Saturday, March 19, 2011

Food for Thought - Riddle me this

If one is lucky enough in his academic lifetime, he is able to learn from a gifted teacher who is able to inspire and affect his mind for the rest of his life. I have the distinguished honor of boasting to several individuals that have left their indelible mark in my memory, but perhaps the one teacher that still walks in my thoughts when I’m asked to define a verb or an adjective is Joe Drennan, my 8th grade English teacher.

Every Friday, Mr. Drennan would send his students home with a “Food for Thought” worksheet. Each worksheet would remind the student of visual cues he taught as a means of remembering the definition of common parts of a sentence, such as nouns, verbs and prepositions. If the student returned with a complete Food for Thought worksheet, he was issued extra credit – an incentive right up my alley, but the catch was that the worksheet had to be complete. On every worksheet there contained a riddle that required a solution. Try as I may, I rarely was able to complete a worksheet without the help of a fellow student who was gifted in the riddle department. Sadly, I’ve never possessed the natural fluidity of thought and words required to solve these puzzles. What I didn’t realize until I began to study the “art of riddling” is what a Tolkien fan Mr. Drennan really was. Never claiming to be the sharpest crayon in the box, I had not made the connection to those rare moments when I knew the answer to a riddle posed was because they were riddles I’d heard from readings of The Hobbit.

Riddles by definition are statements or questions posed that require depth of thought and the ability to look beyond what is seen in order to provide solution. Enigmas are types of riddles expressed metaphorically, where a word or a phrase is used to express an analogy. Allegorical language is a type of riddle that requires careful thinking in order to solve. Riddles can come in many forms – from poetic to the more contemporary riddles in which the answers become part of a humorous punch line (for example: “What’s brown and sounds like a bell?” – DUNG), or part of a play on words (“Why is six afraid of seven?” – because seven, eight, nine…<7 ate 9>). Riddles have deep roots in the history of man, most abundant in the history of Anglo-Saxon literature and their strong Christianity beliefs where riddles were designed to provide wisdom through wit. This fact explains why Tolkien was astute in the riddle game.

A young Tolkien and his brother became wards of the Catholic Church after their mother succumbed to type II diabetes. Schooled in Anglo-Saxon wisdom, Tolkien, who had once toyed with the notion of becoming a Priest, was encouraged to develop his English and writing skills. This talent enabled him to graduate from the Exeter College of Oxford with “first class honors” in English and Literature – a degree he later utilized in teaching as Professor of English Literature at the Oxford University. Known for his love of language, he was sought to serve his country as a linguistics expert during World War II. Records to his exact service detail are vague; some historians assume that his position was so significant that his fame would have endangered war efforts and therefore, remained classified. Others content that his illness attracted from his service during World War I kept him from serving his country during World War II and the idea of him serving as a linguistic expert was nothing more than war propaganda. Either way, it is certain that the idea of going head to head with this gifted riddle Gollum probably sent chills in the hearts of the Axis Power.

Tolkien was a doting father who shared his love of words with his children through holiday mythopeaic adventures of Father Christmas. Each year he would add mythagos creatures who would help deliver the message of Christmas to the imaginations of his growing offspring. Upon his death, he made his son Christopher the executive of his literary works. Christopher later shared some of Tolkien’s unpublished Anglo-Saxon riddles and works with the world in a collection titled, The Silmarillion.

