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The Rise And Fall Of Curiosity

It is not really clear whether humanity developed intelligence because it was curious or its curiosity developed its intelligence. It could very well be a combination of both, with our natural genetic capacity for inquiry stimulating more complex and interconnected neural nets and bigger brains.

For a long time, psychologists believed that intelligence was fixed, but new evidence shows that the more we learn, the more neural connections are formed and the more we can learn.

The driving force behind all learning is curiosity, the desire to know, to explore, to experience new things.

A curious lesson about the implications of appreciating and withdrawing from curiosity occurred between 1405 and 1433, when the Ming government, under the foresighted Yongle Emperor decided to establish a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean basin. He assigned Zheng He 317 ships, with 28,000 armed troops. This expedition awed the people of the coastlines, who were amazed by the nine-masted ships. These were the biggest ships ever known in the world, with a technology about 500 years ahead of its time.

During his first three voyages, Zheng He visited southeast Asia, India, and Ceylon, and on the next one, he traveled as far as East Africa. Liberally dispensing gifts of silk, porcelain, and other Chinese wonders, he also received amazing presents from his hosts.
The Chinese people learned much about other people, their customs, and their deities. Zheng He was also respectful. For example, in Ceylon, they erected monuments honoring Buddha, Allah, and Vishnu. They also astonished the people back home when they brought back “mythological animals” like the Zebra and the Giraffe.

Suddenly the world of the Chinese people expanded beyond belief, as did those of the people visited.

Zheng He himself was reported to be a remarkable man, who was rumored to be very tall and broad and walked like a tiger. Chinese scholars escorted him, drew nautical maps and wrote fabulous reports on all that was being discovered.

Then in 1424, the Yongle Emperor died and with him the curiosity aroused by the Chinese expeditions. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor, who reigned from 1424 to 1425 slowly eroded the popularity of the expeditions. He was followed by the Xuande Emperor, who permitted one last expedition, during which time Zheng He died and was buried at sea.

A huge surge of conservatism not only ended the expeditions, but the bureaucrats even went as far as to destroy all known records of the expeditions. The nautical charts were burned. The treasure ships sat in the harbors until they rotted away. And the technology of how to build such sophisticated ships gradually passed into oblivion.

Zheng He discovered many countries, including Sumatra, Malacca, Java, Ceylon, India, Persia, the Persian Gulf, Arabia, the Red Sea, Africa, and Taiwan. He brought back to China trophies and envoys from more than 30 kingdoms. His records and maps may even have shown the Americas, Antarctica, and the tip of Africa.

What killed China’s exploration of the world? Chinese bureaucrats steeped in Neo-Confucianism thought that since China was obviously the greatest civilization in the world that they had nothing to gain from mixing with foreign people.

China became insular and the Western World, so far behind in technology and the learning arts began to catch up. Eventually, a few centuries later, by the time of the Opium Wars, the small island of Britain had enough technology to completely humiliate this giant country and seize its major ports.

And just as the decline of a whole civilization can be traced back to the eclipse of curiosity, even on an individual level, most people only enjoy a brief expedition into learning about new worlds. After their schooling years, most people settle into a routine of quiet desperation and fail to realize that they live in a world of wonder and mystery.

The wonders of learning are enormous; besides personal growth, there is a thrill to it that makes everything else pale in comparison. Here for example is the poetic euphoria felt by Zheng He:

“We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course (as rapidly) as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.” (Tablet erected by Zhen He, Changle, Fujian, 1432.)

Conservative scholars at court, clinging to an outmoded philosophy, did not realize that
with the death of curiosity, they had also condemned the future of a great civilization. 100 years before Columbus opened up the Americas, China lost its chance to know and explore the world.

Without a sense of wonder, life is but a petty affair. Whenever a civilization, a country, an institution, or a person loses it, their world shrinks and entropy begins. Entrenched in the quotidian, life loses its luster, and the promise of what could be fades away like a dying sunset.

Saleem Rana

  1. Wesley O
    April 15th, 2010 at 08:14 | #1

    Rise and fall of government empires?
    Just a question of curiosity: Every single major empire that has ever existed (Romans, Babylonians, Persians, etc.) has fallen. Will the U.S. fall someday? Are we getting too big for our britches?
    Ok maybe "Empire" was not the best term, but we are a mighty power. And I am sure many of the "Empires" did not think of themselves taht way as well. My point is we are the world’s caretaker and big brother and are a very big entity just like many of others before us.

  2. fundamentalist1981
    April 15th, 2010 at 13:16 | #2

    The United States is not really an empire.

    It is a major power, however, and I suppose there is a possibility it could fall one day.

    That could come through economic decline or political instability.

    However, there are no signs that this will happen in the near future.
    References :

  3. Spartiate
    April 15th, 2010 at 13:19 | #3

    Were not an empire. And if this country does fall one day I’m gonna take as many son of bitches thats gonna try and make it fall along with me to the grave. Hahaha they don’t call this the land of the brave for nothing.
    References :

  4. Mark P
    April 15th, 2010 at 13:22 | #4

    It’s not inevitable…. but it’s very, very close. Every man-made product has flaws and eventually breaks. Our government is a man-made product and it would be shocking if it didn’t eventually fall.
    References :

  5. TheDude
    April 15th, 2010 at 13:25 | #5

    no empire is the right word , we have over 800 bases in over 150 countries .

    if that’s not a empire i don’t know what is

    we are going bankrupt by overspending on the military and unrealistic views that we can take care of everyone

    I’m a vet and a libertarian , so this is not left wing crap its the truth

    check the Congressional budget office web page its their numbers

    so if that is what they quote you know its a much higher number
    References :

  6. samuelcrow777
    April 15th, 2010 at 13:27 | #6

    The U.S. will never fall, even when the earth as we know it passes away. Many nations of the earth will fall, and many cities, and governments, and kings, and religions. The empire of the current president will come crashing down, and the government will be given over to a ruler having a rod of iron, and common sense.

    The earth will fall, but will be reborn into paradise. Babylon will fall, and will come in remembrence of God. "For what great city is like unto this great city" – Mecca

    George W Bush will go into perdition, and eternal darkness, as he has committed blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. He has attributed evil to God by saying "God told me to invade Iraq".
    References :

  7. X
    April 15th, 2010 at 13:30 | #7

    in the end time conquers all
    References :

  8. John B
    April 15th, 2010 at 13:33 | #8

    The US is not an empire.
    References :

  9. Opus
    April 15th, 2010 at 13:35 | #9

    The U.S. is rapidly becoming an empire – it therefore can suffer the same fate as all the other empires before it. All you have to do is read the history of Rome and start comparing it to the last 50 or so years of the United States. Striking similarities will start to show. Even the Comptroller of the United States has issued a warning that we are in danger of following in the footsteps of Rome.

    Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

    So here it is… Yes, one day, the United States will cease to exist in the form that you and I have known. Can this collapse be averted? Maybe. It just depends on what the people of this country are willing to do about it. If we sit on our butts and do nothing – all will be lost. If we educate our selves (read history, get involved in government, become more civic minded, etc.), push away from the boobtube and nonsense that the Government pushes on us then we might stand a chance…..
    References :

  10. wild-man of Borneo
    April 15th, 2010 at 13:37 | #10

    Just blunders and slip-ups with human errors with the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and Brutus in making a mess out there.
    Luke 9.60
    References :
    decoded from the missing x-files.

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