In which it is demonstrated that you are a bad person

Some time ago I wrote this post on the theme of privilege and entitlement. A while later, Rob – the somebody in question – dropped a lengthy reply in the comments section, in which (forgive my paraphrasing) he stressed that we should all be focused on living the best lives we can in the here and now, doing what we can to build a fairer world, rather than flagellating ourselves in penance for the mistakes of past generations.

In the first place, I should say that in the final analysis, I pretty much agree. I don’t see that any good will come of working ourselves up into a masochistic lather, and I know that people are fundamentally self-interested, so indeed the best we can hope for is that everybody lives their own life and tries to avoid acting like an asshole in any glaringly obvious way. Those of you who were just hoping for some practical advice from this post can stop reading now: go ahead and live. If anybody asks, tell them I said it was okay.

The thing that I don’t understand, though, is how so many people – intelligent people, even – seem to think that this pragmatic course of action is actually a morally defensible position. Like it’s actually possible to enjoy all the benefits of a developed nation, and still call yourself a decent human being. It’s not. Of course it’s not. Here we are, spending our money on luxury consumer goods, moaning about trend growth rates and structural deficits, while more than a billion people around the world don’t even have access to clean water. Everybody knows about this. It has been formed into dozens of clichéd little sayings, as Rob pointed out; we learn them by rote, parrot them until they become meaningless. We deploy the hypothetical misfortunes of starving African children as a rhetorical technique to coax our own spawn into finishing their suppers. The process of mental conditioning is so effective that most of us are capable of accessorising designer outfits with Make Poverty History wristbands and never blinking an eyelid at our own hypocrisy.

Let me be clear here: I’m not saying we should feel guilty. I’m saying that if we actually cared, we would take real action. I’m not talking standing orders to Oxfam, gap years spent building schools in Tanzania, foreign aid parcels dished out to serve the dual purpose of soothing the itch in our vestigial consciences whilst stuffing the pockets of corrupt oligarchs who, in return, sell us the wealth of their people and keep them too beaten and desperate to complain. I’m talking about devoting ourselves – with a real and urgent effort, as our top priority – to providing food, water, education, sanitation and healthcare for the whole world, and to dismantling the systems by which we maintain our own profligate way of life at other people’s expense. I’m talking about giving up whatever is necessary to achieve those aims. That’s what we would do, if we actually believed in the ideas of right and wrong that most of us profess.

Of course, moral hypocrisy serves its own ends. We’re all instructed in moral certainties from an early age, and by example we quickly pick up where these moral judgements are supposed to be applied and where they are not. I’ve written before about the competitive advantages of a keen single-edged morality, so I won’t get into all that again. Suffice to say that I guess that way of thinking is here to stay.

My concern, though, was never really with the health of society or societal attitudes as such. I think perhaps this is where I have been unclear in the past and have allowed misunderstandings to take root and flourish. I have no pretensions towards arbitration of public morality, and no illusions that I have real answers to any of the issues I’m discussing. I’m also not talking about the best way to present these issues in order to draw a positive response from the masses. This is not about education or reform. My concerns are a lot humbler and more selfish than that. I am only setting out to understand these things for myself, to piece together a picture of this society and formulate my responses to it.

That said, I’m willing to admit that I am subject to certain knee-jerk reactions to the more revolting aspects of my subject. Hence, for instance, my previous exhortation with regards to our society that we should kill it with fire. This, I confess, was not the considered and sincere prescription for public betterment that it may have appeared. It was more like the horror-struck resolve of the protagonist in a B-movie who discovers that his house is built on an Indian burial ground. All the worse for him when he realises that the rest of his family have known this for years and have been scrubbing away daily at the blood-sweat oozing from the walls, playing light music to drown out the threatening disembodied voices, and resigning themselves to the mundane reality of an occasional horrific death among their number at the hands of a shrieking, vengeful spirit.

Naturally I’m still convinced that a mass conflagration would be the most elegant and fitting end to the twisted and tumescent growth that we are pleased to call ‘civilization’. I am, however, willing to accept that that answer does have certain downsides. Firstly, it’s hardly an eco-friendly scheme. Secondly, our successors would certainly fuck everything up all over again; people are people, and if they don’t have ready-made societal channels for their greed and stupidity then they will surely perform heroic new atrocities in their efforts to forge new ones. Thirdly and finally, there is the question of who could possibly be mandated to carry out a sentence like that one. It may be a just and fitting end to an utterly corrupt institution, but what sort of monster could destroy billions of human lives for the sake of ideologies and institutions? If there was a god, perhaps he could take the necessary action – and perhaps this is some reflection on why eschatology has enjoyed such massive popularity throughout history. But as an unbeliever, I have to acknowledge that I can’t conceive of any satisfactory executioner.