The riddles left behind by Tolkien are rich in thought and texture and offer readers a small glimpse into the Christianity faith through courage and wisdom. Much like the many Food for Thought worksheets I once turned into Mr. Drennan after a long weekend of debate – the riddles remain unsolved even today:

In marble of milk-white are
My walls wonderfully wrought;
A delicate garment is hung within,
Just like silk; since in the middle
Desire is filled, water glass-clear;
There glistens gold-laden in still streams
the shiniest apple. No one has entered
my fortress fast; nevertheless will burst
thirsty thieves in my splendid hall,
if that treasure reave – say what I’m

Pride, Money and Foolishness - A view of the world through the eyes of Ray Bradbury

“I want the world to be better because I was here”
- Will Smith

I first stumbled onto the works of Ray Bradbury in 1986 when I spied an episode of
The Ray Bradbury Theater on late night television. Much of the stories were laced with elements of horror, much like I had become accustomed to through re-runs of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I eagerly found myself studying the VCR manual in order to tape each episode, but unfortunately, lost track of his work when the series ended in 1992. Today I’m wise enough to ensure the love affair with this wise soul never ends though the addition of his series to my video collection - complements of eBay. That’s about as utopian as it gets for me these days.

The term “utopia” was first introduced by Thomas More through his novel as a place considered home to the perfect society. In terms of the science fiction genre, it refers to the benefits our technological advances will one day bestow upon us – a perfect world we hope will exist for our future generations. Ray Bradbury’s work, however, points towards dystopia and continually warns us that becoming too dependent on technology will destroy us if we proceed without caution. In his piece, The Murderer, Bradbury plants a single seed of sedition:

“We thought a lot of a good thing would be great, but it’s not. We’ve come dependent. We’re prisoners of our own progress.”

Our desire for more leisure time and less working hours propels our innovative thinking. Today’s homemakers have washing machines and vacuums that assist in keeping the house tidy. In the kitchen, convection and microwave ovens ensure that the family has a hot meal in a fraction of the time it took our great grandmothers. These inventions have even followed us into the nursery where they ensure our colicky babies are vibrated and rocked to music that persuades them to tranquility. Bradbury understood a parent’s need to give children the best the world has to offer, but he was also wise enough to caution us to the dangers of being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth. This lesson is apparent in my favorite Bradbury sci-fi gadget tale, The Veldt, where parents George and Lydia discover they have been replaced by a mechanical nursery made to appease their children’s intellect. The problem with this all too efficient nursemaid is that it hasn’t taught the children any morality. By the time they decide to “tarnish the silver” they realize the room has other plans for their future - complements of two growing children’s’ imaginations:

“And suddenly, they realized why the two screams sounded so familiar.”

Moving forward and growing through technology may be essential to our economy if you believe in the Neoclassical Growth Theory, but Bradbury’s sci-fi fantasy, The Sound of Thunder, reminds us of how delicate the balance of evolution is in terms of our existence and how meddling with that balance through time travel can alter who we are today:

“Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region…so the caveman starves...destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life…so be careful. Stay on the Path. Never step off!”

Even if we manage to stay on this path of accelerated technological discoveries and manage to harness its great power, will it better our morality and ensure our survival? Bradbury’s sci-fi cosmic disaster story, There Will Come Soft Rains addresses this very concern. If we manage to secure our own extinction, who will guarantee that the power is always on for our mechanical devices that once clothed and fed and rocked us to sleep?

“The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants, big, small, servicing, attending, in choirs. But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly.”

For as much as we fear technology, what we should fear more is our own stupidity. The repercussions of our irresponsibility are what nightmares are made of. This reason explains why I’ve never thought of Bradbury’s work as science fiction - it’s not the aliens I fear, it’s the capacity man has to destroy himself through his insatiable avarice that keeps me up at night. Thankfully we have the ability to learn and change through the experiences and stories we share with one another around the campfire.

Someone once told me that a good writer can entertain you by telling a story, but great writers can change your life though the power of words. There are few writers that have this ability - Ray Bradbury is one of them. Bradbury has helped mold the world as we know it for more than seven generations with tales filled with “one half exhilaration and one half terror.”

Through his work we are given the chance to watch the world change in a lifetime. If the entire purpose of our existence is to leave the world a better place, then Ray Bradbury has succeeded where others have failed. What a wonderful way to live forever.

