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.”

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Several nights ago I reached the top of Mt Tabor at the same moment I realized I had been moving around in the rain without a hood for over an hour. Several other things happened at the same moment.*

But first, the head. Uncovered, outside in rain, the head is such a funny thing: our bobbling allspark balloon, full of heat and memory and rapidly escaping both. Unconsciously, I protect it, brush it, rub and poke at it. And then boom, it gets shot or lopped off and what’s left?

I have this theory that the key to releasing a human’s unencumbered rage and physical violence involves pressure to the self-unseen, exposed, vulnerable top-of-the-head. Never in my life can I remember feeling so filled with hatred as when I cracked my head on my half-open trunk door, or when—leaping up the basement steps—my skull hit the ceiling. That goddamnmothercockfucking door! and I repeatedly punished it with my fist till there was/is a lasting dent. The basement wall, also, will remember not to take my head by surprise.

Or the time that I ripped a low-hanging chandelier from its chain after it suddenly decided to be my unwelcome hat. I punished it, and I punished the floor, and I punished anything in the vicinity. It’s something to do with being taken by surprise, combined with how vulnerable is that top head part. It might not even hurt. But it’s insulting. More than insulting… it’s nuclear. I’ve seen other people react the same way, and I know I’m on to something.

But a head uncovered in the rain, on purpose— it must mean something. In my case, it meant that heat was leaving the skull’s insides and steaming into the fog (not that I could see this), and that the mind contained therein had somehow adjourned its normal obsessed-with-true-reality tribunal and now subsisted on silver trays loaded with epinephrine, brought in by track-suited adrenal butlers, who took orders from arms and legs, back and chest, hips—oh God the hips are REALLY starting to hurt—and feet, and mostly a jury of sounds emanating from electrical white buds I had at some earlier point shoved into my own skull to do their work, to make their noise, to confuse the mind, to distract it (already, my feet feel better), because a mind focused on more than one thing at a time is a compromised thing.*

So, at the moment I realized my head was uncovered, I also realized I was in a cloud where it had stopped raining, but not ceased wetness. I realized I was completely alone and had been alone for the last 30 minutes of my life, when I left the citier portion of my run and entered the dog parkier, darker, freezingfuckingcold portion. But I wasn’t cold. I was combating it with the energy stored inside me, and besides, I had been thinking of something else, or nothing else. I was timing myself to a beat and meandering melody, each strand going over and over each other like my feet, like the annual budgets I complete each year for work, like the unfinished books strewn around my living room, the finished relationships with old friends or lovers and the unfinished remembering of those things, seemingly unrelated, but—at the last minute—synchronous in their arrival and (for lack of a better term) purpose: 3 minutes, 58 seconds into Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” to be even more precise.

Of course, you never realize anything suddenly unless you are forced to change your perspective. Unless your physical makeup changes. In the 239th second of that song, the butlers must have entered revival dance-mode, or began making love to the Raphe maids, and they were all tripping on Tryptophan, because I FELT AMAZING. Things were finally happening at the same time; all those songs from December, all those conversations from November, all those visions from October; I felt like I could remember them all at once, only because Here I Was.

And I was simultaneously at the very top of an empty Mount Tabor, completely soaked at 12:30AM, hot, full of nothing resembling unencumbered rage or violence or confusion, in fact, full of desire for the opposite, surprisingly taken by my unplanned first half marathon, one of the few resolved resolutions from 2009.

Technically, I was several days late.


*Of course, not really. How could any two things occur simultaneously? How could even our brain simultaneously conceive of 2 characters in a memory in the same way that a chameleon can supposedly conceive with his weirdly-rotating eyes of 2 characters standing both polar north and south in his vicinity? More importantly, are the former two questions variations of the same question? If yes, we’re of course admitting that the mind constructs reality, which is totally silly, right? I mean, the filter through which no portion of my existence can last pass is the mind. The mind is ultimately responsible for explaining everything.

This does not mean that the mind constructs everything, although it could mean that.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nobel Peace Prize 2009

In honor of our president’s Nobel Peace Prize reception, I’d like to make two points.

