Monday, June 13, 2011

Love in the Jungle, Part Two

The previous post discussed a book, The Myth Of Monogamy by David Barash and Judith Lipton, that investigates the role of "monogamy" in the animal world, and what that might mean for human beings. That post also mentioned a book, The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson, and promised a discussion of this book, which is what this post intends to do.

The Moral Lives of Animals

             Peterson is a journalist who has written extensively on a wide range of subjects, from computer science to primatology. His world-travel in search of the twelve most endangered primates, along with close personal and professional relationships with Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal is the experience that most significantly informed this work.

              His goal in the book is to examine, well, the moral lives of animals. His argument is essentially that an overwhelming majority of the moral sensibilities that we think of as distinctly "human," can find analogies, perhaps simplified, among many of the social mammals. To make this case, he looks extensively at scientific studies, as well as drawing on his own experiences, of elephants, hyenas and wolves, mice and rats, whales and dolphins, and, of course, primates. In each of these species, he finds that there are rules governing their behaviors that can only be described as moral.

              Central to Peterson's thesis is an idea he calls "Darwinian narcissism." Before I elaborate on this idea, it might be helpful to share an anecdote from my own experience to make its simplicity and obviousness more apparent. I have a dog, Layla, who is a wonderful animal, 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time is when she is on-leash and in the presence of other dogs. She is a mix (we think) of husky and pit bull, and combines the strength and willfulness of both those breeds in her 50 lb. frame. When we walk, if there are no dogs in sight, she behaves, mostly. But if there is another dog in sight, even at the far end of the street, she will pull and strain with all of her might until she gets a chance to greet her fellow canine. 

             When my mom commented on this one afternoon, my response was, "Well, imagine if you lived your whole life surrounded by dogs, dogs everywhere, no people, for days at a time. And then, when you were out, you happened to see someone, a total stranger, across a field. Wouldn't you yell, 'Hey! How's it going?'" This, in a nutshell, is Peterson's idea of "Darwinian narcissism" which I am glad he has coined a term for, so now I know what to call it. For any species, humans, dogs, elephants, chimps, while we are all aware of the presence of members of other species, our most significant and meaningful interactions are always with members of our own.

             This is particularly true, Peterson argues, in the realm of morality. Among the social animals, there are rules governing the distribution of food, for instance, within a pride or pack. Animals that don't get their fair share of meat after a hunt show signs of frustration, anger and betrayal. The animals that are breaking the rules do so in a way that demonstrates they recognize that they are being unfair, because they act in a way that shows they expect their pack-mates to be angry, and so if they attempt to cheat, they do so in a way that they can minimize the retribution, perhaps by stealing an extra share in secret. And if caught, they may show remorse, and may give up their unjustly earned extra share. 

            But this would never happen if it was a pack of chimps that had brought down a rhesus monkey, and it was a scavenger of another species that was asking for a share. Animals (with some rare exceptions) show no recognition of moral duty to members of other species. There are rules among chimps or elephants governing how chimps treat chimps and how elephants treat elephants. But there are no rules governing how a chimps treat elephants or vice versa.

            So Peterson's focus is primarily on intra-species behavior. He breaks morality into two groups, what he calls The Rules and The Attachments. The Rules are generally top-down, maintained and enforced by the dominant creatures in a pack (or pride or clan) and they govern behavior in five major areas; authority, violence, sex, possession, communication. For a human analogy, he takes The Ten Commandments, as likely being the most widely known code of moral rules in the West. While using the Ten Commandments as a moral guide in real life is fraught with its own problems and contradictions, as I have explained before, it is useful here because it does very simply demonstrate the Rules that most human societies have been concerned with enough to have to codify; obedience to proper authority (human or "divine," i.e. the priestly class), pro- and anti-social violence (the distinction often made between war and murder), sexual rights and access, private property, and honest and dishonest communication.