Writing for Reason - To thine own self be true

This above all: To thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

(Polonius – Hamlet Act I, scene 3)

I recently had the privilege of attending a writing workshop with Tim Cahill and Molly Sides in hopes of gaining some inspiration and improvement of my writing skills. It was one of the best investments I’ve made because some of my most difficult moments in writing occur when I haven’t a clue about the subject I’m writing about. That’s the time you’ll find me surfing the web for more information or hanging out in the library hoping to educate myself on the subject, at least well enough to be able to spew out something that sounds partially intelligent. Mr. Cahill had a solution for my dilemma that seemed so basic and simple that I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t thought of it myself – write about what you know and make it mean something to you.

Suddenly I began to notice that many of the greatest writers to date have done just that. Even many of my beloved Stephen King’s most successful works come from a Maine setting and are narrated through the eyes of a man who was usually a father and a husband. Hemmingway was said to have written in bibliographical fashion, utilizing personal experiences as a home base for his tales. Rudyard Kipling did the very same thing and spared no feelings in his reasoning.

In Kipling’s speech Literature, he subtly takes on some of the criticisms given his work. Surprisingly, he encourages and even expects this should all come with the job of writing as a profession, but reminds his audience that in this adventure – he is still just a man prone to the same mistakes in reason as a bad lawyer, surgeon or cook. The magic, he professes, comes from the words and the ability of the reader to have an open mind willing to accept them. An idea such as this puts the responsibility for the success of a story on both the reader and the writer as should be the case in any relationship endeavor.

Words have no value if they fall on deaf ears. No matter how eloquently they are written or spoken they will always fail at their task if one refuses to indulge in the opinions of others around them. Kipling was astute enough to wisely suggest this to the audience in his lecture. Most definitely it is the right of every individual to formulate and carry around their own set of opinions and beliefs that they acquire from their journey in life, but narrow-mindedness quickly kills any further potential of growth within the individual every time. The solution to this disease is basic – just listen. There are no rules stipulating that you must accept what the author is telling you if you hear or read them. The true joy of life comes when we are able to connect as humans capable of graciously accepting these gifts of communication, even if we don’t fancy the colors they come in. The rapture occurs when we make that mental connection with another that inspires us for a lifetime. Kipling was able to accomplish this goal in his relationship with Sir Henry Rider Haggard and it’s inherently apparent to anyone who reads their work.

Kipling and Haggard shared a commonality in not only opinions, but in a passionate love affair with words. Both understood that words possess the power of change if written in a way that seduces the reader and leaves his soul hungry for more. Kipling managed to utilize “on the line thinking” when writing about England’s grip on third world countries in his adventures, leaving audiences wondering where his loyalties fell. By indulging in neutral statements, Kipling was able to minimally draw attention to matters at hand without severely infecting the opinions of others – a gigantic first step in disarming ignorance.

Haggard was ever the more mindful of this communication tool that he viewed as a potential weapon. In his work About Fiction, he cautions the audience that his profession provides one with the ability to influence a young generation with ideas that can stay with them through the “days of their lives”, even without their prior consent or knowledge. It is therefore Haggard’s suggestion that an author’s work – whether good or bad, contain an idea of morality. When comparing the lifestyles and literature of his time to modern work, you must concur that his idea holds considerable merit.

The attraction to the work of these great authors stems from their ability to utilize what they know to entertain and inspire an audience. Each is able to consummate words and escapades in a way that ignites empathy and open-mindedness while providing mental food for thought to the reader. My objective is accomplishing this task through determination, effort and growth. I realize this ability comes from within, but it doesn’t hurt to have great role models guiding the way.

