Saturday, July 10, 2010

Red Queen

I recently wrote an album I’m tentatively calling “Red Queen.” After saying as much in a letter I sent to my music-subscribers, my friend Ryan replied, asking what specific attributes of the Red Queen Theory or The Red Queen’s Race I included in the album. While I’m not sure if I successfully included ANY concrete elements of the biological theory in my songs, I certainly have been thinking a lot about it, and—while I don’t intend to write some sort of dry essay, explicating my own lyrics or something—I’m confident my general feelings on the theory of the Red Queen made it into the songs. And speaking of those feelings, here is what I wrote Ryan:

Several aspects of the Red Queen Theory interest me; I'm not sure which of these aspects relate in any concrete way to the music I wrote, much less sure of how effectively I incorporated them.

1. Continual development as a static concept: we take it for granted that evolution is ubiquitous, constantly "happening." Most people I know speak as if evolution has a Goal, as if the mutating species or the philosophy governing that species envisions a place to evolve TO.

The Red Queen, herself, has to keep running, doing, making, changing, harder, better, faster, stronger, just to stay in the same place, to stay alive.

What a dreary goal: exert yourself, just to stay alive. Shouldn't exertion be relegated to those few driven visionaries, the artists or humanitarians, or those jinxed degenerates born to a luckless family, the slaves and the wounded? The rest of us should just abide, right? Perhaps life should be more like "The Red Queen's Hammock Nap," unless we're feeling, on a certain Saturday, especially industrious or conflicted.

Who wants to sweat in the sun for no reason (I mean, a reason besides the obvious "staying alive")?

Fortunately, God knows the future and he has a plan for each mutant. He helps personify evolution. That knowledge should take pressure off the Red Queen, right? She's in God's hands, no need to run so hard...

"But," she insists, "if I don't keep adapting, my neighbor, the parasitical wasp, will evolve a proboscis sharper than my front door and eat my babies. What does God have to say about that? If I quit the arms race, my family goes extinct. I'm pretty sure God's plan doesn’t include my extinction. So the only alternative is for me is to fight my enemies— enemies who are, by extension, enemies of God's plan (for my survival)."

Meanwhile, God puts his feet up and ponders how clever He is. This morning, God secretly told the wasp the same thing (about having a plan, about Destiny) that He told the Red Queen! Gullible creatures. But without competition, neither the Red Queen nor her arch-enemy wasp would mutate at all. They would just stagnate and become boring. So God convinces them both that (a) He is good, and (b) He is on their side. The race continues. "Wait till they see their glorious selves in 100 million years," God muses. "They're only a mere shadow of what they'll become!"

Several years later, the Red Queen renounces her faith in God once the tabloids print that the wasp was in cahoots with God. Humbled by the similarity of their situations, the Red Queen stops calling the wasp her “arch-enemy” in interviews, opting for the less offensive “cohabitant,” or “room-mate.”

2. It is likely that a latent effect of co-evolution is dependency.

The more I learn about “parasites,” the more I realize that our commonly accepted definitions for parasitical behaviors are (a) imprecise and (b) laced with inadvertent value-judgments. Generally, we say that a parasite symbiotically exists with another species, benefiting the parasite at the expense of the host. This is an imprecise statement, of course, because expenses are time-based investments; we have no way of fully knowing when the host’s assets would be fully vested, so how could we place a value-judgment on the losses incurred at the hands of a “parasite?” In other words, we need to know the goal of the host before we can say that the parasite inhibits this goal. If the goal is indefinite survival, then the parasite does not inhibit the goal. (In fact, in many cases, most hosts could never survive if certain parasitical relationships suddenly vanished.) However, if the goal of the host is to survive for XX years without itchy welts, suffered at the teeth of fleas, then the story changes.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that humans suffer from allergies because—in the interest of maintaining sterile stomachs, hands, hair, or lungs—we’ve removed parasites (on which we were unwittingly dependent) that would otherwise negate our allergies. This is cause to reevaluate any quick value-judgment we may place on human parasites. More specifically, we must ask if it is sometimes beneficial or necessary for a species to sustain or endure what appear to be unbeneficial expenses.

Returning to the issue of host goals, there’s a tangential question here and it is this:

3. How does quality of life factor into the theory of evolution? In my opinion, it doesn’t, unless you apply value-judgments to actions of species, acts of God, and luck. If this isn’t making much sense, don’t worry, it doesn’t make much sense to me yet, either.

Let me put it this way: if we rearrange the grammatically unhelpful clause “survival of the fittest,” to say, “the fit species survives,” would it be correct to assume that “the unfit species goes extinct?” How fit or unfit? Many levels of fitness exist: our prime evidence for this is that a host and its parasite are immediate niche-competitors, yet both survive. If many levels exist for fitness, many levels probably exist for survival.

Certainly, Time is the most obvious condition associated with survival. But is it the only criterion? The sea-turtles survived for millions of years, outlasting other larger reptiles who couldn’t cope with random climate changes or moving landforms. But the sea-turtles couldn’t cope with propellers and oil slicks, so they suddenly died off. They weren’t fit enough to account for human industrialization. A few humans, however, collected a few last turtle eggs and secretly incubated them, keeping a genetically unhealthy family of turtles in captivity—in a swimming pool in Miami—for 300 years, until humans died off completely. The two hapless turtle survivors, Steve and Amy, crawled back to the ocean, through the dead town, and found a moderately polluted bay, where they began procreating atrophic turtles with social anxiety, depression, and severe eating disorders. After another 100 years they died.

When aliens wrote the history books about evolutions of Earth species, they didn’t include the last 400 years of sea turtle existence. They said that those years weren’t “real” survival. They said not only was the turtles’ latter survival unnatural, it was painful, fruitless, and doomed to fail from the beginning of the end. Steve’s journal was eventually found, though, and its pages were filled with the writings of a very happy turtle who rarely went hungry, sunbathed whenever he wanted, had sex for fun, and learned to speak Spanish from his human owners. His last entry, written as he lay in the scaly arms of his wife, watching his laughing, inbred children try to catch sardines with their rounded teeth, was something stupid like, “I wouldn’t trade a thing.”


Ryan Hofer said...

Seems we have a hard time talking about things without inferring goals, or maybe that is just the way I am used to reading everything. This, and then this, stop. Goal met. But the red queen seems to suggest that effort is really just an in-the-moment phenomenon, maybe even required to maintain what we want. I feel lately though that the necessity of striving is made up by me so that I can feel good about myself and justified.

Justin said...

Yes, and so strange when it all begins to wash away. There is no metaphysics fine enough to catch the land once it's begun to wash into the sea of presence. Is what I wouldn't say if I were less dramatic. But no rhetoric keen enough to stay the irony, the lightness of it.