The Mandate of the Ordinary

How is the ordinary extraordinary?

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One of the most famous quotes in US is, "God must love the common people; He made so many of them." (Its supposed origin from Lincoln was baseless.) This sentence seems to be a self-mockery expression; however, it gives important implication in the sense of evolutionary biology.

In Social Darwinism, elites are the individual of highest fitness who are privileged to dominate resource use by any mean. Just like the genius, star, celebrity, they are prosperous because of their talents, gifts, or even the social class given at birth, allowing them to harvest all the resources. That the winner takes all even from the ordinary people is a bitter law, but a self-evident law. All the Ordinary can do is to get “competitive” and fight all your way to the top, also becoming an elite who enjoy all the advantages. This is the cruel lesson we learned from evolution.

Is this really true?

“Imperfectness attributes to the limit of life. However, it is also at the heart of life, because it creates individuality that allows exploring the endless possibilities of life.”

This sentence sounds like a quote of a philosophical writer. However, it is actually a modified version from a research paper of aging study (Aging Cell 2016, 15:594-602). 

As we have better understanding in evolution, we realize that an organism keeps accumulating replicative errors during lifetime. When reaching certain level, these errors would cause the collapse of structure and function, resulting in the end of lifespan. This is a fate that any complicated life form cannot escape. However, replicative errors also generate genetic variation which might create new functions, allowing the organism to use new resource and get a new life style. In this sense, though damaging and unavoidable, errors drive the evolution of life.

In other words, no one can replicate parents without errors, therefore we were born imperfect. However, it is such imperfectness that generates diversity. Everyone has his/her own way of responding to problems, from which individual personality was derived. That is, personality is originated from imperfectness. In contrast, “perfect” organisms implied that they all come from the same “perfect” origin, which mean they are identical. These organisms can live only in a perfect environment, and any fluctuation can cause extinction.

The imperfectness of life allows us to search for our own niche, so we’d never give up striving.

The post-modern world’s emphasis in “competitiveness” is based on social Darwinism that drives everyone to fight for the same resource. Following this process through time, eventually all the ideas, experiences, and thoughts would all converge to the same approach. Luckily, the imperfectness and complexity create different possibilities and chances in life, which require your uniqueness to find them out.

Being an ordinary means being different from the “winner”, and each of the ordinary people is the investment of human race to the future. When you felt that your idea is too unique to be accepted, departing you from fame and fortune, you may have rescued the future of human being someday. This is the Mandate of the Ordinary: to find out what life- birth, aging, fragility, and death- is about.

I learned the stories of “The Ordinary” from all over the world, but every story is so unique in the eyes of other “Ordinaries”. I was amazed by Russians’ sense of life like a Kafka plot; Spaniard’s sentiment on the decline of empire, the Briton’s subconscious thoughts on social class, and Lebanese’ wandering in the world, and so on. They brought me the unique story of their lives that I never heard of.   

All my life I was asked to follow everyone’s expectation to become an elite. Far from that, I turned to be an Ordinary. This is the best I can offer.

Chi-Ping Day

Staff Scientist, National Cancer Institute, NIH

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