Mind in Motion - In search of God and Soul

The human psyche has always held a childlike fascination for me. From the earliest moments of my memory I began to question why. It seems I’ve always wanted to know why people do the things they do – why does my mother constantly obsess about cleanliness? Why does my father have “itchy feet”? Why do my daughters (or for that matter, my sisters and I) vary so vastly despite our similar genetic make-up? Questions like these plaque me as often today as they did as a child and I still find myself searching for answers. This was the primary reason why I wanted to study the subject over the summer – so I could focus all my academic attention on finding these answers. Answers to human behaviors are what I expected to discover through this course, what I wasn’t prepared for was the study of where the behaviors stem. For some reason I was under the impression that those questions were best answered in the realm of Philosophy and a whole different entity from Psychology. What I’ve discovered is that the two sciences often dance around one another in search of answers.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to do some hard soul searching about not just human psyche, but about myself, my beliefs and my own mortality in this one given reading assignment, and I found it to be an overwhelming demon I wasn’t prepared to address. The assignment was easy enough for the average college student - choose an article from the teacher’s list on human behavior, write a report about it and what you’ve learned in the class thus far. For an overachieving, anal retentive student such as me, it became a challenge that my mind wasn’t prepared to accept; the idea that there is no human soul, no God, and no underlying reason for my existence. That we are nothing more than a series of firing neurons inhabiting the planet and not much different than any other living creature that exists on the earth was a hard pill to swallow. Not only did I read one article, I read everyone I could get my paws on without paying for and some additional astonishing texts on the subjects as well. Each piece of information left me grappling for more answers to my reason of existence than I had before.

Most relevant to my “rude awakening” was the opening statement made by Nobel Laureate Francis Crick in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis;

“The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Of course, the cover itself attracts the utmost attention from any “white and nerdy” wanna be such as myself with the words “Nobel Laureate.” Who in their right mind would want to question the opinion of such a highly regarded scholar? Certainly not I, nor anyone else hoping to follow in his footsteps. This alone was an overpowering statement for me.

I grew up Catholic, and although today I can’t promise I fully subscribe to all the beliefs the religion teaches, I can assure you that the basis of the ideas still hold a firm foundation within my psyche – there is a higher power and a higher reason for my being. Suddenly, I’ve been informed by someone I respect that these ideas are nothing more than the dreams of a sleeping animal and its vague attempt to justify its existence. I never thought of God as “the man behind the curtain” - one that watches my every move and judges my every action, but I also never considered him more than a fantasy that stemmed from my neurons. Every emotion, every feeling I have about my beliefs in God can be traced to nothing more than the neurons possibly “tied to a specific place in the brain.” I now find myself caught in the crossroads of understanding and stupidity, wondering if I was better off taking the road well traveled – the one marked “don’t need to know”.

Humans, as a species, tend to be thoughtful creatures, but (assumedly) unlike most animals who simply exist to live, feed, and reproduce, humans actually contain the thought capacity to ask why. Not only do they have the capacity to question these facts, they have the ability to derive theories on why it is. When answers don’t point to logic, human’s turn to higher powers for explanations. Why is the sky blue? Because God wanted it to be blue. These answers are acceptable to children whose narrow vision of the world doesn’t extend beyond their parents comfort, and most adult not caring to explore the idea further. We find ourselves in a quandary for answers when bad things happen to us; why did my dog die? Why did the tornado hit my house? We blame God for these shortcomings and curse him for not protecting us from harm. If God is such a loving, all-powerful being, why did he let these things happen to me? Answers don’t come from hours of quiet prayer or dedicated prayer sessions with your mother of pearl rosary. We convince ourselves that our “higher powers” must have reasons for the tragedies bestowed upon us – perhaps a test of our faith or an opportunity to prove ourselves worthy of an afterlife in heaven. Not only do people subscribe to it, they live their life and die according to it.

Science has a way of answering questions. If one is bold enough to ask why, one must be strong enough to accept the answer and the possibility that it may lead you to a dark corner of the world you’d rather not travel. This is where the dance begins between Psychology and Philosophy. The study of Psychology focuses its interest on human behaviors and the mental process. The questions come from the science of Philosophy. If one begins to wonder why the brain works the way it does, one has to explore its reason for existence. If one begins to wonder why we exist if not for a higher purpose, then we must explore why we think the way we do. Contrary to my previous assumptions, there is little room for splitting hairs in this matter. How do you explain why a person believes in something they’ve never seen or touched? Where do those beliefs originate? These are the questions conceived by the dance.

