Back to Basics #37
Actually, one can compare apples and oranges: they're both fruit. Apples and aardvarks; bananas and the Higgs boson, or bo's'n mates: those would be difficult to compare.
The immediate issue with "apples and oranges" discussions is how much abstraction one is willing to do, and how much would be legitimate. A somewhat later issue has to do with the process of comparison and contrast: finding similarities and differences — and whether one prefers to look for similarities or differences, changes or continuities.
In the fruit section of the supermarket, one will probably compare and, more so, contrast apples and apples, looking for the kind of apple you like and then trying to find the one that looks best and seems likely to taste best. (Unlike, say, tomatoes, supermarket apples can still have some taste.) Making up a shopping list, you'd decide whether or not to buy fruit at all and, if so — possibly — whether apples or oranges.
If you've had a course in nutrition or what used to be called "Home Economics," you might be able to have a pretty sophisticated debate with yourself over apples and/or oranges: vitamins, fiber content, price; maybe even political and ethical issues having to do with whether you want to keep your money local or support apple pickers — well, and so forth.
Now if you were a very alien creature with biochemistry based in silicon, say, or a plasma being, more energy than matter — then apples and aardvarks might lump together as carbon-based organic material entities. It'd be a bad idea to try to eat either, but both apples and aardvarks would fall neatly into a category of weird, apparently living stuff based on carbon; and clearly, for you, both emphatically Xpphleyy alike, where "Xpphleyy" is a word for what things out there are doing when they send information to a sense you have that humans don't.
Hey — you may have better vision than your dog does, but she has a sense of smell somewhere between a thousand and ten thousand times better than yours; bats can perceive the world as a kind of sonogram, and electric eels manage "electroception." Dogs and bats and electric eels perceive the world very differently from humans, and whatever classification systems they use for the world they perceive will differ from ours — and dogs and bats and even electric eels are our kissing cousins compared to some non-Terran really alien organism.
A truly alien being, viewing life on Earth literally and figuratively from afar would see much that was comparable: he/she/it might well perceive a deep-based similarity that we'd find swamped in differences.
The only time I was ever paid for creative writing was in high school when I won $5 for a fable that ended with the MORAL: "Both difference and similarity are in the eye of the beholder; it depends only on how long and how deep he cares to look." As a high school junior or senior ca. 1960, I probably meant the good little Liberal lesson that "Deep down inside, we're all the same"; but, fortunately, I was in a rare fit of artistic creativity, and I wrote better than I intended.
From the distanced viewpoint of the truly alien, apples, oranges, aardvarks, and humans might "look" very much alike. Here on Earth, from long distance by human scale, one can talk about "European culture" or "the Judeo-Christian tradition" or "Chinese civilization." Getting in closer, all these classifications get fuzzy, de-resolve, become obviously messy and immensely complex. A character in an Ursula K. Le Guin story notes, "a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details, the way a planet looks smooth, from orbit"; similarly, what looks homogeneous from afar takes on complexity when you take a closer look.
Which does not mean that the view from orbit is wrong.
One of the great gifts to humankind was the first photos of Earth from space: one place, not divided by lines on a map, a single eco-system, one planet, one world, with one human species.
It's just that the view from the ground is different and that few people are ever raised as "Judeo-Christians" or get socialized into something as vast and amorphous as "Chinese civilization" or an abstract human species.
I grew up a Democrat in Chicago, Illinois; when I took a job in Oxford, Ohio, a small town between Cincinnati and Dayton, in John Boehner's 8th Ohio Congressional District — I'd moved into what was for me something of a new world, however much a visitor on a rapid tour might see American culture both places and probably border to border in a United (and mostly homogenous) States of America.
Difference and similarity are also part of our perceptions of history and development.
In my, so to speak, noncreative writing — in my scholarly and "critical" work, my quasi-journalism such as this blog post — in writing I at least indirectly got paid for, I fairly often found myself in disagreement with scholars who often saw radical change and leaps in development where I tended to see continuities.
The subject of much of my scholarship, Ursula K. Le Guin, indeed developed and changed and matured as a writer, and worked in a number of forms and media and genres. Talking about one of her stories from the 1960s and one from the 1990s would be comparing apples and oranges. But apples and oranges are fruit, and a large number of her works can be put together under categories like "The Teaching Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin."
Comparison and contrast is a mode of thinking about the world, one that allows us to set up categories and make sense of the world. Differences and similarities are out there as well as in our perceptions — continuity and change as well. We just need to be very, very careful to look carefully and at different levels: deep realities are important, but so are those near the surface. The trees exist and should never be forgotten; but so does the forest. Apples and oranges exist, and so do such categories as apples, oranges, and fruit.