearing a nice tuxedo and being eternally naked. It's the difference between sleeping in a queen-size bed with soft pillows and colorful comforters and sleeping in a fresh bed of leaves every night. That seemingly small number makes a world of difference! I'm quite glad for the 5% of my DNA that differs from that of a chimpanzee.

Similarly, the moon is about 238,857 miles away from the earth, and has a diameter of 2,159 miles. Both of those numbers are exceedingly important. If there was even a 3% variation in the size of the moon or in the distance of the earth from the moon, life on earth would be unsustainable. If the moon was larger or closer to the earth, tides would be so forceful and wild that constant tsunamis and flood would be the default state of our planet. The violent motion of the oceans would make earth uninhabitable for humans and animals. Alternately, if the moon was smaller or further from the earth, the movement of the ocean would be too weak; all bodies of water on earth would become stagnant and toxic. Even a small variance would have huge results!

In the same way, the existence of a strong correlation between individuals doesn't negate the importance of the differences between individuals. While one might have strikingly similarly tastes in music to another person, no two people produce music that is quite alike. There was only one Beethoven. That he might have eaten eggs for breakfast, had an alcoholic father and played viola might make him superficially similar to any number of viola-players. However, no other viola-player with an alcoholic father who ate eggs for breakfast has left such a powerful musical legacy. His music is quite distinct from that of his contemporaries, his predecessors and even from those who have created music in the time since his life. That he might bathe or enjoy a good book says very little about his uniqueness as an individual, or his uniqueness in contribution to the development of western music. The differences, though perhaps few in number, are not insignificant or unimportant. Small differences often make a difference that isn't small.

Similarly, one might note the vast similarities of C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien. They were both distinguished authors, professors at Oxford University, and well-known Christians. Yet, the modern literary world would not be the same if it were missing either one of them. Neither of them is, as 11minutes describes, "one of the many, replaceable as any other individual that lives and has ever lived." The similarities between the two neither negate their individuality as persons, nor negate the criticality of both of their literary contributions to our world. Fantasy fiction owes a great debt to both the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings series. Both of them have made lasting contributions that extend well beyond the scope of literature. Modern Christian thinking owes a great debt to the profound observations, thoughts and allegories written by C.S. Lewis. Fantasy lovers and gamers of all sorts owe a great debt to the archetypes developed by J. R. Tolkien, as he further refined and expanded the world of mythical creatures and imaginary races. The differences between the two men, though perhaps only superficially small, have a dramatic and pronounced impact on the uniqueness of their respective contributions to the world. Neither of them is replaceable.

If brevity did not forbid, I could provide thousands more examples that clearly depict the importance of small differences. That all women have a lot of similarities does not justify the claim that women are all the same. They aren't. If there exists even a single difference between any two people, they are sufficiently unique enough to make meaningfully different contributions to the world. Therefore, I would declare that what makes us most different as individuals is often the seemingly small things that are easily overlooked. Each of us has potential to impact the world in meaningful and unique ways. Small differences between people really aren't small at all. Individuality is real and it is significant. To the degree that we turn a blind eye to the real differences that set us apart, we limit our own potential and we miss out on glorious aspects of the people around us. Diversity is a beautiful thing worth celebrating precisely because every single person, snowflake and flower is different in some real and meaningful way. Beauty lies in the subtle details that often are overlooked or unnoticed. Let us live our lives with our eyes wide open, and with our hearts ready to celebrate those small and seemingly trivial things that make a world of difference.


  1. Wow. So we aren't 100% the same, we are 95% the same. laugh out loud. Impressive debunking of 11min there.

  2. I like the thoughts here. It provides a good, and realistic contract between the vast similarities that we share with each other, and the priceless, though small, differences that make each person irreplaceable. No person is replaceable. If you lose that one, there will never be another person to fill that void - which is sad sometimes, but still sweet, and very true.

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