Three questions

March 13, 2011 | By | 4 Replies More

Yesterday, I was trying to get some work done in a tall office building in downtown Saint Louis.  In the early afternoon, I was distracted by lots of crowd noise and drum beating outside. It was March 12, which somehow means that it was time for the downtown Saint Patrick’s Day parade (St. Louis also has an annual Hibernian parade on March 17). I decided to grab my camera and go down to street level to see things up close. I’m posting a dozen photos with this article.

I’m somewhat of a introverted non-drinking semi-misanthrope, which gives me a special perspective whenever people gather for merriment. Whenever I notice great energy being funneled into big social gatherings, I am immune to being swept up myself.   Some would consider the way I am to be a curse, but I disagree. On these occasions I put on my armchair-anthropologist hat and I enjoy the opportunity to get to work. I ponder why it is that human animals so often burn such energy for reasons that almost always escape me. For instance, at Christmas time, very little of the energy is spend pondering Jesus. On the forth of July, very few Americans seriously consider whether we are better off not being part of the British Empire. We are people of food, drink, presents, fireworks and being groupish. We are also prolific excuse-makers.

How would a first rate scientist or historian size up yesterday’s big parade? I believe that the answer is instructive regarding the issues raised here and here).  To the extent that a few of the revelers are  telling stories about “Saint Patrick,” a scientist would immediately suspect that these stories don’t  survive scrutiny.   For instance, did he really banish snakes from Ireland?  Not at all.  Scientific evidence shows that there were never snakes in Ireland.  Did Saint Patrick really teach people about the Holy Trinity by reference to a shamrock?   There is no historical evidence of this.   Did his walking stick really take root?  There’s no evidence of this either.   Was he holy?  Scientists would remind us that there is no evidence that supernatural beings or essences exist.    Therefore, these stories about Saint Patrick are mere stories–tall tales.   If you try to convince the folks that the stories aren’t true, they won’t care.  The parade will go on regardless of the truth of the excuse.

Therefore, a scientist would use rigorous science, and an historian would use historical evidence (or lack thereof) to dismantle these legends.

But why are the people participating in the parade  outside my building allegedly so excited about Saint Patrick?   Many other countries who don’t care about Saint Patrick hold big celebrations and parades and they find their own excuses to drink excessively.  Why does this group outside my office building claim that they are celebrating Saint Patrick?  Perhaps it’s a matter of path dependence. Some excuses catch on, and people don’t like to give up  annual celebrations that offer an excuse to whoop it up.   Perhaps an historian could trace it back and shed more light on this question.

But now imagine a biologist who happened upon the scene, who was annoyed by the parade  He considers parades to be a waste of time.  He personally considers it to be feeble-minded to believe in the legends of St. Patrick and feels the need to walk up and down the parade route telling people that they are misguided.  But then his frustration leads him to go one step further.   He starts arguing out loud that the people who engage in Saint Patrick Day parades are misguided, and that this entire enterprise is a waste of time.   He claims that it is feeble-minded and pointless to engage in Saint Patrick’s Day parades.  In fact, he proclaims that in his opinion as a first-rate evolutionary biologist  participating in Saint Patrick’s Day parades is an evolutionary byproduct, and that it is maladaptive given that people are failing to question the legends regarding St. Patrick.

I would have some serious questions to ask such a scientist.   Yes, if you ask individuals why they are celebrating, they will often cite unsubstantiated legends, and those excuses can be easily shot down using careful science and history.   But back up and try to see the parade as one instance of many of people being groupish (note these photos).   See the people as we view ants.   If we saw ants marching in a miniature parade, dressing up in leaf fragments and showing each other little signs, we wouldn’t declare it to be a byproduct without engaging in some serious study.  Something is going on that makes us so undiscriminatingly groupish.   A reasonable scientist would do considerable experiments before shouting out “byproduct”!

Consider also,  that if the people in yesterday’s crowd weren’t celebrating Saint Patrick, they might well be annually coming together in huge numbers to celebrate some other embellished excuse.  Maybe it would be the annual Ground Hog Day Parade or some feast that hasn’t yet been created.    Isn’t it possible that the urge to come together and to assert some unsupportable embellished excuse as as the reason for the celebration might be deep in our bones as human animals?   Isn’t it possible that this activity of being groupish combined with cognitive distortion (accepting unsupported legends as fact) is potentially adaptive in that it brings people together and facilitates the knitting of the social fabric?  