1. There once was a species of bird known as the Great Auk. It grew a little less than three feet tall and looked like a large penguin. Flightless, the Great Auks fed on fish in the North Atlantic and nested on rocky coastlines throughout NE Canada, New England, up into Iceland and Britain. The Great Auk lived upwards of 20 years. Explorers laughed at how indifferently these birds regarded human presence. For this reason, they herded them onto boats and killed them for down-feathers. Increasingly, eggers stole the eggs. There remained colonies of Great Auks as late as the 1830s, until humans completely wiped them out. (To read more on Auks, simply search Google. Also, consider Allen Eckert’s book, The Last Great Auk.)

2. First, read this. Now think about the fact that you can go NOwhere in this entire world and safely drink water. Period.

Violence towards humans is bad. Violence towards nonhumans is difficult. Violence towards water is beyond my comprehension. Giardia, a protozoa spread by fecal-contaminated water, is found all over the world (source); over the past 50 years, thousands of miles of river and lake have been Giardia contaminated by livestock. There are more than 200 known cancer-causing PCBs that still show up in our water supply, as well as in farm-grown and wild salmon. For the sake of brevity, I will not go into insecticide-contaminated water, although it is perhaps the most serious and prevalent contaminant.

The poisonous chemicals the U.S. government mandates that watersheds filter into our tap-water to counteract the poisonous chemicals we have dumped into the ground and the oceans inhibit more than backpackers in Wyoming, more than local governments forced to revise water safety regulations (eg. Portland), more than 3.1 million Indian children who die annually from drinking contaminated water. Chemicals like fluoride, for example, do nothing to detoxify water, but rather pass as a placebo, encouraging tap-drinkers that (a) the water is safer, (b) teeth are stronger, (c) fluoride intake is without considerable risk, and—most importantly—(d) fluoride consumption is natural. Fluoride is one of many byproducts of industrial development, specifically aluminum, concrete, and fertilizer. Oh, also military-grade plutonium and uranium! Fluoride was introduced into the U.S. water supply in the 1940s, round about the same time the U.S. was really pumped about manufacturing as much aluminum, steel, glass, and weaponry as they could muster. What do you do with all that excess fluoride, especially when it’s deadly toxic? First step: convince people it’s not that bad.

Fluoride is an example of intentional dishonesty. There are scores of other chemicals found in our worldwide water supply that we unintentionally support by encouraging industry. Additionally, for the past 200 years, the United States has not only contaminated the world’s water supply by encouraging economic growth at the cost both human and nonhuman life, it has systematically drained its own rivers until they no longer support life. Farms. Golf courses. Las Fucking Vegas.

I’ve fished the Deschutes River since I was 5 years old. I’ve watched that river level steadily drop, the fishery thin, and the surrounding, booming development siphon the water to drench the farms that feed the cities. I’ve seen dead fish floating in back eddies and met fisherman who remember when there were so many Steelhead you could actually look into the river see them. Not on the end of fly-line, but in the water. Swimming. I’ve visited the Deschutes for nearly 30 years, and I have never seen that.

Lastly, please look at this picture. The river that created this canyon, the deepest of the planet, no longer reaches the ocean. It just peters out.

We are a species violent towards anything that doesn’t serve our immediate needs. (Perhaps this is a characteristic of our civilization, not our species?) Human violence toward humans, I believe, is a byproduct of our violence toward everything else. We see the world as a resource and we fight to retain ownership. How can we heal human wounds when we are still destroying the basis of that human life, those resources we fight over? How can we preemptively reward the leader of the most industrial (read: violent) region on the planet?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fashion Blog #2: Death of the 90s

[For Fashion Blog #1, please see 10/28/08]

I paid a fashionable woman to cut my hair, one week prior to today, this Fall Equinox. I have recently discovered that there may be a correlation between my worldview and my emerging pattern of seeing specialists only when in dire need. Such is the case of my 9 year break-up with my dentist (recently breached), my 7 year clothes-buying fast (not so recently broken, although arguably healthier than most other fasts I’ve participated in), and my 3.5 years away from hair trimmers. She braided and stuffed those years into a zip lock bag and I’m looking at it right now: there on my desk, next to a padded Locks of Love envelope. 3.5 years from now, all things will have returned to normal, except that I will have contributed to a child’s hairpiece which may or may not contain incriminating do-not-hire-me evidence within the strands.