            The other half of morality, what Peterson calls The Attachments, are the interactions that do not need to be maintained or enforced, but arise naturally among the social mammals, which Peterson fits into two broad areas; cooperation and kindness. These interactions can be witnessed in many creatures, and like their counterparts, The Rules, have very strong analogies in human behavior. The difference between these two areas of attachment morality is slight but meaningful; an act that is reciprocated, or at least expected to be, is a cooperative act, whereas an act in which no reciprocation is expected or possible is simple kindness. 

             But here we need a warning. Much of Peterson's work is to remind us that while we can speak and write about animal morality in our own languages, give their actions and behaviors words like "kindness" and "dishonest communication," we are always going to be slightly off the mark, because we are trying to impose the linguistic terms of one species on a species for whom these terms are meaningless. Humans have debated, discussed, and codified morality for thousands of years. It was one of the earliest purposes of written language. We have developed highly nuanced terms for moral behavior among members of our own species. So while the moral behavior of other social mammals may often resemble our own, even in meaningful ways, we are always going to be using a language that was never intended to define their behavior, only ours.

             What Peterson achieves, through a mountain of examples, anecdotes, observations and similar evidence, is to build a case that morality exists, among social mammals anyway, to a degree that is not all that far from our own. Animals recognize and submit to proper authority within their own social structures. They are horrified by anti-social violence, such as the wanton killing of a pack-mate by another, but at the same time, congratulate one another for pro-social violence, such as the murder of a member of a rival clan over food or territory, in a very similar way to how (many) humans draw a distinction between murder and war. They recognize sexual pair-bonds, and generally respect them. (Except when they don't. See the previous post.) They recognize the claims of others to a found object of value, such as food, and are furious at others who do not recognize their claim. They are angered by dishonest communication from another, but will use it opportunistically to get what they want.

             And he demonstrates that animals form genuine attachments. Animals (again, he is focused on social mammals) show all the patterns of cooperation and unreciprocated kindness, both to members of their own species and, occasionally, to others. 

            What does this mean for us? Well, for starters, it reminds us that the Ten Commandments weren't the beginning of morality. (Or even Hammurabi's Code, or the Egyptian laws, both of which the Isrealites appropriated from.) Human beings have a sense of right and wrong without having to be instructed from on high. It derives in us from the same place it derives from for all of the social animals- from natural evolution. Because from an evolutionary perspective, for some species, the benefits of group life far outweigh the sacrifice of autonomy that must be made. And group life requires rules, and it is made even more fluid by cooperation and kindness.  Individuals that recognize these facts thrive in a group setting. Those that don't likely perish. Over thousands of generations, a "moral" sense- what is acceptable behavior within the group, and what is not- has become finely tuned. With the invention of language, this process has merely accelerated.

             The scientific process could be looked at as the systematic humbling of our vain and conceited species. The universe does not revolve around our little rock. It was not created simply for our enjoyment. We are not magical spirits who will live forever in song and joy. We are not the only species capable of communicating with our kind. And we are not the only ones who can distinguish right from wrong. 

             Yet, of all of humanity's achievements, there is perhaps none greater than our ability to crowd millions upon millions of us together in relatively small areas. The existence of Tokyo, New York, London and Mexico City are a testament to just how finely tuned is our moral sense, now codified in law. For all of our tragic moral failings, and they are immeasurable, we are perhaps unique in our ability to expand our moral sense outside of our own pack or clan, outside our family unit, and extend it to members of other packs, other clans, and recognize that the same rules ought apply to them.

              Yet there are many who believe that they have, in a particular book or vision, been handed the only "true" means of distinguishing right from wrong. They believe that any other means of distinguishing right from wrong is inherently false because the supposed "Authority" is different from their own. The error of this is enormous. For not only do the subscribers of this peculiar notion miss the painfully obvious fact that the moral codes of another clan are always astonishingly similar to their own, but their own atavistic narcissism, their dogmatic insistence that theirs be the One and True, is itself the greatest moral failing of all. 

