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When humanity has stood at the brink of destruction, our intelligence has saved us rather than our natural strength. When heroes of myth and legend were on the verge of defeat, their wit and skill allowed them to triumph over mighty foes.
In the Western Canon, perhaps the most famous instance of overcoming insurmountable odds is the tale of David and Goliath. David meets Goliath’s challenge, answering Goliath’s blade and armor with a sling and a few rocks. As Goliath approaches, David slings a stone square in his head and kills him. Yet unlike his other Biblical contemporaries, David struck down Goliath not by the grace of God, but rather by his own wit.
Conflict in classical literature, such as within The Bible itself, can be easily divided into three subgroups: People vs. Nature, People vs. God, and finally, People vs. People. That final category, the conflict of People vs. People, is traditionally what the story of David and Goliath falls into, a tale of impossible victory.
Yet, the story has far more aspects of one of the main types of Postmodern conflict: People vs. Technology. David fought Goliath on his own terms. He refused the armor the Israelites offered him, going to battle with only his staff and sling.
A sling is seen as a weak weapon when compared to the traditional might of a sword. The sling that David holds is a tool, simple yet effective, that throws a stone as fast as a modern bullet. Whereas tradition holds status, innovation holds potency. The great human body of Goliath is a powerful weapon that can only go so far.
Some contemporary researchers have looked at Goliath with a scientific lens, determining what could be behind his giant size. Some critics, such as Malcolm Gladwell, find that the best explanation for his size is Acromegaly, a condition caused by excessive growth hormone, the most common cause for gigantism.
However, the great size and strength associated with Acromegaly that would have made Goliath a powerful warrior also caused his downfall. Acromegaly can cause blindness; the fact that Goliath requires close combat in order to be effective and a handler to lead him to battle imply his vision is poor. Even when the human body reaches great heights, it can never stand up to the technology of the day.
Another story that depicts a similar battle to the one in David and Goliath is the American folktale of John Henry, a steel-driving man who beat a steam engine. The details of the song passed down through generations of American folk music change slightly, but the ending is always the same; John Henry beats the steam engine and promptly dies of exhaustion.
During the construction of the Transcontinental railroad, thousands of men drove steel through the ground and cut through mountains in order to connect two ends of a continent. From 1863 to 1869, hundreds of men died during the construction of this railroad, and thousands more were injured, but this was the way that they made a living. So the rise of steam engines proved a threat.
Machines that can carve through mountains and lay track faster than any man was a threat to their livelihoods. Most yielded to the machines and even worked alongside them. But the working-class hero of the decade was John Henry, a larger-than-life African-American, a man able to strike steel into rock faster than any other.
He was a large man, not as large as Goliath, but still formidable and strong. The foreman brought an agent for a drilling company, alongside the agent’s drill. The workers feared for their jobs, and John Henry challenged the agent’s machine in order to protect his and his colleagues’ jobs. He worked all day and night, cutting through the Big Bend tunnel. John Henry beat the steam engine, and died from exhaustion, with his hammer in his hand.
A person beat the machine that day, and John Henry remains a symbol of the working class and their inherent strength and value. But John Henry only beat the machine because the engines of the day were clunky and ill-optimized. If that same challenge happened today, the powerful engines and cutting machines would triumph over the might of people. The Industrial Revolution came and went, and the machine has beaten the working person.
Perhaps the most famous modern instance of people versus machines would be the legendary chess match between Grandmaster Gary Kasparov and the chess AI Deep Blue.
The development team at International Business Machines (IBM) constructed Deep Blue over the course of a decade for the sole purpose of defeating a chess Grandmaster. Gary Kasparov had been the number one player in the world for a collective ten years from 1984 to 2005, and the youngest World Chess Champion at the age of 22 in 1985.
The first match was in Philadelphia, 1996. Kasparov lost the first game but still beat Deep Blue overall, with a win ratio of 4 to 2. Still, this was a crucial point in technological development. It was the first time a computer beat a chess Grandmaster and marked a shift in the balance between artificial intelligence and human wit.
The rematch was in New York, 1997. This time, Kasparov lost overall, with a score of 3.5 to 2.5 matches in favor of Deepblue. It is ironic that the intelligence which makes humans so unique is now rivaled by one of our own creation.
Humans have always used their intelligence to surpass insurmountable odds. Humans’ muscles are weak compared to our genetic cousins. Comparatively, we are weak and defenseless. But, when faced with the Goliath that is Mother Nature, humanity rose beyond its status to become the dominant species.
Wooden spears, tipped with rocks, became the weapon of choice, then iron blades, and then gunpowder. The evolutionary arms race that nature had been waging was sidelined by the sheer pace of human knowledge. Every corner of the globe is called home to at least some humans. Humanity’s strength is not in size nor might, but rather the capabilities of the minds that our body contains.
People still clash with nature, as we can see with our current struggle against the Coronavirus pandemic, and our rising seas and scorching fires destroy decades of progress. The tools that we used to do battle with nature now serve as a new threat. Perhaps, as we once overcame the might of Nature, we too can overcome the odds once more.
The story has far more aspects of one of the main types of Postmodern conflict: People vs. Technology. David fought Goliath on his own terms. He refused the armor the Israelites offered him, going to battle with only his staff and sling.