Technology affords scientist the ability to explore the human brain without destruction of life or invasive surgery. fMRI scans paint the picture of neurons that fire when religious devotes are deep within their trances indicating the possibility that God’s existence lies not within the human soul, but the human mind. Chemical releases between the neurons send signals to those parts of the brain that process emotion and emotional memory explaining away the euphoria these monks experience when they are “close to their higher powers.” Most interesting about the research is that this modern technology failed to find a consistent area in the brain that was stimulated by these practiced faiths; scientist discovered the left prefrontal cortex activation in Buddhists monks during meditation, frontal lobe activity in women while speaking in tongues, and increased activity in the central brain region of nuns recalling communion with God. Is this the proof that God exists only in our minds? Well, the nuns don’t think so, and most people you bump into will profess some sort of religious faith despite this factual information. Why does religion play such a large role in the lives of our society? Should one dare to accept the possibility that God is nothing more than emotional response? If this is a possibility, one must further concur that there is little difference between the reasons of existence of the coyote as compared to the human. Both exist simply because the species was strong enough to survive the evolutionary process of natural selection, rather than to serve a higher purpose. This is a reality that the human superior ego cannot accept.

The thought of retribution becomes a driving factor in morality and religion. Generations of humans have raised their young to believe that good deeds were awarded by salvation at heaven’s gates, while bad deeds were punishable in the pits of hell. These fear factors alone encourage society to do the right thing in accordance to their beliefs of “ultimate consequence”. Rules of humanity are painted within the pages of a religion’s bible – honor thy mother and father, do not take the Lord’s name in vain, thou shall not kill - all ethical guidelines that have shaped our society. This is what justifies our superiority; we are civilized simply because we subscribe to a set of ideas on living within our faiths of what is honorable and just and fear punishment if we deviate from these ideals. Is it morally correct for science to attempt to take this away from society?

More spectacular in the theory that God lies only within the human mind, is the idea that there is no human soul; no afterlife of existence after death, no reunions with lost love ones in a better universe. If faith builds morals through the belief that the immortal soul will be rewarded for good behavior, what is the reward for living without fear of eternal damnation? Would society revert to its primitive behavior without this divine intervention or would the value of human life increase because human’s understood that there would be no “do over’s” in the form of reincarnation, eternal afterlife and God’s final comforting embrace? For now, we can only devise theories on how we as a species would react if science could one day affirm this possibility without doubt. Until then, I remain the hopeful optimist, believing in the idea that there is a higher purpose for my being, a reason I was granted a breath of life, and the possibility an existence beyond the realm of reality I understand today.

Faith and Evolution

If I were to be lucky enough to stumble upon a bottled genie, I’m certain I’d ask him to give me more time to complete this unit reflection because it encompasses the very reason why I took this course to begin with. I’d ask for a magical stopwatch that I could utilize to bend time towards my favor that would allow me endless hours to research and explore the world around me for all the answers in life I seek. It would also allow me this time without distraction of life and responsibilities to work, home and parenting – a true paradox in thinking, for this is the very reason I seek these answers to begin with.

For the longest time (before this class), I always considered rules and laws as consistent. For example, we have a law that states that motorized vehicles must stop at red lights; and for the most part, this rule seems logical and just, for without it, there would be chaos and lack of direction. The same would hold true for wearing a seat belt (although I argue this law); for without this law, many more lives would be lost through traffic accidents. We hold these laws with value to our existence, for they help mold the organized society we live in today. But is there ever a time when a law is ok to break?