               Even rats and hyenas can be decent to their own pack. I should hope we can expect more from ourselves.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Love in the Jungle, Part One

I've recently read two excellent books that covered similar territory, namely, the social and moral rules that govern the behaviors of social animals. One of these books The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People, by David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton focused entirely on the rules governing sex and fidelity, as the title makes clear. The other, The Moral Lives of Animals, by Dale Peterson, focuses on morality among social animals in a broader sense. I hope in this post to give the reader some incentive to read both of these excellent books, to illuminate some parallels, and perhaps to draw some of my own conclusions.

            Before we get started, I would like to bring something to the fore of the discussion. As I have covered many times on this blog, some people, particularly those in the social sciences, have an innate dread of any discussion that touches on the way nature, through natural selection, might have shaped any aspects of our cognitive life. As I have pointed out many times, this is both naive and foolish. It is naive because accepting that evolution shaped every aspect of our bodies, including the material of our brains, which the evidence absolutely overwhelmingly suggests it did, but thinking that it wouldn't have also shaped the way those brains work, simply doesn't make any sense. How entire disciplines exist that operate under the provably false notion that our brains are a tabula rasa, a blank slate, and still receive funding and adulation, is quite beyond me.

            But why? Why do so many sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, feminists and others continue to labor under a long disproven assumption? While there are many in these fields that are coming around to a more realistic understanding of their subject, there are still many who refuse to acknowledge that biology or evolutionary theory could possibly have anything to say about the very creatures these processes created. The primary motivator here, it seems to me, is fear. The goal of many of the disciplines is to demonstrate that the problems in our society, violence, economic, racial and sexual inequality, are merely the result of historical accident, and thus, are easily reversible. Further, the greater fear is that if any of these problems can be shown to have any basis in nature whatsoever, then that will be used as justification for their existence. (This is not surprising, given our society's naive, and foolish, associations of nature=always good, man-made=always bad, but that is another post.)

            However, although there may be historical precedent for these fears, eugenics comes to mind, that doesn't give the truly interested and honest thinker any right to discard reality. If there are natural reasons why people are violent, dishonest, unfaithful, or distrustful of people who don't look like them we need to understand them, not ignore them. Only by taking the time to understand the roots of our problems can we even begin to hope to remedy them.

            So I will take the same position as the authors of both of these books. What they have discovered in their studies and research is that virtually every aspect of human nature can find an analogy in animal nature, especially among social animals. Among the bigger-brained creatures- elephants, hyenas and wolves, whales and dolphins, and of course, our cousins the primates- the resemblance is uncanny. They argue, as do I, that we should take this into consideration when we try to better ourselves and our society. What parts of our decision making are wired into us before we are even born? How much can we change these impulses? Which ones benefit us and which ones hinder us? And it is only by understanding the origins of these impulses that we can begin to talk rationally about altering them.

The Myth of Monogamy

           Barash and Lipton are an interesting pair to write a book whose thesis is that monogamy, as most people conceive of it, is almost unheard of in nature. First of all, they are married to one another (since '77). Secondly, they hail from two of the fields which I just mentioned as typically being resistant to the use of evolutionary theory applied to our mental lives, as he is a professor of psychology and she is a psychiatrist specializing in women's issues. But perhaps it is this unconventional starting point that makes their work so convincing.

           Barash and Lipton's goal is not to convince human beings to behave one way or another. Their purpose is to take a look at the phenomenon known as "monogamy" in nature and expose it for what it really is, which is nothing like what human beings think of when they are standing at a wedding altar promising to be "forever faithful." Their book actually involves very little field research of their own, but is instead an accumulation of findings by biologists studying different animal species all over the globe.