I’ve looked at myself in the rear-view mirror twice as often, pulling tufts this way and that, wondering why my hair grows in this whirlpool of a circle on top of my head, so that it looks like I gophered up into the eye of a tornado. Long hair is predictably boring after a while. Which is awesome. It enabled the fashionista in me to take an indefinite nap, and I was fine with this. Now, however, my face is faced with an unfamiliar accessory—one that doesn’t stay
put, needs to be encouraged, managed, and often forced into place, and randomly decides to act completely different than it acted the day before. It’s like my head got a girlfriend. …which is debatably better than the other way around.

So, now, none of my clothes match my short hair. My bagg
y pants and flannels, t-shirts, Samba shoes, and jars full of hair ties… all evidences of my fear of venturing to a zone where junior high insult fests are born: the ever-changing zone of urban outfits (formerly suburban, and formerly formerly rural outfits, which (we’re all sure) is coming back next season). Jana and I went shopping for jeans today and, as I tried to explain my feelings on different articles of clothing, without convincing myself that I was complaining, I felt the rage of the Objective Perspective* slowly spreading throughout my body, moving from head to extremities. Fortunately, it never got to my toes because the jeans I was fitting into were so tight that I couldn’t fit my calves into them. And I feel like I have modest calves. They’re not friggin dairy cows or anything. Who could run more than 30 feet in these jeans? What happens if terrorists attack? (This is my go-to criterion, a question that gets to the practical heart of each apparel purchase. If the answer is “death due to clumsy escape maneuvers” or “capture and interrogation because the shiny white studded belt betrayed your hiding place in the dark,” I don’t buy it. And I encourage others to do the same. A good rule of thumb is that if you cannot play hopscotch in your footwear, you are not only missing out on a potentially fun game, you are asking for trouble. Everyone should be able to jump 5 feet (over burning shrapnel, a rabid cat, or down a crumbling staircase) at all times without falling over or breaking a bone. At the very least, everyone should keep a pair of tennis shoes in the car. You will never catch me on the street in high heels, but this has nothing to do with whether or not I look good in them. If the pointy portion were removable (see “Romancing the Stone” with Michael Douglas and that feathery chick) I might consider them.) By the end of the shopping experienced I had already mistakenly examined and asked questions pertaining to a pair of women’s jeans, as there is apparently no discernable difference between men’s and women’s clothing anymore.

Further, whatever happened to jeans that cover the entirety of the ass while sitting down? Sagging, which we all thought was a fad of the past, is now easier than ever—in fact, it’s inevitable—because zippers barely reach the top of the naughty area! I used to enjoy a nice long ziiiiiiiiiiiip, the catharsis of action matched by a comfortable noise. RIP, ziiiiiiiiiiiip.

I don’t want the holes and the rips and the ripcurl-tube-sized pant legs of nineties back. I just want jeans that fit. Are blue. Fit over boots. Aren’t made of clouds, cobwebs, or any other material whose natural life span is shorter than a bumblebee’s.

And speaking of bumble bees, when are spacesuits and beekeeping uniforms going to rule the trends? Carpenters, sailors, and army men have all had their day…

*The Objective Perspective: a talk show where I am cast as host Jay Leno, except funny and likable, and guests visit and answer questions, also inquiring into my thoughts on life, purpose, and general meaning. Although mostly just an excuse for me to bitch about something. Also, existing only in my head.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Deep Creek Basin: Wind River Range

In keeping with weird weather patterns of 2008/2009, Wyoming has ended its “moderate to severe drought” (link) with a super wet summer. Apparently, snow at 8-10K feet
in the Wind River Range melted only several weeks ago. This means that millions of tiny mosquitoes died during the late freeze, their stabby buzzy little bodies cold and brittle in those frozen snow drifts: less proboscal intrusions into my legs, arms, face, neck, back, ass, even through my socks. I still have to wear lots of DEET though. Several times per day I rub it into my skin, letting it combine with 8 days of sweat and campfire and dust. I taste it when I lick my lips and it tastes like I think bleach would taste. When the sun comes out (which is from 8am to noon, then thunderheads, then sun again from 4pm to 7pm) I can feel the DEET burning my skin, but that usually goes away after the third day.