The only remaining hope for a clean and poetic end, then, is that in our hubris we act as architects of our own demise. A lot of people seem to genuinely think this is going to happen, but I have my doubts. Shit has been rolling downhill since time immemorial, and now it seems that the people at the bottom are going to have rising sea levels to worry about too. Whatever ramifications might come of the wealthy’s mistakes, it hardly seems likely that it’s the wealthy who will suffer the brunt of them.

So, having exhausted the obvious possibilities for a cinematic ending, there’s not much to do but reconcile myself to the fact that I just don’t care enough to seriously fight against most of the world’s injustices and iniquities, or even to divest myself of their profits. And if you’re reading this, neither do you.

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Apocalypse Fatigue

I recently discovered that the world is going to end by 21st December, 2012. The Mayan calendar (as helpfully interpreted by some nutjobs on the internet) says so. I am attempting to face this bad news with equanimity, but I confess that I’m not finding it easy. My usual calm and collected demeanour has been considerably shaken. A thousand angry questions are buzzing around my brain like hornets (or are they hornets buzzing like questions? I don’t know how one would tell. Either way, it’s hard to concentrate). How long have people known, I ask myself? Why wasn’t I told sooner? Aren’t there still many people going about their daily business, ignorant of this terrible deadline? It seems to me that all around the world people are still saving their money, having children, trying to lose weight or stop smoking. Don’t they realise that our days, our hours, our minutes, are now numbered? Isn’t it about time that societies crumble as each of us throws off the shackles of convention and morality in a desperate bid to wring the last drops of life from the next 33 months?

But wait! I may have spoken too soon. There could still be some limited room for optimism. I have embarked upon some further research into the precise nature of our approaching doom, and it appears that there are those among its presiding prophets who contest that rather than total destruction, we may only have to endure a few civilization-demolishing calamities as one Mayan era ends and another begins. With proper preparation, survival may still be possible! To my relief, a quick search around various 2012-related sites revealed plenty of companies who will be happy to sell you all the pricey gear that you’ll need to turn your home into a self-sufficient fortress and/or run for the hills and live in the wilderness WTSHTF – that’s ‘when the shit hits the fan’, for those among you who are not yet versed in the common concepts of survivalism. Speaking of which, now is clearly the time to start brushing up. There’s a good list of common terms and concepts on wikipedia. For your homework, pack your BOB, decide on a good BOL (‘your mum’s place’ is not acceptable) and start squirrelling away your Ballistic Wampum. Now you’re well on your way to being prepped for TEOTWAWKI.

To be quite honest, though, everything I read about this whole 2012 business is only serving to confuse and dismay me further. Just when I thought I had it all figured out and was happily getting ready to weather typhoons and volcanoes, I came across a new bombshell: Project Enoch. For the as-yet-blissfully-ignorant among you, this fine resource provides a good grounding on the dire situation we all face. In case you can’t be bothered to read it, allow me to provide a summary: these public-spirited fellows have read all Dan Brown’s books, mashed the plots up together to form a sort of creamy saturated solution of Stupid, and then iced the whole thing with some embellishments of their own which succeed in the heroic endeavour of being even dumber than that. But it’s all true, and it’s called Project Enoch. I know it’s true, because these people inform me that they have gone through ‘literally over 357 websites focused on 2012′. I can’t argue with that kind of authoritative research – and they only charge $24.97 (that’s literally under $24.98!) for the complete report of their findings. Among other things, they promise to reveal ‘What is the link between the alien agenda, Project Enoch and Revelation 9?’ and ‘How does the merging of Occult Science and Advanced Technology create Electronic Sorcery, one of the most dangerous aspects of the Project Enoch formula?’. I don’t know how I can call myself a responsible and serious-minded human being if I’m not prepared to shell out a little cash for the answers to urgent questions like those.

I feel guilty about it, but the fact is that I haven’t paid my $24.97 yet. Actually, I confess to a growing seed of doubt about all this. Maybe I’m just not responsible and serious-minded enough after all, but the thing is, my BOB is getting pretty full, and I don’t know that I’m going to have room for my sunscreen and sandals if I have to pack for biblical prophecies, alien invasions and Electronic Sorcery. On top of that, I have to admit to a growing feeling of confusion and annoyance. Couldn’t we just stick to one kind of apocalypse at a time? It’s hard to get into the spirit of the thing when I don’t even know whether I’m supposed to be panicking about tidal waves or government conspiracies or magical electricians. In fact, you know what? Fuck it. These 2012 guys can keep their dumb apocalypse. They’re like squabbling kids in the playground who can’t decide whether they’re playing Cowboys and Indians or Terminator 2. Even Global Warming doomsayers are more fun than this; I think I’ll go back to building barricades against flood waters and enraged polar bears.