Is a scientist really doing science to merely declare that the urge to celebrate unsubstantiated facts together is maladaptive?   Isn’t there a huge difference between A) using science to shoot down factually unsupported claims such as the purported reason for the lack of snakes in Ireland, and B) Claiming, without any scientific evidence, that Saint Patrick’s Day Parades are maladaptive byproducts?

I think so.



Category: Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Jim Razinha says:

    Yes, if you ask individuals why they are celebrating, they will often cite unsubstantiated legends, and those excuses can be easily shot down using careful science and history.

    And I thought I tend to the cynical.

    Sometimes the celebration is just about celebrating. I celebrate (maybe not really the right word) Easter and Christmas yet know the bases to be just stories. That's not why I celebrate. They're just fun holidays. Labor Day means nothing in itself, but it is a paid day off. Thanksgiving has ties to horrendous treatment of the people who were here before the Euros, and for a couple of years we chose to observe the National Day of Mourning. We resumed the traditional meal some years ago – secular in our house.

    Sometimes it is just about celebrating. Even if the celebrating can be juvenile and the majority of the people have none of the heritage in their genes. I don't think it cognitive distortion at all. It's not like they really believe all that you are attributing to them.

    "Maladaptive"? Somebody wasn't having a good day. I can recognize it when I see it, because I've been running a few myself lately. (I can't look at Newshounds or Media Matters now – spins me right up.)

  2. MikeFitz17 says:

    Erich: What happened yesterday — did you get up in the morning and pour yourself a double latte of Curmudgeon? First you renounce Girl Scout cookies, and now you dissect the rationale behind a St. Patrick's Day Parade. C'mon, Erich, sometimes you just got to ease up and give that hyper-rational, iconoclastic brain of yours a rest.

    Having attended plenty of St. Pat's Day parades in my lifetime, I can attest that the primary reasons most people show up for such events are the obvious ones: for the beer and for the company.

    No one cares a fig (as far as I can tell) whether attending a St. Pat's parade is adaptive or maladaptive, or whether the St. Patrick story has a grain of truth to it. Sometimes people just want to have fun and forget about grown-up life for a while.

    It's been my experience that people who like to drink beer also like to congregate with other people who like to drink beer. Especially if said people are single, under age 25 and looking for a potential romantic partner.

    To have fun at an event like Saturday's parade, it is not necessary to be of Irish ancestry, to believe in the story of St. Patrick and the snakes, or to practice Christianity.

    The same goes for the revelers who take part in Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans. You don't really think the majority of such revelers are good Catholics who are preparing to undertake 40 days of abstemious behavior? Of course not. It's an excuse to get drunk and have some crazy fun.

    Of course, for people of Irish descent, like myself, there are other good reasons to show up for a St. Patrick's Day parade. It wasn't so long ago that the Irish were villified and discriminated against from one end of the country to the other. At a St. Pat's parade, every time I hear the Hibernians' bagpipes and see the step dancers twirling around on the floats, I feel an electric jolt of pride. It's not that the Irish think they are better than anyone else, which they aren't of course. Instead, it's to remember that we've hung in there and survived. And St. Patrick's Day celebrates this fact.

    And right now, principally because of the deep economic hole the folks on the Old Sod have dug for themselves, the Irish need all the cheering up they can get.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Consider the ancient festival of Mars, celebrated on the Ides of March, and thus the significance of the date until the assassination of Caesar. March itself is named for the war god and planet. Saint Patrick's festivities are just a Christian shell around the old festival.

    It took two Christian generals in two generations (whose stories merged to become the legend of Saint Patrick) to finally conquer Ireland. The second, and ultimately successful Patrick was selected to do Ireland because of him impressive track record of eliminating pagans and heretics by the sword, as he lovingly spread the message of the Christ. The Catholic Encyclopedia is a fascinating read.

  4. Mike M. says:

    Erich, Don't assume that the social behavior of others is a result of thoughtful intent. I suspect a high percentage of people operate on auto-pilot, driven mainly by a semi-conscious herd mentality. These are the personality types that allow culture, and the engines of commerce, to shape and define their existence. They are acting out a program that was developed and launched by a variety of Influencers–media, church, and government to name a few. These folks look to others to set their personal agenda and, rather than being self-willed, they are "pushed around" by the environment they are imbedded in and dutifully wait for social cues to guide their actions. They see masses of people wearing green clothes and silly hats and drinking beer and….what do they do?…they go out and wear green clothes and silly hats and drink beer. And the amazing thing is that they may not even be Irish, or Catholic, or know one fact at all about this character called "Saint Patrick".

    This is sleepwalking. Introspection, deep thought, willful intent? Not part of the equation.

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