For as many memories as I have of backpac
king—the different mountain ranges, family trips, fish stories, bear stories, storm stories—I rarely dwell on perhaps the biggest stimuli of any summer trip: bugs. You can’t see them in photos. You choose to forget them as soon as possible, because—except for birds—there is nothing redeeming about them. Fall and Winter, you guys kill them. And Spring, you are about eggs and wind and baby bugs. But Summer, you bring spiders up from their cooler ground holes, ticks out of the trees, and mosquitoes in thick grey clouds. My mom and sister used to wear nets over their heads and long sleeves in the middle of summer. This year, I will make a special effort to remember how minimally I focused on keeping my skin poke-free.

The late spring also carpeted the mountains with grass, hundreds of flowers, and a few blossoming deciduous trees (but not many). The Wind River Range is always breathtaking, but this year was especially beautiful. For seven days I spent time with my folks and our long-time friends, Dan and Sue. As a 29-year-old, half their age, I am exceedingly proud of them all for continuing a 30-year friendship and, in spending a 2 week vacation at 12K feet rather than Shilo Inns, kicking the asses of most adults my age.

I hiked out 12 miles early last Saturday, leaving my parents in Deep Creek Basin (barely a basin) for another 5 days. As I stuffed my tent at 6am it was sleeting, the wind was blowing, the fog was thick enough to knock out vision after 50 feet, and there was lightning. The night previous, over a meal of fish and powdered potatoes and bluebell leaves (a new, edible discovery, thanks to Karen Free), I said, “To be honest, I’m sorta sad it didn’t rain. I always like at least one brutal rainstorm per trip. There is nothing like holing up in your tent while the rain is pounding down on it. I only don’t like rain on the last day of a trip.” And this is because you have to pack and hike in it. The gods of Popo Agie heard me and must have laughed. Cold, miserable rain was replaced with cold, scary snow, thunder, and fog. After an hour the sleet had soaked and smeared my topo map with the remains of what used to be trails. I slogged out of the basin at little over 1 mph, completely drenched and muddied.

Next morning I hitched a ride from Lander, WY, to Salt Lake City (5 hours) with Shanny (aka Laughing Medicine Woman), her son JohnPaul, and her grandson Jesse. They were going to Shiners’ to see a doctor about Jesse’s frequent strokes, due largely to all the drugs Jesse’s mother abused during pregnancy. Jesse was one of the cutest 2-year-old boys I’ve met. JohnPaul is exactly my age. He has never been to the west or east coasts, and isn’t used to driving or seeing multi-lane freeways. He has a son with what appears to be a severe disability, which he refuses to call a handicap. His mother attends healings and makes medicine from Sage and Ferns and other traditional Shoshone ingredients. She doesn’t accept money for her tinctures and teas. There is no lighted path for Shanny, JohnPaul, or Jesse, just a bunch of scratch deer trails with not even a soggy map. We talked about Lander—the single road that bisects the town of 7,000, the scarce jobs, the local Indian-owned grocery store
soon to be overtaken by a new multilevel Safeway, the trailer parks, the rich hikers that move there to fund and participate in NOLS, the amount of black people we knew, the amount of gay people we knew, the amount of violence that takes place in our respective hometowns, the amount of drugs we take and have taken, the number of times we’ve been in prison, times we’ve been married, fights we’ve lost, cars we’ve wrecked, relatives in the military, friends in the military, friends that have died in the military, friends that have died, and friends we have—in general.

I’m happy to call JohnPaul, his mother and his son, my friend, after that ride. It was an interesting ride halfway home, after a week in another world.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Dentist

I have never been in a dentist’s office with colored walls. Until today, I had not been in a dentist’s office since 1998. It was just like I remembered except that this time they made me wear sunglasses.

As I fell asleep last night, I struggled to keep my motivation; if I allowed it to wane I’d sleep in and intentionally miss the appointment. I tried to get excited about my big visit: the prodigal son returns after 10 years! There’s a colorful “Welcome Back!” banner, hooked together with round brads, and all the hygienists wave streamers. They give me a free toothbrush, shiny smiles, and a brief nap during the polishing routine. Maybe I should bring one of my CDs, in case the staff is tired of XM radio. Maybe I’ll meet someone interesting in the waiting room. Maybe we’ll date for a couple months and she’ll convince me to get my teeth whitened and I’ll always remember her as “the dental affair.” Maybe I’ll end up hitting it off with the doctor. Successful owner of private dental practice shares Pearl-district apartment with local musician.