           Some terminology is necessary here. Barash and Lipton make a distinction between two types of "monogamy." They define "social monogamy" as a pair-bond between two animals who mate sexually and share some degree of responsibility for obtaining food, maintaining a territory or nest, and caring for offspring. The degree of this shared responsibility varies from species to species, and even within species, though it is almost always the female doing the bulk of the caring and providing and the male doing the protecting, those these roles are sometimes more equitable, and sometimes, though rarely, reversed. What they call "sexual monogamy" is much more recognizable to us when we use that term, and they only use it to refer to absolute and utter sexual fidelity on the part of both partners who are also in a socially monogamous situation.

           For many, many, years biologists and naturalists have surveyed the natural world and the creatures within it and come to believe that most animal species which were socially monogamous were also sexually so. However, the development in recent decades of cheap, reliable and rapid DNA testing is obliterating this notion. In other words, it's not just NBA players who are getting exposed by paternity tests. It's almost every creature out there. What is being discovered is that among virtually every species that appears socially monogamous, even the virtuous birds, building their nests together, regurgitating worms and insects for their brood, protecting the nest together, there is a little somethin'-somethin' going down on the side. 

            The term they use for this (last definition, I promise) is one of my new favorites, for the very dry way it captures something so naughty; extra-pair copulations, or EPCs. And what biological research is showing is that in virtually every species, among both males and females, there is some EPCing going on.

             Further, across the majority of species, including many, many birds and mammals, but also fish, reptiles and amphibians, the different reasons the two sexes seek EPCs are very similar (to members of the same sex in other species). This is due to two very simple biological facts. The first is the single fact that defines gender in the natural world; cheap sperm, expensive eggs. Males of virtually all species produce sperm constantly and by the millions. Females, in contrast, produce a limited number of eggs (relatively speaking, because this number can also be in the millions). This single fact forces females of virtually every species to be more selective in their reproductive dalliances than males. And this shapes everything. Among species that carry their young in an internal womb, such as mammals, females, by virtue of being irrevocably connected to their offspring for at least the duration of the pregnancy, the difference in reproductive strategy is even more pronounced. The second fact further reinforces the first; maternity is almost always known and guaranteed, paternity is not. This also has a massive impact on the differing reproductive strategies employed by the sexes as well, as we shall see.

          While it would be impossible to go over every example that the authors give, I can identify some recurring themes. An individual is successful, in evolutionary terms, when it succeeds in getting its genes into the next generation. It is especially successful when its offspring themselves have a high chance of survival and reproductive success, and so on. (This is an over-simplification, but it wil suffice for our purposes.) Now, because of the differences between the sexes, the most viable male strategy is often, though not always, to focus on the first part of this goal, and the female strategy is almost always to focus on the latter. These differences can be described as quantitative versus qualitative. An usefully analogy might be a game of darts, where the male strategy is to just grab fistfuls of darts and huck them at the board, hoping something sticks, where the female strategy is to take a few darts, steady and aim very carefully.

            And it is easy to see why. If a male can reproduce for no more cost than that of a few sperm, why wouldn't he? (Remember, this is evolution's logic, not a prescription for behavior among human beings.) It's not that male birds or frogs or mice are particularly inclined towards fatherhood, it is simply that those who do have the impulse to copulate more frequently are more likely to have the more offspring, who themselves will likely feel the same impulse. Over thousands and thousands of generations, every living member of the species would eventually be the descendant of one of these super-copulators.

             But it isn't always this simple. For males of socially monogamous species, there are other factors to consider. The first, of course, is which females is he scoring an EPC with? If she is unattached and willing, it is almost certainly "worth" the time and energy. But if she is attached, to whom? Someone bigger, stronger, fiercer or faster? Then it might actually not be worth it, unless it can be accomplished in absolute secrecy. And while he is off seeking EPCs, what is his mate up to? Is his eagerness leading to him getting simultaneously cuckolded? This leads males of all socially monogamous species to balance these factors when seeking EPCs; danger of physical retribution from the cuckolded male and getting cuckolded one's self versus the likelihood of an easy chance at reproduction.