Several years ago, I was elected for jury duty in a traffic lawsuit. As part of a jury of 10 (and chosen foreman) it was my responsibility to fairly hear both statements from defendant and plaintiff, and pass judgment on a situation that held in its balance, two elderly families whose financial status held precariously in the balance. One lady hit a couple’s vehicle while turning onto a busy intersection. The accident did minimal damage to the car, but the damaged car was transporting an elderly woman freshly discharged from the hospital after a stomach surgery. The jolt initiated by the hit tightened the passenger’s seatbelt and dislocated the stoma tube that was just inserted. As a result, the surgery was a failure because the tube meant to sustain her existence via tubal feedings was rendered useless. The lady was forced to embrace other measures to survive, and as a result, sued the driver for physical damages incurred as a result of the impact. The problem was that it couldn’t be empirically proven that it was the impact alone that caused the tubal failure. Couldn’t all of this been avoided if she hadn’t utilized the seatbelt in order to follow the law? Experts from both sides came to the stand to argue their point and left the choice in our hands. In the end, the jury held in favor for the defendant, but I must honestly say that few days go by in my life when I don’t think about the impact we had on the plaintiff and her family. I’ve never stopped wondering if we made our decision in haste because we were all eager to get back to our lives – and I wonder if the controversy regarding faith and evolution doesn’t have all of us doing the same; trying to reconcile our beliefs with our knowledge as quickly as possible so we can get on with our lives and forcing us to make rash judgments and assumptions between the two without fully considering the repercussions.

Science, by definition of the academic press dictionary of science and technology is:
1. The systematic observation of natural events and conditions in order to discover facts about them and to formulate laws and principles based on these facts.
2. The organized body of knowledge that is derived from such observations and that can be verified or tested by further investigation.

While no one would dare refute this definition, in itself it becomes a sort of paradox because in order to “discover facts about natural events and conditions” it requires the use of the scientific method.

A definition of the scientific method, given by Jay Phelan in What is Life? A Guide to Biology, indicates that the scientific method is:
A process of examination and discovery of natural phenomena involving making observations, constructing hypotheses, testing predictions, experimenting, and drawing conclusions and revising them as necessary.

For the most part, I must admit, that the two seem to define a seamless marriage between explaining what we see around us in a way that is systematic and organized – much like the laws that govern our organized society, but it leaves little room for the unknown. How do you explain what science cannot?

Research led me to a NOVA program entitled, “Intelligent Design on Trial” that documented the controversy surrounding the idea of teaching Intelligent Design to 9th grade Dover, PA students as a means of attempting to explain what science (and the Darwin theory) could not – “gaps in the theory for which there is no evidence”. The documentary targeted a witness for the defense that utilized the structure of bacterial flagellum akin to a human made motor. The witness suggested that the structure was amazingly similar to something that of human design, and within this fact, the idea was suggested that an “intelligent agent” could have designed such an elaborate design – an issue that may have swayed the judge to favor the defendant had the plaintiff’s attorneys not discovered the “smoking gun” behind the reasons why the school board wanted to introduce the concept.

By observation, the scientist within any of us could see the similarities between what nature has designed and compare it to what humans designed long before we had ever glimpsed bacterial flagellum under a microscope strong enough to show us the exact details of natural design. How did this happen – that somehow by fate, humans could simply imagine with our superior brains a tool that had long been designed in nature by evolution? Furthermore, how do you explain this phenomenon beyond the rigidity of the scientific method?

The documentary indicated that those who testified for the defense had suggested testing this phenomenon by allowing several generations of bacteria sans flagellum breed in a laboratory to discover what happens – will evolution “intervene”? Yet none of these scientists have ever undertaken the challenge. Why not lay the controversy to rest through experimentation and testable predictions? Does this indicate that they believed their theories were flawed or does it indicate that grants and public funding weren’t interested in finding the answer?

I’ve realized that both evolutionist and creationalist seem rather passionate about the position they stand upon, never accepting that the two could complement, rather than destroy each other. If science dictates that God doesn’t exist, why not find a way to prove this “theory” correct? In the other hand, if God were so omnipotent, why would he need to continuously intervene in the lives he placed upon the earth?