I’ve heard of doctor’s office porn fantasies: the busty, tight, white jackets, red crosses, and skirts. It’s hard for me to envision. I go to Kaiser Permanente, a place created to scare the carnal elements right out of a human. Posters of jogging interracial newlyweds, 6-piece helmeted families on bikes, and old widows in goggles and swimwear absorb all sexual fantasies and turn them into hours of Cooking Light articles. You reach for the crinkly Newsweek cover, but you miss and end up reading a pink pamphlet on HIV awareness or stroke-prevention.

The sexiest location in my multiplex care provider is the optometrist’s department, only because the sample spectacles are named “Black Horn-Rimmed” or “Flexy Bi-focal.”

The sexiest part of my dentist’s office is the sign that says “Private Practice.” It is either an empowering testament to the virtue of scholastic dedication and personal industry, or it is a loosely suggestive movie title that may have been filmed in the 80s. The white ceilings and dangling mobiles, the adjustable All-Seeing-Eye of Sauron that hovers above me, beaming light down into my throat, the trays and trays of plastic-wrapped utensils, like an airport cafeteria… I imagined the sterilized tooth-scraper’s cellophane wrapper, flapping around in a landfill. Who washes and shrinkwraps the tools at a dentist’s office? I wondered. Is it done throughout the day, like a restaurant, or are all the tools dumped into a boiling cauldron at 5pm, the hygienist soaping up all those sharp points, snapping on her 100th pair of latex gloves and dropping the older pair into one of those silver foot-pedal trash cans, filled with plastic packaging and floss?

I have a cavity: a hole or a cave where tiny communities of life live and eat and chat about the upcoming week’s agenda. “What’s on the docket?” asks bacteria culture A. “Spread from 38 interior wall decay to 37 root? Loosen the amalgam on the molar? Mutate to effectively negate mint odors?” I feel bad that my return to the dentist, next month, will destroy the habitat of a species trying to survive, struggling to exploit their niche. But I guess we’re in competition and that’s natural. There are no moral quandaries here, no right or wrong. It’s my tooth or the bacteria: my genocidal directive for the sake of long-term oral harmony among the remaining life-forms there.

My new dentist, she understands. It’s a hard decision, but it’s a no-brainer. Go in with guns blazing and eradicate the threat. There’s a time for reflection and there’s a time for action. Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury to remain indifferent. She knows all sides of the issue—the cost, the tender risk, the fall-out—but, ultimately, it’s my decision. My trusted advisor and cabinet member, I’ll probably acquiesce to her judgment. This is why I hired her, after all.

She’s pretty confident we’ll win. Which is hot.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Where is the Subject in Natural Selection?

Here’s an interesting link that Jana recommended I watch: it’s an episode of Nova, recounting a town’s (Dover, Pennsylvania) fight over the inclusion of Intelligent Design/Creationism curriculum into the public schools’ education system.

In brief, the Dover school board mandates curriculum that the teachers and other members of the community disagree with. A trial ensues, which debates whether or not Intelligent Design/Creationism is a scientific theory and which secondarily addresses the constitutionality of mandating curriculum in the public school system. Watching the program, I was surprised that primary issue in court was the science of Intelligent Design.

Personally, I think Intelligent Design is a pretty simplistic and boring idea, but I find it funny that we had to go to court to find this out. (What ever happened to reading?) I was much more interested in whether and what kind of rights a community holds, as to what is taught in their schools.

This program focused more on Evolutionary Theory and its differences with Intelligent Design. I spend a fair amount of my spare time reading about animals, so I enjoyed this. …until, as is usually the case, I became frustrated by the program’s language.

It’s not just a problem with Nova. The problem is that almost all curriculum on Evolutionary Theory uses imprecise language.

I frequently have a beer over a chapter in one of my favorite books, called Animal Behavior, by John Alcock. Alcock uses the generally accepted definition of evolution: “Evolution is the process of change in traits of a population of organisms over time.” It is important to note that the “theoretic” portion of this definition is the PROCESS of change and not the fact that traits change over time. To emphasis this, others (Wikipedia for example) often add to end of that definition “…due to a number of mechanisms and processes.” Evolutionary Theory is not change itself; it is a process which (we may assume) contains a Cause, Reason, or Mechanism by which change occurs.