             Of course, if males are scoring EPCs, they must be finding females willing to cheat on their socially monogamous mate. When would this be a viable reproductive strategy for females? Well, according to the research, time and time again, across species and among birds, mammals and others, females seemed willing to cheat if and only if they were presented with an opportunity to mate with a more desirable male. Over and over, it seems that females are willing to transgress when there is an opportunity to do so with a male who is of a higher social rank, which means he carries higher-quality genes. Females almost never had EPCs with males of lower social standing that their own socially monogamous mate. And most fascinatingly, females were more likely to transgress while in estrus, but again, only if a higher-quality male could be wooed.

            Why might this be? What do females stand to gain, from an evolutionary perspective? Well, the benefits for her male offspring are obvious. If her male offspring carry the genes for social dominance, they are more likely to be the males of the next generation who are scoring the most desirable females, and more of the EPCs. If her female offspring carry those genes, some may be beneficial to them, but they will also be beneficial to the original transgressor's male grandchildren.

            But just like with males, EPCs are a complicated business for females. At what risk do they transgress? Well, the primary risk is physical retribution from her social mate, since males of most species are bigger and more aggressive. According to the research cited by the authors, male physical retribution for female sexual transgression occurred widely across species. There is also the risk of abandonment. Since a female by default invests more in her offspring from the moment her valuable egg is fertilized, through pregnancy or egg-sitting, right up on to breast feeding, it is much less desirable, from an evolutionary perspective, for her to abandon her offspring. But since all it has cost the male up to this point is a few sperm, he is much more likely to walk away if he has reason to believe that the offspring he is planning on investing time in might not be his own.

             These complications help explain why females were much more likely to risk an EPC during estrus and only with higher-quality males. It is not worth the risk of violence or abandonment to have an EPC with a male other than her social mate unless there was a high chance of conception and if the male carried genes that worth superior to her own mates. Otherwise, she is just causing herself unnecessary risk and trouble for little or no gain.

             Most of what has been said is regarding species that pair-bond, one male and one female. Of course, the rules are different for other species, who evolution has pushed in a different direction. Other than pair bonds, what other sexual arrangements have other species come to? One of the other most common arrangements is for one sex to engage in fierce competition for sexual access to the other, with the winners,  the "alphas," gaining almost exclusive sexual privilege. When this occurs, physical competition tends to drive up the body size of the competitive gender, so it is generally very easy to spot these species, because one sex is much larger than the other. In general, of course, the competitive sex ends up being the male, although there are a few exceptions among insects (and hyenas, although it is more complicated.)

              This "sexual dimorphism," where one sex is physically larger and more powerful than the other, is most pronounced among the "harem-keeping" species, such as lions and gorillas, where the males can be several times larger than the females. But it is also quite present in whales and elephants,  which don't rule over harems, but where sexual access is determined entirely by social status, which is obtained through victory in violent physical contest. But in either of these cases, it is female preference for socially and physically dominant males that drives the dynamic.

                I could go on for pages, but I would essentially be regurgitating the book, which isn't the point; I'd rather have you give the author's their due and read their work. But what does this mean for us? Remember, I have only been talking about animals, although primarily social animals like ourselves. But if you've read the first part of this post and haven't seen elements of human behavior in what I have described, I'd be shocked.

             What do we know about humans? Where do we fall in this spectrum? A first thought, for those of us living in the west in the 21st century might be, "Well, we're a pair-bonded species." Not exactly. Among many societies throughout history, other social/sexual arrangements have been the norm. The most common being, for many centuries, in many cultures, polygamy, where a man has multiple wives. There have also been some recorded instances of polygyny, where a woman has multiple husbands, but they are much rarer. If we take what we just stated about sexual dimorphism into account, this makes sense. Human males, are on average, several inches taller than females and several tens of pounds heavier. We are nowhere near the extreme of our harem-keeping gorilla cousins, where a male silverback can weigh two or three times what the females in his harem do, but neither are we physically identical in size, as are our famously egalitarian cousins, the bonobos.

