Human activity is full of what appear to be binary switches. We like or dislike olives. We play or don’t play sports. We do or don’t speak in absolutes. Never say never or always, right?
In reality, these switches are more like dials, placing us along a broad spectrum of preference and inclination. I might like one type of olive but dislike others severely, and this infinite greyscale represents all human preference and diversity across every bit of everything we’ve ever encountered. One’s political stance can lean hard left, hard right, or anywhere in between, and this often varies issue by issue. One might call oneself a collector of certain things, a collector of everything, or a collector of absolutely nothing. Everyone is correct in their preferences, and I think there’s a really great reason for this diversity.
Rewind 200k or even 1.8m years and you’re bound to find clues as to why we’re hard-wired the way we are. Genetic diversity keeps us alive and well. For example, I’d imagine that our drastic species-wide divide between progressives and conservatives is glaringly obvious. This is apparent not only politically, but in all parts of daily human life. Some buy new clothes all the time, and others like to wear the same thing for years. Some are more inclined to adopt new technology like hybrids or fully electric cars or placing solar panels atop their homes and others will absolutely never budge. This is an important piece of the genetic diversity that has made us a prolific species. How, you ask? Well, if ever we all make the same move at the same time, and this move happens to be the wrong move, we’d ultimately meet a swift demise. No more humans.
We need a few to push forward in case where we are isn’t satisfactory, and a few to stay behind in case where we’re going is a terminal mistake. Trinkets from our past might play a complicated role in this part of our condition. Say you’re a cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer, or some other early human. You live in a tribe of people, maybe as many as 250 individuals. You make art in your cave or valley by carving symbols and scenarios into your surroundings with hopes of marking your home with things you love, things you think, and things that help you and others navigate the space around you. You’re inclined to decorate such that the space in the caves or woods you currently inhabit feels like a familiar space– a space different from just any old space. This may help you recognize and navigate this space when you return from a long hunting trip with big game for the family.
You also like to adorn yourself with piercings, jewelry, tattoos, and other such clothing indicative of you and your people’s surroundings or ideology. You may want to do this not just so you can recognize your people, but so that you can be aware when others are nearby who either aren’t yet, or will never be your people. You can see that their markings and jewelry are different from yours, and this makes you wary. Wary is good when you’re a relatively small group with only yourselves as defense.
But in order for either of these systems to be effective, you don’t need everyone to do the same thing, as the idea has more benefits than constrictions when a bit of leeway is applied. Some humans will over-build their surroundings or over-decorate themselves, and others will not at all. If no one decorated themselves or their surroundings, there would be no individual or tribal identity, and we’d just be roving about on our own without utilizing the many strengths of teaming up with others– not the least of which is the progress and survival of the species. Oh, and there has to be a hoarder in the group, because seriously what if we end up needing that old piece of garbage after all? You’ll thank them someday.
In modern life, we’ve a bit outgrown the necessity of these hard-wired traits and we often label them as a disorder. I’m here to posit that collecting almost anything in the varying degrees and manners one can collect is distinctly and definitionally human, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without the urge to do so.
We acquire and hang onto belongings because they look nice, might be needed, “tie the room together”, or help us achieve any number of solutions found through complex maths regarding effort vs. value that allow us to prosper as individuals and thus as a species. We become unexplainably emotionally attached to items given to us by relatives and friends, all the while seek our own versions of meaning and expression, eventually gathering a number of things we take with us everywhere we move, and sometimes wear on a daily basis.
Collecting trinkets is a form of personal expression that isn’t necessarily unique to humans, but helps us define not only who we are, but also where we fit in society. We use the items around us and on us to show others who we believe ourselves to be, and to show when we change and grow into new people over time. Most of what we know of previous bunches of people comes from the trinkets of all kinds they leave behind, and we current humans will be defined in likely quite the same manner. Let’s see who we become.
Thanks to Bankless DAO for the ongoing support.