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An Ideal Parasite, Part 4: On the Domestication of Parasites

Time, now, to bring my studies in parasitology to their conclusion. From a focus upon the most outlandish and formidable specimens of the idea family, I want to switch things up a little and take a closer look at the more prosaic and quotidian variety. I previously compared the rarest ideas to great jungle cats with their lethal grace and their exotic and fearsome allure. The most commonplace ideas could, equivalently, be compared to the cow. In the cow we find little that is exciting, enticing, or awe-inspiring. A cow is not great or terrible, beautiful or hideous. The cow is a humble, boring, practical sort of animal.

Just as we have yoked the more pliable denizens of the wild, bred them selectively, and turned them to our purposes as food sources, beasts of burden or pampered pets, so too have we tamed ideas. We have domesticated them, humbled them, de-fanged them where necessary. We house them in barns, pens and paddocks or encourage them to curl up on our hearthrugs. Still, the lean and feral wolf that roams the steppes in search of prey still has some tenuous remaining link with the moronic, good-natured mutt that attempts to mate with your leg. Those looking for insight into the Canidae family could do worse than to trace the process of miscegenation that led from the Dire Wolf to the Chihuahua; similarly, I believe that a close study of the evolution of ideas may well prove illuminating in unexpected ways.

To this end, I want to return to some of the examples I previously touched upon, and expand them a little. In the first place – morality. I mentioned morality before as one of the building blocks of society. I stand by that, but it’s a statement that is going to need some clarification before I can proceed. Uncompromising moral standards – the kind that don’t allow you to apply one set of rules for yourself and another for everybody else – are every bit as inimical to a successful human existence as uncompromising relativism. The morality that most people subscribe to is, accordingly, a much more accommodating creature, tempered by overriding self-interest and by the influence of other things such as tolerance.

Tolerance is an intriguing creature in itself, worthy of closer inspection. What is it? Not an idea, certainly. Even inanimate objects have tolerance – a level of external stimuli that they can withstand before they are altered or broken. In intelligent creatures tolerance becomes a more complex attribute, tied up with behavioural mechanisms, instinct, and emotion. When it comes to tolerance in humans, we create a new level of complexity as we examine it in ourselves and conceive of it ideologically. We deliberate about how certain levels of tolerance or intolerance are ideal, and this feeds back into our behaviour. As with the other ideas we have so far inspected, there are extremes here which nobody in their right mind would consider. Anybody living according to a principle of absolute tolerance would more or less have rendered themselves entirely vegetable, whilst anybody who set out to act with complete intolerance would probably quite quickly find themselves spending the rest of their short, apoplectic existence in a prison cell.

What most people generally have, therefore, is a happy medium; a ‘live and let live’ attitude. (It’s a notable feature of sensible, functional ideas that they can almost always be expressed perfectly in a single well-worn phrase and a pair of inverted commas; in fact that’s a pretty good litmus test for whether an idea is safe.) What this basically means is that you get on with your life and let others get on with theirs, as long as it works for you. That general level of tolerance is a crucially important factor in just about any working social framework, and the morphology of any successful idea is highly adapted to it. Thus it is notable that the popular version of morality leaves plenty of wiggle-room for people to overlook and tolerate shortcomings in themselves and others for the sake of general harmony and convenience. I mean sure, if you feel like you’re somehow being cheated or hard done by, moral righteousness is great to have backing you up. But if, say, your roommate illegally downloads music, or you see an opportunity to cheat on your taxes, or your government decides to commit genocide, it’d be a real drag to have to react to that situation according to your moral principles. Morality has therefore developed the flexibility to create blind spots wherever it is necessary to avoid seeing something inconvenient. This is a perfect example of how an idea has become domesticated and benign, adapting and evolving to develop a more positive relationship with its human hosts.

Now, as I mentioned once before, by the time an idea has adapted sufficiently to develop a real mutually-beneficial symbiosis with humanity then it generally no longer makes sense in and of itself. The sort of morality I just described is essentially hypocritical and logically indefensible – but that’s beside the point. We don’t apply a double standard because of some ideological conviction, we do it because it’s beneficial to us in tangible, practical ways. This is only natural. To deride such an idea for its logical failings is like deriding a cow for its failure to stealthily prowl within pouncing distance of its prey and then explode in a sudden terrifying burst of power and speed to make a swift, clean kill.

