The Comparative Species

For all our striving as a species to find clear and absolute answers to everything, from what is “right” to the deepest mysteries of the universe, at heart, human beings remain a highly comparative species.  In its best form, this compulsive comparativeness can fuel high achievement in science and technology.  Whether we like it or not, competitive comparativeness fueled the space program that landed men on the moon, the early development of the airplane, even the development of commercial and residential electrification, not to mention untold advancements in many fields.

The worst aspects of comparativeness remind me, however, of the old saying that all comparisons are odious.

In personal affairs, comparisons tend to be subjective and unfair, particularly in politics and business.  The late Richard Nixon was pilloried for taping conversations in the White House, yet White House taping had gone on in several previous administrations.  He resigned under threat of impeachment for covering up the Watergate burglaries, yet cover-ups have occurred in government for generations.  The full extent of the naval oil reserve scandals in the Harding administration didn’t come out for decades, nor did the extent of Jack Kennedy’s extensive philandering in the White House.  While both Kennedy and Nixon had grave faults, in point of fact, Nixon actually had many accomplishments as president, while Kennedy’s sole measurable achievement was averting nuclear war in the Cuban Missile crisis, yet in popular opinion, there’s essentially no comparison.  The ballyhooed Presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon was another example of the fickleness of comparativeness.  Among those who heard the debate on radio, a significant majority felt Nixon had “won.”  Among those who watched it on television, a majority opted for Kennedy.  Same debate, same words – but physical appearance carried the day.

Likewise, study after study has shown that men who are taller, regardless of other qualifications, receive more pay and more respect than shorter men, even those more able in terms of ability and achievement, and interestingly enough, in almost all U.S. presidential elections, the taller candidate has been the winner.

Another example surfaced with the recent deaths of Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie.  While the entire world seemed to know about Jobs, and mourn his early and untimely death, only a comparative handful of people seemed to know about Dennis Ritchie, who was the pioneer who developed the first widespread and fundamental computer languages [the C programming language and the UNIX system] which made possible the later success of both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Yet Jobs’ death appeared everywhere, and Ritchie rated a small paragraph buried somewhere in newspapers, if that.  Although Ritchie’s death was widely mentioned in technical and professional journals, it went almost unnoticed in the popular media.

In the end, the question may be: Is it that comparisons are so odious, or that the grounds on which we make those comparisons are so odious?


3 thoughts on “The Comparative Species”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Comparison is inevitable. I think it’s partly the grounds on which they are made where the abuses enter: competing for accomplishment, even if more wasteful than cooperating for accomplishment, at least encourages commitment to producing results, and the pursuit of alternatives rather than a single One True solution may be more robust (at least one team is likely to succeed) and may offer some useful elements even from the “losing” side – the US got to the moon first, but the Soviet space program invented a universal docking adaptor, a refinement of which has become standard, so that even the recent Chinese manned spacecraft adopted it. And so competition may also produce seeds for future cooperation.

    Some comparisons are merely absurd, there being no meaning to them, almost like cross-sensory metaphors may have some artistic interest but little concrete meaning save for those suffering from that particular form of synesthesia – like some questions they may at casual examination appear valid, but by making a fundamental error like comparing across essentially unrelated domains, turn out at closer examination to be nonsense. (But even seeming nonsense may still have causes, occasionally worthy of study if only to aid in recognizing, categorizing, and correcting errors.)

    Comparisons made for shallow reasons are worse, if only ignorantly so.

    But comparisons not so much made as _promoted_ to serve an ambition will be as odious as the ambition itself. Whether it’s the press purporting to be independent watchdogs by making comparisons that tend to take sides for the sake of scoring the big take-down, or comparisons made by other ideologues, demagogues, manipulators, and prospective dictators,
    those are odious indeed. Jealousy also tends to fall in that category, and very early too (comparing the attention or toys someone else has to what one receives oneself is often driven in large part by ignorance and greed).

    Ignorance alone, even if not malicious on the part of the ignorant, can make them a tool of those that _are_ malicious.

    I appreciated your mention of Ritchie vs Jobs, since I’m well aware of both, and unlike some, found the K&R C book to be quite clear, concise, helpful, and in its way even entertaining. But while Ritchie’s accomplishments were far more pervasive and fundamental, both were notable because of an obsession with _design_, although only the one that realized that obsession in physical objects obvious to the consumer received widespread attention. That’s in a way similar to the appearances vs substance of the Kennedy vs Nixon debate response as polled among TV viewers vs radio listeners, yet different, too. Within each iPod Touch, iPhone, and Mac is a descendant of the operating system Ritchie co-invented, written in part in the language he invented and the rest in a descendant of that language. Computer software and hardware don’t exist in isolation, both need one another. What Ritchie laid the groundwork for, Jobs integrated into a finished product accessible and comprehensible in use if not implementation to the average person. Jobs’ accomplishments are in some sense more replaceable by alternatives, being less fundamental; but the pursuit of excellence in design is no less essential at the end of the process than at the beginning.