Natural Selection is this mechanism. What is Natural Selection? Merely survival. As Kenneth R. Miller says, evolutionary theory implies that “there's a struggle for existence, whether we like to admit it or not.” (link) The struggle he speaks of is both active and passive, and it is between more than 1, 2, or 3 variables. Strong species actively compete with weaker species for food and habitat, but that is only part of the struggle; weak species passively fill previously undiscovered niches, or—due to seemingly random changes like climate change, habitat change, or individual mutation—find themselves in a natural environment that is not well-suited to their traits. It may be easier to understand that, depending on the species, a species’ struggle for existence may be with many different elements of existence, including seemingly passive elements, like Time or Chance.

I get frustrated while listening to and reading about Evolutionary Theory because we speak of Natural Selection as a causal solidarity, in the same way we’d speak of a god. This is a huge language problem. It comes from two places, I think. First, as a species of story tellers, humans invented god-orientated causations for most unexplained phenomena, and this general acceptance of underlying Cause probably trickles into our language as much as it effects our understanding of our environment. Second (and more importantly) we are a reactionary species with the ability to understand abstract chains of causation. We benefit ourselves by finding the source of a stimulus, rather than immediately reacting to it. For example, compared to many animals, humans react much slower to most sights, sounds, and smells. We get around our slowness by addressing problems proactively. We might not be fast enough to outrun a flash flood, but we may have remembered a life preserver. Or perhaps we built a levy. Our propensity to compile our observations into patterns allows us to predict the future. When we find constants in our patterns, our predictions succeed more often. GOD—as a constant, the ultimate source—provides gratification to a species that is constantly thinking about causation.

For the purposes of Evolutionary Theory, our causation is Natural Selection. But Natural Selection by what, or whom? Do you see how this language gives sentience to an unknown subject?

Consider, for example, this narrative passage from Nova’s program: “…the forces of nature, such as the environment of an individual island in the Galapagos, select those organisms best suited to that environment. And [Darwin] believed that, over time, this could give rise to new species.” (link) I notice statements like this—statements that reference ambiguous subjects like “forces of nature”—everywhere, since I've started listening for them.

One might argue that “heritable traits” are usually the responsible subject, and that the term “Natural Selection” is a substitute. In other words, instead of saying “Natural Selection favored large-billed finches over their small-billed cousins,” we might say “Heritable traits favored large-billed finches...” But this is still imprecise. Firstly, it implies that heritable traits are collectively “doing” something. More importantly though, it is incomplete; heritable traits are not solely responsible for the survival of large-billed finches but not small-billed finches. Couldn’t we also say “Exceptionally hard nuts kept food sources scarce for small-billed finches because the nuts favored finches with large-bills?” We could, but we probably wouldn’t, because it isn’t clear that large-billed finches serve the best interest of the nut. Finches serve their own interest actively, and the interests of the nut (if at all) passively. Would we ever say “the Galapagos Islands favored finches by providing them with food and shelter when the birds were blown off course during a migration?” Probably not, because it’s much too imprecise an explanation for how the finches survived. Finally, one might argue that heritable traits, hard nuts, and the Galapagos Islands collectively favored finches; combined, we might refer to these variables as Natural Selection. What an imprecise statement! I might as well have said, “All natural things worked together to favor big-billed finches.” And we haven’t even discussed what variables are considered “natural,” and what aren’t.

All I’m saying is that we’re using a creationist language to talk about Natural Selection in broad terms. I’m definitely not criticizing the science, our methods, or Evolutionary Theory at all. On the contrary, I enjoy these concepts and hope to hear more and more about our new discoveries. But for the purposes of disambiguation, I feel compelled to criticize the language used by this Nova special and programs like it. The overly dramatic production compromises the legitimacy of several issues:

(1) Creationism and Evolutionary Theory are dissimilar areas of study, the goals of each also dissimilar.

(2) Public education, despite being a publicly funded institution, contains an elaborate hierarchy of representatives (teachers and administrators alike). The democracy within our school systems is convoluted, to say the least. The citizens of our country should dictate the public curriculum.

(3) Wealthy interest groups frequently insert themselves into the public arena, posing as a larger body than they are, with an agenda that ill-represents the constituents they claim to represent, and proceed to fuck over those with contrary opinions.

That said, I enjoyed watching the program and recommend it.