As stupid as this may seem, however, it is indeed a mistake that seems to be made with distressing regularity by all kinds of people who should know better. Otherwise intelligent and perspicacious people have set themselves to the study of the ideological barnyard, but seem unable to move beyond a baffled incomprehension of why the chickens and the pigs that they find there seem so unfit for the life of a solitary predator. It seems never to occur to them that these creatures were never intended for such a life, and that their standards are utterly irrelevant to everybody but themselves. Incapable of that realisation they instead go to ever greater lengths to prove to the rest of humanity that these barnyard animals are dreadful hunters , and despair when the rest of humanity responds only with disinterest and mild confusion.

That kind of bumbling is all very well as light entertainment, but it’s no way to actually combat the spread of an idea. And the trouble is that sometimes, we really do want to combat an idea. Take, for instance, racism. The vast majority of people still hold some kind of prejudices against others of different skin colours, cultural backgrounds and so on. There isn’t much surprising about that; it’s common for all kinds of creatures to band together in tribes, packs or other groups and then shun those they perceive as outsiders. This is a way of creating social cohesion and solidarity – but in this more enlightened age of globalism and multicultural societies, such tribalism has become inconvenient and politically unacceptable.

People are therefore ingrained with the idea that it is not okay to express hostility or a feeling of superiority towards other ethnic groups. This is a good idea with plenty of evolutionary viability in the current social climate; by being tolerant (there’s that word again) of people who look and act different to you, you improve your ability to function in the modern world.

None of that, however, has much impact on the continued existence of racism. To teach somebody to be reasonably tolerant, and to refrain from articulating racist sentiments in public, is well and good; to teach somebody to actually respect other ethnic identities as much as their own is more or less impossible. We find ourselves once again staring across the gulf between a professed love of diversity and a genuine relativism that refuses to set one’s own subjectivity above others’. The failure to recognise these distinctions leads directly to the sort of ‘multicultural’ society where minority groups are marginalised, segregated and criminalised amidst general cheerful talk of equal opportunities and respect for cultural difference.

Racism has not really diminished – it has just adapted, like any other successful idea, to exist in changing societal conditions. It probably always will, because it will always be advantageous to believe in – if not to publicly assert – the privileged position of one’s own subjectivity at the centre of the universe. Race, or culture, or ethnicity, or some other cipher for the same concept, seems like an insperable part of that. To argue against this logically is, once again, to miss the point entirely. All that can be done is what anybody would do when confronted by a breed of livestock that they didn’t like – attempt to breed its unfortunate traits out, generation by generation, until you are left with a more benign and useful beast. To debate the best direction for the breeding process is one thing, but don’t confuse logical argument with the actual process of ideological change – and don’t make the mistake of measuring your chickens against criteria more fitting for a tiger.

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Interlude: A Bulletin from the Art World

I never really intended this to be an art blog, and least of all did I expect to interrupt my ongoing study of biology to extol the genius of a new visual artist. Recent developments have, however, convinced me that the task of informing the public on this new development in the art world is simply too urgent to ignore.

A little over eighteen months ago, if I remember correctly, I came across a work by a heretofore unknown artist. It came out of nowhere Рa bolt from the blue, if you will pardon the clich̩. In idle curiosity I clicked the link in a forum post, little suspecting that what I was about to see would forever redefine my perceptions Рnot only of art, but of the human capacity for invention and glory.

Of course, I rushed to tell my friends, but I had never thought of myself as an art critic; therefore I felt no need to write and publish a review of the piece. After all, I thought, such genius as this does not need my praise to shine. I simply took it for granted that before long the brilliance of this piece would illuminate the art world like the sun rising upon a dark and gloomy earth.

How wrong I was. Far from the apocalyptic success that I envisioned, I learned that the work enjoyed adulation among only a select few before it was savagely suppressed by the censorious hand of a tyrannical philistine in the guise of a forum administrator. I now felt more privileged than ever to have been among the few witnesses of this revolution, but at the same time I was filled with rage and despair that, it seemed, the piece had been lost forever. In my sorrow I thought to write an epigram, a mourner’s lament, a melancholy hymn to the most profound and beautiful work of art I have ever seen.