            Now, let's be careful here. This is not intended as a justification of polygamy, nor of harem-keeping. But when we look back across the annals of history, and even at  the many polygamous cultures  that still exist, it is helpful to understand where this impulse comes from. Our society has decided, and I would agree, that the most peaceful and equitable social arrangement is for one male/ one female social pair-bonds. (Or two males, or two females, if that floats your boat, but that is a different topic.)

             But we all know that good intentions are not enough. Infidelity happens. We have all seen it, heard about it, felt its sting or even done it ourselves. We love to pat ourselves on the back for our technological achievements, sing the praises of our sophisticated culture, erect monuments to our own glory and put flags on the moon. So it is sometimes useful to take a close look at sparrows, because if we look with open eyes, we see ourselves.

              Fortunately, we do have a tool which is unavailable to sparrows or chimps. Culture. Yes, we can decide that we are better off if we find a mate and remain true to that person for life, or at least a good long while. We can learn these behaviors, we can teach them to our children. But it isn't like learning to eat or breath. When we do this, we are making a decision that goes against some parts of our nature.

              Know thine enemy.

          (This post got a bit long. So the discussion of Peterson's book will be in the following post, along with a conclusion.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

No Ghosts in the Machine

            Mysteries are fun. Without being regularly presented with the novel, the unknown and the unpredictable, our brains grow bored. And there are many who feel it important that the world retain some permanently insoluble mysteries in order for it, and their lives, to remain interesting and meaningful at all. I don't refer only to problems that are (likely) practically insoluble, such as the Goldbach Conjecture, but real, everyday mysteries that occur before all of our eyes. Mysteries that would require ghosts or souls or magic or gods to explain. 

            It doesn't take a highly educated, super intelligent person to recognize that science has explained a lot over the past few centuries. Many things that once seemed mysterious have been laid bare. The origins of the universe, the origins of life, how both of these things have evolved since their origins, and many other less colossal questions have been answered to a degree that would have been unimaginable even 200 years ago. But still, some people insist, there are things that science, empiricism and humanity simply can't explain. Things like consciousness, they say. Things like why there is something rather than nothing in the first place.

            These are just the most reasonable examples, though you can hear many less reasonable ones from lots of people, depending on the degree to which they need mystery to maintain a sense of "specialness" or "uniqueness" for their own particular existence. Any kind of spiritual or alternative healing, or anything invoking magic, "energies," ghosts, spirits or gods as the only possible explanation for something that happens in the real world would be such an example.

            "Only possible" is very important here. Because, as is often the case with something such as, say, acupuncture, which has been shown to have some beneficial effects, one only starts to go off the deep end when one digs their heels in and insists that only an invisible, unmeasurable, untestable magical energy called "chi" can explain these effects. On the other hand, a more reasonable, and far more likely explanation would be that a long time ago some ancient people stumbled across a beneficial practice that they couldn't explain, so they gave it an explanation which turned out to be off-base. This doesn't change the fact that they had hit on something useful. But is "chi" real? Very probably not.

            As a matter of fact, this is a recurring pattern. People living in the less-knowledgeable past  of our planet were able to establish a causal relationship between an event and a result. Take, for example, the relationship between sexual intercourse and child birth. It has been documented (I have no source at the moment, though I will look for it) that there are people living in hunter-gatherer societies among whom this relationship is not understood. In the example I am recalling, this was most humorously, and tragically, demonstrated in the story of an anthropologist who took a male member of a tribe he was studying back to London for several years. When they returned, the tribesman was thrilled that he was a father, since his wife had just recently given birth in his absence. Whoops!

