By Robert A. Vella
Bigger is always better, right? Most of us wouldn’t say so, but oftentimes what we say doesn’t match how we act. And, it is our individual and collective behaviors which belie our expressed sentiments.
Are we not enthralled by our biggest celebrities? Do we not adorn our biggest heroes? Are we not proud of our biggest buildings and bridges? Do we not admire, even if secretly, our biggest accumulators of wealth? And, what about the biggest of all biggies? Do we not worship He who supposedly created and oversees all things?
Of course we do. From the high school cheerleader who is enamored by her team’s star quarterback, to the cranky old neocon who boasts of his country’s biggest and baddest weapons, we are all guilty of amor magnitudinis (bigly-philia in Trump-speak) to one degree or another.
Our obsession with bigness is deeply rooted in our competitive nature and our instinct for survival. Sibling rivalry often manifests itself as feuding over the most desired foods and the largest portions. This psychology can persist into adulthood, and restauranteurs exploit it with offers of decadent treats and huge meals which most people cannot consume in a single outing (nor should they even try to). So too does the schoolyard bully exhibit self-gratifying behavior which serves no other purpose, and society reinforces this desire for dominance through the allures of sports, military service, law enforcement, business, politics, and other activities.
Still, bigness is a risky evolutionary strategy. Just as the Cretaceous dinosaurs and Pleistocene megafauna became too big for their britches and succumbed to even bigger environmental challenges, we Homo sapiens appear headed towards a similar fate. The inherent problem of being big and arrogant is that someone or something bigger and more powerful will inevitably be encountered.
The aforementioned President Trump is a good example. His megalomaniacal ego is undeniably huge (although a particular part of his anatomy is reportedly not so prodigious), and it could potentially wreck great destruction upon humanity. One careless move on the nuclear trigger could be most calamitous. More unwise geopolitical moves could make severely strained international relations even worse. More divisive domestic moves could irreversibly fracture American cultural cohesion already shaken by increasing polarization. More resistance to climate change mitigation could push catastrophic global warming past the point of no return.
And, think about this. Trump is only one man. There are well over 7 billion of us now. Although the scale of Trump’s bigness is an exception, the cumulative effects of all our individual bigness is a truly mighty and stubborn force. It certainly aided in the success of our species, but it also might cause our downfall.
I remember being fascinated with astronomy as a child (I still am), and stellar classification was a particular interest. What really captivated me were the massive supergiant and hypergiant stars like Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. If that star was in our solar system, its surface would extend almost to the orbit of Jupiter. Now that’s big! However, such enormous and powerful stars don’t live very long – only a few million years or so. Compared to our Sun, an average-size middle-age star with an active lifetime of billions of years, Betelgeuse is like that 1950s Hollywood icon James Dean who’s life was as brief as it was brilliant. Red dwarf stars survive even longer than the Sun, in the trillions of years. If I had instead been infatuated with longevity and stability, I would have been more captivated by these small stars such as our neighbor Barnard’s Star.
But, I wasn’t. I’m human, and couldn’t resist the attraction of bigness.