In pursuit of this noble but tragic duty, I recently had the very great honour of speaking to the artist himself. To my sorrow, but not my surprise, I found that the destruction of his masterpiece had hit him very hard. He arrived at the interview, in a local restaurant, looking dishevelled and obviously the worse for drink. During the course of our short time together he showered me with unintelligible obscenities, spat in my face, and was finally ejected from the establishment after making slurred overtures to a waitress and insisting that she put her head in his lap and let him smell her hair. In a rare moment of lucidity, however, he had this to say:

It just came to me, you know? I was working playfully, in a carefree sort of way, enjoying myself. When the inspiration struck I almost didn’t realise it. It was only afterwards, as the euphoria of creation wore off, that I looked at what I had made and thought: “shit. This is really something.” I thought I was made. But then those fuckers took it away from me. They took it all away… [here he dissolved into tears and spent several minutes blubbering nonsensically]

I knew even before he told me, as I think everyone did who saw the original piece, that it had to have been this way. A masterwork like this cannot be created by a mere human being – it is a collective effort, the product of all humanity’s genius, focused and channelled through a willing conduit. It transcends the skill of the artist and the social conditions in which it is made: it belongs to the ages.

Thus far I have kept you in suspense, but I feel it is time to unveil the wondrous news: the artwork has been recovered through cached internet files – how fortunate I feel, now, to have been so lazy about deleting them – and through discussion with the overjoyed artist I have received permission to unveil it once more for the internet to marvel at. The artist chose this moment to belatedly christen his work with the worthy title Di/Vision.

Allow me to preface the work with a short review, the only critical consideration of the work published during its first short life before this miraculous resurrection, recreated here with the kind permission of the original author:

As the initial awe wore off and I began to consider this untitled work rationally, I was struck by the realisation that it deals, at one and the same time, with every aspect of the human condition.

Notice, to begin with, the artist’s use of colour. It is difficult to imagine a more daring and powerful contrast than that which he has chosen. Fearlessly, unflinchingly, he confronts us with all the tension and potency contained within the dichotomy of shades. The symbolism is clear, but its subtleties are unending. At its most fundamental level it is, of course, a head-on challenge to the politics of racism. Here we see ebony and ivory, as another great social commentator once put it, in perfect harmony. Neither bows to the other, neither is subservient, neither is persecuted or degraded. Working together, the two create something truly exalted. As a whole, the piece is post-racial, embracing elements of every colour (for, of course, we must look equally at the colours that the artist did not paint: they are every bit as present and vital) to produce something that is ultimately, devastatingly, human.

Furthermore, I was forcibly impressed by the artist’s delicate and yet uncompromising treatment of gender. In the piece’s central motif, we see suggestions of both male and female generative organs. In this post-realist depiction, the line between masculine and feminine is blurred and subverted. The artist looks forward to a day when there is no insecurity or prejudice attached to issues of gender and sex, when the two do not delineate or dictate each other, when we can embrace every subjectivity, when we will not need to compartmentalise and limit ourselves. Just as the piece is post-racial, so too is it post-sexual. In the artist’s creation we glimpse possibilities of a way of being where the misogynistic violence of the sexual act is banished to the attics of history, where the subject-phallus and object-vagina are one, and we are free.

Note, finally, the striking use of form and shape. It is stark, bold, brutal in its directness. The artist’s theme is clear: division. My heart almost broke as I looked upon this vision, so poignantly and savagely expressed, of everything through the ages that has pit humankind one against the other and prevented us from embracing our fellows.

Yet the tragedy is not absolute. A spark of hope remained in my fluttering breast, and as I looked closer the reason dawned upon me: for all its unsparing depiction of all that divides us, the work still holds out a frail promise of the possibility for us to overcome these obstacles and be united as one. For in this work, the division is not absolute. The barriers between us may appear formidable and terrifying, but I realise now that the artist has shown us there is a way around them. [the initial review was accompanied by a diagram at this point: I have reproduced it below]

There is, of course, so much more to say. I feel sure that great books will be written in the analysis of this subject – indeed, I intend to write one myself. But for a preliminary introduction, to help you on your way on your own voyage of discovery as you plumb the profound depths of this, our age’s greatest masterpiece, I hope that this will suffice.


I could not have said it better myself. With that, I will leave you in suspense no longer: here, at last, is what you have been waiting for. It is my very great pleasure and privilege to introduce to you: Di/Vision.

http://inarticule.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/division.jpg

and here, for your edification, is the diagram originally included in the above review: http://inarticule.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/division-commentary.jpg

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An Ideal Parasite, Part 3: A Relatively Less Ideal Parasite

It is interesting to observe that the purest and most aesthetically exalted ideas are generally the ones with the most potential to wreak havoc upon their human hosts. The crystalline perfection of a truly powerful and beautiful idea has a mystical allure to it, like a siren song drawing us in to impale ourselves upon its splendour. Rather than lashing themselves to the mast like Odysseus, most people go the way of his crew and escape the fatal lure simply by having ears too full of wax to hear it. One can hardly blame them. A tiger prowling through the jungle is also beautiful, but only an idiot would get close enough to stand and admire it as it prepares to descend upon them in six hundred pounds of gorgeous predatory death.