The scientific method is an organized system of discovery and in its definition appears to be a “law” that defines what should be done and how it should be done. Most would agree that without these “rules” chaos would ensue and we’d be left with little authority on how to address these questions we have about the world around us in a way that provides us with the comfort we seem to need to justify our existence, but the questions remains – is there ever a time when it is ok to bend the parameters of a rule to accommodate circumstance? If our lives our judged in mere black and white, why is it acceptable for emergency vehicles to run red lights? Why is it acceptable for a father-to-be to exceed the speed limit in order to ensure the healthy delivery of his offspring? Why is it acceptable to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, but not to drive a car without a seatbelt? Sometimes, in order to seek knowledge and understand the world around us, our rigid rules of existence need to have the capacity to bend according to circumstance in order to see other colors of the rainbow. Sometimes, we have to accept what we cannot prove simply because we can’t discount its validity. To quickly pass judgment in favor of either camp only limits our abilities in finding the true answers.

Until any theory can answer every question of “why” with an irrefutable answer, I will continue to look outside the box for answers. Shouldn’t that be what science is really about?

The Darwinian Theory - Survival of the Fittest

I grew up in the era of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where Saturday evenings were filled with adventure into lands that contained creatures I’ve yet to personally see in my lifetime. Zebras that roamed open fields, lions that preyed on the very young, old or ill in the group. This is where I learned the term “survival of the fittest”.

In its context we were taught that it was the young, the old or the ill in the group that were at risk. Survival of the fittest meant all those that didn’t fit that category – or as I like to remember it – lunch for the lion pack (hey, I was six, what do you expect?). These were the lucky ones that lived to graze the fields another day. None of which fits perfectly into what I’ve learned about evolution and the true meaning of survival.

The term “survival of the fittest” is but a misnomer and creates the image that it is always only the strongest of the species in a group that survives to procreate. This being the case, the small fry in a school of fish would be unable to sneak his DNA into the circle of life, the oldest buck in the herd would not continue to father offspring and my ex-husband would have never been able to contribute his DNA to the human gene pool (sorry, just couldn’t resist).

Darwin himself wasn’t even the originator of this coined expression. The phrase was actually coined by Darwin’s 19th century contemporary Herbert Spencer, and it is perfectly ambiguous. The phrase could mean that “of all the possible creatures that one might imagine, only the fittest possible survive”. Or it could mean something considerably less lavish – that “only the fittest creatures that happened to be around at a particular moment tend to survive”. Over time, we have come to use the expression as a mere excuse for the unacceptable – even brutal behavior we exhibit; why does the school bully get to eat everyone’s lunch? Survival of the fittest baby! Why do some people show so little empathy for the earthquake victims in Haiti and do so little to help them? Natural selection thins out those less desirable who choose to live in areas where natural destruction is commonplace (I actually overheard this reasoning as I was sipping on my caramel macchiato at Starbucks). None of these concepts were part of Darwin’s reasoning when he penned The Origin of Species. Darwin himself was somewhat of an optimist, who believed that our species was actually superior because of our tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice – concepts miles away from our modern take on the expression. This fact is apparent to anyone willing to take the time to read Darwin’s further works on humanism as found in Descent of Man:

“For firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of his fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them…Such actions as the above appear to be the simple result of the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive; for they are performed too instantaneously for reflection, or for pleasure or even misery might be felt”.

The fittest, to Darwin, were not those which survived, but those which could be expected to survive on the basis of their traits – it is our assumption that cruelty defines our capacity to survive; however, it is our altruistic abilities that define us as a superior being; to care for others without reward, to sympathize with the pain others experience, to dare to break away from a bystander position in order to assist an ailing stranger. In these actions, we reward ourselves with the release of chemicals within our systems that help create feelings of well-being and happiness.