    So…at their best, comparisons can also be _contrasts_, bringing out details we might overlook, serving as a useful tool for study and reflection.

    Like so much else, it’s in what’s done with it. If comparisons seem often to reveal the worst in us, perhaps that’s the point as much as anything: that we so easily forget to aspire to be not just more, but better to one another, than we are.

  2. Wayne Kernochan says:

    OK, I just have to comment, even though you’ll probably rightly kick me off the list afterwards.

    First off, although I feel the adulation of Jobs is overblown, I do feel that he deserves higher ranking than Dennis Ritchie. I feel that Brian Kernighan deserves more credit than he has been given in the C/UNIX area. By the time that C came to be “widespread”, it was well behind the latest 4GL programming languages, and its rapid growth in popularity in the late 80s and early 90s (popularized, ironically, especially by Microsoft on Wintel platforms), meant a step back in programmer productivity in many cases. C and UNIX were superb in many cases in providing “orthogonal” innovations — simple but powerful mechanisms on which one could build — but C screwed up matrices badly, and UNIX caused decades of problems fixing or avoiding the individual-group-admin security scheme and the three-level file storage.

    As for Nixon and Kennedy, I lived those years, both as a politically involved teenager and as a college guy majoring in poli sci who interned in Washington twice during the summer in the Nixon years. The taping was a minor part of the accusations against Nixon, and centered around the reasonable fear that unlike other Presidents, Nixon was singularly focused on using such information against his perceived enemies.

    He resigned under threat of impeachment not just for covering up burglaries, but for a concerted effort to use illegal means to destroy those that his paranoid brain saw as his personal enemies, in order to win an election. I use the word paranoid advisedly — any transcript of the tapes shows a consistent view of people as out to get him personally, almost devoid of any sense of other motivations. No other taped President has had even close to the same style of going immediately to the underhanded way of doing things. And his success might very well have meant rigged elections for the foreseeable future. If you think that’s exaggerating, try to imagine a series of elections in which destruction of opposing voices and potential opposition candidates and hiding of information becomes the norm – I don’t mean attempts, but consistent success. Sorry, but philandering and naval office oil reserve corruption just don’t measure up.

    As for “accomplishments”, I agree that Kennedy’s have been overstated in comparison to Johnson, but Nixon’s have been overstated as well. Kennedy’s averting war in the cuban missile crisis was a failure as well as a triumph, because he failed to ensure that the military had removed missiles from Turkey as they should have before the crisis erupted, and therefore took the world far closer to war as he attempted to pretend that they weren’t being taken out in a quid pro quo. However, there is no doubt that he eventually came to be more proactive than Nixon would ever have been on civil rights and the social safety net, and that he was blocked by a southern conservative Democrat swing vote in Congress that only the Congressional genius of Johnson could cut through.

    Nixon’s “ending the war in Vietnam” is completely undercut by his invasion of Cambodia that led by steps that should have been predictable to genocide there, not to mention his cynical increases in the divisions among Americans that were due to Vietnam in order to win. Even his entente with China boils down to one thing: no Democrat could possibly do it, or they would lose the next election as “soft on Communism” — there is no doubt that far more Democrats than Republicans thought it made sense. Any Republican could probably have done it. As we have begun to learn about what was going on in China, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam during those years, it becomes clear that his (and Kissinger’s) singular view of them was as often wrong as right, and therefore his actions were as often counterproductive as helpful. As for domestic matters, his “price freeze”, while not beyond the norm for Presidents, was an economic idea that was clearly stupid and seen so at the time, while I can testify that civil rights enforcement, Native American affairs, and to some extent the environment took steps backward compared to the Johnson years. One of the first things he did when he arrived was to “pack” the Dept. of Justice with appointees under his control, well beyond what was done in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, as documented in the New Yorker at that time.

    I heard and saw the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and I understand Theodore White’s point about Nixon’s jowly look that affected people’s perceptions of him. However, there was another aspect of that debate that I heard that White did not discuss, and that had nothing to do with 5-o’clock shadow. On question after question, Kennedy addressed the question and the issue more than Nixon. The fact that listeners who could not see liked Nixon more might also be an indication that “debating points”, as White put it, don’t come across as well in visual terms as seeming to address the issue more — bearing in mind that Kennedy, more than Nixon, needed to seem prepared for the Presidency, not just have a grasp of the issues. I was a debater once — I know the difference between scoring debating points and going to the heart of an issue.

    So I guess my answer would be, it isn’t necessarily the comparison that’s odious, or even the grounds, but rather the use of comparisons to cement rather than challenge a questionable impression of a person.

  3. Joe says:

    To extract information from the environment one has to compare things: “One of these things is not like the others”. Grouping things and distinguishing them is the hallmark of intelligence, rather than a compulsion.

    I would distinguish that from competition, or from people’s use of simple heuristics to avoid thinking — he’s bigger than the other one so he’ll win the argument, so it’s safer to just agree with him.

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