I want to focus now upon one particular example of an idea that no sensible person would ever entertain, but which has nonetheless succeeded in surviving long enough to throw off various interesting offspring. Exactly what to call this particular idea is a quandary of its own, because philosophers – those zoologists and taxonomists of the family of parasites known as ideas – often pitch their battles over words, and leave the battleground a blasted wasteland too cluttered with the wreckage of war to be of any use to anybody thereafter. Still, I have to call it something, so I will call it relativism. By this name, what I chiefly want you to understand is the concept that one’s own experience is not sovereign, holds no particular weight, and is inherently neither more nor less valid than other people’s.

Now, when I put it like that, I guess a lot of people would climb on board and claim that particular parasite as a favoured pet. After all, it’s not really fashionable in this day and age to assert primacy for one’s own social and cultural background. From the times when it was not only okay but positively saintly to go out and explain to a bunch of savages why they had everything ass-backwards and needed to be more like you, we’ve now come to an age in which diversity is seen as acceptable and even desirable. Yet there is a gulf (on first sight perhaps not overwhelmingly broad, but profoundly deep, with various creepy things lurking in its shadowy reaches) between true relativism and this modern day ethic of diversity.

In contrast to the liberal love of diversity, real thoroughgoing relativism is simply incompatible with many of the building blocks of modern society. Take morality. We are collectively very attached to the notion that some things are right, and some things are wrong. This is a great example of an idea that has become tremendously successful by providing a very real benefit for its hosts; belief in the existence of right and wrong is a necessary predicate for the extremely advantageous belief that one’s own actions are right, and anybody who gets in the way is wrong. None of that really makes much sense in a relativist framework, where right and wrong are nebulous concepts that can only be defined with reference to a specific subjectivity and have no particular intrinsic value or gravity. When we take that as our starting point, it’s difficult to see how ‘I did it because it was right’ has any more validity than ‘I did it because I felt like it’.

Neither can democratic consensus have any value to a fully committed relativist. Look for example at how everybody in Britain recently noticed that more or less all of our representatives in parliament are pitiful and embarrassing sleaze-bags. Many of us have been sure of that for years, but now we find ourselves engulfed by a tide of public opinion – bewildered drops in an ocean of self-righteous bombast. Given this sudden sanctimonious tsunami of condemnation directed at the politicians, has the essential validity of an anti-Westminster position actually increased overnight? It seems to me a weak and watery relativism that would grant some essential worth to an opinion just because it has mass appeal. In doing so, in fact, it would presumably have to concede its own failure to match the popular draw of a nice, safe, universalist stance and would therefore be self-contradictory. No, it’s no good – the only relativism with the backbone to stand up on its own is a relativism that denies the very possibility of one subjectivity ever trumping another, no matter what the disparity in the numbers or personal qualities of their respective supporters might be.

Hence, for instance, if we were all relativists then we would probably have to admit that people like drug addicts, violent criminals and religious extremists are human beings like ourselves, and represent an aspect of humanity that is just as real and natural as our own. We would have to accept their experiences as valid, and to deal with the fact that if we choose to persecute them then we do so for entirely selfish reasons – in order to preserve our society and way of life at the expense of theirs, and possibly to vent our own feelings of disgust or outrage at what they are or do. It’s pretty difficult to get one’s head around that, and on the contrary it is extremely easy to put horns and a tail on all those people and chuck them into a box labelled ‘THE DEVIL’. The less time a person has to spend sorting out their head rather than acting practically, generally the better it is for them. That, then, is just one example of the ways in which a real thoroughbred strain of relativism can cripple and debilitate its human host. I could expand on plenty of others, but in the interests of preserving time and space (sort of like Doctor Who) I will simply assure you that they are manifold, and move on in my next piece to examine some particular mutant strains of this insidious parasite which have spread much more widely in the population at large.