These behaviors are speculated to have evolved within us because of the rewards they offer. Research indicates that the vagus nerve may be a physiological system that supports caretaking and altruism. Activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of compassion and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity.

It is these very “feel good” releases that encourage us to repeat the behavior that inhibits them, as introduced in Mean Genes. Hiding behind the misnomer of the expression “Survival of the Fittest” as a means of excusing unacceptable behavior prohibits our ability to release these very chemicals within us that provide meaning to our existence and prohibits our ability to evolve to our greatest potential.

Mean Genes – Penguin books, 2000; Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan

The End of Days

After an extremely intense week, I decided to utilize my ‘day off’ to invest in some deep thought.

For years now I’ve had the apocalypse on my mind. It’s not that I’ve been obsessed with the idea, it’s that my anal retentive mind can’t let go of the need to organize and prepare. Much like my preparations for the millennium where I decided to prepare for and expect the worse, my mind is taking stock of what lies ahead in the end of days and realize that at times such as this, who can be totally prepared for what chaos awaits the human race.

This morning Kevin told me about recent burglaries that have occurred in the area where thieves are climbing on roofs and stealing air conditioning units for scrap copper. Most of these have been retail stores such as Target, but Dennis also mentioned a few days ago that his church has been struck several times. The idea of man stealing from another is upsetting enough to me, but the idea of stealing from a house of God floors me beyond all recognition. In my lifetime, I have seen a change in the way we treat each other – from the era of free love and peace to the complete lack of empathy for another human being and I begin to understand why God has forsaken us. We have gone from a society that feared and loved our creator, to one that now denies his existence. It makes me wonder how any parent could tolerate this sort of treatment from his children before he turns his back on them and considers them a lost cause.

Much like a spoiled child, we have insisted on the best of everything from our maker, but blame and condemn him when things go bad. We fail to even have the common courtesy to acknowledge and thank him for the good we have received – from the air we breathe to the ‘luck’ of narrowly avoiding life’s daily mishaps – all are accounted for by fate rather than God’s intervention. In today’s world poverty and hunger can and should be an idea of the past, technology ensures our entertainment, socialization and comfort, but yet we demand more. When will the avarice ever end?

Many of these thoughts lead me back to Megan and the problems I have with her and her never ending avarice. Each gift given is received with a request for more. Conversations are non-existent unless the topic revolves around her needs. As a parent, I grow tired of this behavior and wonder what experiences she will have to endure until she understands her small place in this huge story of life. At times I secretly pine for her day of reckoning, but as a mother, I fear and pray for her comfort and safety. I feel responsible for these issues because I am her mother, so I am in a perpetual state of hope and prayer that she will see the light before it fades from human sight. These emotions give me great empathy for our creator and I pray he continues to provide patience and unconditional love to us despite our despicable behaviors.

We are just another inhabitant in the Earth’s long life and all stories must have a beginning and an end. Just as I am saddened to end a relationship with a good book and the characters that dwell between the pages, so am I in dread at the thought of the end of man’s existence. Is it merely that we are so pompous and prideful of our mental capacities that we truly believe we are invincible? Perhaps the impending apocalypse is our creator’s way of teaching us this valuable lesson. I can only hope that God finds us worthy of a second chance.

I am afraid, but I believe love is the answer. Love is the energy resource we need to utilize now in our darkest moments. Love will find a way.

Throughout our history, it has been love that has propelled us through near extinction in the past. Love drives us to hold close to each other and ensure survival. In the past our circle of love has been small – seldom extending beyond our own genetic ties, but if we are to survive, our circle of love must extend beyond our genetics and into our backyards and communities. We must utilize our resources for the needs of many despite our basic instincts of self preservation. If we can evolve and adapt to this idea we will become collectively stronger in our endeavor to survive the devastation in our future. Our only chance is to give to others the empathy and unconditional love we expect from our creator. Perhaps if we can evolve, God will find us worthy of another tomorrow.