             But among most peoples this relationship has long been understood. But how "understood?" The Greeks thought that the offspring belonged entirely to the father, and that the mother was merely an empty vessel who carried his progeny until birth. In Renaissance Europe, it was believed that inside each sperm was a "little man," a homunculus, who traveled to the womb fully formed and simply grew there. We now know, of course, that both of these theories are way off, though I am sure they made quite a bit of sense to the people who invented and perpetuated them. Nevertheless, being wrong about the "how" or "why" it worked didn't stop them from putting the right things in the right places. 

             Then along came empiricism and science and our modern understanding of sperm and eggs and DNA. And now there is very little left to explain about how the sexual act produces offspring. This is the part that recurs, over and over and over. Ancient explanations, relying on best-guesses and armchair assumptions, give way to reason, empiricism and evidence. This has occurred thousands, nay, millions of times in the course of human history, with the bulk of it in the last dozen generations or so.

            But do you know what is really interesting? The reverse has never happened. Never ever, zero times, not even once. Never has humanity had a rational, scientific, empirical explanation for something and it turned out that was the wrong one, and we instead needed a god or magic or mystery to explain it. Never.

            Think about it. Think of all the natural phenomena that people used to use magic and spirits and gods to explain. The rain. The sun. The stars. Animals living. Plants growing. Fire. The changing of the seasons. The phases of the moon. Pregnancy and childbirth... the list could go on for days. And for everything on that list, every one of those phenomena that used to require a supernatural explanation now only requires a natural one.

            But never has it occurred that something we understand with a natural explanation like, say, the ways stars form, turned out to be wrong and we instead we needed an explanation such as, "they are actually put together by hordes of really industrious, really sweaty, demons with shovels."

            What does this mean? Does this prove anything in the definitive, absolute certitude, once-and-for-all sense? No, because nothing can be proven with that degree of rigor, not even your own existence. But what it does allow us to talk about is probabilities. The sun has risen in the east every morning for the last 4.6 billion years. Will it rise in the east tomorrow? Well, I can't say with absolute, irrefutable certainty that it will, but it is a pretty safe bet. So can I say with absolute certainty that no observable phenomena will ever require a supernatural explanation? No, but, again, it is looking like a pretty safe bet at this point.

             So when someone says, "Well, I think there are some things that science just can't explain," they are really just placing a very bad bet, like Dr. Z assuming that just because the Bills lost three Super Bowls in a row, they were certain to win number four. Actually, it is way worse a bet than that. It is a lot more like betting everything you have on the moon being made of cheese. 

              Sure, there are plenty of things science currently has no explanation for, and there likely always will be. But this is for the very simple fact that the more layers of existence you peel back, the more you find. We have questions that are very likely unanswerable in principle, questions about what occurs in other universes, or what existence would feel like in higher dimensional space. But this does not mean we get to pull angels and demons out of our backsides and start dancing nude around the fire again.

             All it means is that we are running into the natural limitations of a very highly overrated mammal. Of course there are things we have trouble explaining. We're monkeys. Have you ever seen a monkey? They get a kick out of throwing their own feces at each other. But that doesn't automatically mean that just because we can't explain it, or can't explain it currently, that we can just make up any damn explanation we want. 

            It just means we need to keep looking.

            (I owe some of the reasoning for this particular post to Greta Christina, who put this idea forth in a more clear and concise way than I had heard it before. Her blog is linked at the top of the page here.)


Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Problem with Being Happy

            Or Musings on the Craft of Writing

            You may already be looking at the title of this post and thinking, "Okay, where's he going with this? What problems could possibly arise from being happy? Isn't the point of happiness that you don't have any problems?"

            All very true. And really, I don't find there are any major problems that come with happiness, none at all. Except one. Being happy, it seems to me, makes it very, very difficult to be creative.  Our culture supports, perhaps feeds, this notion. Because the romantic ideal of the artist, of course, is the tormented soul, struggling against the injustices and cruelties of the world, producing his or her masterwork, and then expiring, perhaps Poe-like, face down in a gutter in Baltimore.