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An Ideal Parasite, Part 2: Einstein and some other things

Humans – the only organism currently known to provide a viable host for an idea – present an interesting special case as far as questions of mutual benefit and evolutionary advantage are concerned. With most species of animal, it’s pretty clear what we mean by these terms, and there is not a lot of room for ambiguity. An evolutionary advantage is something that improves a specimen’s performance in the fundamental tasks of survival and reproduction. For human beings, though, it is no longer so simple. Thanks to various newfangled trends in our society like the use of tools and the division of labour, most of us no longer have anything to do with the fundamental tasks of survival. For a large and ever-increasing portion of humanity, the closest thing we generally experience to hunting or foraging for food is a supermarket shopping trip – or, well, perhaps trying to find the nearest kebab shop in an unfamiliar part of town whilst disastrously drunk is a bit more of an authentic hunter-gatherer experience. Then again, evolutionarily speaking, it’s arguably a good thing to fail at that particular task.

As the developed nations of the modern world have made the search for sustenance into a non-issue for their citizens, so too have the other normal criteria of evolutionary success become skewed in the instance of humanity. The ways in which we go about providing food, shelter, and protection for ourselves and our loved ones have all changed pretty drastically. Even the ways in which we search for a mate have changed to some extent. Admittedly, the old favourite male tactic of jumping a likely-looking female in the dark and dragging her back to his lair has never really gone out of fashion, but it does have a certain stigma attached to it these days outside of certain societally-sanctioned environments such as nightclubs. In fact, though, reproduction isn’t even an evolutionary necessity for the vast majority of the species any more. Such is the current escalation of the global population that the species as a whole would almost certainly be better off if most of its members could avoid knocking each other up for a generation or two.

What does all this mean? In short, it means that large subsections of our populace are now able to take part in various kinds of evolutionarily sub-optimal behaviour without rendering themselves useless in society’s eyes. In fact, some of the people we revere most these days were complete wrecks according to our usual standards of evolutionary viability. Look at, say, Albert Einstein. He spent most of his time coming up with things that look like this:

R^\mu_{a \beta \gamma}=[S2] \times (\Gamma^\mu_{a \gamma,\beta}-\Gamma^\mu_{a \beta,\gamma}+\Gamma^\mu_{\sigma \beta}\Gamma^\sigma_{\gamma a}-\Gamma^\mu_{\sigma \gamma,\beta}\Gamma^\sigma_{\beta a})

and as far as I know he never built a hut, killed a deer, or raped anybody in his life. Nonetheless, history has not judged him harshly. He even managed to produce offspring, despite the enormous gulf separating him from any conventional image of what makes good male breeding stock.

An idea like the theory of relativity is a pretty debilitating parasite. It gets in your head and it fucks with you, makes you sick. You can’t possibly nurture such an idea whilst living the simple, thoughtless life of a healthy, functional human being. The desire to play host to an idea like that is definitely a pretty insane and self-destructive urge. But the way we’ve arranged our society makes it possible for a guy like Einstein to live out his life, pursue his interests, and be judged as a success. It wouldn’t do, of course, for everybody to be running around with that kind of messy parasitic infection. Civilization would crumble. But so long as the condition remains limited to a manageably small fraction of the total population, we are prepared to accept people going about with some pretty volatile and dangerous parasites lurking in their brains. We even quite like it, because these poor messed-up specimens are often the ones who first come up with the discoveries that more practical people then adapt into new and more efficient ways to do practical things – things like scooting around the place really fast, or killing each other.

In this way, among others, the parasites that infest a limited subsection of humanity manage to make their presence felt in the wider population. It’s not exactly that they manage to sneak into new hosts; as previously mentioned, ideas rarely have any talent for subterfuge. Rather, the trick is that from their base, living and breeding in their particular milieu of scientists or philosophers or sociopaths or whatever, many ideas end up producing mutated strains that prove less damaging to the host. It’s quite possible for a truly toxic idea to beget mutant offspring that is perfertly innocuous or even positively beneficial to its host. These new strains of idea often don’t make entire sense without reference to their parents, but that’s not really a hindrance to their potential popularity. If you’re the kind of person to take exception to an idea just because it doesn’t stand up on its own to rigorous logical examination, you’ve obviously got some pretty weird parasitic infections of your own and you certainly don’t represent the majority.

That pretty much wraps up my introduction to the order of parasite that we commonly refer to as an idea. Stick around for the exciting next chapter of this biological treatise, which will be a case study.

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An Ideal Parasite, Part 1: Mostly Digression

I’ve been thinking about parasites.

No self-respecting writer would treat a topic they were ignorant about, and I fear that biology has been a neglected field in my education; I have some hazy memories from my school days of an obscure and arcane process known as the carbon cycle, which I think involved nitrifying bacteria. How does one nitrify a bacterium, and why would one want to? I fear I may never know the answers to these questions. Biology is a closed book to me. Naturally, then, I resolved that at least as far as parasitism was concerned it was high time that I set about wafting away some of the clouds of my ignorance. Thorough, meticulous research was clearly the order of the day. I betook myself to wikipedia, and was delighted to find the nature of a parasite set out in clear and easily-understandable terms:

Parasitism is a type of symbiotic relationship between two different organisms
where one organism, the parasite, takes from the host, sometimes for a
prolonged time. In general, parasites are much smaller than their hosts, show a
high degree of specialization for their mode of life, and reproduce more quickly
and in greater numbers than their hosts.

Upon contemplation, though, I realised that this raised more questions than it answered. I was thrown into a sudden and unexpected crisis of my ontological assumptions concerning mankind, as a revelation struck me: each new generation is, in fact, a parasite upon humanity. Observe:

- ‘The parasite… takes from the host, sometimes for a prolonged time’ – check, any parent will obviously identify with this.

- ‘In general, parasites are much smaller than their hosts’ – check. Obviously, children start off tiny and only achieve a similar size to their progenitors as they approach maturity.

- ‘[Parasites] show a high degree of specialization for their mode of life’ – check. Just look at the kids of today running round with their high-tech gadgets, flexing their extra appendages of camera-mp3-blu-ray-tooth-mobile technology, all stuffed full of megapixels and gigabytes, as if it’s no big deal. Then there’s their perfect adaptation to highly toxic environments – a cursory glance at the average teenager’s bedroom will confirm that beyond a doubt, not to mention their colonisation of uninhabitable online environments like myspace.

- ‘[Parasites] reproduce more quickly and in greater numbers than their hosts’ – check. As everybody knows, the younger generation is (and always has been, since the dawn of parental disapproval) morally completely out of control, and prone to random acts of clumsy – but potentially generative – sexuality if left to its own devices.

The conclusion is inescapable, isn’t it? I may have described children as parasitic creatures in the past, but I would always have assumed it to be merely metaphorical – and, of course, an exaggeration. Now I realise that we really do all begin as parasites, in the very truest sense of the word.

I could expand upon this theme – but although the idea of humanity as a self-consuming organism that begets new parasites upon itself with every breeding cycle is certainly one that appeals to me, I fear that it has a peculiar savour to it that may not quite meet with approval from the public palette. What’s more, it threatens to entirely derail the train of thought that had me interested in parasites in the first place. So, well: nobody can say that I didn’t give dedicated research a fair shot, but now I find myself at the point – and it’s a point that every researcher comes to sooner or later – where it really seems better to disregard whatever inconvenient conclusions my research might have led me to, and get back to what I was trying to say before I let myself get all confused with facts.

See, my original interest in parasites was provoked by ponderings not about the nature of humanity, but about the nature of ideas. Informed by a vague awareness of memetics and other interesting flotsam thrown up by my mind’s considerable inland sea of ignorance and half-digested nonsense, it has occurred to me that an idea is, in fact, a quintessential parasite. Like any parasite, an idea relies upon a host in order to survive and propagate itself – and, like any parasite, its success as a species is therefore heavily reliant upon the nature of its relationship with that host. Evolutionarily speaking, it is usually in the parasite’s favour that the host thrives – at least long enough for the parasite to complete its life cycle and transmit its offspring to another viable host. What’s more, if the parasite is not actively beneficial to its host, it needs some covert method by which to gain initial ingress.

Take the tapeworm, for instance: no animal with functioning self-preservation instincts is going to willingly accept the prospect of a repulsive hundred-foot-long flatworm inhabiting its digestive tract. The tapeworm gets around this problem by means of a truly ingenious – though somewhat icky – process by which eggs are excreted by the definitive host (which, depending on the fickle whim of fortune and the species of tapeworm, can be pretty much any type of predator or grazing animal, including a human) and are then eaten by some form of mite, flea, or crustacean. Inside this new host they hatch into larvae. This intermediate host is then consumed by something further up the food chain, and the larvae reach maturity in the digestive system of their new host. In time they lay their eggs, which are passed in the faeces of the host, and the cycle begins anew.

Ideas do not lay their eggs in faeces, and do not make use of intermediate hosts. In fact, they rarely have any flair for secrecy at all. Most ideas are easily seen coming, and rely on their hosts willingly accepting the infection. The need to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the host is therefore particularly pressing in the case of the idea. The implications of this upon the idea’s life cycle and reproduction seem to me to promise some interesting insights, and this, if I recall correctly, was what I was intending to drive at all along. Assuming my projected course is not subject to any more distracted meanderings, I’ll be doing so in my next post.

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