            This ideal is as over-romanticized as the life and works of the poet I referenced (nothing against Poe.) But I believe there is some truth to it. It is hard for me to bring to mind any artist who enjoyed major success who wasn't, at least to some degree, miserable and tormented. Musicians make the easiest case, from Cobain back through Hendrix and Morrison, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky to Beethoven. Painters follow a similar trend; Picasso and Van Gogh, all the Impressionists really, and straight back to Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinici. 

            The case for writers is even stronger. The struggles and sometime misery of the most widely recognized contemporary masters, Updike, Roth, Bellow, Rushdie, Amis, McCarthy regularly shows itself in their work. Most of that list struggle with, to put it simply, women, and the last, McCarthy, with death and its inevitability. Before my time, we had Hemingway blow his brains out, Eliot agonize over whether or not he dared talk to a woman at a party and, later, masochistically revel in being a sinner before a judgmental god, Joyce struggle with his own divorce from this same god,  and again, for all of them, women, women, women. Proust devoted 4,800 pages to his inability, over the course of decades, to develop a single healthy relationship with any of the three women he set his sights on. Dostoevsky agonized over the right way to live in relationship with god and man, and Tolstoy pretty much the same. We could go on.

            (I should acknowledge that the list here is entirely male, and predominantly white. I don't really have anything to say about that, just don't bother pointing it out unless it somehow adds to the topic.)

            I have no hand or eye for painting and how someone composes an entirely new tune out of thin air is one of the most incredible, and humbling, feats I can imagine. But writing is something I have more experience with, and I think it is in this particular form of expression that some degree of discontent is most essential for the artist to possess. Writing, literature, story-telling, whatever you want to call it, is about creating conflict. But without some degree of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, discontent, you have no conflict. Without conflict, you have no story.

             And this is a problem that I, personally, continue to encounter as I attempt to find a way to write fiction. The single, cardinal rule of writing is this: Write what you know. You can't create a realistic setting, characters or conflict if you haven't experienced those same things yourself.

             I've lived a mildly interesting life. I've traveled a little bit, and lived on both coasts of this country. I've drunk plenty, but never had a drinking problem. I've had romantic encounters with a number of lovely and fascinating women, but know nothing of the accompanying agony that seems to plague so many, perhaps more sensitive, souls. Death doesn't perturb me, at least not to the degree of abject fear that so many people seem to suffer from. The issue of god seems to me to be a question beyond our ability to answer in any meaningful way, so I don't concern myself with it.

             And thus I have exhausted all of the usual stand-bys for works of literature; love and sex, death and god. What's left? I really don't know.

             So I write this instead, not with any particular aim to this post, but perhaps in the hope that identifying and expressing the source of my own frustration, I can move beyond it.

              At the core of the problem is this; I don't understand unhappiness. I find it to be a very strange phenomenon and I don't understand why so many people are attracted to it. There are other things in life that I feel the same way about. I don't understand why people care about money so much. I don't understand why, for many people, their time, which is the most irreplaceable thing in human existence, is less valuable than money, which is, well, paper. I don't understand how anything could be more valuable than truth, even happiness, and why some people are willing to trade the lesser of these for the greater. I really don't understand how people fail to see that by relinquishing one of these, they inevitably lose both. I don't understand why people enjoy worrying, and how they've come to see deliberate unhappiness as the only way to find some small amount of happiness.

              But these are all different masks of the same character, unhappiness. When one lives a relatively happy life, it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to those who won't. As a writer, the task of capturing something you can't understand is very challenging.

             It is a surreal world we live in- us, a species like all others, designed by the processes of natural selection to pursue satisfaction as the highest good, but unique in our ability to understand what we seek. And yet, at the same time, in a great twist of cosmic irony, almost perfected in our ability to disregard true happiness when it is right under our noses.

              Perhaps that is it right there. All that remains is the surreal way people go about making themselves deliberately miserable. That might have done the trick...